Yesterday, Sunday, August 30, 2009 I preached my final message as Pastor of Grace Fellowship Church in Sunnyside (Queens), NY. For months I had been preaching through the book of Hebrews, so it was fitting and timely that I was now at chapter 13. As I studied the chapter, my attentiion kept coming back to verse 8 – “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever.” This verse follows the call to imitate the faith of those who believed in Jesus Christ so faithfully that they not only lived for Him, they died for him.
Grace Church of Philly sincerely desires to believe and to live the gospel. Bryan Chappell asks the question: “How can a local church make a difference, and how do individual Christians meaningfully reflect Christ’s grace, when the disparities of wealth and power in our world are so great?” This is a question the leadership team at GCP recently asked itself in anticipation of ministry in Philadelphia. We are not experts in urban ministry. We recognize the complexity of the causes of poverty and confess the failure of many Christians, including ourselves, to address and to engage this issue. Some people are born into poverty through no fault of their own and find themselves trapped in an inescapable and infernal cycle. Others fall into poverty as a result of calamity including natural disasters, unemployment, health problems, or traumatic experiences. No easy answers or solutions are forthcoming. Our response must be rooted in the Bible as we seek to lay a theological foundation for our engagement in dealing with societal problems which in reality are spiritual problems.
We live in a world given to rapid change, some good and some bad. Some things ought always to be changing; some things should never change. We have seen a radical change in our own country — from a God-centered Judeo-Christian worldview to one where man is now the center of the universe, if, in the minds of some, there even is such as thing as a “universe.” Instead of submitting to a Sovereign God who directs the course of history, many in our culture now believe that all of life can be reduced to a series of impersonal processes and dynamic events governed by time and chance. In our culture’s thinking the final destiny of man is death, not judgment before a holy God. Truth and good no longer are objective realities but rather they are culturally conditioned, i.e. they are ideals projected upon the world and history by man himself. Scripture no longer holds authority as the revelation of a talking God. Human reason and the individual interpreter reign supreme. In the post-modern world truth now resides in the reader, the observer – it is a matter of one’s perspective. There is no transcendent God who reveals his will in objective truth.
Mark 1:7 ”After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Some of us can remember when Mohammed Ali was Cassius Clay. We can still envision him ranting and raving, “I am the greatest. I am the greatest.” Mohammed Ali is not alone. Success in professional sports or in any arena of life often produces an inflated sense of one’s personal greatness. Whether it’s the momentary taunting dance after the touchdown or it’s simply the feeling of greatness that one gets after succeeding, self-adulation is common to everyone.
If one asked the average American Christian why ancient Israel was punished by God and sent into captivity, the usual response would probably center around the nation’s disobedience to the covenant, or its idolatrous tendencies, or some combination of both. Rarely, if ever, would one expect to hear anything about the failure of the nation to seek after social justice or care for the poor.
However, the Holy Spirit of God speaks very clearly to Israel through His prophet Isaiah that a failure to look after the poor was a major component in the broader picture of judgment upon the nation:
Is. 1:10 (ESV) Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom! Give ear to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! 11 “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. 12 “When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? 13 Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly…. 16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17 learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause (emphasis added).
Planting a new church in Philadelphia or anywhere else is a daunting task that like matrimony must not be entered into lightly. When people ask me how to plant a church, what steps need to be taken, I try to explain that church planting is more of an art than a science. You make lots of plans but the unfolding of God’s purposes is stroke by stroke. There must be not only a personal conviction that God has called you to church planting but affirmation from others that you are so called. Church planting involves numerous details such as strategy, demographic studies, fundraising, location, and gathering a leadership and launch team. The reality soon sets in that we are not adequate for the task. It is God’s work and without him we labor in vain. However, before launching into this most noble and challenging of endeavors there are two questions we need to ask and answer. Who are we trying to please? Who do we want to reach? These are questions, among others, that we have asked ourselves in laying the groundwork for planting Grace Church of Philly. On these two questions hang the direction of the church.
Who are we trying to please? The first question should receive an obvious response. Of course we want to please God, not man. However we might be tempted to look over our shoulders to see what others think of what we are doing. You might be surprised at how many people think that new churches should dance to the same tune as churches which have existed for decades with their well-established traditions. The traditions are not necessarily wrong but may be unnecessary barriers in planting a church among those unacquainted with those traditions. Doing ministry differently than it’s been done by your peers and potential supporting churches often invites intense scrutiny and criticism. We are not looking to offend Christians by intentionally creating controversy or championing causes that are divisive. We want to be both transparent and discreet. We want to transparently say that this is who we are, this is how we live, and this is what we understand that God wants us to do. We want to be discreet and not accentuate those areas where we might not be considered traditional by some. In other words, we have no desire to poke our fingers in the eyes of Christians and churches who see and who practice some things differently than we do. We want to be biblical, not edgy but with an edge, and always pushing further into our understanding of the outworking of God’s purposes in the church.
