Get People to Church?

As a pastor, I regularly receive letters, magazines, and emails about church. Various groups and individuals promote their segment of the action or their philosophy of ministry, which (of course) has led to great success. Success is nearly always measured by crowd size and/or dollar amount, and the uniqueness of the ministry is credited as the reason for great achievement.

We grew from 30 people to 300 in 4 months!”

We raised $300,000 for our project in just a few weeks!”

We are a success because we tapped into people’s desire for… something other than THE GOSPEL!”

These stories are not just irritating; they are infuriating. I am not primarily angered by the foolish and simplistic measurements of success among many evangelicals today, nor is it the incessant desire to get the average church pastor to adopt some new way of doing church. These are both a nuisance, but I am astonished by the utter disdain we church leaders seem to have for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

A local church pastor thinks to himself, “Gosh, I do wish more people in my town understood and loved the Gospel like I do. How can I get them to hear and believe?”

Then he receives 10 different advertisements about church growth and ministry success, all of them claiming to have discovered the key to reaching people with the Gospel. And all of them come with stories of personal success.

Our water-slide, jungle-gym, and videogame all-in-one entertainment system has spiked children’s ministry by 400%! We are really reaching people with the Gospel now!”

When I first heard about preaching from a glass box suspended by invisible wires from the ceiling, I was skeptical. But our Sunday morning attendance has doubled in 2 weeks! The Gospel is going forth!”

We started theming our worship services about 3 months ago, and everyone really liked ‘Barnyard’ Sunday. I can’t wait for ‘Star Wars’ Sunday… I think it’s right after ‘NFL’ Sunday when we plan to have the game on the projector screen during the slower points of the service.”

At best, that local church pastor leaves the advertisement thinking that something other than the Gospel is the key to reaching people with the Gospel. Maybe he even begins to think, as the ad suggests, that the Gospel is unappreciated because it is irrelevant and ineffective. From this perspective, the Gospel is a problem that must be overcome by the use of some other means.

I want to say this clearly and emphatically…

Only the Gospel will actually transform you, your family, your church, and your town.

Preach the Gospel on Sundays. Listen to the Gospel preached on Sundays. Learn the Gospel story better and better. Think about the Gospel. Talk about the Gospel with others. Learn to apply the implications of the Gospel to fatherhood, motherhood, employee-employer relationships, stewardship, and a host of other aspects of life. Pray according to Gospel realities. Ask more probing questions about the Gospel. And then, then do all of this again next week.

Pastor, you don’t need to become an expert magician to reach your community.

Church, you don’t need to spend $250,000 on that next campus addition to entertain the people in your town.

We all need to know, believe, love, live in light of, and tell others about THE GOSPEL (Click Here for a brief summary of the Gospel).

If we will do that, you may just discover that the Gospel is more powerful and more compelling than you ever imagined.

I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…” (Rom. 1:16).

Southern Baptist Identity | A Book Review

One of the most recent books I have read is “Southern Baptist Identity: An Evangelical Denomination Faces the Future.” It was highly informative, candidly thought-provoking, and engagingly eclectic. I am thankful for the book form of these many essays from varying leadership among the Southern Baptist Convention.

You’ll read my full commendation at the end of this article, but I will go ahead and tell you that I believe every Christian would benefit from reading this book. Furthermore, I believe every Southern Baptist should read this book in order to contribute to the necessary discussion about the future of the Southern Baptist Convention.

 

Introduction

David Dockery, a proven unifier in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), edited essays from several leaders and thinkers in the SBC. The content is well introduced by Dockery himself.

He opens the book by writing,

“The SBC is the largest evangelical denomination in the country, with over 44,000 churches in all fifty states. Southern Baptists have often functioned separately from the rest of American Christianity because of their sectionalism, their inability to separate from Southern culture, their parochialism, and their self-sufficiency, though there are some indicators that these things are beginning to change. For almost three decades the Convention has been embroiled in controversy regarding theological issues and denominational polity. We now find ourselves asking important questions about the future and identity of the SBC” (p. 13).

With this introduction in mind, the rest of the book seeks to explain and propose how Southern Baptist might rediscover their identity and forge ahead into the future.

Summary and Interaction

The book has two larger perspectival sections: Theological and Historical Perspectives and Ministry and Convention Perspectives. I will provide a brief overview of each section below.

