Revitalization, Church Planting and NCD
by Maurice R. Valentine
Check this out. My personal digital assistant lets me surf the Internet, read e-mail, route trips, find restaurants, compose Microsoft documents, view PDFs, watch live TV broadcast from around the world, read all the Conflict of the Ages titles cover to cover, annotate my electronic Bible, look up Strong’s definitions for every word, study from commentaries and devotional books, it reminds me of all my appointments, tracks my contacts, instant messages the kids, texts “I love you” to my wife, allows me to listen to more than 100 mp3s of my favorite gospel tunes, voice record memos, take pictures and—last but not least—simply press a button, mention your name, and no matter how difficult the pronunciation, if I have your number, it will say your name and then call you! I’ll admit I’m a “new guru.”
Today’s consumer culture is solidly enmeshed in the latest and greatest. Somehow, every few years, many brands refresh their identity by adding “New and Improved” to their label. Especially in the technology industry, the old is quickly dispatched. A computer is considered fully depreciated, an antique, in just four years. In the sports world, legends from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s are no longer listed as greats of the game. Like old tombstones no one visits anymore, they’ve progressed from the Hall of Fame to the foyer of the forgotten.
I, however, am learning that some of the best stuff on the planet is not new, just overlooked, underappreciated or possibly forgotten. Take for instance revitalization, church planting and Natural Church Development. Are these new ideas? If you would like the short answer just read Ecc. 1:9. Or, if you would like to sink your teeth into something a little more substantive, read on.
In spite of divine omniscience, by which Jesus knew rejection and a cross lay squarely in His path, it was His intention to revitalize Israel. While death was prophetically inevitable, death on a cross because of rejection was not His desired course. “It was God’s design that the whole earth be prepared for the first advent of Christ…” (Prophets and Kings, p. 703-4). Starting the New Testament church was a contingency plan, enacted due to the hardness of Israel’s heart. Plan A, unquestionably, was to restore His church. “Christ would have averted the doom of the Jewish nation if the people had received Him” (712).
The need to start all over arose from the fact that the church had spiraled downward. Like a shot-up Japanese Zero on its last bombing run, the church was nearing the bottom of its fateful plunge. It had totally lost it’s sense of mission, mores and values. Though it had become a highly sophisticated society composed largely of polarized sects of conservatives and liberals divided across a broad spectrum of Sadducees, Pharisees, Herodians and Zealots, it was still, nonetheless, morally bankrupt. They had become a society of technocrats.
Of course, there were no wireless connections to the World Wide Web or PDAs in their pockets that could help them map their route. Nor did GPS units adorn their dashboards. That which they placed on their proverbial dashboard was the gadgetry of rules and regulations. There, Post-it Note policies took the place of the Holy Spirit. Yet you can bet they too thought they were in a new age of enlightenment with all of their schools of learning, academicians and their writings. The Seventh-day Adventist Commentary states, “They forgot that God abhors the multiplication of the forms of religion” (Vol. 4, p. 32). Like the quick-start brochure that accompanied your computer, they had quick answers for every question. Highly organized, yes! But something was missing, and dangerously so. Again, Prophet and Kings states, “…they built themselves up in a self-sufficient formalism. Wanting the Spirit and grace of God, they tried to make up for the lack by a rigorous observance of religious ceremonies and rites. Not content with the ordinances which God Himself had appointed, they encumbered the divine commands with countless exactions of their own devising. The greater their distance from God, the more rigorous they were in the observance of these forms” (709). Technocrats love quick fixes and fast answers. Their officious rules devised to dictate solutions for every situation—from how one should wash his hands to how one should take care of his parents—must have seemed great! It was a veritable information age for the church.
Moreover, their organizational ability and business acumen was evident in the highly evolved political framework that gave them the ability to carte blanche, ostracize, and yes, even physically extricate any individual from the society of the church for the minutest reason. This power kept a mother and father from giving joyful witness to their son’s miraculous healing by Jesus. Born blind, he had never seen the light of day. The joy that should have been theirs over his ability to see eagles soaring, children playing and lightning flashing for the first time was muted by a church that had drifted far from its moorings. In place of joyous celebration of their son seeing their faces for the first time, intimidated by temple rulers who might excommunicate them for mentioning the rule breaker’s name, they exclaimed, “He is of age. Ask him” (John 9:21). Technocrats not only have little joy in their journey, they also kill the joy in the journey of those around them. Jesus retorted, “But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in” (Matt 23:13, KJV).
