Reflections on Preparation for our Annual Bible Conference
It’s the same every year – the preparation and build-up to Conference which right now is “T minus 13 and ½ days” and counting. A myriad of details must be looked after and preparations must be made on a multitude of different levels. The mixture of anticipation, deadlines, sermons to prepare and preach, the building to renovate and update, the pressure of finances, the expectation of God speaking, and the joy of seeing old and new friends are all rolled up into this time and felt in a tangible way.
In nuclear physics, the term “critical mass” refers to the minimum amount of fissionable material needed to maintain a nuclear chain reaction. This term has corollaries in the world of business and finance as well as sociology. In business, critical mass is the point at which a business achieves
self-sustaining viability. Those who study social trends use it to refer to the threshold of participants or activity that must be crossed in order for a social movement to explode into being. In a nutshell: critical mass is the minimum amount of something required to start and maintain a project or venture. In a sense, this is what we desire to see in the spiritual realm. What factors go into achieving the spiritual critical mass of a fresh encounter or visitation of God? I don’t have all the answers, and I certainly can’t just flip the magical switch to make it happen. That’s why it’s called a move of God. But I have discovered a number of contributing elements which must be present. While this is by no means an exhaustive list, I encourage you to keep these in mind as we approach Conference, which is one of the pivotal times in the life and direction of our church.
They come directly from Acts 1:14, which describes the time leading up to the Day of Pentecost (now there is an event which achieved critical mass): “They all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary, the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren.”
THE POWER OF ASSEMBLY
Throughout Scripture we find what I call “Bible tensions” – two seemingly opposite truths that actually hold one another in a healthy tension. One of these exists, for example, between the individual and the corporate. This is not an either/or proposition, but both/and are needed. Consider, for example, walking in the Spirit. Galatians 5:16 says: “Walk in the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” The word for walk in this verse is peripatio, which means to walk about, and refers to your individual walk with God or your personal relationship with Him. But Galatians 5:25 says: “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.” The word for walk here is stoicheo, which means to walk in rank, walking with others, as in a military march – definitely not a solo affair. Both of these are needed for the Holy Spirit to truly rule and guide our lives.
We’ve heard a lot about the Power of One, or the importance that one individual can make. It makes for good copy and inspiring reading, but in order to reach critical mass, there must be the Power of All, as we see it described in Leviticus 26:8: “Five of you shall chase a hundred, and a hundred of you shall chase ten thousand, and your enemies shall fall before you by the sword.” Here we see that assembling or joining together gave a five-fold increase. Call it the multiplication principle or the power of synergy; it all expresses the same truth.
The beginnings of the early church began with the words “these all continued,” reflecting the power of assembly. Following the Day of Pentecost, we are told of the life of the church that “all that believed were together... and day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people.” The regular practice of assembling together was a normal part of their experience with Jesus Christ.
This seems incredibly simple, yes? But today it runs into the reality of a highly individualistic culture, where the mentality “it’s all about me” has infiltrated the thinking and outlook of many people. What do you expect when you have YouTube; My Space; and all the i’s in iPod, iPad, iMac, iTunes and iPhone. Even Time Magazine’s 2007 Person of the Year was YOU, complete with a mylar mirror on the cover to reflect your own image. There’s nothing subtle about that! “Come on! Let’s all join in and sing: It’s all about me, Jesus... it’s all about me.”
This kind of thinking is at war with the church. As Pastor James Emery White wrote:
“Eavesdrop, for a moment, on our Christian rhetoric. ‘I want to go where I’m fed’ – not where we can learn to feed ourselves, much less feed others. ‘I need to be ministered to,’ as if ministry is something that happens to us, instead of something we make happen for others. We walk out of a worship service and say, ‘I didn’t get anything out of it,’ as if that was its purpose – our edification, instead of God’s. This consumer mindset looks at the church in terms of how it caters to specific felt needs. This from a people whose Savior said, ‘I did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give my life as a ransom for many.’ A Savior who said, ‘Whoever wants to be first must become last.’ A Savior who said, ‘Whoever wants to be great among you must become the slave of all.’ A Savior who said to the Father, ‘Not my will, but Thine.’ Yet a spiritual narcissism has invaded our thinking; the individual needs and desires of the believer have become the center of attention.”
White added that when this consumer mindset rests on a weak ecclesiology, we have the proverbial ‘perfect storm,’ and the church assembly is cast aside and trampled on. When you couple this with a diminished view of preaching, a lessening of the importance of the Lord’s Day, and the encroachment of both amateur and professional sports on Sunday, it presents a real challenge to the biblical vision and priority of assembling.
I was interested to read about the prolific writer Phillip Yancey. Books like Where is God When It Hurts? What’s So Amazing About Grace? and Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? have come from his pen. Yet for years he lived estranged from the church. He’s since done an about face and he was asked why did he return to church. His answer was straight Bible: “Christianity is not a purely intellectual, internal faith. It can only be lived in community.”
Yes, that’s true! Together! Independence is not the way, and dependence is not much better. It is inter-dependence that the Scripture calls us to: “Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular” (1Corinthians 12:27). I’ve long carried with me the conviction that one church service can make all the difference in the world in a person’s life. In the old revivalist terminology “You’ve got to get under the spout where the glory comes out!” I’m sorry, but that won’t be happening if we resist the priority of assembling ourselves together.
