HeartGroups Series; Part 5 of 5

For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. — Jesus (Mark 10.45)HeartGroups Series

Part 5

This week, I want to conclude our five-part series on our new HeartGroups, modeled after the function and form of the New Testament ekklesia. It still amazes me how deeply the nature of the New Testament church has been buried under 1,700 years of religious tradition. But this week, I am going to try and strike some middle ground between institutional “church” and the New Testament’s more organic gatherings. Something both institution and organic gatherings have—or should have, rather—is a strong sense of other-centered mission. This is rooted in the example Jesus gave us in the Jesus story itself.

For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10.45)

I have had some of the best conversations with our various HeartGroups coaches over these first two months, and one thing that comes out loud and clear, in perfect harmony with New Testament ekklesia, is that HeartGroups should also have a strong sense of Mission. I want to be clear, though. This is not the typical emphasis on “evangelism” we find in so much of evangelical Christianity today. Evangelism is not the goal of our mission focus; evangelism is the means to reach our goal. (I’ll explain this in a moment.) Turning people into mere believers was never the end goal (see Matthew 28.18-20). Helping others within the community become followers of Jesus and His teachings was!

Ever since the fourth century (with the Baptism of Constantine), we have witnessed a decisive shift (and successive drift) away from the teachings of Jesus to beliefs about Jesus as that which defines what a “Christian” is. Praise God for the few exceptions, but to a large degree, in our current culture, being a “Christian” simply means someone who holds certain beliefs about Jesus, and very rarely do those who call themselves “Christians” resemble the person or teachings of Jesus. Statistics today prove that although the worldview of those who “believe” in Jesus is different, the life of a person who sees him- or herself as a believer, in most cases (again, there are a few exceptions), is no different in reality (except for attending a weekly service) from those who are labeled unbelievers. Christians are just as prone to gluttony as non-Christians. Christians are just as prone to greed as non-Christians. Christians are just as prone to materialism as non-Christians. Christians are actually more prone to violence than non-Christians. Christians are more prone to pride and arrogance than non-Christians. And today, the divorce rate among Christians is for the first time higher than the divorce rate of non-Christians.

How did we get here?

I believe it began in the fourth century (actually probably a little earlier, but the fourth century is close enough), when those who bore the name of Christ made a clean break with the actual teachings of Christ. Those who called themselves Christians actually chose an ethic that marginalized Jesus and His teachings. Up until this time, what defined whether a community was following Christ or not was whether that community sought to follow the ethical teachings of Jesus. But once those ethics (non-violence being a key Christo-ethic) were abandoned, overnight, everyone in Europe became a Christian (literally). One of the fruits of focusing now on beliefs about Jesus rather then the teachings of Jesus was that Christianity became a hybrid of institutionalism and individualism (Clergy vs. Laity). And what determined whether a person was a Christian or not was no longer reflected in a set of principles by which a group sought to live their lives, but rather by a set of intellectual beliefs (theology) to which an individual person intellectually subscribed or not.

This epidemic remains with us today. Today, we see a religion that to a large degree is still using run-around logic to find ways to avoid applying the actual teachings of Jesus, and in those teachings’ place, we find division on top of division over beliefs about Jesus that define us. All the while, the world at large, all around us, is starving—both spiritually and physically. Today, we still witness a strong marginalization of the actual teachings of Jesus, followed by a community accompanied by a heavy emphasis on doctrinal beliefs about Jesus instead. (An example of this, especially during the time of year that is just upon us, is that we as Christians today can live lives of consumer-driven materialism in our American culture [a direct abandonment of the teachings of Jesus], but question the virgin birth for a moment [a belief about Jesus that is actually in only two of the four versions of the Jesus story that we have], and we are no longer considered “believers.”)

Please don’t misunderstand. Believing the right things about God is of vital importance for every one of us! But stop for a moment and consider whether this is the ultimate end or the means whereby we experience God’s end for us. Pay close attention to Jesus’s words in John 17:

“Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known IN ORDER THAT the LOVE you have for me may be IN THEM and that I MYSELF MAY BE IN THEM.” (John 17.25-26)

We can gather the following points from Jesus’s statement above:

1)Revealing the truth about God’s character was “in order that” an ultimate goal might be accomplished.