Theological and Historical Perspectives: Chs 1 – 7

Albert Mohler (ch. 1) begins the theological and historical section by asking the question, “Is there a future?” This is a good question. It seems that many Southern Baptists have simply assumed the answer is, “Yes, of course there is a future for the SBC!” This assumption would be foolish, however, given the changing culture around us and the declining numbers (statistically speaking) among us.

Mohler points to the historic roots of Southern Baptist identity in three theological principles with practical implications. First, one essential mark of Baptist churches has been the understanding that only genuine Christians should be embraced members of a local church (regenerate membership). Second, believer’s baptism has marked the affirmation of a Christian profession of faith and one’s entry into the visible membership of the local church. Third, covenanted church members of a local church are responsible for ordering the mission and function of the church according to Scripture.

Mohler, like all the authors in this first section, celebrated the “Conservative Resurgence” among the SBC and the positive results that have come from it. One should certainly read this book and others on the matter (Wills provides an excellent overview of the history and context of the Conservative Resurgence in chapter 3), but the Conservative Resurgence was essentially a massive shift in the SBC (1979-2000) away from liberal and moderate theological positions toward conservative ones.

Obviously, the history may be perceived through differing lenses, but there is no doubt that what Mohler says here is true. “Southern Baptists are now exceptional in the broader theological world” (p. 29). Marriage, abortion, and gender identity are all issues upon which Southern Baptists generally stand against the rest of the Western world (including other Christians). But, Mohler concludes his essay by reminding us, “Baptists are always better when we are outsiders. When Baptists are forced to be nonconformists, we are forced to go back home” (p. 40).

R. Stanton Norman (ch. 2) asks another crucial question in the discussion, “What makes a Baptist a Baptist?” Surveying the vast landscape of Baptist writings, Norman isolates what he calls “constituent elements of Baptist distinctives.” These are the essential or fundamental legs upholding the proverbial stool of Baptist identity.

First, the sufficiency and authority of Scripture is the starting block for any discussion of Baptist distinctives. While other Christian denominations also affirm the Reformed doctrine of Sola Scriptura, Norman says, “Baptists distance themselves from other denominations… by claiming a complete dependence upon Scripture as the principal foundation for their beliefs and practices” (p. 44).

Second, Baptists are intentionally polemical. This is not to say that Baptists must be cantankerous (though some have earned the moniker deservedly), but it is to say that Baptists consistently “highlight the supremacy and uniqueness of the Baptist position in contrast to the theological deficiencies of other positions” (p. 46).

Third, Baptists are very interested in the way church is done. Ecclesiology (especially regenerate membership, believer’s baptism, and congregational polity) is essential to the identity of Baptists. Fourth, Baptists are blatantly volitional. From the necessity of an individual commitment to follow Christ to the liberty of all people to freely believe and practice religion without coercion, Baptists place personal responsibility on the individual.

Norman concludes his essay by naming two major challenges for Baptists today. One, Baptists must be “faithful to the heritage that is uniquely Baptist;” and two, Baptists must take on the “task of articulating our distinctive identity to our contemporary culture” (p. 62).

Russell Moore (ch. 5) highlights a 19th-century Baptist figure to draw out some lessons we might learn from those who have gone before us. Moore says,

“T.T. Eaton is not a hero; nor is he a villain. He was a hell-deserving sinner who often gave the world empirical proof of his theology of total depravity. He was also, however, a man of the church – who… ‘stood athwart history, yelling, Stop! with a Bible in his hands’” (p. 106).

Some of Eaton’s concerns are Moore’s concerns today. Moore claims that we have generally lost the faithful witness of past Baptists in the areas of (1) regenerate membership and believer’s baptism, (2) celebrating the Lord’s Supper, (3) practicing church discipline (led by pastors, and practiced by faithful congregations), and (4) the centrality of the local church (rather than parachurch ministries). With piercing words, Moore says,

“The decline of Baptist identity is not the fault of Joyce Meyer or Joel Osteen, Wheaton or Colorado Springs. It is the fault of local congregations who refuse to teach and mentor. If more churches taught Titus 2 women’s discipleship, there would be less need for Beth Moore DVDs. If more churches taught men to keep their promises, there would be less need to rent stadiums. If more pastors preached the Bible with passion and insight, if more churches actually crusaded for Christ on the campuses in their community, there would be less need for Campus Crusade for Christ” (p. 111).

