Out of the Flock, Into the Fold

Out of the Fold, Into the Flock, a Sermon by Pastor Neil Silverberg

What’s the difference between a flock and fold? Why does it matter? Read more to find out.

hmm

Although I had intended this to be a two-part series, it turns out I need to write a part three. Here’s why. In conversation, sometimes I wish I could snatch my words out of the air, because they don’t come out right. What’s in my head doesn’t match what I speak.

edit

Fortunately, writing affords the opportunity to delete or edit, so that most of the time what appears on the page accurately represents my views. However, once I hit “Publish,” the words on the page become almost as inaccessible as the words in the air.

sad

When my husband came home from work, the first thing out of his mouth was, “What’s wrong?” Is it that apparent when I am troubled? I guess so. I explained that the final paragraph of my blog post was an ugly mess. I communicated the wrong message. I screwed up.

fix

“Can’t you just edit it?” he asked. Technically, I could just edit the post. I regularly edit typos, fix broken links, or maybe a few words. But rewriting a whole paragraph in response to a comment? To me, that would be “spiritual police” type of behavior. I don’t want to have that kind of power.

preacher

In times like this, I can sympathize with pastors. A message, once delivered, can’t be undelivered. However, a pastor can always preach another sermon to address what went wrong in the previous one. I don’t recall actually witnessing such a thing, but I’m sure it happens.

analogy

Before I can get into dissecting the final paragraph of the previous post, I need to define terms. Why? Because the meaning of fold can change, depending on the analogy. And in the case of my poor choice of words, I failed to define terms, resulting in an inaccurate analogy.

good

Let’s look at the word “fold.” First, there’s the literal meaning, a place where shepherds keep the flock at night to protect the flock from wild animals or thieves. The word carries no negative connotation used in the literal sense. It is a place of safety that is convenient for the shepherd and benefits the sheep.

lamb

The prophet Ezekiel (34:14) communicates what he hears God say about His flock and the fold (a spiritual analogy): “I will feed them with good pasture; and on the mountains of the height of Israel shall their fold be: there shall they lie down in a good fold; and on fat pasture shall they feed on the mountains of Israel.”

thief

In John 10, Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber.” In this context, the fold is not a literal but a spiritual fold, and it shares Ezekiel’s meaning.

Jesus

Jesus identifies himself with the fold, giving it new allegorical meaning when he says, “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.” And He takes it a step further, saying, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep.” By this we understand that it is through Christ that people are called out of the fold, and He is their protection, ensuring there is freedom to find pasture.

Blind

While the blind man was still blind, the religious leaders did not consider him a threat to their system of law and tradition. Once the blind man was healed by a “lawbreaker,” they had to choose: reexamine law and tradition or take aggressive action against both Jesus and the blind man.

Miracle

The apostle John explains how the presence of the formerly blind man becomes a threat to the religious system: “Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man [Jesus] is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.’ But others asked, ‘How can a sinner perform such signs?’ So they were divided.”

Judaic Law

Some of the Pharisees were not willing to consider whether Jesus came from God. Why? Because Jesus did not conform to their system. Although some asked, “How can a sinner perform such signs?” within the context of the system, this legitimate question was irrelevant.

Temple

We know from the rest of the story that those who believed in the system most were the ones who had the final say. They labeled the blind man “sinner” and gave him the left foot of fellowship. Consequently, this is how Silverberg assigns a negative meaning to the word fold.

Silverberg 2

In Silverberg’s sermon, he actually assigns two meanings to fold, using two different analogies. The first is negative: “facades,” “phoniness of religion,” “the Judaism of [Jesus’] day,” and Jesus is “is not putting people in the fold,” but “calling them out of the fold of religion to be part of the flock.”

Silverberg

The second analogy is positive: “I believe what we are doing here, this morning, in this fold, is vital, important, and should continue. I believe worshipping together, Lord’s Day worship, hearing the Word of God, I believe these things are essential.” Where “little flocks come together,” Silverberg sees a fold.

Silverberg 3

Silverberg’s second analogy isn’t as positive as he thinks. It’s actually a mix of both positive and negative. Why? Because institutional church is a system designed to keep the flock together and offer spiritual protection. Unfortunately, it can and often does replace the meaning Christ assigns to the fold.

me

Now, I’ll attempt to make clear how I see the flock and fold. I view neither the flock nor the fold in a physical, geographical sense. The terms are concepts, like the spiritual realm of light and darkness. The gathering of believers has spiritual relevance, but where/when that gathering happens should be, for the most part, spiritually irrelevant.

believers

These are believers. Their fold is the love of Christ. They have differences in beliefs, but understand Christ provides salvation and freedom to find green pasture. Some of them regularly attend a local weekly gathering of believers at a set location. Those who attend still feel a sense of community with those who don’t. They also feel a sense of community with believers in the fold described below.

fold

These are also believers. Their fold has walls made of particular beliefs and practices. Most of them believe that regularly attending a local weekly gathering of believers at a set location is a form of spiritual protection, and rely on that weekly gathering for spiritual nourishment. They eye with suspicion anyone who does not stay within their fold of prescribed beliefs and practices. Sometimes they refuse to include such people in their community, although they usually will permit such people to attend gatherings if they keep quiet about what they believe.

