In a yearly review of our community life in The People of God community in Pittsburg, USA, our coordinators recognized that certain elements of our community life had weakened or slipped a bit. We discussed the situation in ways that identified a weakening of our overall vision, and for certain elements of our way of life, a loss of vision.
Proverbs 29:18a says, “Where there is no vision the people perish.”
The King James Version, Darby and Amplified translations use the word “vision.” But the New International Version translates the word “revelation”; and the New Life version translates the same word as “understanding.” All three words offer some insight, and whether we “perish” (King James Version), “run wild” (The Living Bible), or “cast off restraint,” it is clear that vision, understanding, and revelation have a lot to do with our long-term health, success, and good order. We need to hear, embrace, and protect the vision over the years. We need to periodically review our call and refurbish weakening elements.
Holes… The danger of holes
If there are “holes” or missing elements in our vision, revelation, or understanding, there will be a price to pay. The Lord mercifully protects us from our shortages and shortcomings as we develop, but he expects us to “get it” as he reveals elements that are necessary to grow and move on.
As a seventeen year old, I had a 1953 Kaiser automobile which had begun to burn oil. I decided to overhaul the engine (new rings, main bearings, rod bearings, etc.). It took longer than I thought and was a bit more expensive. Everything seemed to go well…until the last day of work, the day of “finishing touches.” A friend of mine, a football player, dropped in to see if he could help a bit. I let him tighten the head bolts, according to a certain order. I was a bit preoccupied with other parts when a “crack!” broke into the normal sounds of working. This young man was so strong that he broke one of the head bolts and a job that was nearly finished was suddenly set back seriously.
Now, there are ways to remove broken bolts, but this one broke deep and between two cylinders. To make a long story longer, it could not be fixed without a major outlay of cash and time. So, I decided to put everything together and see how important this one four-and-a-half-inch bolt was. I pretended that everything was in place. It worked fine for a while until the head gasket failed between the two cylinders. Then white smoke (water vapor) began to billow out of the tail pipe. I had always enjoyed skywriters, so I was initially amused. Driving my car became quite cumbersome with the need to add water on a regular basis. Things went downhill from there.
This single, small part in an engine weighing hundreds of pounds became increasingly problematic. Power was reduced, and the maintenance needed to keep the car running was becoming too bothersome.
The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried.G.K. Chesterton
So, too, with our vision, revelation, and understanding: “holes,” or missing parts, can be crucial for things to work well. More experienced groups and leaders can help us to recognize and repair flaws or weakened elements in our vision. In the Sword of the Spirit communities we have “visitations” every five years in which a team of leaders from other communities spends four or five days to review and make recommendations about our community life.
What is the Vision? What is Christian Community?
The following section presents elements that describe our life together. It will not be as much a definition as it is a set of beliefs that reveal some descriptive elements.
The following set of statements reveals not only our beliefs, but it also reveals a certain history of how the Lord has worked with us. There is a certain sequence to the revelation upon which our community life is based. Some of the elements are more certain than others, and some are more reflective of the particular call that we have in the Sword of the Spirit. These beliefs are not an official list or an “Apostle’s Creed,” but they do reveal a lot about who we are and what we value.
We believe in an encounter with Jesus Christ that results in a personal relationship with him. This has been the strong contribution of the evangelical movement which has breathed life into millions across all denominational lines.
We believe in the baptism of the Spirit and the charisms. These gifts are tools for building the Body, and are not given primarily for personal edification. This baptism in the Spirit has been the strong contribution of the charismatic renewal movement and it, too, has changed the lives of millions of people. Worship is life-filled and Spirit-filled as Christ ministers to His body through His disciples. We have seen what he meant when he said, “It is good for you that I go away for I will send my Spirit upon you” John 16:7 (paraphrase). We are a Pentecostal people.
We believe that Scripture is the word of God. For many of us, this has been a kind of conversion. Something spiritual has happened as we have become almost supernaturally aware of the Lord speaking to us through scripture.
We believe that life should be lived according to the Scriptures. Does the world need more Bible studies? Or does the world need Bible application groups where the life prescribed and described by God can be modeled for a world desperately in need of a better way? We could study difficult prophecies or mysterious scripture verses, or we could live life according to the word and the verses that we can easily understand.
We believe in ecumenism (again a “conversion” may be needed). Life on earth is to show forth the Lord’s kingdom and to get us ready for heaven. In heaven there will be Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, etc. Whatever seems to divide us here, we will be together there.
We believe in lay leadership. One of the main results of the charismatic renewal has been the raising up and empowering of the laity. The job before us is too large to fall just to the ordained. The work of the apostles, pastors, prophets, evangelists, and teachers is to equip the saints for the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:11-12).
We believe in evangelism. We can’t help but tell of the wonders that Christ has done for us and his Spirit has worked in us. It is a fruit of Pentecost.
