Embers to a Flame, One to Ten

 Embers to a Flame, part 1

After his first missionary journey, the Apostle Paul determined to revisit the churches that had been established during his first trip.  His purpose and intention in doing so was to encourage and strengthen those congregations, “And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches” (Acts 15:41).  The work of strengthening, however, was not completed with a single visit.  As a matter of fact, until Jesus returns, all churches are in need of regular, continuing strengthening through revitalization and renewal.  Renewal is part of God’s ongoing work in us both individually in our personal growth in godliness and corporately in our life and service together as the church of Jesus Christ.  In his book, From Embers to a Flame: How God Can Revitalize Your Church, Harry Reeder reminds us of 10 biblical principles that are critical both for renewing churches whose flames have become embers and as “preventive measures for currently healthy churches” to keep on fanning the flames of spiritual vitality and service.  Here are the 10 principles:

1. Connect with the Past

2. Call to Repentance

3. Gospel-Driven and Christ-Centered Ministry

4. Personal Gospel Formation – The Discipline of Grace

5. The Ministry of Prayer

6. The Ministry of the Word

7. Mission and Vision

8. The Leadership Dynamic

9. Small-Group Discipleship

10. The Great Commitment to the Great Commission

These ten principles and practices were the core issues discussed at the Embers to a Flame Conference that members of the Session attended in January.  Embers to a Flame is a ministry of Briarwood PCA in Birmingham, Alabama.

At our Session meeting this past week, your pastor and elders made a commitment to implementing the ten principles listed above at Emmanuel.  This is not to say that these principles and practices have not been ongoing already, but that we recognize our need to work on them and to improve in them.  Working on these practices is a way we fulfill the Purpose and Objectives we adopted in 2012 and in which we reiterated our commitment to the Great Commission and the variety of ways we live out our life together as Christ’s body.

To help us implement these biblical strategies for becoming a healthier church, the Session also agreed to engage the Fanning the Flame coaching ministry of Briarwood PCA.  Over a 14-month period, this ministry provides guidance, encouragement, and support—including a team dedicated to praying for us!—for implementing the church health principles.  In the coming weeks, we’ll be explaining the principles in short articles in the newsletter as well as providing more details about the coaching.  Please continue to pray that we will become all the more a gospel-driven, Christ-centered church reaching out with the good news of Christ to our community and the world.

Finally, please mark your calendars for Saturday and Sunday, April 5 – 6.  We will have the Rev. Lynn Downing with us—he’s the Church Revitalization Pastor at Briarwood—to present a Spiritual Foundations seminar.  In the course of the seminar, he’ll say more about the principles of revitalization and address some of the challenges that get in the way of spiritual vitality.  We’ll provide more details as they are finalized.  In the meantime, please don’t hesitate to speak with Pastor Matossian or one of the elders if you have any questions.


Embers to a Flame, part 2

In Revelation 2:4-5, Jesus says to the church in Ephesus, “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.  Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.  If not, I will come to you and remove your lamp stand from its place, unless you repent” (ESV).  Here is a church established by the Apostle Paul and, if church tradition is accurate, ministered to subsequently by the Apostle John—quite a pedigree for a church.  Yet, even having experienced the ministry of two champions of the faith, already in its first decades this church showed signs of decay, of having taken a wrong turn.  Jesus, in his grace, speaks to this group of early Christians and calls them back to himself.  In Jesus’ exhortation, we find the basic principles of church revitalization: remembrance, repentance, and renewal.  The call is to remember the good from the past, to repent for the errors of past and present, and to return to the love and good works that characterized the beginning of faith in Jesus.

Last week, we introduced ten principles or strategies of church revitalization—the ongoing process of becoming and remaining a healthy church.  Just like the Apostle Paul returned to visit churches he had planted in order to strengthen them (Acts 15:41), so all churches need ongoing tending to become and remain strong in the Lord.  This week, we’ll focus on the first two strategies of revitalization: 1) Connect with the Past and 2) The Call to Repentance.

To connect with the past is not to linger nostalgically, but to “remember the many wonderful things He [God] has done for us and through us” (Harry Reeder, Embers to a Flame, p. 37).  Just like God commanded Joshua to set up twelve stones taken from the floor of the Jordan river so that generations to come would be reminded how God caused the waters to part and the Israelites to enter the promised land, so we take time to recount the wonderful works of God in the history of our congregation.  We do this not to glory in people from the past or in ourselves, but to point to the blessings and say, “Look at what God did.  Wow!  Isn’t he marvelous?”  Remembering is taking the time to thank God for all his glorious deeds.

