Qualities of a Gospel-Driven Mission Work
The emergent movement is the clearest example today of what Paul calls in our text as an appeal that â€œ[springs] from error or impurity or any attempt to deceiveâ€¦ with words of flattery,â€ all with the intention of pleasing man rather than God. It is not any different from the â€œseeker-sensitiveâ€ movement that caters to the â€œfelt needsâ€ of the people, the only difference being that the caterer offers a smorgasbord of â€œChristianity a La Carte.â€
Psalm 89:26-37; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12 (text)
Like all passing fancies, the megachurch movement is slowly fading into the sunset. To keep their multi-million dollar budgets and professional staff, these megachurches are more and more mutating their message into the false gospel of health and wealth, known as the prosperity gospel. But even this prosperity gospel is losing its grip on the faithful, especially among the youth.
In the Philippines, these movements are brought in by foreign missionaries, particularly those coming from the West. For trends in the church, there seems to be a 5-10-year gap between the West and the Philippines. For example, the megachurch movement in the U.S. took off in the early 80s, while in the Philippines, a few megachurches emerged only in the 90s. It is more than mere coincidence that the megachurch and prosperity gospel movements both exploded on the evangelical scene at the same time. This is because the one feeds the other in a symbiotic relationship.
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However, by the late 1990s, evangelicals were increasingly disillusioned with the vanity and shallowness of the modernist megachurches with its Hollywood-style pomp, pop music and drama spectacles. A brand-new movement, called the â€œemergentâ€ or â€œemergingâ€ churches, appeared on the horizon and by the early 2000s, they were assimilating many of the Generation X or millennials, the generation after the Baby Boomers. Some of the more well-known emergent authors are Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, Dan Kimball, Peter Rollins, Spencer Burke, David Tomlinson, Leonard Sweet, Rob Bell, and Tony Jones.
What are these â€œemergentâ€ churches? Having rejected the triviality of their parents’ megachurches and materialism and evangelicalism’s claims of absolute truth, these emergents now want to open their faith not only to Scriptures, but to all other traditionsâ€”even when they are conflictingâ€”whether they are Christian, sub-Christian, or non-Christian. From the early church, they want ancient Gnosticism. From the medieval age, their menu includes mysticism, chants, incense, and empty prayers. From the current culture, their diet consists of hip-hop, U2, rap, and Starbucks culture. In short, it is â€œDesigner Christianity.â€
Their worship is aptly called, â€œcouches, candles, and coffee.â€ Instead of listening to the preaching of the gospel, they gather in couches, chairs and tables for â€œworshipâ€ and conversation. Because there are no absolute truths, they’re also known by the acronym EPIC: experiential, participatory, image-driven, and connected. 1 They want to experience God with incense, chants, candles, and pictures. Their participation in the conversation is as important as their leader’s lecture. They want â€œto see to believe,â€ so they have images, icons, and their own drawings. Because their parents sat in chairs at church and hardly knew any others, they want connectedness with their peers and their communities outside their group.
One such â€œemergentâ€ event was conducted at a 24-hour prayer event at my daughter’s school this weekend. Called â€œThe Highway,â€ it was very aggressively promoted at the school. Why â€œThe Highway?â€ The promotion says â€œstudents hungry for God to come to [the school] during Spiritual Emphasis Week are preparing the way beforehand with a 24-hour prayer watch… It’s based on Isaiah 40:3-5 (MSG) ‘Make… a highway fit for our God.’â€ Of course, students are not John the Baptizer preparing the way for the coming of the Messiah, but no problem, they can prepare the way for God to come to the school. This prayer watch offered to â€œexperience God in the creative forms of prayer that are expressive of this generation, i.e. art, worship, confession, and other ‘stations.’â€ So right outside the door, there were candles, and inside, lots more of the candles, and a pervading smell of incense. There was a group that was singing to the beat of a drum and tambourines. On the far corner, a man was kneeling before candles and what looked like pieces of paper art on the wall. Some students were sitting in a circle on the floor, conversing, and I was wondering if they were having a â€œBible study.â€
All of these are presumably intended to allow the worshiper to â€œexperience Godâ€ creatively, according to his taste, urge, disposition, or emotion of the moment. Syncretistic and eclectic? Whatever word you call it, it fits this movement, because as they say, it’s just a â€œconversation,â€ and whatever they converse about depends on their experience and emotion at the moment.
