Pyramids and Webs

By Neil Earle

Good morning, brethren.

This sermon could be called, Bearing Fruit in the Christian Life. Well, there is no doubt that God expects his people to be bearing fruit. There’s a whole series of Scriptures we could quote on that:

John 15:8 – This is to my Father’s glory, That you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.

John 15:16 – You did not choose me but I chose you, and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should remain.

John 15:2 – Every branch that bears fruit he prunes it that he may bring forth more fruit.

Colossians 1:10 – That you may have a walk worthy of the Lord fully pleasing in Him being fruitful in every good work.

Luke 8:15 – But the ones who fell on the good ground are those who having heard the Word with a noble and good heart keep it and bring forth fruit with patience.

Fruit Bearing Activities

Even in our old days as Radio Church of God and then Worldwide Church of God (1968-2009) we knew we had to be active in God’s service, to bear fruit. This led us to do some things no-one else had quite done in the same way. In fact, we got a reputation for chaos and indecision both inside and outside our church that was due in large measure to our pioneering efforts – that we were pushing the envelope in many diverse areas.

In the 1960 we were among the first big mailing operations to get into computers. We set it up so well that IBM sometimes used us as a paradigm for some of their customers. Really.

In the 1970s we published seven foreign language editions of the same magazine full color every month on five continents. Even Reader’s Digest could not do that. This won us many articles of praise in publishing and trade journals.

In the 1980s, faced with sky-high responses to our media work, we invented such things as a Wide Area Telephone System or WATS Line. This device, staffed by attendants and even when not, handled thousands of telephone calls for lit on a twenty-four hour basis. Yep, there we were. Pioneering. Innovating. Learning and relearning and making inevitable mistakes on the way.

In the 1990s in a converted gun shop on a sloping hill in Pasadena the Arbitron people (TV survey experts) handed us the title as the most listened to religious TV program in North America. And we used only a half-hour of power not the full hour of our closest emulator.

We were off-base in many of our teachings and approaches, of course, but the call to fruit-bearing effectiveness was there. Even some of our staunchest critics conceded that. We had the old pyramid style of operating which (to oversimplify) was a simple pyramid with HQ at the top telling everyone below in the organization what to do. This worked, however. Yes, it led to lots of abuses and our hard-working employees were not given the kind of pensions and retirement security most normal workers received but – in spite of the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants aspect of our approach – it worked.

The Modified Pyramid

Today we operate under a “new pyramid,” to coin a phrase. And if you envisage the top of the pyramid remaining as HQ you could put the Pastor in the left corner and the Congregation in the other corner. Today we have a “modified Episcopal” structure or more collegial approach in place. This means there is a church hierarchy of course but the pastor and local congregations have much more input into the running of the local churches. Power flows up and down along both sides of this softer gentle pyramid. The way we appoint new pastors illustrates that. In the past, HQ said we’re sending you Pastor Soandso and that was pretty much it.

Today, if a pastor wants to retire our Church Administration Department (CAD) lists an opening in Sasquatch, Saskatchewan and licensed GCI pastors may apply for that post. Then the new applicant visits the area, speaks and interacts with the congregation and the church members get to vote Yea or Nay. Wow. This is a striking departure from the past but seems to echo Acts 6 and the choosing of the first deacons much more closely than our previous approach. The casting of lots for Matthias in Acts 2 was also much more “democratic-seeming” than hierarchical.

And so it goes.

I’ve been saying since the 1990s that GCI has been moving from the Pyramid to the Net – the Internet. Not long ago our website attracted 87 congregations in Mozambique into our fold. They read about us on the web and checked us out doctrinally and liked what they saw. A similar thing happened in Nepal recently and in other parts of Africa. We have 14 affiliated churches in Bangladesh who are also linked with us through the Internet and the personal ministry of one GCI licensed elder. Recent events in Egypt show that the New Media of cell phones and twitter can be much more powerful than the old. Today our church is “wired” and communication along the web is faster than it ever was.

For Grace Communion International, and many others, the world is flat indeed.

Emmett Rushing greets seniors in San Dimas.

