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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

"The Rebirth of the Church" (Eddie Gibbs)

TITLE: Rebirth of the Church, The: Applying Paul's Vision for Ministry in Our Post-Christian World
AUTHOR: Eddie Gibbs
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013, (272 pages).

Many different churches, denominations, movements have tried to relate Church, mission, and culture, but few have reportedly succeeded in what they planned to do. In the past few decades, the idea of "church growth" was the popular paradigm for Church and mission. Programs and literature are produced to accompany the excitement. The next paradigm becomes "church health" in which churches tend to prefer to be healthy inside first before reaching out to others. More recently, the excitement hovers around the term "missional" which is an initiative to let any mission work reflect God both directly as well as indirectly. The belief is that the heart of missional work is not about initiatives, projects, or programs. The heart of missional is God. Missions in this instance is not simply a program, but a full-fledged demonstration of one's identity in a missional God. While in the past, the evangelicals tend to be more "defensive" of key doctrines and theological stands as they live counter-culturally; the liberals tend to be more concerned about "relevance" to the culture around them; the Anabaptists work toward purity and separation from the culture; the missional aims to be the Church within the culture. All of these movements struggle with acceptance by the wider Christian population. All because of the increasing separation of Ecclesiology and Missiology, so says Eddie Gibbs, Professor Emeritus of Church Growth at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Gibbs begins with a no-holds-barred criticisms of the post-modern Church, calling them fragmented, reductionistic, and largely reflective of the culture around them, instead of being an influencer or them. He looks at the collapse of civil societies through the ages, and laments the similar plight of the Church at large. The few shining spots of Christianity are increasingly being threatened by postmodern influences like pluralism, secularism, relativism, and of course, acts of terrorism that create a negative backlash against any religion. A response is needed. So Gibbs relooks at the Early Church, eager to learn on the one hand, but also cautious about the different contexts involved. This is something that the Apostle Paul did. Although there were population centers throughout the Roman Empire at that time, what we learn is that instead of strategizing on the different approaches to the different cities, Paul was primarily led by the Holy Spirit.  Gibbs then looks at the cultural backgrounds and the lifestyles of the people in the first century, noticing the rise of institutional power; increasing crowdedness and busyness; households the building blocks of society then. In terms of understanding and applying the idea of "oikos" (housing) then, Gibbs notes how the house meetings flourished then, and how many modern churches adopt that same idea into their home-based meetings like small groups. The difference is that first century "oikos" is more about bonding, obligatory protection, and subordination to authority; while our modern home meetings are more about independent lives coming and meeting together on the basis of convenience and independence, instead of community and co-dependence. In terms of the locations of Paul's ministry, Gibbs notes that while the population centers at Galatia, Ephesus, Philistia, Corinth, Rome, and many others are large, our modern cities are even larger. This is one reason why modern churches need to design their missional strategies from the ground up, instead of simply transplanting what Paul had done to our complex world. Three challenges need to be considered:

  1. The richness and treasure the gospel itself is and how to share this message;
  2. Our culture's historical and social baggage;
  3. Various economic and political powers that world-class cities exert on its citizens as well as outside.

How do we then enable the rebirth of the Church? Seven broad orientations are suggested.

First, we can learn how the Early Church do "urban engagement" but we cannot be limited by them. Gibbs considers the Early Church's mission to move from a Jerusalem-based ministry to Judea, Samaria, and other cities. It is important to remember that the Church's mission thrust is also a result of the persecutions that occurred then. Just like the Holy Spirit had guided the Early Church to breakthroughs in various cities, we too need to let the Holy Spirit to guide us. Paul reaches out to urban centers with "flexibility and opportunism" and we do well to learn from him. Paul adapts to the manner of relating but not in terms of the material. He aims his preaching well. Other tips include being flexible with alternative arrangements; being aware of social mix in our midst; mentoring of leaders; regular visits, etc.

Second, in birthing new churches, Gibbs prefer to deal more with the apostolic calling rather than the title. This calling involves helping people to see insights into the gospel. It means cultivating communities of reconciliation. It means inviting people toward partnership in the gospel. While Paul is largely independent from the institutional control of any one Church, Paul is accountable to the leadership. Any expression of independence is on the basis of sufficiency on Christ and the calling of being an Apostle. While there are disputes over the office of apostleship, the phrase "apostolic leadership" seems more palatable. Signs of apostolic leadership includes a greater openness to the gospel, transformed lives, multiplication of faith communities, establishing a visionary and reproducible model.

Third, new churches need to be cared for. Due to the rising polarity of city folks, people are crying out for support networks. Follow up visits by Paul were frequent. Paul was not concerned with just one Church, but all of them. It was because the churches were rather young and small at that time, that Paul needed to pay more attention to them. Gibbs notes perceptively that modern readers tend to think Paul was constantly on the move. No. Paul spent extended periods of time at various locations, with Corinth and Ephesus in particular due to his work in trying to help establish the churches as "centers of regional outreach." At the same time, Paul also co-laboured with leaders, mentored and built them up. Through letter writing, Paul also communicated frequently, and extended his pastoral ministry by dealing with specific church issues. Gibbs also warns us about the problem that "too many congregations live for and by themselves."

