COUNTERCULTURAL. TRANSFORMATIONAL. LEAN. – Jim Lyon, General Director, Church of God Ministries
“One day as Jesus was walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers—Simon, also called Peter, and Andrew—throwing a net into the water, for they fished for a living. Jesus called out to them, ‘Come, follow Me, and I will show you how to fish for people!’ And they left their nets at once and followed Him” (Matthew 4:18–19 NLT).
One of the most striking markers of the Church of God Convention in Wichita last month was the growing presence of younger pastors in the mix—adding up to a third of those attending. The generational vision, thirst, and lens of these men and women are a big win for us, as we reach to become a Movement for the 21st century. As I wrote in my first MOVE column with the launch of this e-newsletter many months ago, the definition and trajectory of what we have long believed to be “the Movement” is practically in question.
Are we today, by any objective measure, “a Movement?” Are we taking new ground? Do we today bring to the larger Christian table something so necessary as to require my all? And yours? We have many meetings each year in which the historic “doctrines of the Reformation Movement” are proudly proclaimed, no doubt about it. We have our songs. And, we have our history. Photographs. Memories. And more.
But, are we actually a people “on the Move?” If so, where? How? Is it enough to simply be a collection of churches? With some missionaries? A publishing enterprise? How many towns have seen “sect Babylon” fold in the wake of our years of witness? Are we at the vanguard of an army of holiness, upending whole communities, reforming their allegiances to Jesus by the wonder of the “evening light?”
The Church of God, in its collective memory, recalls an earlier age when it seemed these questions could each be answered with a resounding Yes! But, these days, not so much. Our most expansive ministries right now do not wave these flags. Our vocabulary stumbles to engage new generations and to inspire the old. The facts on the ground do not match the fervor of our hymnody.
My family has now seen six generations raised in the Church of God; I am no stranger to its power and legacy; I owe my life to it. It is the Church of God that introduced me to Jesus, the reality of His Holy Spirit, and the wonder of a pastoral calling. But, I have thought (and prayed) long and hard about the Movemental outlines of where we have been and where we must go. Perhaps, better said, I have spent a lot of time asking God what we must become. I know many of you have done the same.
Which brings me back to a new generation of pastors and leaders rising to the fore. I met one young twenty-something pastor at the Convention who told me his story in the foyer: he was raised Roman Catholic, had a life-altering experience with Jesus in a local Church of God, sensed a call to ministry, went to school, and now has been pastoring for two years. He was obviously smart and bright, anointed, really. The Wichita Convention was his first intersection with the larger Movement outside of his state. He told me that he and his wife had been wrestling with whether the Church of God as is would remain their ministry home. I listened, anxiously. But then, with an unforgettable grin, he reached his hand to mine and said, “After this Convention, we know we could never be happy anywhere else. God is moving in the Church of God, here, now.”
Another young pastor described how he felt so energized by “the Movement.” It was “not like anything I have felt before.” It wasn’t “just the Convention,” but the whole last year, during which he knew God was cementing him into the Church of God ministry, excited about being “in the change-the-world business, not the church-building business.”
Several pastors talked with me about rethinking their ministries, recalibrating their ambitions to be more like Jesus and less about institutional development. Jesus is the subject, after all. Another late twenty-something pastor talked with me in the Wichita Convention Atrium and then sent me an e-mail two days later, to be sure I would not forget: “Isn’t it time to change the identification for Church of God Anderson, Indiana, to Church of God Movement? We are no longer isolated to a location.” He continued, “If you can think of ways I can be of help, please let me know.”
The magnet is the Movement, Jesus-centered. It is the sense that God has uniquely called us today to do something no one else has quite seen the same way. The magnet is a calling to be a people, not superior to other parts of the body of Christ, but humbly and unmistakably taking back what hell has stolen, with a freedom and power that only the Holy Spirit can give.
When Jesus first called Peter and Andrew, the world’s most extraordinary Movement was born. It is our ambition to walk in that same way, no more, no less: “In simple trust, like theirs who heard, beside the Syrian sea,” as John Greenleaf Whittier long ago so poetically described the moment.
What are the marks of the Movement Jesus then launched—and to which we can be joined?
First, it was transformational. The Movement of Christ always first transforms individual lives. We will not be content to simply fill seats or entertain crowds; we will not measure our success by how many addresses bear the name Church of God or are registered in the Yearbook. We will be satisfied by nothing less than the transformation of individual lives, the redemption of the lost, and the reclamation of hearts and homes that the devil has too long held in his wicked grasp. Furthermore, we will not be content with bringing people to an intellectual assent alone of Christ as Lord; we will not be satisfied until they are filled with the Holy Spirit, possessed by and obedient to His call, reclaiming dark corners of their own hearts and this broken world, for Jesus’ sake. Individual holiness must inevitably breathe social holiness. The possession of the Holy Spirit compels His people to become advocates for a more righteous, more just, and more gracious redeemed community. Jesus people, in their finest hours, have always been a transformational people. The Church of God must place this, once again, at the point of its ambition.
Second, it was countercultural. Jesus stepped out of the boat onto “the other side of the lake,” the Gentile province of the Ten Towns. He defied convention, speaking by the well to a Samaritan woman. He was derisively branded “the friend of sinners.” He gave hypocrisy and stale ritual no quarter. He did not take His cues from popular and established culture, but from Heaven itself. He was countercultural for the purpose of reframing it—reclaiming it—in ways that honor the design of the Creator. Jesus people, in their finest hours, have always been countercultural. The Church of God must never be intimidated by secular culture or bow to its demands, if in conflict with Heaven’s ends.
And, third, it was lean. Jesus sent out the Seventy to herald the kingdom with a “less-is-more” methodology. This was an emblem, it seems, of His whole walk through this world. The standard baggage so often assumed to be necessary for effective ministry was jettisoned to provide for nimble, flexible, and immediate movement. From town to town, village to village, house to house, His disciples were to bless or to shake the dust of their feet but, in every case, they were not to be encumbered by too much stuff. Layers of hierarchy, rigid formulas, and complex orchestrations of competing instruments were eschewed for the simple music of Luke 4, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, to …” It is a passage that defines our General Assembly, embedded into the Assembly’s Constitution and Bylaws. Jesus people, in their finest hours, have always been lean, honing their time, energy, and resources for the countercultural transformation of souls and the world around them. The Church of God has long proclaimed this truth, if not always realizing and walking in its power.
Transformational. Countercultural. Lean. This can be a 21st-century Church of God. This can be a 21st-century Movement. We may plant new churches—and revive weakened ones. We may raise up new leaders—and be inspired by seasoned ones. We may hold our meetings—and field different ones. We may be loosely collected—but must always be deeply united, clothed with common purpose. We may be proud of from where we have come—but we must be honest about where we are. And, we can be energized about what is in store, to what and where God is calling us for a new century. He who said, “Behold, I make all things new,” is still in the change-the-world business; He is still in the changing-us, each one, business. “I am confident of this very thing, that He, who began the good work in you, will perfect it, until the day of Jesus Christ.”
I know some young pastors who are being drawn into the Movement. I know some pastors of middle age whose excitement about the Movement is being rekindled. I know some pastors in their golden age beginning to see a new age for the Church of God. I know of some fishermen who broke with the ordinary and became extraordinary voices for the kingdom. I am so thankful just to be in their shadow. And, in yours. Be encouraged. Jesus is walking two steps ahead and alongside, calling. For the good. Let us tune our hearts to hear.