A church may be birthed from great messages, but it can only grow with a great framework. In this interview, Dr AR Bernard unpacks some of the knowledge he gave City Harvest Church over the past weekend.
Dr AR Bernard, advisory chairman of City Harvest Church, preached two thought-provoking messages over the weekend of May 3 and 4. In his first message he emphasized the conflict between framework and message: while a message is inspiring and powerful, without a framework, a church cannot rise to the next level, and it exposes itself to error and extremism. In his Sunday message, he chose to flesh out the theory of framework he had presented on Saturday, using the relationship between a man and a woman, which has a natural tension consequent to Adam and Eve’s disobedience.
Dr Bernard is the senior pastor of the 33,000-member Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, New York. He is also the President of the Council of Churches of the City of New York representing 1.5 million Protestants, Anglicans and Orthodox Christians. He also sits on the NYC Economic Development Corporation Board, and is recognized as one of New York’s most influential persons.
You talked about the reframing of City Harvest Church on Saturday. As Advisory chairman of CHC, what would you like to see in the framing or reframing of our church?
Well you know, City Harvest has had an incredible spiritual journey, and there are messages that have shaped the thinking of CHC, messages that were important and relevant at that particular time in its growth. But like any organization that’s going to have longevity, it has to have a framework. And by framework I simply mean what do we want to do and how do we need to restructure it in order to accomplish it? That is really the question that framework asks. So, coming through a great time of success, a great time of trial, you can now look back, reflect on the past and say “Okay, how do we structure ourselves now, without losing our DNA, but structure ourselves—reframe ourselves—in order to achieve God’s vision for CHC. And that’s really where things are right now.
The church has been built on some strong, inspirational messages. But in terms of having a very specific framework, structure for ministry, that’s a different story. And that’s not a put-down—it’s simply the natural course of growth and development. Because in the beginning, you’re not thinking about framework. If you are, boy, you’re really ahead of the game. But in the beginning, it’s the vision that God has infused in the heart of the visionary. And then the visionary tries to take that message and live it out in the context of creating a local church. But over time, for longevity’s sake, you must now step back and say “Okay, what’s the framework of this church?”
Could you give us an example? What is the framework for your church, Christian Cultural Center?
Christian Cultural Center has gone through a process of growth and development, a journey, but it has a very specific structure. And it consists of three things: environment, people and programs. And that really boils it all down to: what kind of environment are we creating for the people in order to accomplish our mission? And that environment is the physical environment but also the spiritual environment. How are we growing and developing people within that environment? What programs do we have in place for the development of the people? Because our vision is to be a dynamic institution for spiritual growth and development and finding personal mission in Christ. And that happens through environment, people, programs.
How long did it take you to come up with this framework?
Is it written down?
Yes. Our values, our vision statement, our mission statement, our timeless fundamentals upon which this ministry is built — it’s all written. And for the sake of the people, we created something in the main lobby called our “vision hall” and in the hall, on the walls, are all of our framework, all of our values, all of our purposes, everything. So that the members and visitors can understand the framework.
Was CCC’s framework created by a group?
Everyone in the ministry understands the framework. Each division has its responsibility in fulfillment of that framework. So we have our worship division which is responsible for the worship experience. We have our community division, which is responsible for developing our community within the great numbers, and reduce those great numbers to a one-to-one relationship. We have our maturity division, which is responsible for the growth and development educationally. Our leadership division to develop leaders, and our missions division, and that’s about fulfilling our responsibility to evangelise and to engage in humanitarian works. So even that has a framework.
How often do you review this framework?
Constantly. Because you don’t want to know after you’ve failed. You want to know during the process of trying to achieve something. So you’re always re-evaluating your methods. (We do this) throughout the year, because each department is reflecting. Once a year, every department must come up with a new idea on how to do what they do, better. That’s from Timeless Fundamental Number 3, which is “a relentless drive for progress”. See, all these things work together, it’s an integrated system. And when I said (during the service) no framework is perfect, it’s because we’re not perfect. So we’re always trying to find new ways, and it’s true of a corporate framework, it’s also true of a Biblical framework. No Biblical framework answers all the questions in the Bible.
So how do we help people who don’t find answers within the Biblical framework we have in the church?
Well, you don’t try to answer every question, you don’t try to be all things. Growth is a process of time and discovery, relationship, truth. And according to the Bible, we never arrive at all the answers. Scriptures says “We know in part, we prophesy in part” we see through a glass darkly. And that’s why I say no framework is perfect. And we have to be very careful when people start saying “We’ve arrived, this is it.” Then that statement is impossible, because then you’ve exhausted God, and you can’t exhaust God.