The reality is, however, as we reflect on the past and consider where we are in the present, we are likely to discover shortcomings and sins.  Jesus pointed out to the Ephesian Christians that they had left their first love.  As Reeder puts it, “As you investigate and contemplate the past, you will soon realize that some things in it are not worth celebrating” (Embers to a Flame, p. 47).  After connecting with the past in order to praise and thank God, we continue on to confess all the ways we have strayed from him.  This is a call to repentance.  Jesus doesn’t leave the Ephesians wallowing in their error.  He calls them to turn away from it and to return to him.  So we, too, are called to confess our sin and repent of it before the Lord.  As we do so, he assures us of his love and forgiveness because we have Jesus as our high priest through whom we boldly approach the throne of grace (Heb. 4:15-16).  Encouraged by God’s forgiveness and empowered by his Spirit, we move forward to renewal in Christ.  Next week, we’ll consider revitalization strategies three and four, which are the first two aspects of renewal: Gospel-Driven and Christ-Centered Ministry and Personal Gospel Formation.


Embers to a Flame, Revitalization Strategies Three and Four

The church revitalization / health paradigm consists of three components: remember, repent, and recover.  The first two strategies of working toward health coincide with the first two parts of the paradigm: connecting with the past and the call to repentance.  Connecting with the past means taking the time to reflect on what God has done for us and through us in the history of our church in order to praise God for the many blessings.  Repentance involves coming to the realization that not everything in our history is commendable and, thus, asking God’s forgiveness and making necessary corrections.  The third component of the paradigm, recover, is a return to first things.  As Jesus said to the church in Ephesus in Rev. 2, “Do the works you did at first,” so we seek to recover or renew first things.  Strategies three and four are the first two steps in recovering first things: Gospel-Driven and Christ-Centered Ministry and Personal Gospel Formation.

Strategy three, Gospel-Driven and Christ-Centered Ministry, is a call to make the gospel “the priority, the parameter, and the preeminent point of our ministry so that Christ will be exalted above all” (Harry Reeder, From Embers to a Flame, p. 64).  Everything we do as a church and individual Christians, from preaching in the pulpit to sweeping the floors, is to be done with a view to the gospel.  We serve because God has saved us by his grace.  We show love to one another in word and deed because of that same grace.  And, we seek to encourage one another through the gospel by preaching it to ourselves and each other every day.  As we remind ourselves and one another of the gospel, we engage in every form of ministry with a view toward winning others to faith in Jesus.  And, as we grasp the depth of God’s love for us expressed in the gospel of Jesus Christ, we naturally want to draw nearer to him and to please him—the core of strategy four, personal gospel formation.

Personal gospel formation is another way of describing Christian discipleship.  Jesus calls us to repent and believe the good news of the kingdom, assuring us that the Father desires to give us that kingdom (Luke 12:32).  As he showers this blessing upon us, he also calls us to follow him as his disciples: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23 ESV).  This is inseparable from the task he gives us in the Great Commission, the discipling of the nations.  To fulfill that work, we first need ourselves to be discipled, growing day by day in our intimacy with and in our love for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Personal gospel formation is the continual rekindling of our “first love” (Rev. 2:4), living a life of devotion to and sacrifice for the Lord.  It is gospel formation because it flows out of God’s grace to us: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service” (Rom. 12:1 ESV; emphasis added).  We present ourselves to God because he has first shown us mercy.  Reeder reminds us, “As we speak of these grace-driven disciplines, it is important to remember that we are embracing the means of grace to accomplish this, not engaging in an activity that merits grace” (From Embers to a Flame, p. 84).  Both individually and as a body, as the Spirit forms and molds us through the gospel, we become a strong and healthy church useful in the Master’s service.


Embers to a Flame, Revitalization Strategies Five, Six, and Seven

Last week, we considered the third and fourth church health and revitalization strategies outlined in the book From Embers to a Flame.  Strategy three is our call to Gospel-Driven and Christ-Centered Ministry.  In other words, the gospel of Jesus must be at the center of our whole life and service before God.  Strategy four calls us to Personal Gospel Formation or the Discipline of Grace by which we grow in our intimacy and walk with the Lord—in Peter’s words, “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18 ESV).  This week, we’ll briefly review strategies five, six, and seven.

Strategy five is the Ministry of Prayer.  Both in the Old Testament and the New, we see that when God’s people pray, God moves and acts and performs wonders.  On the day of Pentecost, the disciples were gathered for prayer in the upper room when God sent the Holy Spirit.  Elijah prayed and the sky became like impermeable metal allowing no water to rain upon the earth.  He prayed again and a small cloud like a man’s hand grew to pour out water in flood-bringing proportions.  Prayer humbly acknowledges our human frailty, weakness, and inability to accomplish anything without God himself at work.  A healthy church is a praying church, passionately and consistently calling on the Lord to work in and through them to accomplish great things for his glory.