Who do we want to reach? The second question should likewise elicit a no-brainer response. Of course we want to reach people without Christ. However we might be tempted to take stock of the kind of Christians who find their way to our door and cater to their preferences and expectations. Please don’t misunderstand me. We want to meet Christians where they are and would be delighted if God led them to journey with us. In fact, we are asking that God create a launch team of Christians to partner with us in urban church planting. But we will ask them to come with humility and with a teachable spirit. We will ask them to be open to different forms of worship, a different leadership style, a different philosophy of ministry, and a different way living out practical Christianity than perhaps they have known. We are not bent on upsetting Christians or seeking to undermine what they believe about the church. We have complete confidence in the authority of Scripture and want to follow God’s Word, not human agendas, not even our own agenda.
Grace Church of Philly exists to make Christ known to those who do not know him as he is really is. They may’ve heard of him. They may be acquainted with those who profess to know him. Yet they do not yet have a saving and loving relationship with him and the Father. As much as lies within as Christians and a church, we do not want to erect unbiblical and unnecessary barriers which prevent others from a hearing of the good news and a redemptive encounter with Christ. We are not fearful that some may be offended by the truth of the gospel but we want to be careful that the offense is related to truth and not to how we present it or live it out. We do not want to “go beyond that which is written” (I Cor. 4:6).
These two fundamental questions are related. Certainly church planters should not intentionally irritate supporting churches or needlessly alienate Christians in emphasizing differences in a way that’s divisive. Neither should church planters be expected to adhere to extra-biblical, albeit longstanding traditions which would be impositions on a new church and perceived as foreign in another context. There should be mutual respect and humility. After all, Jesus said that the world will know that we are his followers if we love one another. If this is what you are looking for in a church then we invite you to join with us for the glory of God. We have no illusions about being a perfect church or being able to perfectly balance the response to these two questions. We just want to be God’s church, a grace-filled church, and journey together with those whom God calls to accomplish his purposes in Philadelphia.
The dream for Grace Church is to see God create in University City a Christian Church which clarifies what it means to be “Christian.” We know we live in a culture that has witnessed many misrepresentations of both the Christian life and Christian message and that, consequently, finds neither Christians nor the church very attractive.
The term “Christian” has come to mean just about anything in our time. Everyone who is even remotely connected to Jesus in any way calls themselves a Christian. From Mormons to Roman Catholics; from Liberals to Conservative Fundamentalists; from people involved in New Age belief systems to people who call themselves “born again.” The word “Christian” has become a meaningless term.
Our desire is to bring clarity and re-infuse this term with its proper, biblical meaning. Our desire is to get out of the way so that the Holy Spirit of God can minister to people through the faithful proclamation of His Word. The preaching of the Word will be accompanied by deeds of love and mercy in outreach to the community. Such deeds can only be empowered by the love of Christ that has been poured into our hearts at the new birth. Our prayer is that skeptical attitudes will be changed about the Christian faith, and that it will begin to look attractive to unbelievers who are alienated from God and have never had a saving conversion experience with Jesus Christ.
We believe that Christianity is the most joyful, beautiful, and attractive belief system and worldview that this world has ever seen. We need to stop making this beautiful, precious thing so utterly unappealing to so many.
We want to teach, embody, live, and faithfully represent Christianity before a world and culture that has totally rejected the Church and everything she stands for. We believe that a good amount of the hostility and skepticism that outsiders have toward Christianity is not so much a rejection of the pure, biblical faith of Jesus and His apostles, but is a rejection of the misrepresentations and distortions of the faith that many churches have gotten hung up on.
Many unbelievers think that the Church is filled with arrogant, prideful, materialistic, uncaring, legalistic, homophobic, bigoted people who are primarily focused on promoting a political agenda or party. And unfortunately, their observations are not without merit. We believe that when outsiders look at the Church, they should see love, mercy, and grace rather than hatred, hostility, and hypocrisy. Our desire is to fully embody and incarnate the love, mercy, and grace of God before others.
Acts 2:42-47 tells us that the early Christian community was so filled with people who had humility, confidence, understanding, courage, generosity, sincerity, and joy that they had “favor with all the people” of the surrounding community. There was a beauty resting upon the church (Keller & Thompson, p. 183). Our dream is for this type of Holy Spirit-empowered beauty to rest upon Grace Church of Philly.
Acts 2:47 states that the early Christians in Jerusalem had “favor with all the people.” We want to be a ministry that has “favor with all the people” in University City and in Philadelphia.