It was into this morass that Jesus came to restore the imago dei. In place of a rule bound society where the intelligentsia ultimately rejected Him, He planted a seed whose DNA was solidly rooted in love. Like a GPS system that recalculates your route when you turn in an unexpected direction, Jesus’ desire was to recalculate the route for His church to fulfill prophecies long anticipated. Isaiah 61:4-6 very profoundly describes a revitalized Israel.
4 And they shall build the old wastes, they shall raise up the former desolations, and they shall repair the waste cities, the desolations of many generations.
5 And strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, and the sons of the alien shall be your plowmen and your vinedressers.
6 But ye shall be named the Priests of the LORD: men shall call you the Ministers of our God: ye shall eat the riches of the Gentiles, and in their glory shall ye boast yourselves. (KJV)
Israel’s revitalization was to lead to God’s Kingdom being planted worldwide. Jeremiah 16:19-21:
19 O LORD, my strength, and my fortress, and my refuge in the day of affliction, the Gentiles shall come unto thee from the ends of the earth, and shall say, Surely our fathers have inherited lies, vanity, and things wherein there is no profit.
20 Shall a man make gods unto himself, and they are no gods?
21 Therefore, behold, I will this once cause them to know, I will cause them to know mine hand and my might; and they shall know that my name is The LORD. (KJV)
Of course, things didn’t turn out the way Jesus hoped. He must have literally cried when He said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, if only…” (Luke 13:34). Because His church refused revitalization, He started a church plant using the very sweat from His brow and blood from His veins to fertilize new soil and begin again.
The lesson is obvious. We must first be revived by the Holy Spirit to have growing churches. Second, we must enact reforms that are commensurate with the Holy Spirit’s leading. Unfortunately, we often put the cart before the horse. A new program, gadgetry, seems to inevitably precede prayer. A new paradigm precedes the power of God from on high. Technocracy at its best is seeking new solutions to fix old problems before seeking God. At its worst, it is the enactment of rules to maintain the status quo. In the former, the motive, while well meant, still kills the spirit of believers. Please note that new programs such as revitalization, planting, strategic planning or Natural Church Development in and of themselves are not good or bad so long as we remember that “Our success does not depend on our talents or learning, but on our living connection with God” (Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 158).
In the book Natural Church Development, Christian Schwarz, after studying more than 1,000 churches on six continents, attests “that in churches which tend toward ‘legalism’ (where being a Christian means having the right doctrine, moral code, church membership, etc.), spiritual passion is usually below average” (NCD, p. 26). Remember the parents of the child born blind? Schwarz continues by saying, “A church, regardless of how orthodox its dogma and view of Scripture, can hardly expect to experience growth, as long as its members do not learn to live their faith with contagious enthusiasm and to share it with others” (27). Simply put, the church won’t grow until we determine that after God does His part, we must do ours.
When born-blind eyes have been opened, joyful witness should flow from our lips. Moreover, when healing happens in the community we should be reminded of how Jesus opened our born-blind eyes. Joy should not be fettered by the grave clothes of analysis. Jesus said of Lazarus, “Loose him, and let him go!” (John 11:44). It was time to celebrate the resurrection of the dead.
Some things we hear about—revitalization, Natural Church Development, planting, etc.—we think are brand new things to be grasped or gimmicky ideas to be avoided. But if they indeed are biblical principles, we should prayerfully embrace them. (See 1 Thes. 5:21 and I John 4:1.) Conversely, if they are mere technocratic attempts to revive ourselves, we should reject them.
By the way, you may have guessed my PDA to be the latest model. But it’s not new. By technological standards a 2003 PDA is considered an antique. In like manner, revitalization, Natural Church Development and church planting might sound like new stuff. But it just may be that they are best practices of Jesus rescued from the ash heap of time. Just because they’re old doesn’t mean they’re not great stuff!