I have just returned from a two week trip to Bethel Church in Redding, California and I thought it would be a helpful exercise to try and identify some of what I have observed and learned during my time there. Obviously it is a long way to go and not inexpensive and it would be untrue to say that I didn’t enjoy the trip for reasons other than visiting the church, of course I did, who wouldn’t. But the warmth, scenery, (occasional) good food and other associated pleasantries of the trip were all a bonus really and so I intend to share about some of what I learned, which was my real reason for going.
Bethel Church place a very high priority on the presence of God with them in all that they do, it is, I think, their highest value. Communities place value on different things but surely the unique value about any Christian community is that we believe that God Himself, our Creator, Father, Saviour, Friend and so much more is present with us? If He isn’t then what are we doing? Paul wrote that if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then we were to be pitied above everyone else because our hope is in vain. But, if the opposite is true, which in case you were unsure is what I believe, and He did rise from the dead, then we, the church, have something that is incredibly precious.
The way that this reality has been particularly understood is to believe that if God is present, then He is so because He wants to be, He chooses to be. He doesn’t do it out of mere obligation, that wouldn’t be a very loving expression of His divinity at all. No, God exercises His own freedom to demonstrate His covenantal relationship with us in a way which is both spiritual and real. Now I am aware that I could get overly complicated here and beyond my depth theologically, thankfully, I don’t think any of you expect me to pursue every possible aspect of the meaning of ‘the presence of God’; at least I hope not. For argument’s sake though may I explore one or two ideas that relate to this as a value for Bethel? I can, thanks.
Firstly, there is absolutely no suggestion that God is not present with any other expression of His body anywhere else. That would not only be theologically untrue but also a gross misrepresentation of the heart of Bethel’s love for the universal Church. However, they do live out the belief that God’s presence should not be taken lightly or for granted. In other words His presence should be welcomed as one would welcome an honoured guest. If someone that you care for greatly comes to your home, you will go out of your way to be a good host because you want them to feel at home, appreciated and valued. If they indicated that they wished to stay longer or visit more often, you might think about more permanent patterns in your lifestyle, so that your guest would know that there was a constant ‘open house’ for them.
It could be said that Bethel have adopted the same approach. They talk a lot about ‘hosting’ the Spirit of God and by this they mean having an atmosphere where He is constantly welcomed to come and act in their lives in a way that leaves Him unrestricted in His capacity to bring change to and through us. This explains why worship is of such a high priority to them because it provides an opportunity for direct expressions of adoration and honour of God that are both public and corporate. There is no sense that worship is either for its own sake, in other words purely for their enjoyment or that it is just a warm up for the main event of preaching. Preaching is important but only in as much as it leads to a greater understanding of who God is and what it means for them to say that they love and follow Him.
More to follow.