We want to be a church that has an “outward” stance toward the world rather than a church that is “inward” in its focus. An “inward” church is one that pours all, or nearly all, of its energies back into itself and the saints present in that ministry. Churches with that are inwardly-focused usually have a hostile stance toward unbelievers and the world. We desire to have an “outward” stance, dedicated to engaging our culture for Christ, faithfully and lovingly bringing the saving Gospel to unbelievers whom we love and who desperately need our Savior.
We have chosen the word ‘grace’ for our church as a starting point in clarifying and communicating the essence and simplicity of Christianity.
Grace is that undeserved, unearned blessing of God that meets us where we are and transforms us. Grace is what we want to show to others, indiscriminately serving them and loving them in the name of Jesus.
We ask you for the opportunity to share life together with you in an environment marked by grace. At the outset, we confess the imperfections of our grace and our need for more grace, but we desire to meet you as you are and to grow with you in understanding and living the magnificent grace of God.
Ephesians 2:8-10 (ESV) For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
OUR DISCIPLESHIP COMMITMENTS – 4G
•We gather each Sunday to worship our great Lord and Savior in spirit and in truth.
•We grow through small group Bible study and fellowship to lead grace-filled lives of genuine significance for the glory of God with other believers.
•We give our resources and time to support the work of God and to love our community with acts of kindness.
•We go to intentionally make disciples both locally and globally in announcing the Good News of God’s grace to all peoples without regard to ethnicity, gender, or social standing.
Our discipleship commitments are our discipleship process. This is part of our overall “simple church” philosophy of ministry (following Rainer and Geiger). Our philosophy of ministry includes the following concepts: clarity, movement, alignment, and focus.
Clarity – Our commitments and process is simple to communicate and easy to remember. It is not overly complex or complicated. We believe that the discipleship process should never be left up to chance and should never be a mystery.
Movement – Our focus is going to be on moving people through this process, facilitating their building up and edification in the faith.
Alignment – All of our ministries, from the youth programs to small groups to mercy ministries, will be aligned around this simple 4G process.
Focus – We will not be a “program-heavy” church. Our philosophy is not “more programs,” but excellence for the glory of God in the programs that we will have.
OUR CORE VALUES – TRIM
Being transformational means that we are prayerfully depending upon the power of God’s Word and the Holy Spirit to transform any life. The grace of God means that there is no one alive who is beyond the hope of redemption and transformation in Christ Jesus.
Being relational means that we are joyfully offering love and grace to everyone, regardless of where they are on their spiritual journey. First, this means we will actively cultivate redemptive relationships with believers as well as non-Christians. Second, we will be conscious of and welcoming of non-Christians in our midst. Third, we will communicate not just what we believe but why, in a way that invites questions, engages people in dialogue and take a process approach (not a crisis approach) to communication. Tim Keller observes, “Many people simply have ‘process personalities’ – they will never come to faith if they are pushed. They need to come in stages.”
Being incarnational means that we will strive to live out and model the gospel of grace within the culture. We want to be deeply involved in our communities. Ed Stetzer remarks, “We don’t back away from godless people but instead embrace godless people because we understand the hearts of lost people conquered by the lordship of Jesus builds the Kingdom.”
Being missional means that we are intentionally committed to engage those who either do not know or misunderstand Jesus. We are intentional about and absolutely committed to adapting everything we do in worship, instruction, community, and service so as to be meaningfully engaged with the non-Christian society around us. Being missional, we understand that we are co-citizens with non-Christians and seek to build redemptive relationships in the culture instead of totally separating ourselves from the culture.
Each of the TRIM values undergirds and empowers every aspect of our 4G discipleship commitments. How we fulfill out 4G discipleship commitments should always reflect our TRIM values.
OF IMPORTANCE TO US
We believe that God calls every believer to wholehearted discipleship. A church full of Christians running hard after God, living with intent as His children and using their gifts to extend his kingdom, brings God great glory and is a powerful witness to the world. We are eager to help every Christian live as a learner, minister, evangelist, and steward.
We believe that the church is a ‘glocal’ mission outpost. By ‘glocal’ we mean being missional both locally and globally. As a mission outpost, the church actively seeks ways to penetrate the community, the nation, and the world with the Gospel. Bob Roberts, Jr. states, “When we start a church, we realize we are doing so not just for the community but for the world, based out of that community. Every church you start is a church for the world” (p. 124).
We believe that effective ministry must be biblically based as well as culturally relevant. We do not need to sacrifice either biblical truth or cultural relevance. All of our ministries will be in the ‘vernacular,’ speaking directly to the immediate culture and people without compromising Scripture or theology. Regarding speaking directly to the culture: Christians, frequently, are great at speaking to each other, but not so great at communicating with the wider culture. Our desire is to speak to the non-Christians of the culture in a powerful, compassionate, Scripturally-saturated manner.