Building or Fold?

Pop Quiz: The church is ___.
A. a place where believers gather
B. believers characterized by the love of Christ
C. believers whose gatherings are strictly defined by particular beliefs and practices

difference

The church is believers getting together and interacting with one another, including both B and C. It’s not about the location where this interaction happens, although if believers happen to meet regularly at specific times and in particular places, the place can become very closely associated with the gathering itself. To further complicate matters, the gathering can become strictly defined by a standard/required set of beliefs. This is how the distinction between B and C comes about.

Temple

Pop Quiz: The INSTITUTIONAL church is ___.
A. a place where believers gather
B. believers characterized by the love of Christ
C. believers whose gatherings are defined by particular beliefs and practices

fold

This is a trick question, and none of the answers provided are accurate. The institutional church is NOT PEOPLE. Technically, it’s not even a place (although it’s so closely associated with place that people, myself included, reference it as a place). The institutional church is a state of mind induced by an organized hierarchical system. It is a fold with walls made of particular beliefs and practices. In this image, notice the people are standing on the system. Even when these believers are not “at church” (if we must misuse that word), they are still fenced in by the system when it comes to how they relate to other believers.

I hope that this will help clarify what was going on in my head late Sunday night (early Monday morning, actually) in the previous blog post.

When I wrote, “Life in the fold is like playing pretend church,” I was referring to the fold of a system of beliefs and practices mentioned above and the negative use of fold that Silverberg uses. I was not referring to weekly gatherings of believers, rather I was referring to how those weekly gatherings are so often influenced by the system.

When I wrote, “What God does outside the walls in and through believers is real church,” I was not referring to the physical walls of the gathering place, I was referring to the walls (or fold, in the negative sense) that the system constructs around the believers. What God does outside the walls of the system can include what He does within the physical walls of the gathering places — anything from a sense of community, worship, praying, etc., and ministries birthed during weekly gatherings in “church” buildings, such as helping the poor, like FBCU’s Crisis Center or Off the Trail Missions or providing shelter, like The Ruth House.

When I wrote, “It’s not safe, according to orthodoxy, because there are no fences to keep believers together,” I was referring to the fold in the positive sense not being safe, according to orthodoxy, that is, the fold where Jesus, not a set of doctrines, provides protection and the freedom to find green pasture. That’s why I immediately followed up with, “Just follow the Shepherd. Trust that He knows how to keep the flock together.” We can be united in His love, despite differences in beliefs. This is totally different than being united as “members” of a system with a list of beliefs. For example, someone might not believe in the virgin birth, but believes Jesus came from God, nonetheless. Likely, this person will not be included in the membership roles of an institutional church with “virgin birth” in the statement of faith. (I believe in the virgin birth, BTW. I think that if Jesus were born of Joseph, it raises a slew of theological problems. I’m just throwing that out there as an example.) The same could be said of one who is perfectly content that he was sprinkled rather than dunked (baptism). I could go on… In the flock, there is no such thing as withholding membership, because Jesus is the One Who decides whether a sheep belongs to His flock. In the institutional church system, however, belief-opposing views can automatically exclude the one who holds them from the “member” community. I’ve even seen in church staff meetings the distinction made between “member” congregation and “attender” congregation, so that the system can have the appearance of being inclusive while remaining exclusive. The attender congregation is considered unfit for certain responsibilities or ministries, like the appendix of the body of Christ, there, but as a non-functioning part.

I wrote, “You may have been wounded in the institutional church.” The system itself can wound people, but most wounds are inflicted by people who have been or are themselves being wounded by the system.

I wrote, “If you stay in the fold or return to it, you’ll probably be wounded again.” I’m not saying “stop going to church (again, I misuse the word church here).” What I am saying is that the system creates opportunities for pointless friction among believers as they gather together. Some friction is good and beneficial, because we learn how to relate to one another through trial and error. But there’s a different kind of friction created by the system. Good and beneficial friction is resolved, and usually within a short period of time. In contrast, when a believer in the fold wrongs a believer in the flock based on doctrinal differences or practices, the justification for the behavior is based on a standard (like a What We Believe list, membership requirements, etc.) that either does not change, or changes hundreds of years later (like the Southern Baptists denouncing slavery), long after anyone involved in the friction is dead. Let me put it like this. If you take a wire brush to the skin of your arm, your arm will be irritated, but it will heal within a few days. If you take a wire brush to the skin of your arm EVERY DAY for the rest of your life, you might end up dying prematurely from infection, because the wound won’t heal being exposed to continuous friction. Forgiveness is a way of escape. The oppressed believer can forgive, heal, and move on. The oppressor, however, with each act of system-required aggressive control and each self-righteous justification of his actions, just keeps rubbing his arm with that wire brush. The friction remains. And it gets worse over time.

I wrote, “Sheep in the fold will often bite each other.” The same principle applies here as in the previous paragraph. The fold (in the negative sense) is a spiritual fence or spiritual walls that surround a believer no matter where that believer goes. In other words, I’m not talking about “people who go to church” being in the habit of biting each other versus “people who don’t go to church” being in the habit of not biting each other. I’m talking about believers who trust a system to tell them how to relate to other believers inadvertently causing unnecessary friction within both the regular gatherings of believers and the informal, organic, social gatherings of believers.