Moore advocates for a return to essential Baptist principles. His candid and biting transparency may be offensive to some, but his voice merely echoes the thoughts and words of many younger Southern Baptists – at least many of those who have not yet given up on the SBC.

Paige Patterson (ch. 6) traces these same themes of Baptist identity from those common among the dissenting Anabaptists. While there in no direct line of heritage, there are many similar identifying marks. James Leo Garrett Jr. (ch. 7) looks back even further to the earliest councils, creeds, and church fathers for the themes and marks which Baptists hold dear today. Only the Landmark Baptists would see a need for a unique Baptist line all the way back to the 1st century, but Garrett shows us that Baptists may indeed claim a long Christian legacy.

Baptists have been around a long time, and we share the Christian heritage of those who came before the time when anyone was claiming to be a ‘Baptist.’ The essential and common practices of those who came before us did not arise from societal pressures or mere preference. These practices were built on theological foundations, and Baptists today must rediscover and recommit themselves to the essential doctrines that have made Baptists what they are. It should go without saying, but Baptists of today (and tomorrow) should not think, speak, and act out of step with the Baptists of yesterday.

 

Ministry and Convention Perspectives: Chs 8 – 14

This second section deals more pointedly with the current activities and structures of the SBC, including the national and state conventions, the various SBC entities, local associations, and local churches. The first section was focused on “Who we are,” though there were significant implications for activity, and the second section focuses on “What we do and how we do it.” Both sections contain a strong call for reform, but this second one will likely be perceived as the greater assault on the status quo.

Morris Chapman (ch. 8) lays out some axioms of cooperation among Southern Baptists. He provides six in all – a theological, a societal, an ethical, an ecclesiastical, an attitudinal, and a political – but first Chapman sets the stage and lists some problems. Tracing the formation and methods of associations in the past, Chapman ably demonstrates that cooperation is a precarious thing.

So many things lead to the decay of cooperation, and he lists three worldviews that we may recognize among Southern Baptists today. One is “perfunctory performance” (p. 162). Chapman says, “Hundreds of our contemporary churches have fallen into this pattern. They value their human traditions over the movement of God” (p. 162). The second is “pragmatism” (p. 163). This is a methodology based on a single question: “Does it work?” Chapman identifies the third problematic worldview by calling it “politics” (p. 163). This is the worldview that confuses Southern Baptist (even Christian) identity with partisan political affiliation.

Chapman offers six axioms as solutions. One, the theological axiom of Confession. Chapman argues that we must, as Southern Baptists, cooperate with one another based on a common confession of faith. He says, “If we must choose between heresy and schism, we always, always, chose schism” (p.166). Two, the societal axiom of Courage. Chapman says, “God honors the man who has not only convictions but also the courage of his convictions” (p. 168). Three, the ethical axiom of Character. Chapman says, “Consistent character is a necessary component of the Christian life. No admonition is more useful to those of us who highly value sound doctrine than the phrase ‘practice what you preach’” (p. 168).

Four, the ecclesiastical axiom of Collaboration. Chapman says, “We can do more together than separately. We, as Great Commission Christians, elevate cooperation of Christians as a core value” (p. 169). Five, the attitudinal axiom of Charity. Chapman says, “Cooperating conservatives believe it is entirely possible, in fact necessary, to maintain an irenic (peaceful and reconciling) spirit without bending one iota on basic doctrine” (p. 170).

Six, the political axiom of Co-belligerency. Chapman says, “Cooperating conservatives cooperate where it is possible… we can join together with folks whose theology we do not share in order to accomplish good works, as long as we do not compromise our theology. Simply working with them is not a compromise itself” (p. 170). These axioms form basic principles for moving ahead. As Chapman also acknowledges, the SBC is certainly in need of some intentional work.

Ed Stetzer (ch. 9) and Thom Rainer (ch. 11) both advocate for much the same thing, but regarding different aspects of Southern Baptist life. Both of these men hope for and invite others to act on a spirit of fundamental solidarity and gracious liberty. Solidarity among Southern Baptists should be found on the goal (missional living – evangelism), and liberty should be enjoyed and granted as to the precise methods we use to achieve it.