AN INVITATION TO BECOME PART OF OUR GRACE COMMUNITY
We ask you to prayerfully consider becoming part of the GCP core group for the birth phase of the church for as long as the Lord leads you for the following:
1. To pray daily and persistently for the city of Philadelphia and for the launch and establishment of Grace Church of Philly in University City.
2. To be involved in the lives of the believers and unbelievers in that area; to build bridges with them that might serve to further the kingdom of God.
3. To maintain a consistent devotional life and consistent walk with Christ.
4. To open yourself to the Lord as to what types of ministry roles He may have for you at Grace Church.
5. To give to the work of this ministry as you are able to do so.
We want to encourage people to commit for as long as they believe that they are being ministered to, for as long as they believe that their gifts are being effectively used for kingdom purposes, and for as long as they believe that this is what the Lord wants them to be doing.
Grace and peace be with you.
Keller, Timothy J. and J. Allen Thompson. Church Planter Manual. New York: Redeemer Church Planting Center, 2002.
Rainer, Thom and Eric Geiger. Simple Church: Returning to God’s Process for Making Disciples. Nashville, TN: B&H Books, 2006.
Roberts, Bob Jr. The Multiplying Church: The New Math for Starting New Churches. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008.
What does it mean to be Missional?
Luke 5:27-39 27 After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 And leaving everything, he rose and followed him. 29 And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. 30 And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
Are you ready to follow Jesus in a Missional way? – By missional I mean living with an awareness that the world we live in needs Jesus and intentionally seeking ways to bring Jesus into that world.
From the call, response, and subsequent actions of Levi and the circumstances that surround him, Jesus, and the disciples, we learn a bit more about what it means to follow Jesus in a missional way.
Missional is being RADICAL and at times seemingly irrational.
Levi responds immediately to Jesus’ call to follow (literally – ‘keep following me’ and ‘he kept following him’). He left everything.
I say this act of following is ‘seemingly’ irrational, because it is truly irrational only if Jesus is not who He claims to be. If He is Messiah, Lord, Son of God, and Savior, to not follow Him fully would be irrational.
Missional people are moved by the call of Jesus and understanding who it is that gives the call.
Missional is being RELATIONAL – Following Jesus means that we remain as friends of sinners.
Usually everyone is a friend of sinners at some point in life. Though it is possible to grow up in total isolation (Christian home, church, school, friends), this is not the norm. Most people when they come to Christ have a network of relationships that include many non-believers. Unfortunately early on this network is broken.
The enemies of Jesus called both Jesus and his disciples “friends of sinners” beacuse this was an obvious reality in their lives.
For Levi, he has just answered the call. He hasn’t burned the bridges of relationships. He still has friends who aren’t followers of Jesus and he seeks a venue to which they would come and where he could introduce Jesus to them. This leads to my next point.
Missional is being RESOURCEFUL – Following Jesus means that we create opportunities for our friends to meet Jesus Christ.
I love church gatherings with God’s people but at the same time, I love the words of C. T. Studd, that brilliant young Englishman who gave away a fortune that he might go out to the forests of Africa. He put his philosophy this way:
Some like to dwell
Within the sound
Of church and chapel bell.
But I want to run a rescue shop
Within a yard of Hell.
Levi knew his friends well enough to know what kind of venue they would come to. I believe that all of us need to be more thoughtful, prayerful, and intentional in creating venues where we can invite our friends and neighbors and Jesus. The choice of these venues is driven by what honors Christ and what is attractive to sinners, rather than what is ‘approved’ by institutaional Christianity.
Missional is being RISKY. Following Jesus means that we live with the risk of criticism and misunderstanding
Being missional often means that you act contrary to religious culture. This is not the intent (how can I PO other Christians), but is often the result, when your sensibilities are such that you think about pleasing God and loving and reaching people, not looking over your shoulder for approval from man.
- Criticism arises from a false comparison (disciples of Jesus to disciples of John and Pharisess).
- Criticism arises from the failure to see the uniqueness of Christ and His mission.
- Criticism is based more on the fear of change than a question of what honors Jesus Christ.
- Criticism is often rooted in a fear of loss of power.
Missional is being REDEMPTIVE
I take Jesus words about ‘coming to call sinners to repentance’ as a probing invitation to everyone as much as a rebuke to the Pharisees.
Everyone listening would have had to ask themselves the question: Am I sinner? If I don’t think so, if I think I am righteous, then Jesus did not come for me.
Being missional must always come back to the question: Why did Jesus come? Lk 19:10 - “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (which by the way was spoken to another tax collector).
Grace Church of Philly is looking to build a core launch team of believers who desire to follow Jesus in a Missional way – living with awareness that the world we live in needs Jesus and intentionally seeking ways to bring Jesus into that world.
Pastor John Davis delivered a short sermon on missional thinking at a pre-launch fellowship and outreach for the core group yesterday at a private residence in South Jersey.