Questions are always welcome: and as often as not very helpful.
Questions are certainly an integral part of the stock-in-trade of the Lord’s great pastoral wisdom.
From His gentle, probing question in the garden of Eden (“Where are you?”) to the question-expecting-the-answer-yes conclusion to the Lord’s patient dealings with His ‘prodigal’ prophet Jonah (“Should I not be concerned about that great city?”), the record of Scripture provides a long, extended masterclass in the wise and wholesome use of careful questions.
So we weren’t unduly surprised or taken aback when, a month or so ago I suppose, one of the older elders popped the question – “Why do we exist?” Having prayed at the start of our meeting that the Lord Himself would lead us in discussion, it was instantly clear that this was His sort of question: the sort of question designed to help His people think important issues through and to do so in the right sort of way.
Why do we exist?
This wasn’t a Shorter Catechism type of question – we could have rolled off the answer quite quickly, I think, if it had been that sort of question! It was a question to do with vocation – our calling as a fellowship in these days. What is the Lord’s specific call upon our life at this time? Does He have a purpose for us now as a distinct and local fellowship? And if we’re clear that He does, then what is that present call upon our life?
Why do we exist?
Or if we may turn the question round, and frame it in the terms by which the Lord Himself addressed His prophet Elijah – ‘What are You doing here, our Lord?’ Because, paraphrasing the perspective of Jesus Himself (John 5.19), we can do only what we see the Father doing. Our concern is simply to walk humbly with our God and to keep in step with the Spirit.
Why do we exist? What is the Lord doing in keeping us all in existence as a fellowship?
Any answer to the question will be framed by some key considerations. First, what I might call geography.
‘We are where we are’ has become one of the sometimes fatuous ‘tag-lines’ of our shrugging-the-shoulders submission to the lockdown life which these past many months have entailed. But in terms of the sheer geography of our on-going congregational life, it’s a vital and important starting point in our thinking through the question as to why we now exist.
We are where we are. In the centre of the city and fronting onto Union Street.
And purposefully so. The Lord Himself located us here: and some four years back He emphatically stated that this is where He means that we should be.
Do you remember that whole process by which the building came into our hands again? How we had effectively just a few short weeks to find the sum of £750,000 as the purchase price: how the challenge of raising such massive sums in such a compressed space of time seemed impossibly great – until we remembered He’d been hammering home to our hearts for weeks on end the stunning, remarkable truth that He is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or think: and how, as if to prove that point, on the day the money was due to be transferred, we had in our building account almost exactly the required amount, £754,000.
That peerless precision of God, both in the timing and in the amount, was surely no coincidence! It was meant to make clear that the purchase was His, and that He meant this body of twice-born believers to be, going forward, located right here where we are. We are where we are. Not out in suburbia. Not in the midst of a housing estate. Not in close proximity to ‘student-land’.
But here. Fronting onto Union Street. In the centre of town. And a centre whose whole geography, of course, has itself very markedly changed in the course of the last 15 months.
Whatever else plays into any answer to the question as to why exactly we exist, our location is certainly far from being an accident. The Lord has placed us where we are, and He clearly has a purpose in our being precisely there.
And that, in some ways, leads on to the second key consideration which informs our understanding of our ‘raison d’etre’. This second major factor is what I’ll term theology: that’s to say the careful application of the Word of God to our present situation, not least in terms of our perspective and the way in which we think the matter through.
We are, in God’s wise providence, in the centre of town. Geographically central. But we’re also as a fellowship, quite strikingly, central theologically as well across the spectrum of the many evangelical congregations which there are within and all around the city bounds. That’s one of the reasons why it’s here, at Gilc, that the monthly meeting of evangelical church leaders for prayer takes place: not only because it’s geographically central, but because we’re viewed, I think, as safe and solid common ground on which those more ‘extreme’ may comfortably meet (not that any would ever really view themselves, of course, as at all ‘extreme’). That certainly was a major reason why, a good two years ago and more, it was concluded that our premises provided just the sort of place to which this spread of evangelical leaders might all congregate.
And from that ‘central’ position it’s very much fallen to us to be the organizing driver of this vital regular event, ensuring that this monthly coming together does indeed take place. For different, but very understandable, reasons, we’ve found ourselves similarly playing no small part in initiating, organizing and developing the North East Scotland Gospel Training (NESGT).
Both that monthly meeting for prayer and the work of NESGT underline the crucial importance of thinking more in ‘kingdom’ terms than in any sort of ‘empire-building’ way. Let me try and explain what I mean by that.
Back then to the question. Why do we exist?
I don’t believe we’ll get any meaningful answer to that if we think of the ‘we’ in purely ‘Gilcomston’ terms. To think solely in terms of what we here at Gilcomston Church, what we can do, what we can and might and should be doing – that is surely to miss the point entirely.