2)What was that goal? There were two. First, so that the Love of God might be restored in us. In short, if our picture of God doesn’t also change us into a more loving people, then no matter how correct we may be in our beliefs about God, we simply become resounding gongs, clanging cymbals, empty nothings, gaining nothing (see 1 Corinthians 13.1-3). I want you to also notice the word “Them.” Jesus never called upon His disciples to follow Him all on their own, but to do so in an authentic community of fellow followers! The Love that He wants to recreate in us is in just that location—us! This love cannot be experienced “flying solo,” so to speak. Other-centered love requires experiencing life with others, in addition to ourselves. But even in saying all of this, even these groups of Jesus followers, following Jesus together, were not only to strengthen, instruct, encourage, and build each other up. The groups themselves, as a united whole, was to have an outside-of-the-group focus. Together, they were to live communal lives that were radically self-sacrificial for the blessing and benefit of others, putting on display the beauty of God’s other-centered love to the world around them.

3)Goal number two was “That I myself may be [dwelling] in them.” We find “them” here again, now also as a dwelling place for Jesus Himself. We have been guilty of reading this statement through the lens of our Western, individualistic culture. Jesus was not praying that He would be able to dwell in His followers individually or uniquely as isolated little dwelling places (plural). NO, no! Jesus wants to take the plurality of individuals and, by restoring love among them through the revelation of the character of God, take this plurality and turn it into a singular community that becomes the home or dwelling place of Jesus. The group is the place Jesus desires to dwell. Let me illustrate this with the metaphor used by Peter.

Peter uses the imagery of taking living stones and assembling them together to become a living dwelling place for God.

As you come to him, the LIVING STONE—rejected by human beings but chosen by God and precious to him—YOU ALSO, like LIVING STONES, are being built into a SPIRITUAL HOUSE to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1Peter 2.4-5)

Let’s get back to my statements earlier about evangelism. Evangelism, according to the New Testament, is simply the telling of the Jesus story (i.e., the Gospel). Those who embraced the Jesus of this story would find new life born within them. It was if they have passed from death to life, they were no longer a dead stone. They had now become a LIVING stone. But then an apostle would take those living stones and put them together in such a way that they fitted together properly and would become an actual LIVING HOUSE built out of these living stones! It wasn’t enough to just bring someone from death to life. They must, in being brought to life, now be connected with a community marked by an open, mutually participatory communal nature that not only reflected the other-centered, self-sacrificial love of God, but thereby put on display to the world around them the beauty of this love for all to see. (I know this is a far cry from what history records as happening by the institutionalizing of a “religion” that today we call Christianity. But what this simply reveals is that what today is called Christianity might be the furthest thing from what Jesus intended His followers to become.)

Today, we embrace beliefs about Jesus as individuals. And even when we come together, we come together in such a way as to maintain our isolation from each other (the historical purpose for which pews themselves were actually invented in the sixteenth century). We gather together as isolated individuals to “participate”—which many times simply means remaining quiet and listening—in a program centered around the moment where we passively listen to a discourse with a heavy emphasis on doctrines about Jesus rather than the ethical teachings of Jesus. (Jesus spent precious little time addressing people’s “doctrinal” beliefs. Jesus spent a large portion of time revealing to us the truth about the Father’s character by giving teachings on how His followers should live.) Even in the songs we sing, the lyrics are too often marked by the pronouns “I” versus “we,” both older hymns and recent contemporary worship songs alike, which only further reveal how far we have drifted. Again, these are generalizations of what we find on the whole. There are beautiful exceptions to this that I have witnessed, but to a large degree, these exceptions are just that—they are exceptions to the overly common rule.

This leads me to the point of this week’s eSight regarding HeartGroups and Mission, and an honest confession of failure on the part of myself and the ministry of RHM in the past.