We believe in spiritual warfare. We know that we have real enemies in Satan and his fallen angels. We believe they must be resisted personally and corporately. We don’t blame them for our acts or our weaknesses, but we must fight them vigorously when they attempt to exploit our flaws.
All of the elements mentioned so far were present in the early charismatic renewal. Its health has been somewhat dependent on accepting and protecting these “gifts” of the Spirit. For example, to reject ecumenism is to eliminate one of the main reasons for the modern day outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It is an affront to the Lord to say, “I don’t like that part!” Remember, he is getting us ready for heaven. As the various denominational expressions of the charismatic renewal have pulled back to “familiar” territory they have effectively eliminated one of the main works of God. This was meant to be a unifying work of God. Drawing back has led to a weakening of power, witness, and expression.
Elements for Developing Christian Communities
The next elements that were developed moved us beyond the charismatic renewal and toward the community movement.
We believe in covenant: covenant love, covenant relationships, committed relationships. When North American leadership groups began to talk about committed relationships, you could almost see the fear in our eyes. The Lord was planning to build something and as individualistic westerners we were commitment-phobic. We had quite a few independent ministries and big spirits.
We might view works of God as a three-stage rocket: The first stage has a lot of energy and makes a lot of noise, but it does not make the whole trip. Each stage is necessary. Each stage might think it’s the payload, but you might find yourself discarded into the ocean. (Note #1: first stages and tanks can be reclaimed and recycled). So what is the payload? What is the Lord really doing? What will last? (Note #2: payloads are often very small compared to the initial launch vehicle).
Covenant love is a blockbuster revelation about the nature of God and we get to model it! You may have heard the song that says, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.” What the world really needs now is God’s love, covenant love, which is faithful, reliable, and steadfast love.
Too many marriages are failing, having an unraveling effect on society. If our life together did nothing more than support covenant love in marriage, our investments of time and money would be well spent and pleasing to God.
We believe that the Father wants a family… a big one. This is big; it may be the (payload) focus of everything else we can mention. I think the use of the word “family” is key. All through the New Testament we see the use of the titles “brother” and “sister” (family). We see in John 14:23 “…we (Father and Jesus) will come to him and make our home with him” (family). Romans 8:29 (New International Version) says that Jesus is the “firstborn of many brothers” (family). We are being prepared for life in the eternal family of the Father, and we would do well to prepare as family for that life. It’s not primarily a battle between good and evil. It’s primarily about the Father reclaiming his family through the work of Christ.
Something More is Needed in Today’s Toxic Culture
We believe that something is wrong. Movements, communities, and even church splits are signs that people are searching. This is not meant so much to be a criticism of churches and denominations, but a statement about a reality of the modern condition. It is easy to criticize, but important, more difficult, and necessary to reflect on the modern reality.
We believe that more is needed. It is probably self-evident that the existence of movements and communities reflects the belief that something more is needed.
Recent surveys document the decline of religion in the US:
According to the Cultural Research Center worldview research, the number of U.S. adults who qualify as “Don’ts” (i.e. people who say they don’t know, don’t care, or don’t believe that God exists) has nearly tripled in the past decade, rising to 34% in 2021. Millennials (ages 18 to 36) are driving much of that shift, with 43% rejecting the existence of God.
The research found a corresponding decline in American’s overall confidence in religion. In the 1970’s, two-thirds of Americans reported a high degree of confidence in religion, a figure that fell to to barely four out of 10 adults today.
Specifically, the dramatic decline in Christian belief can be seen in four key spiritual indicators tracked by Barna and the CRC:
- Belief in the existence of God as the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the universe who still rules the world today:down from 86% in 1991 to 46% in 2021
- Belief that the Bible is the accurate and reliable word of God: 70% in 1991; 41% in 2021
- Belief that when they die, they will go to Heaven only because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior: 39% in 2011; 30% in 2021
- Adults possessing a biblical worldview: 12% in 1995; 6% in 2021
We believe that something more is needed in today’s toxic culture. If a radical pagan religion drives out all Christians, then that culture is toxic to Christianity. Modern culture is becoming increasingly toxic and hostile to Christianity. It can’t be “business as usual” for the church. If we observe the state of the Roman Catholic Church in Europe, we can see a revealing example: empty cathedrals, religion dropping in influence, and Christianity not thriving. The Holy Spirit has been responding by initiating various forms of movements and new communities. The witness and the existence of these new forms challenge the nature and the expressions of life in the Christian churches. These communities initiate and develop new forms and new approaches that complement the existing ones. These initiatives should not be just tolerated as curiosities or rejected as threats. They are, in many cases, true initiatives of the Holy Spirit and as such they should be received and celebrated as prophetic paradigms.