But as well as the switch from the Pyramid to the Net what do these changes mean? Two more things. Here they are.

Hierarchy to Giftedness

A second major change is the move from Hierarchy to Giftedness.

In the 1990s we heard a lot in our church about spiritual gifts and no-one can deny the Bible addresses this (1 Corinthians 12). We were not quite sure what all this meant at first but in the last ten years it became obvious that some of our people had the gift of teaching, of know-how about teaching people and of evangelism. In 2004 we were invited to operate a Sunday PM Service for a group of seniors in San Dimas. That has now grown into a regular twice-a-weekend preaching/teaching activity and the fruits have been tremendous. One of our elders has done more than 14 funerals for some of those dear folks and their friends and we all know what a powerful testimony an orderly well-preached funeral service can afford – for believers and unbelievers.

Then we expanded to a church plant in Rancho Cucamonga the same year, moved around the fabulous Inland Empire from Fontana to Rialto until finally settling this year into the Thursday night group we know as Grace Communion Church. Recently the 13 attendees at GCC were given certificates that thanked them for finishing the Discipleship Class designed by the Center for Church-Based Training in Richardson, Texas. This 48 lesson immersion in orthodox Christianity conducted over five years (yes!) has been used by the Holy Spirit to create a most fruitful lively and active church plant in a member’s home in Montclair.

The point is that neither our elders in San Dimas or the lady who hosts the house church in Montclair saw that coming fifteen, ten or even seven years ago. But come it did. 1 Corinthians 12:4 says we all have gifts that Jesus wants to use in his service and those gifts are as diverse and as special as the human family itself. Our members who survived the collapse of the Old Pyramid in the 1990s settled in quite well to the New Pyramid we operate under today. The Holy Spirit was in it after all. Praise God for that!

From High Profile to Hidden-Ness

In extremely hierarchical organizations a few people at the top run everything and the competition for rank or “position” makes musical chairs seem like a spelling bee. In the old WCG we knew all about that. But when people are encouraged to develop their talents along lines leading God-ward, things begin to change in your church. First, the pastor is backed up by HQ to teach sound doctrine and his teaching style changes from that of an orator to a coach (2 Timothy 2:2). The local leaders pick up on that and people get the confidence to do what so many of our folks have been doing lately – volunteering in the community, supporting what Wesley called “redemptive activities” advanced by such agencies as the firemen, police, teachers, schools, Kiwanis, Rotary, 4-H, meals on wheels, etc., etc. and etc. Jesus called it “letting your light shine.”

This is a win-win situation for everyone.

One of our Church Presidents used to say, “There’s no telling how far you’ll go if you don’t care who gets the credit.” Listen, when the former hit-man Paul showed up in Jerusalem after the most dramatic conversion in church history, the disciples were afraid of him (Acts 9). But God had a man there for such a time as this. Barnabas’ name meant Son of Encouragement and he could see things in Paul that everyone else missed. He especially knew the Holy Spirit could convert anyone – even a church-hater like Paul. Barnabas heard Paul out and made him welcome among the brethren (Acts 9:26). Barnabas was a hidden peacemaker, a quiet man, good seed hiding out in the field ready to sprout in God’s time (Mark 4:26-27). Barnabas popped forth when the time was ripe.

So today, Natalie Niebergal never dreamt five years ago she’d be hosting a church in her house. Marietta Grundy never imagined she’d be a song-leader three years ago. A month ago Al Neumann never dreamt a Catholic delegation would invite him as their guest speaker on Thanksgiving. The mutual building up of the body of Christ proceeds apace when “rank” is seen as an odor and people have prepared themselves and surrendered themselves as humble instruments of the Holy Spirit.

And so it goes. The New Pyramid is beginning to fit us in GCI just fine and the fruit being borne around the world is pretty tremendous. And God gets all the credit. The glory goes to him. He has tolerated us, forgiven us, corrected us and turned us around to join the rest of God’s people in the Great Commission. It doesn’t get any better than that.

(Neil Earle is senior pastor of New Covenant Fellowship in Glendora, CA.)