Epistles to the Thessalonians written from Corinth. Epistles to the Corinthians. Epistle to the Galations. Epistle to the Romans written from Corinth. Epistle to the Philippians. Epitle to the Colossians. Epistle to Philemon. Epistle to the Hebrews. Epistle to Titus.
Epistle of 1 John. 2 John. 3 John. Writing to the churches in the early chapters of Revelation.
Epistles (Just Letters.)
‘Epistle’ simply means ‘letter’ and was usually a formal and didactic letter. It was something that would be treasured by those that wrote it and by those that received it. Paul sent these formal, didactic letters across the continent in an effort to continue to encourage the people that were living the Christ following life. I can only imagine when they received one of these letters that they would pass them around and tell each other excitedly that they ‘received another letter from Brother Paul!’ There was much to learn from these letters and they hung on every word. Sometimes there was a moment of praise for the community of faith in the letters (Ephesians 1:1) and other times there were critical words that needed to be lived out over a period of time in an effort to know Jesus in a new, different way (1 Corinthians 4:6-13). The people of these communities most likely found themselves going back to the letter that was written and wondering what more they could do with it. They probably had letters that they wrote back, sent, and hoped got to Paul.
These are the letters that the Holy Spirit ‘breathed’ or ‘inspired’ (2 Timothy 3:16) in such a way that when we read them, we are reading the very words of God. God was speaking directly to these communities just as much as he is speaking directly to our community through letters written thousands of years before (1 Corinthians 2:12-13). The Spirit of God is still speaking right now.
I have often wondered what Paul might write to a community of believers in the United States today. I wonder what observations he might make regarding our church, our communities, our way of life. Would it be congruent with ‘the way’ as it were back in the 1st century in regards to the church? Or would it be akin to reading some of what John writes in Revelation to the Church in Laodicea (Revelation 3)? Would he say things like “Well done those that are faithful, you are a model to the Christian community around the world!” (Ephesians 1:1) or might he say ” You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” (Revelation 3:17)? I have a sneaky suspicion that our letters that we might receive would feel a bit more like Revelation 3 at times.
I don’t believe for a moment that the church in the United States chose the path that we find ourselves on. I don’t believe for a moment that we wanted to end up where we find ourselves in effectiveness. We are the most entrepreneurial nation in the world and yet yearly, it is costing the church in the United States (on average) nearly $700,000 (The Greatest Religion No One Ever Tried, pg 116). That’s alot of money for a convert, isn’t it? In comparison, the church in India is spending $0.90 per convert and China is unmeasured because nearly no money is being spent. The church in the United States has found itself on a decline for years, numerically. The number of churches that seem to reach those that don’t go to church is clearly on the decline. I would think that Paul might write a letter addressing some of these things. I would guess that John and Paul probably could get together and address some of the core issues at the heart of the problem. I wonder if it would sound like something that follows…?
Letter to the Church in the U.S., Maybe.
“You have tried so increasingly hard. In the midst of incredible change and turmoil, you have kept moving. You continue to develop budgets, continue to staff the church, keep the building doors open week after week, pray for those that are lost at every prayer meeting, and continue to meet on a Sunday morning, even in the face of numerical adversity. Even while people walked away from the church, you continued these activities. You continued to serve in ways inside the church building that are to be congratulated. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first (Revelation 2). This has been demonstrated many different ways throughout your most recent history. Because you have seemed to forsake your first love, you have forgotten the ways of discipleship because you have forsaken whom you are making disciples of. One cannot make disciples, if they are not in a love relationship with the chief disciple maker. While you have planted churches, you have forsaken the notion of planting seeds of the gospel individually because it is ‘difficult’ and ‘awkward’ and sometimes ‘painful.’ You have experienced disunity and fights in the midst of your community of faith even though those communities were at the core supposed to be centered on community. You forsake your first love, took your eyes of the prize and couldn’t move beyond the differences that you experienced in your community. Not just within your immediate, ‘local church community’ but disunity with others that call themselves part of the church, potentially using a different denominational hashtag. In a righteous effort to protect doctrine, you have become separatistic even when the nature of the gospel is holistic and unifying around the things that change the world. Because you have forsaken your first love, you have been consumed with your own consumerism. You have been swallowed up by your new first love and this has effectively changed the trajectory of the church in America.
For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs (1 Timothy 6:10).”
My response to all this is simply: Love God first. Learn to love him again. Love people as Jesus has loved you. Serve the world as this is the antidote to consumerism. When you do these things, new expressions of the church will be able to form, function and form will still matter but with revitalized disciple making meaning, and God will be glorified rather then man! Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God. (Revelation 2:7)”
A Brief Disclaimer
I don’t know. Maybe that isn’t the letter the Paul or John would write to the church in America but there are times when I wonder about these things. There are literally thousands of facets of the American Church and their are millions of different expressions of the local church. To write a letter to the American church to get to the heart of the issue would be to say that there are no local churches that still have their first love. I have to think, though, that when John wrote his letter to the church in Ephesus that there were still some that loved Jesus first. There was just an systemic pandemic that was happening that needed to be addressed. There are churches here in the United States that would not and should not be categorized into the above (though some of the things might apply) and certainly no church desires to be told these things.
My prayer has been for years, and will continue to be, that the church in America would do the things that it does well but that the heart of the matter would center on Jesus and his glory, not the growth of an entrepreneurial endeavor. We should not be focused on ‘saving’ the church, rather, we should focus on building God’s Kingdom as we make disciples.
The same spirit that spoke to the community of faith long ago, indwells those that know and follow Jesus and he desires to give incredible movement and direction forward in the life and expression of Jesus’ bride, the church. May we be people that listen, love Jesus, and are controlled by the Holy Spirit.