January 6 marked the beginning of the season of Epiphany in the Protestant Church. This date celebrates the revelation of Christ to the wise men from the East (Matthew 2:1–12), in which Christ is revealed to the Gentiles. Of course, we also use the word epiphany to describe that moment when something suddenly becomes clear.
Christ is revealed
I grew up in a “high church” tradition. The liturgy cycled through the church year with steady reliability; Charles Wesley’s songs were as contemporary as it got; and even if the seasons weren’t readily apparent in the moderate Georgia temperatures, they were obvious in the vestments of the clergy. As an adult, I became a member of a modern megachurch, where my mother visited and whispered, “Applause is okay at a concert, but not appropriate in church.” I have been a member of a small church plant that had a five-minute greeting time during the service (and all the extroverts said “Amen!”). I have attended my siblings’ churches: Presbyterian, Baptist, and non-denominational. I have visited a Church of Christ congregation that didn’t use instruments in worship. I preached at a church in Kenya following a wonderful celebratory dance by Maasai women accompanied by a drum and tambourine. In all of these churches, I have observed that the form of worship changes, but the manifestation of Christ does not.
An epiphany during Epiphany
Over Christmas, my husband and I visited a church while on vacation. Old carols sung in contemporary arrangements preceded call and response preaching on the theme “Nothing is Impossible with God.” As I listened, I had an epiphany about Epiphany. Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of Christ to those outside of his Jewish lineage. Jesus’ genealogy had been presented in Matthew 1 as proof that he had a place as the leader of God’s chosen people, but Matthew 2 quickly demonstrated that he holds “the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile” (Romans 1:16). Today’s “Gentiles” include thousands of different people groups. If people are divided by language, ethnicity, culture, behavior, education, customs, and ideology, but unified by the Gospel, then shouldn’t we expect churches to also be unique expressions in their contexts, with different worship, preaching, and organizing principles?
Through my personal epiphany I realized that the differences in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry reflect each of the Gospel writers, each a unique expression of their context. That same unique expression is reflected in all the different forms of church structure and worship.
Matthew began his Gospel with a detailed genealogy followed by an account of Jesus’ birth and the visitation by the Magi. These facts set up a series of organized pericopes and major discourses in which Matthew’s personality shines through. This Gospel has a theme of unification, which is not surprising given Matthew was an ostracized Jew who reached out to sinners and outsiders after his conversion.
Mark’s encouraging storytelling is an exciting journey through Jesus’ ministry as told by a young follower. His loosely connected but grouped episodes resonate with those who value experience over education.
Luke was an educated man who processed through the facts to get to his faith. The theme throughout Luke’s Gospel is challenging Christians to put their faith into practice. Luke’s thoughtful study results in action.
John’s audience is the most diverse. His theme of love unfolds through miracles and signs. His desire for the diverse people of God to be the family of God is true spiritual community.
Though each Gospel presents the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, they are all unique in their specific presentations, and they are organized differently.
And so are our churches.
A Matthew personality church focuses on liturgy and teaching. The preaching is expository and connected to the church season or a planned annual church calendar. The education of the leadership and the congregation is important but not overly emphasized. Small groups are focused on Bible study, which will help believers “to live a life worthy of the calling you have received . . . Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4: 1, 3).
A Mark personality church may create short three to six week series centered around a topical, relevant theme. The preaching is inductive, beginning with stories that add up to a general conclusion of a scriptural application. The leadership of the church may not emphasize academic credentials. The congregation is drawn to experience over education. Small groups may be organized as semester-based experiences. This church may have a hard time with the “be still” command of Psalm 46:10.
A Luke personality church challenges its members to put their faith into practice. Academics are important, as we are called to study in order to correctly handle God’s word (2 Timothy 2:15). This prayerful study should instruct our faith, moving us forward on our social justice journey. Sermons may be textual (using Scripture as the starting point). Small groups are formed for Christian education and service.
A John personality church includes diverse fellowship. Signs and testimonies are emphasized. Leaders have different academic paths, but education of the congregation is not a priority unless it leads to deeper spiritual community. The purpose of small groups is fellowship, since “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).
Churches have personalities, expressed through their organization, Christian education processes, preaching, and worship. Each can have strengths and challenges, but the diversity is reflective of the differences we see in people, including the Apostles.
Instead of focusing on which organizational structure or form of worship we prefer, we need to ask if our church is manifesting Christ to the world. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John churches all have the opportunity to serve those who are lost and to “encourage one another and build each other up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
Just as Christ was revealed to the wise men, we all have the opportunity to help people on their epiphany journey.