I’ve spent the last decade in church leadership in a quiet panic that I was missing something. Was there a strategy or a leadership tool that I hadn’t yet discovered that would unlock church growth, a deepening of the flock's walk with Jesus, and an explosion in evangelism?
I suspect there are more leaders like me. We know it’s all about the gospel and the local church, but we also wonder if there is an optimum way of arranging church programs and structures. I’ve seen church planters running to the literature and conferences with the furrowed brow of men burdened with the task of finding the secret key or method for growth that Jesus locked away somewhere in the New Testament.
I’m not against strategies and tools. But what I’ve learned in the last few years is that Jesus hasn’t hidden anything from us. He is not at the Father’s side hoping we are clever enough to unlock the mystery of a healthy church. The person and work of Christ is the key to the healthy church, because He is the gospel.
Beyond elder-led congregations you won’t find a strategy in Paul’s letters beyond teaching the church how Jesus is our life, death, and resurrection. Paul’s pastoral and missional, all purpose key, was to remind Christians how, through faith, we have died with Christ, been raised with Christ, and now are seated with Christ on high.
For example, in the letter to the Colossians, chapter 1:15-23, Paul gives a struggling church a dose of high Christology to sort out an identity crisis. The Colossian church was trapped between mystical Judaism on the one hand and the Caesar cult of Rome on the other. They were under pressure to culturally conform. In 1:15-23, Paul points them to Jesus as the true Adam, the true image bearer (v15), the creator God (v16-17), whose death and resurrection reconciles all of creation to himself (vs18-20).
Jesus didn’t do the gospel; Jesus is the gospel. Jesus is our crucified, raised and acceptable head of the family; the first born from among the dead, whose physical body has reconciled us and made us acceptable before him (1:22). Paul goes on to say, by faith we have died and been raised with Christ (Colossians 2:12-13).
Then Paul applies our Union with Christ to practical issues. Jesus death means we have died to the principles of this world that drive false religion (2:20-23). His resurrection means we have been raised to new life and so moral change is now part of our new identity (3:1-11). As a people who have died and been raised with Christ we, together, are his chosen ones, holy and loved (3:12). In other words, the church is formed and held in relationship with God and each other, by the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus.
Our local, little band of believers, finds its purpose, energy, foundation and sustenance, in the objective truths of the person and work of Jesus.
Paul’s pastoral key is to remind people of the facts of the gospel and how, by faith, they are woven into them. What is true of Jesus in his humanity is counted as true for us.
It seems to me that Paul pulls out this key to manage both pastoral and missional problems. In Romans 6 he deploys this key, to tackle sin in the life of a believer. In Colossians he manages problems of contextualization and false religion. It even shapes his self-understanding (Galatians 2:20)
As leaders grasp our own union with Christ, our furrowed brows lift, and our burden is lightened. The church rests on the finished work of Christ and his ongoing relationship with the Father for us. Strategies and structures are useful tools but there is no secret plan, that we tell ourselves others have, but we are missing. Jesus calls us to look at him.
Spiritual life will deepen when we let the word about the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ, dwell among us richly (Colossians 3:16). Christians will find the power for change when they discover they have died to slavery to sin, and have been raised slaves of righteousness (Romans 6:10-11). Evangelism will increase when fears are quelled by the truth that we are impervious to threats of rejection or even death because our lives are hidden safe with Christ on high (Colossians 3:1-3). The church will experience a closer community when we realize that in Christ we, together are blood purchased chosen ones, holy and loved (Colossians 3:12).
So here is my new strategy for strategies. I call it the IDRA key. It’s what helps me decide what other strategies and programs will best serve the deployment of the IDRA key. What is it? IDRA stands for:
I now ask, how can what we do as a church, rely on, enjoy and point believers and unbelievers to the offer of union with the incarnate, dead then raised and now ascended Christ?
As a leader, it starts with enjoying the key myself. And resting from the pursuit of the ministerial silver bullet.