Are you a member of a church? Then this article is for you!As a church minister (pastor / presbyter / Rector – call it what you will) I love the members of my congregations dearly, and have done in all the fellowships I have served. But sometimes I think: I wish everyone could get some simple things clear – it would make so much difference!
So here are some of those things. I hope some of them will remind you of what you already know, whereas others will challenge you afresh. And perhaps, as a happy spin-off, your church and your ministers will be blessed as a result...
1. The gospel is a matter of life and death. The Christian faith is not a hobby, or an interesting philosophy. According to Jesus, the Bible and the major creeds, the gospel is (among other things) about an eternity after death either with God or without him. I can't think of anything more important than that.
2. The gospel is about repentance and faith. It is not about being nice, or even (primarily) about doing good works (desirable though they may be). It is about recognising our own failings (sin) and our absolute helplessness in redeeming ourselves, and hence our need of a rescuer (saviour), Jesus. Repentance is a change of heart, mind and will. Faith is not a feeling but a decision to place the focus of our trust in life in Christ (rather than wealth, health or success, for example).
3. Jesus is supposed to change everything. Jesus is not "our cosmic pal who's fun to be with". He is Lord – which means boss. Following him should affect our time (including use of Sundays); our money (which leads to sacrificial generosity); and what we watch, read and view online. Being a follower of him leads to self-denial rather than the cultural norm of self-gratification. And we find our identity in him, rather than our work, country, sexuality or family.
4. Church is not something we 'attend' if we are able to. A church is a group of Christians. On Sundays, Christians do not "go to church" – rather, as someone memorably put it, "on Sunday, the church comes into the building". Regular worship is modelled by Jesus, expected in the New Testament, and essential not only for ourselves but other Christians. If parts of the Body of Christ are routinely missing, it's like a physical body having some of its limbs going AWOL on a random basis. If every church member came every week (barring unchangeable work routines, illness, holidays, emergencies etc), Christianity in the West would be transformed (and about three times as strong!).
5. Our beliefs about the Bible are shaped by Jesus. As Nicky Gumbel of the Alpha Course has put it: "For Jesus, what the Scriptures said, God said (Mark 7:5-13). If Jesus is our Lord, our attitude to the Scriptures should be the same as his... This high view of the inspiration of the Bible has been held almost universally by the worldwide church down the ages." And here's former Archbishop Rowan Williams: "Christians believe that the Bible is inspired by God – that is, they believe that the texts that make up the Bible were composed by the help of the Holy Spirit and that they communicate God's will perfectly." That doesn't always make it easy to interpret, but the starting point is essential.
6. The Holy Spirit is a person not a thing. The Holy Spirit is not the Christian equivalent of ectoplasm, floating around vaguely in a spiritual dimension and occasionally zapping people. He is the "Spirit of Jesus" (Acts 16:7). Jesus speaks of him in personal terms, and this is why we do not call the Holy Spirit "it" any more than I would call you "it"!
7. God's main plan for your life is not our happiness but our holiness. God can – and may – direct us very specifically to do particular things. He may bless us and give us many things to enjoy. But whether he does or doesn't, for every Christian, God's will is first and foremost to re-make us and re-shape us in the character of Christ. This life is a primarily a boot camp to build our spiritual fitness, rather than a holiday camp. This leads into the next point.
8. Suffering and perplexity are normal. Because God wants to shape us into the likeness of Christ, suffering will be normal. Even Jesus was somehow mysteriously made "perfect through suffering" (Hebrews 2:10). General hardship is par for the course (John 16:33; 1 Peter 4:12; 1 Thessalonians 3:3; James 1:2 etc). Particular suffering for being a Christian is also standard (2 Timothy 3:12). We are to expect both. And, as we discover, suffering does hurt.
9. Christian growth is essential. In view of all the above, there can be no greater priority than growing in discipleship through regular Scripture reading, prayer, meeting with other Christians. We may feel we are too busy, but somehow, when we put the Lord at the centre (or even "center" in the US!), he has a way of working out the rest of our time.
10. Church ministers are not here to tell you their own opinions. We are here to teach you "the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27) and to pastor (ie shepherd / lead) churches accordingly. If we are not teaching you the Bible, do so incorrectly, or are ungodly, do challenge us. Otherwise, in general terms, Hebrews 13:17 makes life a whole lot easier!
What things from this list strike you particularly? And how will you – and your church – be different as a result?
David Baker is a former daily newspaper journalist now working as an Anglican minister in Sussex, England.