Stetzer, the quintessential SBC missiologist, urges all Southern Baptists to understand their role in this world as missional. Stetzer says, “’Missional’ is used in most Southern Baptist contexts to describe the attitude of obedience to sharing the Gospel around the world that all believers should possess” (p. 175). He goes on to say, “’missional’ does not refer to an activity or a program, but rather to the very nature of true, God-honoring, biblical, missions-focused, contextualized church” (p. 181).

Stetzer sobers his reader by saying,

“Day after day, as the culture around us becomes more unfamiliar and even hostile toward Christianity, many Southern Baptist churches separate themselves further from the culture they are called to reach, with a self-affirming and predictable comfortable denominational subculture contributing to this widening distance. This chasm of cultural understanding makes it increasingly difficult for our ‘church culture’ to relate to ‘prevailing culture’” (p. 185).

Stetzer argues that churches must intentionally resist becoming communal silos, but instead plan and train themselves to be missional. Missional churches, Stetzer says, must “(1) contend for the faith, (2) contextualize their ministries, and (3) cooperate with other churches for the kingdom of God” (p. 190). As churches seek to be missional, he says, “our task is not to listen to those who love church culture more than they love Christ’s commands” (p. 197).

Jim Shaddix (ch. 10) does a masterful job of conveying the predicament and the possibilities of the ‘traditional’ church. I believe any attempt I make to summarize his chapter would diminish the very potent work he has produced there. I urge the reader to read Shaddix’s essay in full.

As mentioned above, Stetzer and Rainer have much the same goals in mind, but Thom Rainer (ch. 11) focuses especially on evangelism and church growth. His statistics are heartbreaking, citing the number of baptisms as having decreased in 2005 when compared with 1950. While baptisms are not the only measurement by which we gauge our success as a church, as Rainer acknowledges, there is certainly cause for concern when we are seeing less conversions among a growing population. Rainer says that the lacking evangelistic zeal and activity among Southern Baptists might be due to a few things, but he boils it down to a matter of personal responsibility. Rainer says, “when evangelism is not my responsibility, it does not happen” (p. 220). This is certainly worth our time and consideration, and Southern Baptists must change course on the matter of personal evangelism.

Michael Day (ch. 12) gets down to the nitty-gritty of Southern Baptist structure in his essay on the nature and future of associations and conventions. This content will likely only be of interest to those who are in leadership in the SBC (including pastors of local churches), but I strongly encourage the laity to at least engage with these matters on an elementary level.

Day first points to the foundation of associations before there was a Southern Baptist Convention. It is informative, to say the least, to know how the structure we have today developed, and this will certainly help us to make a wise assessment about how we bring about positive change for the future. Day explains that associations were originally formed around common faith and practices, and they understood themselves to be responsible for defending their unity in such matters. In the early 1900s, however, there was a redefinition of associations, when state conventions and other cooperative entities were formed. Quoting Glynn Ford, Day wrote about the shift among associations. He wrote,

“The changes involved shifting from a doctrinally based fellowship of churches to an implementing agency of the denomination; shifting from a guardian of the fellowship to a denominational promoter; and shifting the initiative for mission from the churches to the state convention and national convention” (p. 227).

Day helpfully summarizes the history as follows:

We were birthed by biblical Baptists who embraced biblical models of the church and the mission of God in the world;

We were nurtured by believing Baptists who were certain the mission of God in the world was too large for a single body and demanded cooperation among the many;

We were shaped by bureaucratic Baptists who have worked long and hard to guide and administer what have become large and often bulky organizations;

We have been defined by battling Baptists who have fought most often for the right things, occasionally for the wrong things, but always toward producing the refinement and redefinition necessary in cooperative bodies; and,

We are questioned by befuddled Baptists who are confused and concerned about the future of our cooperative efforts. As Frank Page (past president of the Southern Baptist Convention) said at a chapel address at Union University, “There is a lot of what we have been practicing for a long time that needs to be questioned” (p. 230).

