Choosing a church (or, 4 things about the word apostolic)

John Wesley stained glass window, with caption "the world is my parish"

At this stage in the year students often ask us: What is important in choosing a church when I move on? How do I keep growing as a Christian after uni? How can I use my life and work in God’s kingdom?

Choosing a church can be bewildering. Most churches have a strapline that says we love God, love each other and love the lost (or words to that effect). And many churches now have contemporary worship, preaching that connects with daily life and are open to the ministry of the Holy Spirit. So, while I wouldn’t join a church that didn’t aspire to one of those things, they’re not really differentiators. So we need to look a little deeper…

Most blog-readers won’t do this(!), but ideally, before you read on, read Ephesians 1-4, where Paul paints a glorious picture of God’s great plan for the cosmos:

  • [God’s plan is] to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.
  • [The church] is [Christ’s] body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.
  • We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works.
  • [God’s] intent was that now, through the church, [his] manifold wisdom should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms

God’s grand plan for the renovation of creation involves me playing my part, and us as church playing our part! So it matters that we join a church that understands that!

Apostolic thinking

Once upon a time, most people went to church in Britain. Every inch of the country was part of an impressive network of parishes. The parish priest was tasked with the ‘care of souls’ within that parish (and that parish only). Limited geography and limited remit!

Famously, John Wesley ignored these limits, saying rather “the world is my parish”. His itinerant ministry was challenged by some, as he crossed into the parishes of other priests of the Church of England, preaching in their territory without their permission. (Another response in this era was the formation of missionary societies, separating the task of mission from the local church. That created another whole set of problems we are still living today, but don’t get me going on that!)

From conversations with friends who work in parish churches, although much has changed, too much of that thinking endures today.

God’s thinking is different. He wants his people (church) to be part of his grand plan for renovation of everyone and everything, everywhere! We call this apostolic vision, or apostolic mentality. (The word ‘apostolic’ means ‘sent forth’.)

Apostolic thinking is geographical: going everywhere to see God’s kingdom touch the heart of men and women in every people group. It is also cultural: going to everything, seeing God’s kingdom of righteousness and justice touch all spheres of society. Many former Oxford students have gone on to shape society, as modern day Josephs, Esthers and Daniels, for example shaping ethical investment policy for banks, shaping foreign policy in the FCO, and advising national governments on economic policy. (With the current crisis, don’t we need some Christians today working in the home office and border agency, to bring righteousness, justice and humanity in their creation of immigration policy?)

Look for a church with this sort of apostolic vision!

Apostolic going

Parish thinking, with its focal point on a building, can also lead to a ‘come to us’ / ‘come to the building’ mentality. Many modern churches perpetuate this approach, offering slick performances in attractive settings. Internet celebrities too run ‘a good show’: fine words with a fine image, but many have not lived the life and built something that lasts.

God’s thinking is different. He expects us to be going (Matt 28:19, check out the Greek grammar if you’re so-inclined). If we’re not going he will get us going (Acts 8:1 vs 1:8). If we’re constrained by cultural prejudice he will get us moving (Acts 10).

Look for a church a vision to go, not just for people to come; and not just for people like us.

Apostolic team

In Ephesians 1-3, Paul has set out a vision for the church to be about God’s mission. In Eph 4 he starts to show how we do that, and he starts with setting out a vision for team leadership: “And he (Christ) gave the pastors and teachers, to educate, comfort and care for God’s people, meeting our needs and keeping us safe until we all get to go to heaven at the end” (my mis-translation).

No! No! No!

There are 5 gifts listed here, not just the pastor-teacher gift that has become the sine qua non of the evangelical church. We need all 5 gifts at work to get the church working properly, in line with God’s great plan; coaching God’s people, rather than just caring or educating.

The New Testament calls this sort of team an ‘apostolic team’ - a team of diverse gifts, led by an apostle. Furthermore, the New Testament shows us families of churches, planted by, established and built by and continuing to relate to such apostolic teams.

Look for a church with a leader who gets team, a team who are diverse, and a team who are part of something bigger, connecting to an apostolic team.

Apostolic strategy

Ephesians 4.12 spells out the vision for this sort of team leadership: “equipping God’s people for God’s work”. The word translated ‘equip’ is the same used of fishermen mending nets (Mt 4:21), which gives us a vivid picture of purpose. We all need mending, but we don’t get mended in order to simply look good on the shelf! Someone has translated this verse as “Fixing God’s people so they work!”

And the ‘work’ here is not just running church programmes. Rather, God's apostolic strategy is his family:

  • [the church is] God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
  • [the church] is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.
  • [God’s] intent was that now, through the church, [his] manifold wisdom should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms
  • … bringing unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.

That’s a grand work indeed!

So, look for a church with a healthy view on leadership, where leadership equips God’s people to be sent out. Not a church where leadership does it all, or where leadership doesn’t exist at all!

Andy O'Connell