by Walid Zailaa
Two years ago, I was privileged to be invited to serve as a pastor of a local church. In my relatively new capacity, I am always faced with the question of connections, networks, and partnerships (especially with the West) to such a degree that I thought for a brief moment that this must be the default setting of the 21st century pastor. I felt also that unless I intentionally increase my personal connections, raise funds, and partner with western churches and organizations, the church I serve will be less active and slow to grow.
No doubt much around us is undergoing a peculiar, if not painful, process of restructuring due to many local and global variables. This is also true for the Church that is experiencing different forms of change, one of which I will reflect on in this blog post. For the last decade, the re-modeling of churches into business-like enterprises in terms of leadership, structure, funding, and programs has become prevalent. In this reflection, I will share with you what I am learning in my journey as I look at Jesus, the early church, and the apostle Paul in their mission to preach the gospel, aiming particularly at the approach they took.
So, I looked at Jesus in the process of setting his ministry in motion, a startup in today’s business language. Jesus had a strategy, a team, a plan, and a moneybag (funding). To my contemporary understanding, he had all that is needed to execute his vision successfully. But, instead of propagating his vision to support his cause, he kept a low profile; instead of raising funds to expand his market share, he dismissed money from the equation; and, instead of partnering with local authorities, he challenged them with his prophetic presence.
Although, according to a modern-day mindset, Jesus needed all the means possible to promote his new notion of the Kingdom of God, his approach was devoid of a 21st-century understanding on how to start and lead a successful enterprise.
The difference between Jesus and us, as I see it, is in the art of channeling our focus. While it might be true today that our uttered ultimate purpose is to preach the gospel, the focus is mostly on our programs, activities, budget, full-time employees, newsletters, and yearly accomplishments to an extent that the main objective of the church is lost in the details of the day-to-day operational matrix.
One could, rightly, argue that the Church may well maintain its organizational hallow in favor of its greater mission, which is true. The risk, however, is sometimes in the process of “maintaining”, which will be vying for our attention as our growing ambitions might deflect us from the core purpose of our existence.
After this I looked at the newborn church in the Acts of the Apostles, reflecting on Luke’s simple and beautiful description: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers…. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need…. praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42-47). My reading of these words from today’s standpoint is that the early church was not absorbed internally by establishing all kinds of organizational structures, but rather passionately devoted to forming a community of believers for whom God was the one who caused the growth, adding to their number day by day. In the same vein, right after painting this picture, Luke then depicts what Peter and John did not do to the lame man at the gate of the temple (Acts 3:1-10). They did not give him any alms in response to his request; they did not seek any medical help to support him; they did not use their connections to find him a job; and they did not mention him in their yearly report after he got cured. They prayed and gave glory to God who healed him.
The idea is not to separate between social and spiritual work. Had Peter and John responded differently to meet the needs of the man as we all do today, it would have been a blessing. I believe that God works through His church in its local community. The question I am reflecting on is the relationship between growth and funding. Will the church I serve grow because of God (as with the early church) or funding (as with some modern churches) or both? Will God grow the church if, as a pastor, I do not seize every opportunity to sell my vision, increase personal connections, and raise funds? What about timing: does the church move into serving before (like with Peter and John to the lame man) or after (business mindset) securing the needed funds?
Then, between the small and rusty bars of the prison window, I peeked at Paul in his cell as he was writing to his friends the Philippians. Paul in his letter expressed gratitude to the donation they made to support him and asked them not to send any more money because he is not in need. In his imprisonment, Paul declared the secret of the Christian life, a secret that is most of the time overlooked in today’s ecclesiological industry. He wrote to the Philippians and us saying: “not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Ph. 4:11-13). This line of thinking from the great Paul is strange to the contemporary ecclesiological trend. Most probably it would have been normal to me today if I heard the following argument from Paul: let my churches- those “I” established- and my people- those “I” won to Christ- support me to execute my vision and increase my programs as “I” serve God and put my life at risk. Let the ministries I launched be called after me Paul’s International Ministries (PIM) for God’s glory and His Kingdom.
And finally, I looked at the overarching story of God’s love as it manifests itself in the Bible. From Abraham up until the Apostle Paul, the primary responsibility of the people of God was to reflect God’s presence in His creation. The Old Testament describes the people of God as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. A nation that is distinct from the nations around, whose mission was to introduce the living God to the rest of the world through their obedience to the Law. This is to say that the nations needed to learn the ways of the living Lord through His people and not the other way around. It was never meant for the people of God to learn and apply the ways and expansion strategies of the nations. The moment they renounced their distinction and desired a king like all the nations, their holiness was compromised. It was a turning point in the history of the people once they declared: “we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Samuel 8:20).
The New Testament continues in the same spirit and understanding of what it means to be the people of God. The New Testament church is a church that is structured and governed in accordance with the biblical principles and practices and not with what the corporate industry offers.
This is by no means an invitation to step back and become isolated. This is simply a question of motivation: what is the driving force behind the church today?
I look forward to hearing other perspectives and discussing this further in our Middle East Consultation 2021 on September 30, October 1 and 2, which will touch on some of these issues.
Walid is the Academic Dean of ABTS and the pastor of a wonderful community of faith that meets in Mansourieh.