Day candidly admits that a new operational model for state conventions and local associations is still emerging and not yet fully developed. The new paradigm, Day says, is developing as church-driven, priority-based, resource-focused, institutionally free, strategically managed, geographically unfettered, and Kingdom-conscious. Day also makes clear the fact that local churches and pastors are the driving force and strategists behind the development and implementation of the new paradigm. This is certainly an interesting chapter that deserves close reading and much discussion.

Richard Land (ch. 13) articulates what many Southern Baptists seem to know, but do not want to concede. We are no longer living as cultural drivers, and we are often not even welcome in the vehicle. Southern Baptists must learn to engage the American (and Western) culture as it is, rather than simply lament what it has become. Indeed, our ability to do this will have a huge impact on our very existence in the future.

Nathan Finn (ch.14) helpfully lays out three priorities for Southern Baptists as we move into the future from here. He also lists some specifics under each. First, we must renew our Baptist Identity. This includes an uncompromising view of the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, a renewal of our unity with Baptists and non-Baptists alike regarding the Gospel, and a renewal of our distinctive Baptist commitment to regenerate church membership (which has an implied commitment to believer’s baptism).

Second, we must renew our commitment to the Great Commission. This includes recovering a “robust understanding of the Gospel.” Finn says, “In too many of our churches, the Gospel is being downplayed, confused, dumbed-down, or redefined” (p. 265). With a renewed understanding of the Gospel message, Finn writes, “Southern Baptists must believe that the Lord is a missional God and that His church is a missional people” (p. 268). This, of course, will motivate us to be personally evangelistic and engaged in church planting efforts as well.

Third, we must renew our commitment to Confessional Cooperation. As of today, there is no confessional statement of any kind to which a church must adhere to be a Southern Baptist church. Cooperative Program giving is the only requirement.[1] Finn leans on suggestions from other Southern Baptists (David Dockery and Jim Richards) and proposes a way forward. He writes,

“I would propose that post-resurgence Southern Baptists adopt a brief abstract of the Baptist Faith and Message that affirms a high view of Scripture, an orthodox statement of the Trinity and Christology, an evangelical understanding of salvation, and a basic Baptist understanding of ecclesiology. This would form an adequate confessional basis for churches cooperating with the SBC” (pp. 274-275).

I believe that this proposal is a wonderful idea, but it will be interesting to see how other Southern Baptists perceive this same proposal.

These three priorities do indeed provide thought-provoking substance for a discussion about how the SBC meets the future as a post-Conservative Resurgence denomination. Only time will tell where we will go from here.

Conclusion

Danny Akin (Concluding chapter), desiring to send us off with marching orders, lists ten mandates for Southern Baptists in the 21st century. These are as follows:

1) Regenerate Church Membership. Southern Baptists must understand church membership is a privilege (not a right), guard against easy ‘believism,’ and cautiously baptize professing believers.

2) Believer’s Baptism. Southern Baptists must desire evidence of regeneration before one is baptized, cautiously baptize younger children, emphasize baptism as obedience to Christ, refuse admission into church membership without believer’s baptism, and uphold baptism as the public profession of one’s faith (not merely walking an aisle or saying a prayer).

3) Church Discipline and Disciple-Making. Southern Baptists must know and teach what the Bible says about church discipline, lovingly and wisely implement church discipline, and apply discipline to areas like absentee membership as well as the specific list provided in 1 Corinthians 5.

4) Genuine Word-Based Ministry. Southern Baptists must preach and teach the content of the Bible (not psychology, felt-needs, self-help, or any other popular content).

5) Faithful and Biblical Ecclesiology. Southern Baptists must guard the membership of the local church, expect the marks of (1) the Word, (2) ordinances, and (3) church discipline to be visible and practiced, and apply the biblical model of elder/pastor led and congregationally governed local church bodies.

6) Missions and Evangelism with Healthy Theology. Southern Baptists must live missionally in their own contexts, give charitably to missions abroad, and ground all missions and evangelism in a healthy theology that will guard against compromising truth for the sake of partnership or methods.

7) Church Planting. Southern Baptists must focus prayer, planning, money, and resources on densely populated areas to apply the 1st century Christian model of church planting.

8) Biblical Marriage. Southern Baptists must understand the divine covenant of marriage, affirm the value and necessity of premarital counseling and mentoring, acknowledge the gift of singleness that God gives to some, and affirm the gift of children as a ‘heritage from the Lord’ (Ps. 127:3).