I wrote, “We weren’t created to spend our lives as believers in the fold. Get out of the fold and into the flock. The Shepherd can heal your wounds. Sheep in the flock don’t make a habit of biting each other.” In the flock (please refer to description that accompanies the image of believers around the world above for clarity of how I view the “flock”), the safety and sense of community and belonging transcend the system. Believers in the flock still experience friction, but it isn’t the kind of unresolvable friction that plagues believers in the fold (please refer to the description that accompanies the image of the believers standing on the system for a definition of how the word “fold” is used here). The Shepherd can heal the wounds of someone injured in this fold, even if that person remains a “member” of the fold. There’s a difference between being a member on paper and allowing the membership credentials to define relationships with other believers. If God calls a believer to continue gathering at a certain place and time with the sheep (both B and C) that show up there, and to remain in-but-not-of the system, God will also provide the supernatural grace he/she needs to forgive and heal from injuries that inevitably accompany the fold-system.

There is much more to say about all of this, but I’ll save it for a review of Silverberg’s book, From the Fold to the Flock: Entering the Freedom of True Church Life (thanks, Silverberg, for sending me a copy).

Before I sign off on this blog post, though, I would like to share the remainder of what Ezekiel says about the Israel-flock and fold. Perhaps some of it is applicable in modern times:

…listen to what God has to say: “Watch out! I’m coming down on the shepherds and taking my sheep back. They’re fired as shepherds of my sheep. No more shepherds who just feed themselves! I’ll rescue my sheep from their greed. They’re not going to feed off my sheep any longer!”

God, the Master, says: “From now on, I myself am the shepherd. I’m going looking for them. As shepherds go after their flocks when they get scattered, I’m going after my sheep. I’ll rescue them from all the places they’ve been scattered to in the storms. I’ll bring them back from foreign peoples, gather them from foreign countries, and bring them back to their home country. I’ll feed them on the mountains of Israel, along the streams, among their own people. I’ll lead them into lush pasture so they can roam the mountain pastures of Israel, graze at leisure, feed in the rich pastures on the mountains of Israel. And I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep. I myself will make sure they get plenty of rest. I’ll go after the lost, I’ll collect the strays, I’ll doctor the injured, I’ll build up the weak ones and oversee the strong ones so they’re not exploited.

And as for you, my dear flock, I’m stepping in and judging between one sheep and another, between rams and goats. Aren’t you satisfied to feed in good pasture without taking over the whole place? Can’t you be satisfied to drink from the clear stream without muddying the water with your feet? Why do the rest of my sheep have to make do with grass that’s trampled down and water that’s been muddied?”

Therefore, God, the Master, says: “I myself am stepping in and making things right between the plump sheep and the skinny sheep. Because you forced your way with shoulder and rump and butted at all the weaker animals with your horns till you scattered them all over the hills, I’ll come in and save my dear flock, no longer let them be pushed around. I’ll step in and set things right between one sheep and another.

I’ll appoint one shepherd over them all: my servant David. He’ll feed them. He’ll be their shepherd. And I, God, will be their God. My servant David will be their prince. I, God, have spoken.

I’ll make a covenant of peace with them. I’ll banish fierce animals from the country so the sheep can live safely in the wilderness and sleep in the forest. I’ll make them and everything around my hill a blessing. I’ll send down plenty of rain in season—showers of blessing! The trees in the orchards will bear fruit, the ground will produce, they’ll feel content and safe on their land, and they’ll realize that I am God when I break them out of their slavery and rescue them from their slave masters.

No longer will they be exploited by outsiders and ravaged by fierce beasts. They’ll live safe and sound, fearless and free. I’ll give them rich gardens, lavish in vegetables—no more living half-starved, no longer taunted by outsiders.

They’ll know, beyond doubting, that I, God, am their God, that I’m with them and that they, the people Israel, are my people.”

Decree of God, the Master: “You are my dear flock, the flock of my pasture, my human flock, and I am your God.”

Decree of God, the Master.

Bigger Fences for the Fold

This is a critical analysis (part two of two) of the sermon, Out of the Fold, Into the Flock, based on John 9-10, by Neil Silverberg, Senior Pastor and Lead Elder at Trinity Chapel in Knoxville, TN. Last week I postponed expounding on a few ideas in a blog post with the same name as the sermon title, Out of the Fold, Into the Flock, which I’d like to cover this week. I wrote,

Although I don’t see a larger meeting serving to support small groups… I definitely agree with the idea that big church doesn’t foster community the way small groups do.

Big Church is Like Big Business

With secular (I hate that word) businesses or special interests, large conferences or conventions often have keynote speakers who introduce and expound on the main subject or theme, and then attendees meet in smaller groups called breakout sessions, which are more conducive to discussion. Much of the brainstorming and networking at conferences takes place before, during, and after these breakout sessions.

