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Building a Jesus church and lifestyle for a turbulent world (part 1)

Unsplash/Gift Habeshaw
Unsplash/Gift Habeshaw

The contemporary world is not in a time of “resilient dynamism,” according to the wizards attending the most recent gathering of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, but is “buckling under a never-ending cascade of calamity.”  Now, instead of optimism the global elite sees “permacrisis.”[1]

The WEF gurus may know a lot about a lot of things, but they are not wise in knowing what to do about the “permacrisis.”

Where can people find hope in such an hour? The obvious answer ought to be: Look to the Church. But many churches and church organizations are in the same upheaval as the rest of society and culture.

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The only kind of church that can provide stability to the world is the church which is itself solid and dynamic. That concern began to grow in me in the 1960s and 1970s, intensifying in 1974.

That year, after a decade of working in journalism and government, I entered the calling God had given me as a teenager to be a pastor. I accepted the call to a small congregation near Mobile Bay in Alabama.

I would learn that certain themes sweep through churches and denominations periodically. Biblical inerrancy, the Holy Spirit and His gifts, cultural relevancy, and other topics become the focal points.

In the 1970s it seemed everyone was talking and writing about church growth and strategies to make it happen. The more I read the more frustrated I became. Which strategy is the best? There was an intensifying interest in developing cell churches, and another called for more relevant worship featuring “cool” worship leaders. Yet another promoted the importance of “signs and wonders.”

I found out the hard way in my many attempts to implement the varying methodologies that some of the church growth strategies destabilized congregations and actually produced more legalisms as this strategy or that claimed it was the very model of the first-century New Testament churches.

What to do?

The answer began to dawn.

One afternoon I was sitting on the speaker’s platform at a large conference of church leaders in India. As I scanned the faces of those men and women of God it suddenly hit me: This is the way Jesus walks in the jungles, back alleys, villages, and cities of India.

And so, it is true everywhere and in every era: The Church is made to continue the incarnational work of Jesus in its localities, and, in fellowship with other churches, in the whole world.

This led to an intense conclusion: If the church is the body of Christ, it ought to do what Jesus did in His incarnate body 2,000 years ago. Developing the “Jesus church” became my passion. I knew it would be powerfully transformational because everything and everyone Jesus touched was transformed.

I had been focusing on how to get a larger and larger crowd. But I realized as I studied Jesus’s incarnational ministry that He never had to worry about how to get a crowd. In fact, the big issue was how to manage the crowds that came to Him.

This led me to look more closely at what Jesus did routinely every day as He prepared to minister to the throngs and equip His disciples to serve:

  • Jesus worshipped. He began each day in communion with His Father. God the Son acknowledged the transcendent and glorious reality of God the Father, knowing that in His own incarnation, He could do nothing apart from the Father.
  • Jesus interceded. Jesus arose early every morning, and, in addition to worship, He used the quietness to pray for the people who would soon press in on Him, and for Himself to be able to minister powerfully through God the Holy Spirit.
  • Jesus proclaimed the Gospel of the Kingdom. The priority of God’s Kingdom was strong in Jesus’s earthly life and ministry. “Seek first God’s Kingdom,” He would tell His followers. The greatest things that would come to needy people would be the blessings of the Kingdom — itself a transformational reality.
  • Jesus made disciples of those He reached. He sought to lift people beyond the concerns that distracted them and helped them to have a Kingdom vision, to see a greater world, through the greatest Word. Jesus wanted them to learn reliance on God the Holy Spirit Who would become manifest to them on the Day of Pentecost.
  • Jesus served human need in the name of His Father. Jesus saw the whole person, spirit, soul, and body. In His incarnate ministry, He ministered healing to the whole person and trained His followers to continue such a holistic ministry.

As I studied all this, my leadership vision changed: Rather than pursuing growth, I would seek to build and develop the Jesus Church wherever I was sent.  

I awoke to the fact that growth is an outcome of the lifestyle of a congregation. In the churches I served in the following years, we sought to implement a lifestyle of worship, intercession, proclamation of the Gospel of the Kingdom (which sometimes meant confronting hot issues like abortion), disciple-making, and holistic service to our community.

I must confess that implementing this lifestyle created problems. With growth came the need to stretch our physical facilities. In all three churches where we sought to walk as “The Jesus Church,” we had to conduct multiple worship services to accommodate the larger attendance.

Every issue we confronted was caused at least in part by the rapid growth. However, as we settled into a solid lifestyle, the church became stronger, and growth continued to “happen.” With our other pastors, I found myself in the baptismal pool more frequently, baptizing categories of people I would have never expected.

And that made me realize that that was what it was all about. We abandoned the quest for church growth, and focused instead on the church lifestyle, based on Jesus’s model. Soon we were discovering that as we seek Jesus’s style, “growth happens.”

We also learned that a doctrinally sound pulpit and dynamic worship are crucial for stability in periods of change and growth. We explore those concerns in part two.

[1] The worry in Davos: Globalization is under siege (

Wallace B. Henley is a former pastor, daily newspaper editor, White House and Congressional aide. He served 18 years as a teaching pastor at Houston's Second Baptist Church. Henley is author or co-author of more than 25 books, including God and Churchill, co-authored with Sir Winston Churchill's great grandson, Jonathan Sandys. Henley's latest  book is Who will rule the coming 'gods'? The looming  spiritual crisis of artificial intelligence.

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