That is simply ‘empire-building’, thinking in terms of how we might best be building ‘the empire of Gilc’. We’re conditioned by our culture and our history to think in just such terms: but it’s not a biblical perspective at all, nor one which true theology ever permits. It’s not the way God works. It’s not the plan God has. It’s not a stance He likes. It’s the ill-advised and misinformed perspective of a ‘We arra people’ mindset, whose roots go right back to Eden.
God calls us to His kingdom: and He calls us to a kingdom way of thinking and a kingdom way of life. We are (in the words of the song) to ‘hear the call of the kingdom.’ And that means a significant change of perspective.
It means not seeing ourselves as the body of Christ so much as a part of the body of Christ in the city of Aberdeen. It means our being intent on combining with others, who share our convictions and values, to reach every part of the city: and not (even deep in the secret subconscious) – not competing against them to see how much of the market we may manage to corner. It means asking, in answer to our older elder’s wise, perceptive question, what part do we have to play in the on-going work of the King and His kingdom here in Aberdeen.
I’m working hard at cultivating now precisely that perspective among these fellow leaders. This is surely the future. It thrills me no end to see this sort of outlook taking root – and to find ourselves caught up so very centrally in cultivating this: ‘gospel partnership’ far more than any mere denominational allegiance.
Perhaps we’re better placed to say that, now that we’re an ‘independent’ church. Except, of course, that no such thing as independence on the part of any local fellowship can ever well express the mind and way of working of our King! It’s the body-language lessons taught by Paul we need to be re-learning and applying to ourselves: the ‘many parts, one body’ sort of outlook which his letters always stress.
No single local fellowship can ever do it all. It wasn’t ever meant to work like that. But together we’re able, without our ever compromising basic, core convictions – together we’re able to share with others in the kingdom-spreading work which Jesus is continuing to do.
That sort of basic theology, as much as any geography, must inform the sort of answer which we give to that instructive question.
Why do we exist?
But history, too, is the third of these ‘triangulation points’ by which we get our bearings.
And I mean by that not only our own congregational story and the values which so well define just who we are (for these assuredly will help delineate, at least to some extent, the part-within-the-body which is ours): the simple A-C-T-S acronym by which we highlight clearly what our strengths, concerns and energies are all about has Attracting and Sending as the two great bookends of our corporate life, with the weighty business of Consolidating faith and Training for service as the central, core and fundamental foci of our work. That’s just how our history has shaped us.
But it isn’t to just our own congregational story that this third important ‘trig point’ bids us look: it’s to the history of our society, too, that we have to look. For our culture, and therefore our context as well, has changed. And that really quite dramatically.
To think things are pretty much just as they’ve always been is to launch ourselves down a series of dead-end paths. The revolution’s happened: and we need to wake up to its radical ramifications. Two in particular impinge on our life as Christ’s church.
The first (and I’ve only the space for this one just now) has to do with what gets called ‘epistemology’ (a jargon word for how we come to know things). We live in a ‘post-modern’ world, where a ‘post-modern’ way of looking at life pervades every facet of society. And an integral part of that outlook is the conviction that we only come to know things through experience: or, put differently, truth is always something felt not telt. Which is why, of course, to the post-modern mind there are no such things as ultimate, absolute truths – there’s simply your truth (what you experience), which may be different from mine.
Experience, in other words, is the ‘language’ people speak today, the channel down which (for our culture today) both knowledge and communication flow: people don’t think that some course of action is right – they now simply feel that it’s so (listen to the way that people speak). Experience, more than formal exposition, is what cuts the mustard today. Take a simple gospel truth like the welcome God extends to us in Christ: the finest exposition of that glorious truth will take no root in the soil of a post-modern heart if that soil has been hammered down and hardened, as they ventured into the building, by their experience of a singular lack of welcome at the door.
That’s the first major shift that’s taken place within society, one which impacts greatly how we go about our business and fulfil our basic calling as Christ’s church. Because we are, bottom-line, communicators. Called to proclaim Jesus Christ. Eager that people should come to the knowledge of God.
But how does ‘knowledge’ work today? How do post-modern people know anything? Like it or not, a corner’s been turned in the history of society and we need to see just how communication functions in this brave new world of today. It doesn’t mean the Scriptures aren’t expounded: it rather means we recognize experience as the front-door of the grand post-modern edifice which is society today.
Remember how Jesus upset the ancient apple-cart? ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them’. They experienced the gospel: and then, on the back of that, He expounded the gospel – and did so in a series of stories which sucked His hearers in to the experience of the gospel, and thereby helped them understand (because they got to feel it for themselves) the Father’s heart and helped them grasp and know His generous gospel grace.
Why do we exist? To make Jesus known. Simply stated! But the what and the where and the how of that are matters on which we’re constantly needing the Spirit’s continuing teaching! 2020 vision’s not enough – we need the wisdom and discernment which our Lord alone affords.
May He grant us such wisdom, and the boldness and grace to embrace every challenge these days will inevitably bring.
Yours in Christ Jesus our Lord,