Big group and small group meetings in the institutional church resemble this model, only small groups may or may not discuss the sermon, and some small groups meet prior to the sermon or during the week.

In The Failure of the Megachurch by Tim Suttle, he writes,

Mega-church size insulates the body from the natural pains and tensions which keep it healthy. Pain is good, even in the church. Pain forces a community and its leaders to grow deeper and more mature…

Mega-church size inhibits diversity… Leadership must grow from within the neighborhood. It cannot be imported from another context because no two contexts are alike…

Mega-church size exploits the mega-church pastor. The mega-church pastor becomes like the liver of an alcoholic body. The anxiety, pressure, and stress generated by the mega-church is not shared by the typical member but is focused primarily upon the pastor… So the church resorts to dialysis. They give the pastor a year off to try and get healthy again. Or they do a transplant and replace the pastor altogether, only to have the problem recur some years later…

Although I don’t agree with Suttle’s proposed solution to the problem, I do think he correctly identifies some of the problems associated with big church. And when I say big church, I’m talking about any institutional church. In addition, I’d like to point out that as soon as a pastor signs the dotted line, he agrees to be a part of the system that will exploit him, just as visitors agree to be exploited by the system when they become members.

Suttle proposes groups of 200-400 as “small, healthy and vibrant communities” that are “natural and organic,” but to me, this is just a smaller, more manageable version of the same problem.

Wouldn’t it be better to get rid of the problem altogether?

In the first blog Out of the Fold, Into the Flock, I wrote,

Basically, a fold is a place that keeps sheep together. In contrast, a flock is kept together by the shepherd himself. I found this most excellent blog on the subject, Listen Up Sheep: The Fold vs the Flock, if you’d like to read more about this beautiful, radical concept that believers in the institutional church have yet to grasp.

Even Silverberg, who preaches about it, doesn’t get it.

He even sees where he’s gone wrong in the past, building folds for the flock. The crux of his blindness in this matter is in his assumption that he is no longer making the same mistakes, as is evidenced in the remainder of his sermon…

The model Silverberg describes will become evident as we continue. Silverberg says,

Most of us have grown up in church life that probably more resembles folds than flocks. We define our church by its walls, by the perimeters in which we bring people in.

And let me be the first one to say, we gather on Sunday. We are presently, in our church, we’re in two locations on the Lord’s Day. We are building that way intentionally, because God has called us to be a missional people, and for the last three years He was speaking to us to decentralize and multiply. And so we took one larger church, and we now have two locations. We’re working on, Lord willing, the first quarter or first half of 2015 having a third location. And we began to look at our city, which is pretty spread out, Knoxville and the environs of the city, and we said, do we want to invite people to come to us, or are we called to go them? And I don’t believe this is a call for everybody, this is just the way God gave us to flesh out our community, and we took our house churches, which are the basis of everything we do, and we said, when we have three to five house churches in a region, we will have a community church.

We meet in three ways: house church, community church, which is what we call our Sunday Gatherings in various regions, and our City Church, where we bring together once a quarter all of our sites. We only have two now. We are working on a third. Our vision is to be a flock spread out throughout the city of Knoxville and its environs.

Decentralize and Multiply

Some people may be wondering what could possibly be wrong with this concept. First notice the call to decentralize. And then notice Silverberg’s centralization: “We meet in three ways: house church, community church, which is what we call our Sunday Gatherings in various regions, and our City Church, where we bring together once a quarter all of our sites.” Silverberg doesn’t recognize this as centralization, but that’s exactly what it is.

Second, notice the call to multiply. Although multiplication can and probably will take place, this multiplication takes place within the context of a centralized system, or fold. So it’s not so much multiplication of a flock as it is enlargement of a fold. The fold is the City Church, under Silverberg’s leadership (I assume). In contrast, consider how Silverberg defined a flock earlier in his sermon:

You get the picture, that sheep are not supposed to spend their lives in folds. And though the folds provide an aura of protection, sheep are not sheep until they leave the protection of the walls of the fold, and go out on the mountain tracks with the only protection being that they’re listening and following their Shepherd. Are you with me?

Silverberg admits to having a megachurch mentality at one point in time:

That wasn’t always my vision. I always envisioned having the biggest fold in town, so big that I bussed people from the other side of town to our fold. And God began to mess with my theology many years ago. And again, I don’t believe that this is the only way to build. There’s a principle here I want to get to, and He began to say, I don’t want you to build a large, huge fold, I want you to build flocks that are scattered throughout our region.

Out of the Big Fold, into One of the Little Folds

Unfortunately, although Silverberg’s intentions are good, the system he plans to implement will not accomplish the purpose God has given him. Why? Just because there may no longer be a need to bus people from the other side of town to the fold, this doesn’t mean Silverberg is creating scattered flocks, he’s simply enlarging the boundary of the fold to the other side of town. The fence is still there. The sheep are still within the fence. Remember, a fold is a place that keeps sheep together. In contrast, the flock is kept together by the Shepherd. In the City Church, Silverberg is the shepherd and the system, including the vision, values, statement of beliefs, leadership & staff, and Master Builders affiliation, and six week membership Starting Point class keeps the sheep together. Silverberg’s sermon should be entitled Out of the Big Fold, into One of the Little Folds.