9) Seminaries and Churches. Southern Baptists must view seminaries as servants of the churches, hold seminaries to a serious confession of the faith, and seek to form partnerships between seminaries and churches for a more well-rounded educational experience.

10) Remembering as we move Forward. Southern Baptists must remember who we have been, understand who we are now, and fervently seek to live authentically as Southern Baptists in the future.

 

My Commendation

This book, more than any other I have read thus far, has renewed my own hope for the future of the SBC. Whether all Southern Baptists agree with the proposals and conclusions found within, I am encouraged by the fact that such things are being discussed among those with platforms as influential as these authors.

I commend this book to any Christian who wants to know what it looks like to thoughtfully consider your place in the world and the right way forward.

I especially commend this book to Southern Baptists. I look forward to the conversations that must take place over these topics, and I pray that God will help us to be faithful on those matters that are essential to our survival as a people of the Book.

God does not need Southern Baptists to accomplish His work of redeeming a people for His glory, but I am glad He has used Southern Baptists in the past, and I long for Him to revive us as useful tools again.

 

Bibliography:

Dockery, David S., R. Albert Mohler, Jr., Gregory A. Wills, Timothy George, Russell Moore, Daniel L. Akin, Nathan A. Finn, R. Stanton Norman, Paige Patterson, James Leo Garrett, Jr., Morris H. Chapman, Ed Stetzer, Jim Shaddix, Thom Rainer, Michael Day, and Richard Land. Southern Baptist Identity: An Evangelical Denomination Faces the Future. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009.

Get it HERE at Amazon

Footnotes:

[1] Recent cultural controversies have caused the open acceptance of homosexuality to disqualify a church’s participation in the SBC, but this is much more indicative of our remaining conservative values and not necessarily our strong theological convictions. There is simply no clear theological standard by which the SBC admits or dismisses churches. We may claim the Bible all day long, but so did Marcion, Arius, Joseph Smith, and nearly every other heretic.

Do Christians need the Local Church?

There is a strange and interesting conversation going on among many professing Christians in America today. Some people claim that “Christianity” may be separated from the “Local Church.” Whatever Christianity is, I would like to argue, it is inseparable from the local church.

The non-churched Christian is an animal you simply will not find in the Bible, and I’d like to add that such an animal (encountered in our day) is usually awkward and disfigured.

I believe our consideration of this topic will be encouraged by first defining what a church is, then addressing what a church does. After that, we will hear a dissenting voice, and then we will try to come to some thoughtful conclusions.

 

First, the local church is a gathering of holy people who are justified in Christ Jesus.

The local church is the visible expression Jesus Christ’s bride, adorned with His own righteousness and set apart for His intimate affection and care.

Martin Luther is credited with the profound statement, “the doctrine of justification is the article upon which the Church stands or falls.” Justification is the legal declaration of God, by which the sinner is declared righteous because Jesus was declared guilty on the sinner’s behalf. Not that the sinner works his/her own righteousness, but that he/she puts on the righteousness of Christ.

This truth is the comfort of all who understand themselves to be graciously included in the household of God. Horatius Bonar wrote,

In another’s righteousness we stand; and by another’s righteousness are we justified.”  This truth, he went on to say, makes plain that “all accusations against us, founded upon our right unrighteousness, [may be] answered by pointing to the perfection of the righteousness which covers us from head to foot… as well as shields us from wrath.”[1]

Justification happens in an instant.  It is the doing of God Himself when the sinner is made alive in Christ Jesus and counted good, holy, and righteous in God’s sight (Eph 2:4-9; Titus 3:7; Rom 5:9).

Furthermore, sanctification is also an instantaneous declaration and positional reality for all who are in the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:11). Union with Christ includes a significant change in relation to sin, particularly that the Christian is now dead to or released from the power of sin (Col 2:20-3:14; Gal 2:20; Rom 6:1-14).

 

Second, the local church is a community of justified people who are growing in holiness.

If, as Martin Luther said, the doctrine of justification is the article upon which the Church stands or falls, then sanctification may be the doctrine which provides her (the Church) the appropriate clothing to stand admirably.

Christ does not merely call His prostituting adulterous bride to wear new labels (such as justified and sanctified); He also calls her to live accordingly (Eph 4:1; 1 Thess 2:12).