There are certain times in the life of a congregation when the necessity of this corporate element, “all these continued,” is felt more keenly than at others. I believe that Conference is one of those times. The more the church is gathered, the more it is focused and captures the time, talents, and treasures of God’s people, the more it contributes to critical mass.
THE POWER OF CORPORATE PRAYER
We run into another one of those biblical tensions here. Both private and public prayer are encouraged in Scripture. We need the prayer closet times when we can go in and shut the door on any and all distractions. But we also need the other times when, as our text spells out, “all these were... devoting themselves to prayer.” One of the ways that Christ’s vision, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations,” materializes is through the joining of our hearts in fervent prayer before God. It helps contribute to critical mass.
This was certainly how the first century believers did business. In Acts 4:23-24, we see that it was through corporate prayer that they faced the threats and oppositions directed toward them, crying out to the Sovereign God to give them boldness to speak the word of God. God graciously responded with a fresh in-filling of the Holy Spirit in their midst. In Acts 13:2-3, they discerned and confirmed the missionary will and purpose of God through corporate prayer and fasting. We see the same pattern evident in Paul’s burden to see that the churches that had been planted should be established for the future before them in Acts 14:21-23.
This is revival prayer. You will always find concerted, biblically-grounded, Gospel-centered, and Christ-exalting prayer in any significant move of God. Some unforgettable times in my life as a young pastor came while attending Conference in my home church in Prescott, Arizona. The first thing that struck you as you entered was the roar coming from the packed prayer room where people and pastors were crying out to God before the service.
I enjoyed reading an article by Trevin Wax about revival in many of the churches in Romania that were marked by people who valued corporate prayer. The testimony of Christian brothers and sisters petitioning the King to act on their behalf had a genuine impact on a move that sprang out of and challenged Communist oppression, and this eventually led to the toppling of that wicked regime. It was not by might, nor by power, but by God’s Spirit… and a people desperate for His help.
Help us by lending your voice and presence to experience a season of refreshing that comes from the presence of the Lord!
THE POWER OF UNITY
I was recently stirred again by how important unity is, and yet, how frequently we ignore and neglect this facet. If you want an indication of the gravity of this element, just read Paul’s teaching on the Lord’s Supper. “Now in giving these instructions I do not praise you, since you come together not for the better but for the worse. For first of all, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it.” (1Corinthians 11:17-18).
Paul was disturbed that what was lacking at the communion table was any genuine sense of communion. So much that he said: “Therefore when you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper.” Whatever it was that they were doing, it was definitely not the Lord’s Supper. “For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord's body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep” (1Corinthians 11:29-30). Partaking of the Lord’s Supper with unresolved conflict in our lives, allowing it to remain unchallenged, is sin. And it resulted in some who were weak, sick, and in some cases, some who had gone to an early grave.
If critical mass is your concern, then the words “these all continued with one accord” stand out. It means they were doing so with one mind, or with their lives in complete harmony. Schisms, divisive individuals, and discordant purposes were not welcomed. This unity is emphasized in the personalities that were present in this little gathering in that upper room. Yet it begins in verse 13 with a list of divergent personalities evident in the various apostles. Apart from Jesus, would they have been together like this? I highly doubt it! We also see a gender diversity “with all the women and Mary the mother of Jesus.” Thrown into the mix were also filial attachments “with his brethren.” Therefore, it is no small thing to read that all of these were subjected to the unity of the Spirit.
This is clearly the oft-repeated instruction of Scripture. To the Ephesians Paul wrote: “I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” We don’t create this unity. It is a work of the Spirit of God, but we do aim at maintaining it. “Endeavoring (make every effort) to keep (guard) the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
When it comes to reaching critical mass, I don’t think it could be any plainer than the words of Psalm133: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes! It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion! For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.” Where do we find the blessing? We find it “there,” when we’re committed to living and walking in unity with one another. Unity is not uniformity, where everyone and everything looks and sounds exactly alike. It is not to be confused with unanimity, where there is complete agreement on every petty issue. Rather, it is a unity of purpose: a oneness of heart; a relational unity.
I’ve heard Christians go their own way by saying: “Well, I have issues with So-and-so.” Join the club! But a commitment to biblical unity means a commitment to work through those conflicts. It means a determination to avoid slander and gossip. It means having a heart that displays a generous or magnanimous spirit. It was Francis Schaeffer who said that the world doesn’t really care about our doctrine. This is definitely true in our age that denies that absolute truth even exists. Schaeffer said “the love that true Christians show for each other (and not just for their own party) is the final apologetic.”
Here I was, sitting in a motel room in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia a couple of weeks back. I was thinking about our Conference and about how much we need God to help us. I began to think of this small but important word: all. From that one word we can glean: 1) the importance of assembly, 2) a call to corporate prayer, and 3) the emphasis on unity. Combine these and you have the makings of an explosive time of God’s grace and power. Even so, Lord, let it be, in Jesus’ Name, amen.