Big Church is a hard habit to break.

Based on this sermon, Silverberg is not willing to do the one thing that would really help accomplish the vision God has given him — to give up the dream of the large, huge fold, and trade it in for scattered flocks. I would explain what that one thing is, except Silverberg’s own words, spoken within a fold during a big church Sunday morning service, can do the explaining for me:

And I believe that one of the most important things about this picture is it brings into scope the importance of small group ministry. I believe what we are doing here, this morning, in this fold, is vital, important, and should continue. I believe worshipping together, Lord’s Day worship, hearing the Word of God, I believe these things are essential. We have not abandoned them and as far as I can tell, we don’t intend to abandon them.

I wonder why it is that pastors and church leaders have such a hard time wrapping their brains around the idea that when believers leave (or get kicked out of) the fold, we aren’t eliminating worshipping together and hearing the Word of God. It’s not as if the body of Christ vanishes if we no longer do the big church thing.

Just last night, worshipping together and hearing the Word of God took place in my life beside a back yard bon fire and in songs like Amazing Grace, My Redeemer Lives, and Living Hallelujah. (It’s probably worth mentioning here that although I spent over a decade on a worship team at FBCU and NPF, and although I am a believer and part of the flock, there’s no way Whistling Pines leadership would allow me to sing in their fold even if I were a regular attender. Of course, any of them can feel free to explain why in the comment section below or even write a guest blog, which I will gladly publish in full and unedited, but that would draw attention to the belief-opposing information on this website. For more on how opinion management and information management in the church works, read Driscoll, Mars Hill, and Why the Problem is Much Bigger than One Church.)

Every church could close its doors tomorrow, and the body of Christ would remain alive and well in the world.

Yet, Silverberg, in some sense, seems to understand:

But I don’t think small groups are just a sort of little offshoot, nice if you get to one, I believe that we were created… because here’s the thing. Sheep have two responsibilities when they are outside the protection of the fold. The only protections they really have is listening to the Shepherd, and then being part of the flock and staying connected to the flock. So in our context, house churches are vital.

Two Visions of the Church

Like McCracken wavering between law and grace in Ancient Landmarks, Silverberg oscillates between two visions of the church — the idea that the church (flock) is simply believers doing life together, following the Shepherd, and the idea that the church (fold) is believers going somewhere to get fed by a shepherd. At the beginning of his sermon, I did not see this oscillation. It wasn’t until Silverberg began the application portion of his sermon that the oscillation began. First, the fold:

But most people grew up thinking, real church happens in a building at ten o’clock on Sunday, and that’s where the real church happens, because that’s where I get fed. And I think there’s an important component to that, and it should be the place where we get fed, but we go out of this fold after two hours…

Then the flock:

…and we’re meant to manifest the flock throughout Umatilla, and Lake County, and the surrounding areas.

Because Jesus goes on to say this, “Other sheep I have which are not of this fold and I will take them and they will be one flock.”

So, the heart of the Lord, in scattering his flock throughout the area is He has other sheep that He is calling to Himself, and He wants us to find them.

Then the fold:

Now, I don’t know what it’s like here, but increasingly, even in the most religious town, one of the most religious towns recently, Knoxville was voted the most Bible literate area in the country. More people per capita are reading their Bible in Knoxville, apparently, than anywhere in the country. You wouldn’t know it, because the same statistics revealed later that only nineteen percent, and we’re in the Bible Belt, folks, but about nineteen percent are really committed to local churches on a weekly basis, which blew my mind.

And we’re meeting people more and more who got burned out on church — got hurt. I like when people tell me they got hurt, I’ll say, I’ll swap stories with you. I’ve got a few hurt stories.

But think of the church, think of this as the fold meeting, where little flocks come together…

Then the flock:

…and where everybody is part of a small group expression, where you don’t just attend to learn the Bible, but where small groups are where community and discipleship and mission occur, where you sink yourselves in other’s lives. And one of the keys about this is you have to be honest with the Lord about your fears of letting sheep in your life, because we all have them.

And so on…

Most High God doesn’t live in a building.

Now, this next bit, I could probably write an entire blog series on this, but I won’t. But I will cite Stephen’s words the Sanhedrin, just before he was stoned to death:

And all this time our ancestors had a tent shrine for true worship, made to the exact specifications God provided Moses. They had it with them as they followed Joshua, when God cleared the land of pagans, and still had it right down to the time of David. David asked God for a permanent place for worship. But Solomon built it. Yet that doesn’t mean that Most High God lives in a building made by carpenters and masons. The prophet Isaiah put it well when he wrote, “‘Heaven is my throne room; I rest my feet on earth; So what kind of house will you build me?’ says God. ‘Where I can get away and relax? It’s already built, and I built it.'”

And you continue, so bullheaded! Calluses on your hearts, flaps on your ears! Deliberately ignoring the Holy Spirit, you’re just like your ancestors. Was there ever a prophet who didn’t get the same treatment? Your ancestors killed anyone who dared talk about the coming of the Just One. And you’ve kept up the family tradition—traitors and murderers, all of you. You had God’s Law handed to you by angels—gift-wrapped!—and you squandered it!