The emergent movement is the clearest example today of what Paul calls in our text as an appeal that â€œ[springs] from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive… with words of flattery,â€ all with the intention of pleasing man rather than pleasing God (1 Thess 2:3-5). It is not any different from the â€œseeker-sensitiveâ€ movement that caters to the â€œfelt needsâ€ of the people, the only difference being that the caterer offers a smorgasbord of â€œChristianity a La Carte.â€
In contrast to the man-centered, experiential megachurch, prosperity, and emergent movements, Paul’s mission was driven by the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. In this text, Paul shows the qualities of a mission approved by God: (1) God-Pleasing Motives; (2) Selfless Love; and (3) Godly Conduct.
In the first chapter, Paul says that he and his co-missionaries became a model for the Thessalonian believers to imitate, and in turn, the people became models for others who heard about their faith, love and hope. By referring to God and the people as witnesses of the integrity of missionaries, he may be responding to accusations from Jews and Greeks that they had selfish motives and their gospel was wrong (verses 5 and 10). Obviously, Paul’s day was not unlike ours, when there were many charlatansâ€”con artists, swindlers, deceivers and false prophets.
Moreover, the opposition to Paul came not only in the form of false accusations, but also in the form of violence and persecution. In the face of this violent opposition, Paul and his companions preached the gospel with boldness. God rewarded their labors because the Thessalonians received the gospel with joy even in their afflictions (1 Thess 1:6). So their labor was not in vain and not without result. As God has promised, his Word â€œshall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent itâ€ (Isa 55:11).
This is so because they were laborers approved by God. And he continues to test their hearts to see if their motives were pure, because he â€œsees the heart and the mindâ€ (Jer 20:12; see also Jer 17:10). Positively, their main mission is to please God, not man, seeking the approbation of God alone (see also Gal 1:10). After being released from prison for preaching the gospel, Peter and the other apostles were again arrested by the Jews and told to stop their preaching. Despite the beating that awaited them, they answered the Jews, â€œWe must obey God rather than menâ€ (Acts 5:29). And after they were released, they evenÂ â€œ[rejoiced] that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the nameâ€ (Acts 5:41).
Negatively, Paul lists a three-fold motive to please God as missionaries approved by God, â€œFor our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceiveâ€ (1 Thess 2:3). They were not preaching a false gospel, their motives were pure, and their words and methods were not deceptive or manipulative.
How awful to think of charlatans in the churches today! Would they be willing to suffer and be dishonored for the honor of Jesus Christ? Are they motivated to please God, or to please, entertain, and attract people who with their itching ears are unable to endure sound teaching? How many churches today do not â€œaccumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into mythsâ€ (2 Tim 4:3-4)?
The Reformers’ first mark of a true church is the preaching of the true gospel. Today, many congregations do not hear the true gospel of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ who, by his perfect obedience in life and in death and his resurrection from the dead, has paid with his blood for all our sins to redeem us from eternal death and the wrath of God.
How often do you hear this pure gospel in the churches today? What you often hear are man-centered false gospels of health and wealth, name it and claim it, self-esteem, come as you are, God loves everyone, save yourself by your own decision, pluralism and universalism. Paul was right on the mark when he said that the gospel is an offense and foolishness to those who do not believe (1 Cor 1:18; 2:14). How many churches today would preach such an offensive gospel of salvation from sin and the wrath of God in eternal hell? And if the people in those churches hear this true gospel, attendance would soon dwindle, because their itching ears are not hearing what they want to hear.
