Tuesday, 23 July 2013

The Centrality of the Church to Mission

As I set out to demonstrate in an earlier post, the careful pastor understands that the gospel is the foundation of pastoral ministry and that therefore a good grasp of the gospel, and especially an awareness of the nature and importance of conversion, is essential to this work.
But what is the next stage? What is built on the foundation of the gospel? If we turn to the Bible, the answer is not — or certainly not just — the individual. Rather, it is the church. As Paul writes,
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22, NIV)
Or again, as Peter says,
As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him— 5 you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:4-5, NIV)
Deliberate pastoral ministry therefore centres on the church. People must be ‘built into’ the church — there are no ‘Lone Ranger’ Christians. And people must be ‘built up’ as the church — the relationships between people in the church will be crucial to their growth in Christ.
Once again, we find this set out in Scripture:
[...] speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (Ephesians 4:15-16, NIV)
Another version of the above passage refers to the body of Christ being ‘knit together’, so with that in mind, we will address the life of the church in terms of ‘joining’ and ‘knitting’.
What is the Church?
But first we must answer the question, ‘What is the church?’ and this is obviously a potentially fraught subject. What we have said above, however, provides us with the outline of an answer: the church is where people are gathered, under Christ as their head, to be joined and knit together as a body and built up in love so as to do the priestly service of God.
The problem is, of course, that’s not how church is always understood or experienced! Nevertheless, that is the definition with which we are going to work. The key thing to notice, however, is that this definition focuses primarily on outcomes, whereas church is more typically defined in terms of structures or actions.
Thus for some people, the church is identified by its institutions or offices. They insist that any particular church belongs to the ‘right’ body or grouping, which is then seen as conferring historical or doctrinal legitimacy. In the Church of England, for example, it doesn’t seem to matter much precisely what is believed or taught in the local congregation, but being ‘CofE’ confers a certain air of ‘normality’ on things. In the Church of Rome, on the other hand, it matters very much what is believed, but a congregation with virtually the same beliefs (such as amongst some Anglican ‘Catholics’) would still not be accepted as a ‘true’ church, because it does not fully belong to that organizational body.
For others, the important thing is having the rightly-ordained ministers, or the bishops to ordain them. If those are there, then we can be satisfied that we have a true church no matter what else goes on. For yet others, such as in branches of Presbyterianism, the important thing is that the congregation or the minister affirms the established doctrines and does not depart from them.
More frequently, perhaps, (though often in conjunction with the above) church is defined by what is done on the occasions when the congregation meets. Indeed, this is the official approach we find in Anglicanism, where Article XIX of the Thirty-Nine Articles states,
The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.
Where there is proper preaching and the right administration of the “two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel” (Article XXV), there we have the visible church. (The Articles do also require that the preaching and administration of the sacraments be done only by those “lawfully called and sent” to do so [Article XXIII], which in Anglican terms means ordained by a bishop, but that is a matter of church order, not the church’s essence.)
Now we would be the first to agree that the Word of God, administered through preaching and the sacraments, is of primary importance. But it seems curious (to say the least) that most definitions of ‘church’ pay no attention to outcomes, whereas in Scripture this is primary. Indeed I would go further and suggest that this is a fundamental weakness in our theology.
If we define church in terms of what is done in the congregation, for example, we will be satisfied if certain things have taken place, no matter what other outcomes might not have been achieved. Provided we can ‘tick the boxes’ — songs were sung, prayers prayed, the Bible read, the sermon preached — we can dismiss the congregation and go home satisfied in the belief that some good must have been done, even if we’re not sure what it was.
The ‘deliberate’ pastor must set out to address this weakness.
The first step, naturally enough, is ‘joining’. With new converts, for example, we must make it clear that becoming a Christian means becoming part of the church. You cannot be a Christian and not go to church.
This was probably easier to convey to people in the days when coming to faith and coming to baptism went together. It is interesting that few if any modern presentations of the gospel would naturally lead anyone to ask, as the Ethiopian eunuch asked of Philip, “Here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptized?” Partly, of course, this is because it is still the case that many people have been baptized as infants. Unfortunately, it is sometimes also the case that people really don’t think it matters that much. We take too far Paul’s words, “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel” (1 Cor 1:17), forgetting that Paul nevertheless did baptize (vv 14-16) and expected every Christian to have received baptism.
The point about baptism is that it is mark of membership (as well as a sign of the gospel to be received by faith). Those being prepared to receive baptism should be made aware they are being baptized into Christ’s body, and therefore into fellowship with others who are members of that same body:
You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:26-28, NIV)
In the same way, however, everyone who comes to faith, whether baptized already or not, should have it clearly put to them: being joined with Christ means joining the church. (Of course, if they are not baptized, then baptism, and the preparation involved, will also spell this out to them.)
But this should not just be a matter between the new believer and the evangelist or the pastor. On the contrary, it must be spelled out deliberately and clearly to the whole existing congregation that we are in the business of adding new people to the body of Christ, which therefore means adding new people to our assemblies and meetings. And this brings us onto the subject of ‘knitting’.
As we have noted already, the Bible’s definition of church includes outcomes, one of which is the body being ‘knit together’ for ‘the building up of itself in love’ (Eph 4:16, ASV). This ‘knitting’ will be a key focus of the time and efforts of the deliberate pastor and the first place to address this is the regular (typically Sunday) meeting of the congregation.
This is where the life of the whole congregation together will generally be expressed. This will also be where the enquirer or fringe member experiments tests out the quality of the congregational life. This will be where new converts are brought to begin their growth towards mature membership of the body. This will also be where all the congregation sit together under the same preaching and teaching of God’s Word, and share the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper with one another.
All this means, however, that the frequency of congregational meetings is fundamentally important.
In some settings, for example in Anglican rural parishes, the ratio of clergy to congregations means that some only meet on a few Sundays of the year. One common approach in the so-called ‘multi-parish benefice’, for example, is for the congregation to ‘rotate’ around villages and buildings. The service may be at the same time, but it is only occasionally in the same place. There are some who swear by this approach as the best way to ensure a gathering of a reasonable size.
My own view, however, is that whilst this may work for the dedicated regulars, it is potentially less accessible to newcomers or enquirers, who will not have the commitment (or perhaps even the information) to be in the right place every week. Establishing a regular and frequent congregational meeting is thus critical, but this also means building up a team of leaders — something which raises its own challenges.
Even when you are holding some kind of ‘service’, however, the thing to remember is that church is not over when the last song is sung or the last prayer prayed. On the contrary, this is only half the work. Indeed, if that is all that happens, then much of the opportunity of meeting together has been wasted. Consider the words of Hebrews:
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:24-25, NIV)
Certainly the writer is keen that people should come to church — ‘Let us not give up meeting together,’ he says. But he does not stop there. We are not to give up meeting together because we are to go on encouraging one another, spurring one another on to love and good deeds as we see the Day of the Lord approaching. Yet is that what happens in many of our congregations? People arrive, they watch, listen, sing and pray, and then they go home. But of how many can we be sure they have been effectively spurred on? And how many have taking any part in encouraging the others? The answer, in both cases, will typically be ‘very few’. And a key reason is that so little of what we do is ‘deliberate’ in its approach to these outcomes.
In general, our approach to church is often weak, even where the building might be full or the concept my be highly esteemed. We rarely make full use of church pastorally. Indeed, sometimes the congregation is peripheral in our theology of mission. Yet in the plans and purposes of God, church is central:
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  1. Just a thought, probably minor, but then again, no, it isn't.
    You comment that some feel it necessary to have:

    "...a gathering of a reasonable size...".

    I would agree, but point out that Jesus says that a reasonable size gathering (congregation) is to be found "wherever two or three are gathered in my name...".

    The search for 'size' is therefore not entirely Biblical or helpful when considering what constitutes a viable 'meeting' part of the true church. Two will do.

    1. Luther, the context for Jesus' "two or three" is church discipline (Matthew 18:15ff), not church worship. I would say that the biblical outcomes of a church service - building up, encouragement, unity in love - tend to flourish best when there's more than three of you.


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  2. Great article, and some very important questions.

    One more question, if I may. When scripture speaks about the church as the body of Christ it does have the universal church in view - Article XIX's (=Calvin's!) definition doesn't really major on that bit. So I'd like to ask this: when you leave the church service, do you know yourself to be part of a whole that far transcends the local congregation you have joined and been knitted into?

    I don't take that question in a dryly institutional sense (pace Rome). I've got an independent Evangelical congregation right here on my doorstep that's more clearly part of the church universal than many an institutional congregation.

  3. But is there not a division between the ‘suma tou Christou’ and the theatre of a certain culture that is often the parochial church? There is the white middle-class culture of various hues – liberal to (increasingly) reactionary conservative. There are growing black churches, but these have a bias towards ghettoisation and/or limiting congregations to specific ethnic groups (I know of one building in South London where six different Nigerian churches meet every Sunday – each not very complimentary their neighbours...). We see the Alpha Course – a systemic enculturalization, squeezing any shaped pegs into very square holes.

    There is the facile belief that ‘the Church’ of the New Testament is the same as the ‘the Church’ of the Reformation as the Church of Wesley or Charles Simeon or Edward Pusey...

    The problem with a developed society - particularly one that has a comprehensive welfare state – is that existential angst is mollified by consumerism and that vicarious means of existence many live by (sports, films, music, Royalty personalities etc.). Individualism (or at least the illusion of individualism), the welfare state, political stability, vicarious living, consumerism are the real enemies of the Church – few need its props and delusions. There are a plethora of ‘societies’ people can join that give people what they want, that they don’t a church. People can have their own means of conceit and sense of meaning.

    The only way you’ll fill the churches is to increase existential angst, end the welfare state and make people’s lives uncomfortable. That’s not going to happen in the short term... So perhaps the way forward is for churches just to be nicer, less judgemental or at least a little more even handed in whom they condemn... And stop being such 'know alls' and thinking they have all the answers.

    PD London

  4. PD, I have to say I haven't got a clue what you're on about. But then it seems to me you haven't a clue what I'm on about either, so we're 'quits'. ;-)