Believers are the house of the Lord, so why would we see a church (a building and an ordered system) as the house of the Lord? Silverberg understands this, yet he refers to Jerusalem in Psalm 122 as a pattern for how believers function together:

You know, I read Psalm 122 once, and I think it’s God’s pattern and how He builds us together. First it said, “I was glad when they said let us go to the house of the Lord.” So, you join a church. Oh, it’s great to be here. Sunday mornings. I love this church. I love Shawn’s preaching. I love Scott’s teaching. I love… Oh, it’s great.

And then the middle of the Psalm says, “Jerusalem is built as a city that is compact together. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”

Guess why you have to pray for the peace?

Jesus said of Jerusalem,

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Here we are, two thousand years later, and Jerusalem (believers held together by the fence of religious tradition) are still stoning the prophets, kicking out the formerly blind, and have yet to say “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Trust is earned.

Silverberg continues,

You start getting closer. You know, and the first phase of joining a church is called superficial. We all start that way. When you walked in the door and Shawn said, “Hello. How are you? Who are you?” You didn’t say, “Hi. I’m Bob. I’m deep in bondage.” Maybe you did, but most of us didn’t. You said, “I’m Bob. I’m fine.” But then you joined a small group, and we saw the way you treat your kids or your wife or your husband, and we began to realize you’re deep in bondage.

That doesn’t come out when you’re staring at the back of someone’s head for an hour and a half and that’s the extent of church life you enjoy. It’s when you’re compact together and you’re joined to community and people begin to see your lack of patience or your anger or your fear. We’ve had people open up in house churches, you know, and you see this sister, and you think, oh, she’s got it together, and she begins to tell a story of the house she came out of and the family life and it’s… you can’t believe it! But that would never have happened on a Sunday morning. It’s when you’re in the flock and you’re joined to others.

And then the third level (superficial, the middle is rubbing) and then God wants to bring everybody in church at Whistling Pines into this third level of relationship, bonding.

Here’s how the Psalm ends. For the sake of the house of the Lord your God, I will seek your good. God saw fit in the whole planet to put me in Knoxville and put me in John Hefner’s life and we’re walking together…

Again, the concepts here are excellent, but within the context of “joining a church” or “joining a small group” (which is really just joining the church on a deeper level), the genuine community-building Silverberg envisions is hindered. We must remember that trust is earned, and this happens best organically, in regular life, outside of the context of a Life Group or small group or whatever you want to call it. Put yourself in the shoes of the seeker, who can choose between trusting believers who are members of an institution and want them to also become members of the institution or trusting individual believers who don’t care whether they ever join an institution.

Take the institution out of the equation. You’ll be amazed at the doors the Spirit of God opens.

Silverberg says,

It’s the reality of rubbing together that brings you into a bonded relationship…

The thing that excites me about our house churches being spread out is the missional potential. “Other sheep I have which are not of this fold, I must bring them also, and they will listen to me, so there will be one flock, one Shepherd.” [Jesus says.] It’s amazing to me how Jesus portrays the flock outside of the confines of the fold, and He will refer to thousands of believers as a little flock.

I just don’t understand how Silverberg can see the beauty of the Shepherd leading His flock and simultaneously want to play the part of a shepherd bringing sheep into the fold. It boggles my mind.

I don’t think we need to go back to this…

Silverberg brings up a very interesting point,

I don’t think we need to go back to this, intentionally doing anything, but consider the first three hundred years of the church on this planet. There were no known buildings called churches, just groups of believers meeting in homes. One of the reasons for the spread of the early church according to Michael Green in his excellent book, Evangelism in the Early Church, he said, was house churches. Do you know why? Because he said house churches afforded an opportunity for Romans to see the Christian family on display. And in a disintegrating culture, where marriage was disintegrating, and that was Rome, they could see the Christian family on display.

The most interesting part of what he says is, “I don’t think we need to go back to this, intentionally doing anything…” But why not? Why should we not learn from the mistakes we have made over the centuries? Why should we not completely do away with our little kingdoms (folds) to walk freely and purposefully over the mountains with our Shepherd? I haven’t read Green’s book, so I can only write about Silverberg’s comments. It seems to me that believers meeting in each other’s homes revealed something that goes way deeper than marriage or family. Silverberg touches on this when he says,

Did you ever think of this? That Jesus said the one thing that will convince the world that you belong to me is the way you love one another?

So, I said to our church, if two or three women in the church are going to a movie together, one of them needs to say, “You know what? I’m going to invite Suzy, who I work with. She’s going through a terrible divorce. I’m going to invite her.” That’s evangelism. It isn’t when Suzy gets to the box office, “Hi Suzy, you’re going to Hell. We wanted to tell you about Jesus.”

Jesus said, “They will know you are my disciples by the love you have for one another.”

Freudian slip?

I don’t know whether this next quote was a Freudian slip or if Silverberg meant to say so, but based on what he says, the goal in evangelism is to bring people into the fold. Maybe he meant to say flock. I hope so, anyhow:

So think outside the box. Don’t think the only way you can get people saved is to get them here on Sunday. By all means, bring them to church if they will come. But that’s not the only way. The idea isn’t I’ve got to get them here to hear Shawn or Scott. The idea is, I’m going to expose them to the relationships I have, and bring them in the fold.