How can we know if we are a balanced church?
Harmony. Peace occurs naturally when your actions and your values are in agreement. And it’s like walking: you can tell when you’re out of balance: dizzy, confused.
You said that without a framework, one risks becoming extreme. One of the criticisms against CHC is that we took the Cultural Mandate too far, hence this trial.
Wrong. Wrong. You simply did something that was groundbreaking, new, unfamiliar to Singapore, to the government, to the religious community. So they had no framework to judge. I mean, if you did this in the United States you would not be in court right now. So the cultural context, the political and social context, it was something new. You shocked the system.
Where do we draw the line between balance and extremes?
I think that you enter a danger zone when you feel compelled to prove that your message is right. That’s a danger zone. What system of checks can we put in place? There needs to be a theological framework that gives spiritual oversight to the values and purpose. Accountability is intrinsic; it’s within the framework. Remember the framework causes accountability. It causes balance, because you are taking more than one view and perspective and passage of Scripture into consideration. (When one seeks to justify one’s message) instead of seeking the whole counsel of God’s truth, that’s a problem. Because there are seven principles in Biblical interpretation—I’m not going to give them to you—and they’re designed to guide a student of Scripture.
If a person doesn’t know these seven principles what happens?
They can make mistakes.
So you’re not going to give them to us?
No. But I may come back and say “Here are seven principles for Biblical interpretation.” (smiles) It begins with purpose: what is the purpose of the statement? It’s like, in order to understand the parables of Jesus, you must understand the context in which the parable was given. That’s number one. Number two, which is key: every parable answered a question, or responded to a conversation that He was having, or that was being had around him. So if you don’t know the question, how can you accurately interpret the parable? And any interpretation of the parable that doesn’t answer the question is a wrong interpretation. We can’t just take a parable and say, “Okay this is what it means”, no. What is the question it’s answering? I just gave you one of the keys. You squeezed it out of me.
Yay! You also taught us to build our lives on truth. How do we do that?
God’s word is truth, so you search Scripture to see the principles that apply universally to life. And you begin to build your life on those principles. I gave one (at service): Every decision you make in life is a value judgment. That’s a principle. Another principle: Our lives are composed of our choices. We become servant to the choices we make. Our choices determine our destiny. These are all principles that are in the Scripture. So when we begin to look at Scripture from that perspective, we begin to discover them like a miner mining for gold, and we discover these nuggets of truth upon which we can build our lives.
What if believers don’t make that effort to mine Scripture?
Then they don’t understand the purpose of the local church. Because the local church is the framework in which we experience the message of the Gospel. So the local church has the gifts given, like the pastor, the teacher, to develop the growth of the believer. And to say they don’t need the local church is like having a baby and putting it on the doorstep and feeling, somehow, that baby is going to be fine. No, it’s not. So the message of the Gospel is experienced in the framework of the local church.
You said, values and actions have to be in agreement. I don’t think people think much about what their values are.
And that’s the problem. Because our values become part of the framework. Your values are what you consider to be most important in life, what you stand for. What you’re willing to pay the price for. And what you value really guides your decisions, because every decision is a value judgment. So when you make a decision you need to step back and say, “I made that decision because I value —what, what was it that I valued most that motivated me to make that decision?” Even if it’s a bad decision, even if it’s a hurtful decision, whatever it is. So if someone hurts you, and you do something to get back at them, you value revenge. You value vindictiveness. You value this need to even the score. You see, whether we realize it or not, we all have a value system, working. And we better find out if it’s a good one, if it’s the one we want, because it will continue guiding our decisions. And that develops over time, and relationships, and what we are exposed to.
It’s like the mother who teaches her daughter when she goes on a date, “Take money with you so you can get home just in case your date leaves you.” That’s a value system. You know what it is? “Men are not to be trusted.” In the mother’s mind, she’s protecting her daughter, but she is also reinforcing a certain attitude in her daughter’s mind. What will that translate into if she gets married? Will she have a part of her life hidden and protected from her husband?
Principles are broad and basic truths, upon which we can build our lives. So when I’m ministering the word, what am I doing? I am giving principles.
Now we’re on the topic of marriage. You talked about the natural tension between men and women, which was great, because it reminds me of so many people I know. How can a couple that’s young in the Lord, who may not be so familiar with the leading of the Holy Spirit, safeguard their marriage?
They need a framework for how they’re going to communicate with each other. They need boundaries of respect. They need a conflict resolution plan that they agree on before they get married. They need to determine who or what is going to be final authority on the relationship—hopefully it is the Word of God. Do you know how many sermons I’m giving you here? (laughs)