We believe that the Lord wants a people that he can direct. The first area affected is that of our everyday way of life. In addition to that, together we are often inspired to sponsor a certain concert, organize a week of healing services, or invite and welcome some key Christian teacher. These are just examples that illustrate the many kinds of events, hospitalities, and services that our local body has sponsored over the years. This responsive and nimble “waiting for instructions” is the kind of servant-body that our local community intends to develop. This is in fact one of the prophetic paradigms mentioned earlier. It might be our group serving the national Lutheran conference, or the Presbyterian one, or receiving out-of-state visitors into our homes as their children attend our summer camp. We always saw ourselves as a relational group, but the servant-group aspect was a later understanding of our life together.
We believe in the call to discipleship. The “great commission” of Matthew 28:18-20 is often quoted in regard to evangelism but it’s actually a direction with several parts:
- Go into all the world (It would not be limited to Israel or nearby regions.)
- Baptize them (Lead them and introduce them to the Lord.)
- Teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you (It would involve formation as well as evangelism).
Discipleship is initiated by a personal decision to accept the Lord Jesus and for formation in the spiritual life and in personal character. Discipleship is initiated by a personal decision to accept the Lord Jesus. Discipleship is developed by receiving formation in the spiritual life and personal character. Discipleship is lived out in relationship with other Christian disciples. People sometimes do well with environmental approaches, but often wrestle with the more personal pastoral care. For us, pastoral care is defined as the care given to individuals within a small group (most often men’s and women’s groups) by an older or more experienced Christian brother or sister, who meets with us personally to discuss our plans and concerns, as well as to assist with our decisions and approaches to life.
A helpful example is Tiger Woods, the greatest golfer in the world. Tiger Woods has a coach! Is the coach a better golfer? No. But the coach can often see things that Tiger can’t: little habits that he has developed, changes in his approach, and changes in his balance that are sapping his power. Similarly, any brother can be used by the Lord to help another brother. A mature brother-in-the-Lord can be even more helpful. The decision for discipleship is a lifelong one, but it changes in nature as we mature.
We believe that Christianity is relational. “And he said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:37).
Christianity is also doctrinal, institutional, behavioral, structural, sacramental, etc. This is another prophetic paradigm being presented by the Holy Spirit. Jesus said all the law and all the prophets depend on these two: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. If Christianity is just doctrinal, just institutional, etc., it runs the risk of losing its heart. When the heart is gone we lose the passion, the energy, and the commitment. The empty cathedrals are right around the corner as the next signal. Something more is needed and the Holy Spirit is revealing his answers.
We believe that covenant community is intentional relationships with the focus on building and being the kingdom of God together. Our activities and events together are designed to foster relationships.
We believe in the Scriptural roles of men and women. Specifically, we emphasize that men need to step up as husbands, fathers and heads of family: to “love their wives as Christ loved the church” and to “raise their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 5:23&25; 6:4).
We believe in family order: that the husband has a role; the wife has a role; the mother and father have a role together; and that the children are not to run the family (nor is their “schedule of activities” to dominate the family’s life).
We believe that daily personal prayer is integral to our life as a body. Our relationship with the Lord has everything to do with all that we hope for, hope to build, and hope to live for. Personal prayer is where we spend time with him, experience him, and make sense out of our lives. Daily prayer is one of our commitments.
We believe that the Lord calls families and not just individuals into community. We call this our trans-generational call or trans-generational community. We expect to have second and third generation members – and we do. That is not to say that all of our children will join the local community, but they will have the opportunity to join. We work at passing on the vision to the next generations. We see the vision that the Lord has given as valuable, as life-saving, and as life supporting (See chapter 12 on Transgenerational Approach).
We believe that the familial nature of the body needs to be restored to the church of Christ. Every group that endures over decades will have institutional aspects to its life: organization, policies, etc. Those same groups will have activities that express their nature. Covenant Christian communities have distinctive organizational elements, policies and activities. But, at the most fundamental levels, we are brothers and sisters in Christ, and members of the family of God.
We believe in the bulwark being built. The Lord has told us that we are being built into a bulwark. The work has begun in us and will continue as we grow in him. We are not just to be a shield against the toxic elements of modern culture, but we are to be an example of Christian culture that models his way of life. We are to be a network, a community of communities who live a common way of life.
We believe that we have been called and set in place by the Lord. We don’t see our life together as just the actions of men and women, but as something initiated by the Lord himself. I have heard it said that depression and despair are at epidemic levels in modern society. We believe that Christ and the way of life that he calls us into are answers to that epidemic. We personally and corporately do not have all the answers, but the Lord has answers and solutions to society’s dilemmas.
This article is adapted from Essays on Christian Community: Do Covenant Communities Have Something to Contribute to Our Models of Church, Chapter 2, © 2010, 2019 by Bob Tedesco, published by Credo House Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA. Used with permission.
Top photo credit: photo collage of community activities, © Living Bulwark / The Sword of the Spirit
Bob Tedesco is the founder of the People of God, a Sword of the Spirit community in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA where he served as Senior Coordinator for 26 years. He has been involved in lay ministry for over forty-five years, and has served as Regional President of the North American region in the Sword of the Spirit.