Pastors are just people, like everyone else.

In what seems to be a comical aside, Silverberg tells a story about what life is like for pastors in the real world. I’ll reserve my comments until after you read the story:

I went to a party last week. My neighbor just moved in. She threw a bash for the whole subdivision. It was debauchery, but I had a great time. Everybody was half drunk. I didn’t go for the debauchery. I had so many gospel conversations. Because it’s kind of weird. You always pray… oh man, the guy’s had sixteen beers…”What do you do?”

Those are the times I wish I could change my occupation, because the moment you say you’re a pastor, people get weird.

“Oh, I’m sorry about that joke I just told you.”

“No problem. I thought it was funny.”

The reason people don’t treat pastors like other people is that pastors, as leaders in the institutional church, are given super-human status, authority, and influence in spiritual matters by the institution. Like I said earlier, as soon as a pastor signs the dotted line, he agrees to be a part of the system that will exploit him, just as visitors agree to be exploited by the system when they become members. Part of this exploitation is placing a fallible human being in the shoes of the One Shepherd and then expecting him to fill those shoes.

Here are Silverberg’s closing remarks:

Enjoy life in the fold here, but see what God wants to do outside these walls. I encourage you, if you are not in a flock meeting, a Life Group, get in one. Maybe you’re afraid of relationships that go deep. Maybe you’re afraid, because you’ve done this before, and you were wounded. I can’t tell you you’ll never be wounded again. I can tell you, being wounded is not a call to stay wounded, but to be healed in the love of the body of Christ.

[Updated November 3, 2014: Please note, after reading Mary’s comment (below), I realized that she had every reason to be upset with what I wrote. Rather than edit what I wrote, I’ll leave it be, because it illustrates something beautiful about how believers can and should relate to one another. I consider myself humbly rebuked and corrected for what you are about to read. I will also be adding a third installment in this series to bring clarity to the thoughts and intentions behind my poor choice of words.]

Here are my closing remarks, borrowing some of the verbiage from Silverberg’s sermon:

Life in the fold is like playing pretend church. What God does outside the walls in and through believers is real church. It’s not safe, according to orthodoxy, because there are no fences to keep believers together. Just follow the Shepherd. Trust that He knows how to keep the flock together.  You may have been wounded in the institutional church. If you stay in the fold or return to it, you’ll probably be wounded again. Sheep in the fold will often bite each other. We weren’t created to spend our lives as believers in the fold. Get out of the fold and into the flock. The Shepherd can heal your wounds. Sheep in the flock don’t make a habit of biting each other.

 

 

This is a critical analysis of the sermon, Out of the Fold, Into the Flock, based on John 9-10, by Neil Silverberg, Senior Pastor and Lead Elder at Trinity Chapel in Knoxville, TN. I’m ditching Tethered Tuesday to post this instead, because I was too busy watching football and having a wonderful day with friends on Sunday to finish writing it.

Out of Judaism and into the Gospel

Silverberg begins the sermon by sharing a powerful testimony of his Jewish upbringing and conversion to Christianity, what he describes as, “scales fell from my eyes, and I knew that Jesus Christ was the Jewish Messiah… I also knew this gospel would be my life’s work.”

About Big Church and Small Groups

Most churches have big church, as well as small groups, but the big church is the focus, with small groups playing a secondary part. Silverberg believes that God is going to call believers to invert this idea, so that small groups are where believers “really have community and life,” and the larger meeting serves to support the small groups. He says,

I believe the days are over that being part of the church is dropping in, being an anonymous face, looking at the back of your brother’s head for an hour and a half, and saying, “We had church.”

Although I don’t see a larger meeting serving to support small groups (and I’ll explain why in the next blog), I definitely agree with the idea that big church doesn’t foster community the way small groups do.

What is community?

Silverberg describes community, saying,

I do not have this idealistic view of community… Next to following Jesus in rugged discipleship, community is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it’s the most glorious thing, when it’s working. To be involved in each other’s lives, to endure each other, to enjoy each other, to challenge each other, to speak into each other’s lives when you have to — this is the joy of community.

And as I listen to his message, my heart leaps for joy that truth can still be found in Sunday morning sermons.

What Community is NOT

The part that breaks my heart, though, is that sometimes when one believer challenges other believers, the “endure each other” idea is disregarded in favor of an imposed, false unity. For more on this, read on, because in my opinion, Silverberg actually addresses this in his sermon (although I’m not sure he realized that’s what he was doing), or you can read Shunning Rules and the Barbie God series.

The Significance of Blindness

In John 9-10, Jesus gives sight to a man born blind. “The significance of blindness is important to the story,” Silverberg says. The pharisees were excommunicating people who believed Jesus was the Messiah. “So people are believing and keeping it hush, for fear of excommunication.” The religious leaders demand to know how the blind man can see, but they don’t want to attribute the miracle to Jesus. The analogy Silverberg draws between this text and religion is, as follows:

It’s amazing how religion thrives on blindness. It’s embarrassing in religion to have people who see. The power of the story is the candor and openness of a soul who sees for the first time cuts through all of the facades and all of the phoniness of religion and gets right to the heart.