Fourth, discipleship must be emphasized. Gibbs laments that too much emphasis in both programs and publications have been geared toward the individual, at the expense of the communal element. Discipleship means being aware of idolatrous elements in society and to beware of succumbing to them. This is critical as it is a result of our loyalty and allegiance to Christ above all. Discipleship means belonging to Christ, exercised through belonging to a body of faith. This also means becoming a Church that is both "unshockable" (by people of diverse natures), and "unshakeable" (in the faith). Gibbs also makes an interesting association of sexual promiscuity with pagan worship. So pervasive is the influence of discipleship, that it cannot be restricted merely to a believer's relationship with Jesus, but with the wider association with fellow believers. That is why marriages are not to be rushed into. That is why it is easy to say one is a disciple, but not so easy when one has to let the fruits prove it. Discipleship must be welcoming and linked to active engagement of the local congregation and the community.

Fifth, the apostolic message needs to be upheld. Anyone claiming apostolic authority must pass three tests.

  1. They must be commissioned by a Church body;
  2. Their character reflects Christ;
  3. The fruit of transformed lives.

The apostolic message must be Christ-centered so that we learn to do ministry the way that Jesus had done and intended for us to do. It must be Trinitarian simply because the work of the kingdom is a manifestation of God's being in the mission. The Church planter must embrace the good news. The gospel must reflect the activity of the Triune Godhead. It comes through as participation, as community, as unity, and forms the foundation of all Christian work.

Sixth, rebuilding the Church essentially means mending and strengthening relationships both inside and outside the Church. For any relationship to be sustained, Christ must be center. One of the barriers against relationships is the rise of individualism, as it puts the self above the rest. In fact, the very low level of interest in small groups is a result of people giving in to the many different personal agendas that they have no time for the communal. Gibbs stresses the need for koinonia to be re-introduced, and agape to sustain the fellowship. He notes that 1 Corinthians 13 is sandwiched between the two chapters of spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12) and practice of gifts (1 Cor 14). Relationships must also be extended to the outside, to engage with communities beyond the Church walls. Use the existing church resources to bless others. Offer hospitality. Respect diversity. Unity is not uniformity. Unity is diversity with a common focus. The key is to forge relationships that are strong, that can weather the harshest storms.

Finally, be aware of the differences of the mission and ministry then, and now. The first century Christians face persecution. Modern Christians encounter the onslaught of consumerism. First century people build relationships well. Modern Christians prefer seminars, programs, and various external initiatives to build community. The key is to use the spiritual gifts as a way to do ministry. The challenges for modern Christians are many. In an increasingly Bible illiterate world, the role of teachers is increasing in importance. In a world where Christians are confused about apostle as a "title" vs as a calling, one needs to understand term in both a narrow as well as a broad sense. Narrowly, one acknowledges the apostle as those in the New Testament. Broadly, one can acknowledge that being apostolic is more about groundbreaking, bearing common concern, and for transformed lives. Gibbs warns about churches with "solo pastors" in which a majority of the community remains largely passive, and wait with a consuming attitude for what the serving few provides. The five roles of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers cannot be fulfilled by any one person. A variety of people needs to be present. It is not a community of one to many or many to one. It is a community of many to many for the sake of one.

So What?

I continue to be impressed by the works of Eddie Gibbs. His understanding of the Church is one of the most perceptive. His ability to weave in the learnings from the Early Church makes this book a very worthwhile read. His six characteristics of a healthy congregation is worth memorizing. In rebuilding the Church, the Church needs to be:

  1. Relational: This reminds me that being Church is living as a community in Christ. It is an antidote against the widespread individualism in many societies.
  2. Reproducible: This makes us aware that no one exists for themselves alone. They are responsible to influence, and to breed the next generation.
  3. Incarnational: Churches must discover their uniqueness and to share their calling and purpose through the participation with communities within and without using their giftings.
  4. Faithful: Churches are not merely marketers of programs, but promoters of the gospel message.
  5. Resourceful: Every resource necessary is given by the Holy Spirit.
  6. Hopeful: Every Church community must be oriented and re-oriented toward the hope in Christ and the future kingdom.
This alone is worth the price of the book. So, is Paul's world and our "post Christian" world any different? The contexts may differ but the mission remains the same. In rebuilding or rebirthing the Church, we are in fact back to "square one" (Early Church situation) every time we are in a new stage or phase. This means at least three things. First, we are reminded that the mission is unchanged. Second, we remember that we are not alone, as the ministry is through relationships and teamwork. Third, the work, the empowerment, the fruit, and the glory belong to God and God alone. May this book grant readers many ideas on how to rebirth the Church.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Baker Academic and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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