Living in light of her new status, the Church of Jesus Christ is declared to be holy, and Christ is making her holy by the washing of His word “so that He might present the church to Himself in splendor” (Eph 5:25-27).  This loving reconciliation and renewal is challenged by the fact that the visible Church is made up of believers who are still desirous of sin.

Herein lies the difficulty of understanding just how the visible Church may be clothed with righteousness as she stands justified before the watching world.  However, a visible Church, full of sanctified believers, arrayed in magnificence and clothed in righteousness for all the world to see is exactly what God has intended the Church do be.

The doing of good works by every believer is commanded and enabled by God (Titus 2:7; Heb 10:24; Matt 5:16; 1 Pet 2:12; Eph 2:10).  Not only thus, but Scripture informs us that good works will provide some evidence of genuine faith and discipleship (James 2:14-26; Jn 8:31).  Good works, or righteous living, do not produce justification or sanctification, but it is clear that good works necessarily and always follow such things.  Kevin DeYoung describes the relationship, borrowing from biblical imagery, in terms of botany.

“It’s not that good works are in the root of the tree; they’re not the thing that makes the tree what it is. They’re not the ground or the basis of our standing with God. But if we truly are redeemed through the blood of Christ, if the Holy Spirit truly dwells in us, then we will be people who bear fruit in good works. Our lives will be marked by what Paul calls “the fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22-23).  And if those fruits are not present in us, Jesus says, we have reason to question whether the tree was ever really healthy at all.”[9]

God has not only promised to work within Christians to bring about the mutually desired end of complete sanctification, but he has also instituted local communities through which Christians are to engage in diligent efforts towards sanctification together.  The Second London Baptist Confession says,

“[T]he Lord Jesus Christ calls out of the world unto himself, through the ministry of his word, by his Spirit, those that are given unto him by his Father (John 10:16; John 12:32), that they may walk before him in all the ways of obedience, which he prescribes to them in his word (Matt. 28:20). Those thus called, he commands to walk together in particular societies, or churches, for their mutual edification, and the due performance of that public worship, which he requires of them in the world (Matt. 18:15-20).”[11]

Therefore, these societies or communities of faith are designed for mutual improvement, building up, or sanctification (Eph 2:19-20).  Paragraph 12 of the Second London Confession (in the section on The Church) goes on to explain that there are privileges, censures, and authoritative instruments that the Christian may enjoy in the life of a Gospel-centered community.

Rather than these communities being an end in themselves or even a rule unto themselves, they are local and communal expressions of mutual submission to the Christ who reigns over all.  Andrew Purvis expounds this view by saying,

“The ministry of the church is, by the Holy Spirit, a sharing in God’s ministry to and for us in, through, and as Jesus Christ.  The task at hand, then, is to focus on the profound interrelationship that must obtain between… those truths and realities about God that the church brings to expression through Christian doctrine… and pastoral care.”[12]

Pastoral care, the shepherding of God’s sheep and caring for Christ’s bride, is the task of “sharing in God’s ministry to and for” Christians.  The church is meant to be a local expression of “truths and realities about God,” which we find clearly revealed in the Scriptures and understand as Christian doctrine.

In less lofty terms, but just as potent, Mark Dever says that a local church is “a community of believers who have become part of the New Covenant in Christ’s blood and, as a result, have covenanted together to help each other run the Christian race with integrity, godliness, and grace.”[13]

Church membership, then, is a collective affirmation that Christians in local proximity to one another are attempting to live out in practical ways the reality of their positional possession – holiness.  They are saints by calling, and they are seeking to live in obedience to Christ by “giving themselves” to one another in mutual submission and love.

 

A Dissenting Voice

While any reasonable understanding of what a church is and what a church does, as described here, would assume that this must be done in community with other believers, it is helpful to allow a dissenting voice to speak in order to demonstrate greater clarity.

In her book, How to be a Christian Without Going to Church, Kelly Bean takes aim at average local church experiences over the last generation or so.  She rightly points out that many local churches are active but not very effective (her measurements of effectiveness are demonstrably unbiblical, but her assessment may still be true when measured in biblical terms).  Her solution is to opt out of church attendance or involvement altogether, something she calls non-going.