Oh, if Silverberg only knew how specific, timely, and appropriate his words really are, given recent circumstances!

Who do you think you are, sinner?

Silverberg indicates that when the man explained what he believed about Jesus, the religious leaders called the man a sinner and basically said, who do you think you are, that you can to teach us?

Before, my heart leapt for joy that truth can still be found in Sunday morning sermons, but now my heart is doing cartwheels in my chest! And it only gets better:

Now, here’s the power of the story… Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and He found him… I love that…

Now get this scene. The man is cast out. He’s been maybe seeing for an hour or two. The result of his seeing, which all he did was report what happened, he’s now been cast out of the Judaism of his day. He’s sitting as a rump at the steps of the temple.

And now the Pharisees come out, because they hear that Jesus heard about them casting him out and He finds him.

And now the Pharisees are standing there. The man is lying on the ground worshipping Jesus, and Jesus is standing there, and Jesus said those words, “For judgment I came into the world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind.”

And the Pharisees who heard it said, “Are we also blind?”

Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would be guiltless, but because you say ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

Jesus is cutting into what I think is the worst sin of all that fallen human beings engage in, self-righteousness, the deception of a proud heart — We’re right. We’ve got it right.

What’s wrong about being right?

Silverberg may or may not agree, but I would clarify that there’s nothing wrong in believing you’re right about something. But when your knowledge has a negative influence on the way you view and treat others, self-righteous thoughts and behaviors become a problem. The knowledge itself isn’t the problem, it’s what you do with the knowledge.

Just because people hold (or maybe just believe they hold) a theologically correct position, this is not a license to become like the Pharisees, that is, labeling the one in (presumed) error as a sinner who should be put out from among them.

So go ahead. Say you’re right. Say you’ve got it right. Maybe you really do. But don’t say “We’re right. We’ve got it right. Therefore, we don’t want to talk to you. We don’t want you around any more.”

Why THIS parable?

Jesus, in the presence of the Pharisees, tells the parable of the Good Shepherd. Why this parable? Silverberg says,

It bugged me for years, why the Lord gave this parable of a Shepherd, Good Shepherd, on the heals of the Pharisees watching Him receive a man that they kicked out of the temple, and I didn’t get it, but one day, one glorious day, the lights turned on.

There’s an old idea that Jesus, during His earthly ministry, didn’t talk much about the church. And that is not true at all. Though he only used the word, I think twice… He foreshadowed in so many ways what was coming…

Fold vs Flock

Here, Silverberg launches into an explanation about the difference between a shepherd’s fold and a shepherd’s flock. Basically, a fold is a place that keeps sheep together. In contrast, a flock is kept together by the shepherd himself. I found this most excellent blog on the subject, Listen Up Sheep: The Fold vs the Flock, if you’d like to read more about this beautiful, radical concept that believers in the institutional church have yet to grasp.

Even Silverberg, who preaches about it, doesn’t get it. (I’ll explain why in the next blog post.)

Silverberg paraphrases the words of Jesus to the Pharisees, saying,

You guys kicked one of the flock out of the fold of Judaism. Thank you for that. He’s one of my sheep. I’m bringing him out of the fold, so he can experience what it’s like to be in the flock. The term flock is only true of sheep, really, when they’re outside the fold.

Silverberg explains,

You get the picture, that sheep are not supposed to spend their lives in folds. And though the folds provide an aura of protection, sheep are not sheep until they leave the protection of the walls of the fold, and go out on the mountain tracks with the only protection being that they’re listening and following their Shepherd. Are you with me?

Oh, yes, Silverberg. I am sooooooo with you on this. The fold does, indeed, represent the Judaism of Jesus’ day.

And I would add that the institutional church is the Judaism of our day.

Sheep in the fold will often bite each other…

Silverberg goes on, driving the point home, applying it correctly:

We have quotes from Rabbis where they talk about the protection of the law and it builds a wall around the people of God… When you’re in a fold, it’s very restrictive. There isn’t much movement. We are told that in folds, sheep will often bite each other because they’re bumped up against each other and there’s friction in folds…

How many see the picture here? They kicked the sheep out. Jesus says, “Thank you. What I’m building is not putting people in the fold. I’m calling them out of the fold of religion to be part of the flock.”

[Audience claps.]

The thing that bothered me is the more I realized the import of the story the more I realized that most churches that I was part of, and in fact, leading and building, more resembled folds than flocks.

Silverberg has obviously been given some spiritual discernment about the difference between religion and relationship. And he does a fine job of presenting his case for the glorious, revolutionary vision of what the church really is. But in the quote above, you’ll see the first tiny hint of what ends up being a dramatic turn from truth to error in this sermon.

Making the Same Mistakes Over and Over Again

He even sees where he’s gone wrong in the past, building folds for the flock. The crux of his blindness in this matter is in his assumption that he is no longer making the same mistakes, as is evidenced in the remainder of his sermon, which you can read about next Sunday here on WhatGodDoes.