As a ministry, and as the director of this ministry, I have become convinced that it is not enough to simply uplift the truth about our Heavenly Father as it is revealed in Jesus and then leave those who have embraced this new picture of God in passive isolation. It is as if we have traversed the globe, turning dead stones into living stones, and then just left them strewn across the field, each alone and lying there. These living stones must be assembled together in such a way that they TOGETHER become a dwelling place for Jesus Himself.

This is the reason we at Renewed Heart Ministries have added to our ministry what we are now affectionately referring to as HeartGroups, equipped with insightful coaches to help those who feel more like isolated stones assemble together in a meaningful way to experience God and His love for us and to put on display to the world around us the beauty of who God is, together!

“But those who embrace your teachings, Herb, are usually connected somehow to a local church,” someone may object. And yes, that is true in a contemporarily defined sense. I want to be clear: there is nothing wrong with “going to church,” in my opinion, even as “church” has grown to be defined by us today. I speak in a different institutionalized church around the globe almost every weekend. But no matter how faithful one may be in his or her “church” attendance, one can attend what we in our culture call “church” seven days a week and still never experience or encounter the reality of what the New Testament referred to as the church.

Within New Testament Ekklesia:

A building is no longer the Temple. The Open Mutually participatory gathering of followers is now where God dwells among us, putting on display, through this group, the beauty of who He really is (see John 1.14 and 1 Peter 2.5; churches were not buildings in the New Testament).

An animal on an alter is no longer the Sacrifice; the Common Life of Believers, together following the teachings of Jesus with THEIR lives, lived out in self-sacrificial love, is now the “living” sacrifice (see Romans 12.1 and 1 Peter 2.5; gatherings were not centered around sacrifice, sacrament, or sermon in the New Testament).

A hierarchical male authority figure filling an “office” is no longer a Priest, Rabbi, or Teacher, but rather, we as followers of Jesus and members of His Kingdom have together become a priesthood (or priestesshood) of ALL believers alike! See Matthew 23.8-12 and 1 Peter 2.5: All believers alike, themselves, were what we today call “Pastors” and any leadership that did exist [Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Elders, and Teachers] was marked by servanthood, serving the larger mutually participatory group, in contrast to hierarchical authority (see Luke 22.25-27).

In the New Testament, Temple, Sacrifice, and Priest have been transformed by the coming of Jesus, making what these three where in the past obsolete, replaced by something far superior! (See the epistle to the Hebrews.)

What does all of this have to do with HeartGroups and Mission?

In perfect harmony with New Testament ekklesia, HeartGroups also have a strong mission focus. What is their mission? Not to go to church, but to BE the church by putting on display the radical, other-centered, self-sacrificial love of God as revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, re-incarnated again as Christ’s body in visible form for all to continue to see.

If you are already meeting in a HeartGroup and you feel your group is in need of a more other-centered focus, this week, I want to challenge you to not just merely meet to encourage, instruct, and bless one another (although this too is vital and should not be belittled), but also spend some time, in prayerfully submitted brainstorming, considering how your group can possibly make a difference in the community around you. At bare minimum, find someone in your area who is in need and pool your resources together to make a difference in that person’s life. Jesus didn’t go around trying to get people ready to go to heaven when they died. On the contrary, Jesus went around doing good, setting captives free, making a difference in this age, creating change for the better in peoples’ lives NOW and then announcing, His Kingdom had come!

This is our mission too: to enlarge His Kingdom! Not merely by turning people into “believers” who believe differently now about certain topics. No, no! Once those stones are alive, we are called to assemble those stones together in a way that becomes a dwelling place for God Himself, incarnate once again—a living demonstration, putting on display the beauty of God’s character of love, once revealed in Jesus Christ and now revealed through His visible embodiment (Body, see Ephesians 4.16) for the world around US to see!

If you are currently not part of a HeartGroup and you would like more information on participating in a group or even hosting a group, please contact us at:

https://renewedheartministries.com/heartgroups.aspx

As always, keep living in love, loving like Christ, and together, let’s go enlarge the Kingdom.

This marks the end of this series. Next, we begin a special series based on the Jesus story, which we believe will prove especially relevant during this upcoming holiday season.

I love you guys, and I’ll see you next week.

Herb