Likewise, emergent churches preach a smorgasbord Christianity, which is not Christianity at all, but an eclectic, syncretistic religion, like a menu in a restaurant from which you order your favorite food. It is a religion not unlike ordering coffee from Starbucksâ€”iced or hot, latte or espresso, capuccino or frappuccino, macchiato or mocha, cream and sugar, cinnamon or nutmeg, peppermint or caramel. It is truly man-centered â€œDesigner Christianity,â€ devoid of God’s Word. Shane Rosenthal of Modern Reformation went to an Emergent Church Conference and sampled a few of the topics offered, including: â€œWhat comes after wrought-iron, euro-icons, and Van Gogh mouse pads,â€ â€œReckoning with intuition: developing and fostering the creative impulse in self and community,â€ and â€œnu Monasticism.â€ Of the 13 seminars offered, not even one was concerning the Bible. 2
In 2 Kings 2, we read of an ominous parallel to the emergent church in Israel after the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom in 722 B.C. All kinds of pagan peoples from the empireâ€”with their pagan godsâ€”were resettled by the Assyrian king into Israel. The Jews assimilated all these idols into the Jewish religion, resulting in an eclectic, syncretistic religion, â€œSo they feared the LORD but also served their own gods, after the manner of the nations from among whom they had been carried awayâ€ (2 Kings 17:33). Instead of repenting of their idolatryâ€”which brought this defeat and disaster to their nationâ€”they plunged deeper into pagan worship. Such is the state of the majority of churches today, with their syncretistic doctrine, worship and practice.
The second negative characteristic of a God-pleasing mission is its resolve not to be driven by impure or selfish motives, not having â€œa pretext for greedâ€ (verse 5). First, they did not preach for financial gain, although as Christian laborers, they were entitled to double honor by the church, and they had authority from God to request support (Rom 15:24; 1 Cor 9:3-14). He even toiled in his trade of tentmaking so he would not be a burden to them (verse 9; 2 Thess 3:8). Second, since they did not aspire to please man but to please God, they did not seek glory, fame and honor from man (verse 6).
How unlike many pastors and elders today! Many preach a health and wealth gospel so they could gain abundant financial support from their flock. â€œGive more and the windows of heaven would give even more! God will prosper you and provide you with a nice house and car and all kinds of luxuries. And he will heal all your diseases,â€ they promise. Their ambition is to gain a big following and be famous, and thereby be wealthy. This is why in the Philippines, many people have a very low regard for evangelical pastors. They have seen enough of these charlatans on TV and in the churches who amass wealth, mansions, and live in luxury with their false teachings and manipulations of their gullible flock who give sacrificially to their church. Many of these televangelists have embezzled church funds for their own personal use; many have even committed gross sexual immorality.
Thirdly, Paul’s mission did not use dubious or deceitful methods to gain followers and adherents. The worship of the church is not to please man through creative worship and entertainment but to â€œoffer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fireâ€ (Heb 12:28-29). The preaching must not be â€œwords of flatteryâ€ to manipulate people (verse 5). It is to be in spirit and truth, meaning, all that is to be spoken, done and thought of in worship are from Scripture. The motive of worship is to please and glorify God alone, â€œI will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving. This will please the LORD more than an ox or a bull with horns and hoofsâ€ (Psa 69:30-31). And when worship is God-pleasing, worshipers will enjoy communion with God, as the psalmist says, â€œOh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!â€ (Psa 118:29).
The ministry of the church must be motivated by pleasing God, not man.
Because Paul’s motives are driven by pleasing God and not man, he stresses his selfless love and devotion towards the Thessalonian church.
This is because it is God’s love in us that compels us to love our brethren. Paul uses the imagery of the church as God’s family. He was like a mother and father to them. A nursing mother is completely devoted to her infant, sacrificing her comfort and convenience for the sake of her child. One of the most beautiful pictures of selfless love that I can think of is a mother cuddling her baby in her arms, looking intently at the child while she nurses her. She is extremely gentle towards the infant, making sure that the child gets just enough nourishing milk and not choking on it. A mother’s devotion to her child is such that she would even give her life for her child.
In the Old Testament, God is portrayed as a compassionate mother to Israel her child, â€œCan a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget youâ€ (Isa 49:15). When God punishes his child Israel, he is also like a mother who later gives comfort to them, â€œAs one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort youâ€ (Isa 66:13).
God’s love is not only like a mother’s love for her infant, but also like a father’s love for his child. Paul’s love for the Thessalonians is as a father’s love for his children, â€œYou know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of Godâ€ (1 Thess 2:11-12). Paul considers himself as a father to all of those who have believed in Christ through his preaching. As a father, Paul encouraged each one of them in their newfound faith in Christ. Not only did he encourage them, he also charged them, warned them, and made them responsible to continue in their godly walk in Christ. Paul rejoiced every time he heard of the faith, love and hope of believers in all the places he had established churches. His co-apostle John says likewise of his joy in the godly walk of his brethren in Christ, â€œI have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truthâ€ (3 John 4).
