The Apostle Paul envisioned a church where unbelievers walk in and experience God’s glory so dramatically that they fall on their faces, worshiping (1 Corinthians 14:25). Yet so many of today’s churches feel stagnant and stale—a one-and-a-half-hour time period with four worship songs and a sermon. What are we doing wrong?
Bruce has been an Encompass global worker for over 33 years, and he calls those fall-on-your-face environments “living churches.” Originally an Entomologist (insect scientist), Bruce traveled in Latin America for his doctorate, but left science to serve as a missionary in Brazil. When he saw how much the locals needed leadership training, he started teaching in their Bible institute. He said, “The more we studied scripture, the more we realized we weren’t putting it into practice the way that we should.”
As someone who used to smoke pot and attend Ozzy Osbourne concerts, Bruce believes his unique past has allowed him to approach church differently and see things with fresh eyes. Some of the initial church plants have looked so different from society’s conventional idea of church, that other churches accused them of being a cult. However, Bruce has always looked to scripture to inform his view of church, and he has identified four components of a living church.
- Worship and Intimacy with God. “God’s top priority is to reconcile us with Himself,” Bruce says. When he first became a missionary, the locals had never heard of intimacy with God before, so he studied the topic more intensely. Being close to God is the most important thing that any church can do. He is the vine, and we are the branches. How could we expect to exude life if we aren’t closely connected to life’s Origin?
- Empowering Church Members. A lot of churches expect their lead pastor to do all the heavy lifting for the church, but Bruce says that living churches always put ministry into the hands of the people. Bruce describes one living church, saying, “Most of its members barely even have a fourth grade education, yet they’re all out there sharing their faith and studying the Bible with their neighbors.” The people from that church say, “We study and work because we have to, but having one-on-one Bible studies with people is what we live for.”
- Living it Out. Encompass’s former Executive Director, Tom Julien, once told Bruce, “If you like theology, then you’ll love the mission field.” At the time, Bruce didn’t know what he meant, but he quickly found out after living boots-on-the-ground on the mission field. That really gave him a different perspective on life and what he should prioritize. He says, “In seminary I remember working on an exegetical project on the book of Ephesians. It was good, and I learned neat stuff, but after ten years of church-planting, I looked through that project again through different eyes. Now I was actually experiencing it.” It’s definitely important for churches to learn scripture, but they also need to apply that knowledge to their lives while passing it on to others. Bruce says, “People go to church and stagnate because they aren’t teaching other people what they are learning. Discipling people taught me even more than seminary did.”
- Transformed Leaders. Most churches do a good job of explaining that Jesus saved us from eternal suffering, but living churches also emphasize the transformation that happens here and now. Bruce says, “Churches emphasize redemption but not regeneration. People don’t see the importance of Romans 6: the crucifixion of the old man and the birth of the new one.” Being a Christian isn’t just about going to heaven when we die—it’s about reconciliation and regeneration. Bruce says that living churches are always led by people who have experienced true transformation. Leaders can only show people how to go to places they themselves have already been.
God designed the church to be living and glorious, but we can sometimes turn it into something mechanical and stagnant. Bruce says, “If we want to be a living church we need to be set free from all the religious things.” Following Jesus isn’t a religion—it’s a relationship.
Jesus, I want my life to model your living church. Transform me by taking me into deeper intimacy with You so that I live out your teachings and empower those around me.