20 Lessons/20 Years: Lesson #20: The Church Belongs to Jesus (not to me)

When you really care about something, it’s easy to take too much ownership. Parents do this with their kids, volunteers with their work, and pastors with their churches. We can shift from managing as stewards to ruling as owners. It doesn’t usually go very well.

And this is a lesson I’m still learning–Lesson #20: Jesus owns the church. I don’t.

Zapata-Cattle-DriveWe applaud “having ownership” because a person who feels a sense of “ownership” will take responsibility for what happens, refusing to pass the buck and actively serving together for the good of the community. In that sense, I hope everyone who calls our church home feels a sense of “ownership.” It is their church. They belong!

But the difficulty comes when we move from a sense of “ownership” in the church to acting as the Owner of the church. Or at least that becomes a difficulty for me.

You see, over the years I’ve had to remind myself (and be reminded by others) that the church isn’t actually mine. I’m not the possessive, overly-controlling type, but I am deeply committed the local church and want to see the church flourish and deepen. As a leader, I can envision some of what that could look like, and I work hard to see God’s vision realized.

MineBut in the middle of all that, I can slip from acting as a steward within God’s house to acting as the owner of the ranch. I can start taking too much ownership, taking all failures personally, resenting resistance, imbalancing my daily life and allowing the ebb and flows of regular ministry to define the ebb and flows of my own soul.

With startling regularity, I have to stop and remember: Jesus owns this community. This is his church. He bought and paid for it, in blood. Jesus is the one leading us. Jesus died for this church, not me. Jesus is the one in the middle of this church, not me. Jesus is the one who will see this church through to his intended goal, not me. Not me.

I think that’s why Paul, encouraging his much-loved Philippian friends, expressed confidence “that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 1:9) We often hear these words in reference to our own personal lives. While that’s good application, the primary reference is to the whole church in Philippi, the little gathering of Jesus followers faithfully worshiping, serving and witnessing in that Roman colony.  Few people were more heavily invested in the early churches than Paul; he took responsibility as a founder and apostle within the movement. But at the end of the day, at the end of his life, Paul knew that the church was not his–the church belonged to Jesus, and he would finish what he started. 

This truth makes a practical difference in my ministry leadership, giving me perspective and confidence. You see, as much ownership as I feel for the church, I can serve knowing that, in the end, I’m not the one ultimately responsible for the success and flourishing of the church–Jesus is. As important as pastoral leadership is to a church, Jesus is over all and he will complete what he’s started in us. I am so thankful!

A couple of reflection questions for you:

  • When does “having ownership” inappropriately shift to acting as the owner?

  • How does Jesus’ ownership of the church increase your confidence to take responsibility for your church?


This was my final of 20 ministry lessons. As you might remember, I began my first vocational ministry posting on May 1st of 1996–these posts are retrospective reflections of some of the lessons I’ve learned (and I’m still learning) in ministry. Here are the other 19. Thanks for reading.

If you read through some or all of these 20 lessons, I’d love to hear from you. What was it like to read them? What resonated with you? What didn’t work? How could I have done it differently? I’m eager to learn from you. You can comment below or private message me. Thanks!

 

Why I haven’t quit the church (and why you shouldn’t either)

The church of Jesus is a marvelous mess, filled right up to overflowing with sinners and saints.  As a pastor, I hear my share of criticism about this mad collection of the Jesus-bought. Maybe you’ve heard it, too.

The church is . . . too inward-focused,  too liberal, too conservative, too spiritual, not spiritual enough, too performance-oriented, too shoddy and backward. Hypocritical, fake, needy, imperfect. Sinful. Broken.

Sigh. 

It’s all true. And believe me when I say that I ache over the mess.  The mess that eats away at people’s lives, the mess that happens when sinners forget their dearly won sainthood, and the saints forget their status as grace-covered sinners. But it’s in the midst of the mess of the church that I also worship Jesus. It’s in this messy, beautiful mix that I pray and give and serve and love and learn. It’s among these people I experience forgiveness, joining in wonder and worship, bearing for each other the burdens of life.

 

Why don’t I give up on the church? Why don’t I just quit?

Because Jesus refuses to give up on the church. Jesus loves his church — broken, sinful, beautiful and alive. Blood-won, Spirit-filled, lurching in grace toward God’s good future.

At the beginning of the book of Revelation, we receive a compelling vision of Jesus.  With vivid imagery, Jesus our High Priest stands with the white hair of wisdom and the bronze feet of strength, face shining like the sun and a voice like a waterfall. The focus is all on him, standing in splendor and wisdom and strength and love.

But, if you can stand back for just a moment, ask yourself: where is Jesus, when he first reveals himself to John in this vision? Where is he located, exactly?

I’m very struck by this fact: Jesus, in all of his brilliance and grace, is standing right in the middle of his church.  He’s not standing off to the side, he’s not somewhere in the distance, not on the outside looking in. Jesus is standing right in the middle of the church, depicted here as lampstands. And he’s not standing in the middle of some generic “church universal” either. Jesus is standing in the midst of the local church–seven local churches to be precise–churches with an identifiable address, meeting in a house just across the way, embedded within a city with a history, a mix of cultures, steeped in idolatry, with a story of where they’ve been and where they are going. A church made up of an odd menagerie of real and imperfect people, sinners and saints, people like you and I.

Lister Fun
Photo credit: Meme Prier

As the Revelation unfolds, Jesus has some challenging and comforting words for these particular churches, each message crafted for each unique congregation. Some of these churches are severely compromised; others are barely holding on. Some are affluent; some, poor. Some are well-known; some, backward and unfamiliar. And as Jesus speaks to his church words that are sometimes difficult to hear, let us not forget where he’s located when he speaks: right in the middle of the mess.  He speaks from the centre, not the periphery, of his people.

Jesus knows his church, situated in each community, each city, each block in the world. He knows my church; he knows yours. And he loves his church, and when he speaks to his church, he speaks right from the middle.

Jesus hasn’t quit his church.

I’m not either.