Don’t we, as parents, likewise rejoice when we see our children growing spiritually and in the discipline and knowledge of Christ? And aren’t we grieved when our children stray from the right paths? Children, this also applies to you: what makes your parents happy? Your obedience and godly behavior. And what makes them grieve and sorrow? Your disobedience and ungodly character.
The ministry of the church must be characterized by selfless love to new believers and for one another. Because Christ, when he offered himself up as a bloody sacrifice on the cross, humbled himself, made himself nothing, and gave up all the heavenly glory and honor that he had in heaven. This is the perfect, ultimate selfless love of Christ towards us. In turn, we can do no less than to offer our selfless love for one another, â€œDo nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of othersâ€ (Phil 2:3-4).
Finally, the mission of the church must be characterized by the godly conduct of the pastors, elders, and all the members.
The Thessaloniansâ€”and God himselfâ€”can attest to the conduct of Paul and his co-workers, â€œYou are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believersâ€ (1 Thess 2:10). One of the reasons why the Thessalonians received the word of God is because they saw the reality of the Gospel that they preached in the godly conduct of Paul and his companions, those who brought the word to them.
The believer’s conduct of holiness, righteousness and blamelessness is a recurring theme in Paul’s letters. In relation to election, the believer was chosen by God for a purposeâ€”â€œto be holy and blameless before himâ€ (Eph 1:4) and â€œto be conformed to the image of his Sonâ€ (Rom 8:29). Holiness and blamelessness are the direct and sure results of the Christian’s election in Christ.
However, do these three characteristics mean that a Christian is able to be perfect and sinless in this age, as John Wesley, Charles Finney, D. L. Moody, Bill Bright, and others in the Holiness Movement teach? No, the Bible never teaches this kind of perfection. To be sure, our goal in this life is to be transformed into the image of God’s perfectly holy, righteous and blameless Son. Thus, Paul exhorts all believers to live blameless lives even in this evil world, â€œthat you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation.â€ In this way, we will â€œshine as lights in the worldâ€ (Phil 2:15).
But more often, Paul talks about being blameless at the Second Coming, as he later encourages the Thessalonians to love one another â€œso that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saintsâ€ (1 Thess 3:13). He prays that God will sanctify them completely so that their whole being will â€œbe kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christâ€ (1 Thess 5:23; see also Phil 1:10). When Christ returns, we will be transformed into perfect, sinless creatures.
Why is godly conduct and walk one of Paul’s most recurring exhortations? We are always reminded, â€œDo what you preach,â€Â because it is the hardest thing for believers to keep. Our witness for Christ is only as effective as the godly conduct of our lives. We are salt and light to the world, so that when unbelievers see our works, they will know we are true Christians and also glorify our Father in heaven. And it is a dishonor against the name of God and Christ when others see our ungodly behavior, unbecoming of those who call upon the name of the Lord. Most of all, we are to worship with decency and order and reverence for God, so that when visitors and unbelievers come, they will fall on their face and worship God and declare, â€œGod is really among you!â€ (1 Cor 14:25). In this way, we will win others to Christ, and those who repent of their sin will be added to our number.
Peter also encourages our godly conduct so we will be able to win unbelievers for Christ, so that they too will be able to stand on Judgment Day, â€œKeep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitationâ€ (1 Pet 2:12).
These are the same reasons cited by the Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 86 why believer’s good works are necessary:
Because Christ, having redeemed us by His blood, also renews us by His Holy Spirit after His own image, that with our whole life we show ourselves thankful to God for His blessing, and that He be glorified through us; then also, that we ourselves may be assured by our faith by the fruits thereof; and by our godly walk win also others to Christ.
Be encouraged, brothers and sisters, in our mission work here in Pasig. If our motives are God-pleasing, if we show selfless love for one another and to visitors to our church, and if conduct our lives in holiness and godliness, the Lord will surely bless our laborâ€”it will not be in vain. And on the day of visitation, when Jesus returns from heaven, he will â€œcall you into his own kingdom and gloryâ€ (verse 12). Then you will enjoy your full blessings in Christ and be with him in the glorious heavenly kingdom forever.