Without prayer, a church will be weak and unable to serve.  Equally, a church that does not listen to the word of God cannot grow in grace.  In Acts 6, the Apostles explained that it would not be proper for them to neglect the word of God and prayer to serve tables.  The ministry of mercy is critical in the life of the church, but without strategy six, the Ministry of the Word that equips for all good service, health will be lost.  Not only must the ministry of proclaiming the word be a central commitment of a healthy church, but so must listening to that word as well.  Acts 2:42 tells us the first Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.”  They didn’t take the ministry of the word for granted, but embraced it because it communicated to them the word of life, the word of Christ.  A healthy church will be committed to the ministry of the word.

By listening to the word of God, the church also comes to understand its mission and to develop a vision for fulfilling that mission.  This is strategy seven: Mission and Vision.  Our mission as a church is to serve the purposes God has laid out in his word.  Our vision is the particular form that mission will take as we seek to be obedient to it.  Reeder puts it this way, “If mission is God’s purpose for your church in your own generation, then vision is the ability to picture that purpose implemented in your world.  Vision must start with the mission statement because you first must know what God is calling you to do.  But then you must move on to ask: What will this look like in our situation?  What do we want our church to be, if the Lord wills?  What are our hopes and dreams for the next five years, the next ten years, the next twenty years, the next generation?” (From Embers to a Flame, p. 134).  A healthy church knows its mission and has a vision to accomplish it.


Embers to a Flame, Revitalization Strategies Eight, Nine, and Ten

The goal of the Embers to a Flame principles or strategies is to achieve and maintain a church’s spiritual health and vitality in which individual members of a congregation and the group as a whole are deepening their love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and their passion to serve God by bringing the gospel to the ends of the earth.  A healthy church is concerned for its own walk with the Lord and, at the same time, is outward focused in proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.  This week, we’re summarizing the last three principles: The Leadership Dynamic, Small-Group Discipleship, and the Great Commitment to the Great Commission.

Strategy eight, the Leadership Dynamic, is also referred to as Servant Leadership Multiplication. Whether in the church, in school, in business, in society in general, good leaders are absolutely necessary.  It’s part and parcel of the way organizations function—and God has created us this way.  So, leadership is always present in any organization including the church.  Whether for good or for ill, leaders lead.  As Reeder puts it, “I know there are some bad leaders, but even bad leadership works—it just doesn’t produce the right results.  Good leadership leads people the right way, and bad leadership leads people the wrong way—but either way, people are being led” (From Embers to a Flame, p. 149).  In order to be a healthy church, the church needs to produce well-equipped, godly, wise leaders.  This means giving attention to training, instruction, and discipleship of members so that they become, in due course, servant-leaders.  Leaders in the church include both those ordained to church office and non-ordained leaders who take an active role in serving in the church.  In other words, you don’t have to hold an ordained office to serve.  And, when you serve, at some point you’re engaged in the work of leadership because what you do and how you do it influences others.  A healthy church will develop leaders in the Lord’s service.

Small-group Discipleship—strategy nine—provides a means both for growth in the faith and ministry.  As we gather together to study Scripture, we learn from each other’s insights and we spend extended time thinking through a portion of God’s word.  This helps us learn how to apply it daily in our lives.  At the same time, small groups provide intimate fellowship so that we can fulfill all the “one anothering” commands of Scripture—being careful all the while that our small groups don’t become cliques or factions in the church!  We don’t participate in small groups simply to see what we can get out of them for ourselves, but we participate to be a blessing to others and to learn to be even more outward focused.  Small groups should stimulate us to serve rather than to be served.  Small groups are a venue for fostering more prayer for each other and for the spread of the gospel, too.  All of these together contribute to the ongoing health and vitality of the church as a whole.

The final strategy for achieving and maintaining church health is the Great Commitment to the Great Commission.  As Reeder reminds us, “No Bible passage informs our mission, and shapes our vision, more than the Great Commission in Matthew 28:16-20” (From Embers to a Flame, p. 187).  Two years ago, at EOPC, we wrote a new Purpose and Objectives Statement—you can see it on our website under the “about” section—in which we committed ourselves, in order to be the church God wants us to be, to obeying the Great Commission by pursuing eight objectives that we can summarize with the acronym W.E.L.L.: Worship—Upreach—Our ministry to God; Evangelism—Outreach—Our ministry to the world; Loving—Inreach—Our ministry to one another; Learning—Downreach—Our ministry to ourselves (From Embers to a Flame, p. 200—Reeder borrows the acronym from Greg Laurie’s book The Upside Down Church).  Church revitalization and health strategy ten is a call continually to press on in obedience to Christ’s Great Commission.