She sees some problems that arise with such a lone ranger mentality, and she suggests, “A collective narrative is important for all.[15]  The collective narrative she is looking for is exactly what is provided by the Gospel message and the mutually stimulated sanctification that occurs in Gospel-centered communities, through the proclamation of biblical truth and by the power of God’s Holy Spirit.  Yet, this is not something she seems to believe may be found in any communal expression of local Christians.

Bean seems to be unaware that she is describing the creation of a church, albeit an ‘alternative’ one, when she admits, “In many ways, the art of non-going and facilitating alternative Christian communities that offer the support we might need, is still in the works.”[16]  Reinventing Christian communities to offer ‘non-goers’ support so that they may maintain their non-going status sounds about like offering a fish an aquarium so that he may refer to himself as a fish out of water.

 

Concluding Thoughts

Christians are necessarily beneficiaries of the communal and covenantal relationship that is only available in a local church. It is simply inconceivable that a Christian would find sanctification to be something that he/she should pursue outside of a community of believers.  Dever says,

While our individual walks are crucial, we are impoverished in our personal pursuit of God if we do not avail ourselves of the help that is available through mutually edifying relationships in our covenant Church family” (Heb 10:24-25).[17]

The message is clear.  All those whom God has justified He has also sanctified, and He continually sanctifies them by the power of His Spirit.  Additionally, God has instituted the Church as the Spirit-empowered community of faith in which sinning Christians may walk in progressively greater degrees of freedom from their sin.  Christian community, then, is the sum and substance of the

Christian community, then, is the sum and substance of the mortal Christian life.  The believer who tends towards self-righteousness may be humbled; the Christian who tends towards despair may be encouraged; the convert who struggles to break free from remaining inclinations towards sin may be restrained by accountability; the unregenerate pretender may be lovingly exposed and evangelized appropriately; the malevolent wolf may be discovered and expelled; and all of this may and should take place in the average daily life of the local church.

So, do Christians need the local church?

Like a child needs a father and mother, Christians need a church family to instruct and train. Like a city needs emergency responders, Christians need a church family to come to their aid. Like a hospital needs a nursing and surgical staff, Christians need a church family to tend to their wounds and illnesses. Like a police officer needs a badge, Christians need a church family to affirm their inclusion under the authority of Christ.

YES! Christians need the local church! Biblically, you don’t ever have one without the other.

 

[1] Bonar, The Everlasting Righteousness, 179

[9] DeYoung, The Mission of the Church, 227

[11] The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689, The Church, paragraph 5

[12] Purvis, Reconstructing Pastoral Theology, 4

[13] Dever, The Deliberate Church, 110

[15] Bean, How to Be a Christian without Going to Church, 70

[16] Bean, How to Be a Christian without Going to Church, 70

[17] Dever, The Deliberate Church, 111

 

 


 

Bibliography

Anyabwile, Thabiti M. What Is a Healthy Church Member? Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008.

Bean, Kelly. How to Be a Christian without Going to Church: The Unofficial Guide to Alternative Forms of Christian Community. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014.

Bonar, Horatius. The Everlasting Righteousness, Or, How Shall Man Be Just with God? 1st ed. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1993.

Bucer, Martin, and David F. Wright. Concerning the True Care of Souls. Translated by Peter Beale. Edinburgh: Carlisle, PA, 2009.

Dever, Mark, and Paul Alexander. The Deliberate Church: Building Your Ministry on the Gospel. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005.

Dever, Mark. What Is a Healthy Church? Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007.

DeYoung, Kevin, and Greg Gilbert. What Is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011.

ESV: Study Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2007.

Ferguson, Sinclair B. The Christian Life: A Doctrinal Introduction. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1989.

Leeman, Jonathan. Church Membership How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012.

Luther, Martin. The Bondage of the Will. Lafayette, IN: Sovereign Grace Publishers, 2001.

Owen, John. The Mortification of Sin. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2004.

Purves, Andrew. Reconstructing Pastoral Theology: A Christological Foundation. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.

“The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689.” The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689. Accessed October 10, 2014. http://www.1689.com/confession.html.

“Church” as One Another

Do you think of your church as the building you go into each Sunday morning?

When the Bible speaks of a church, it most often refers to the community of Christ-followers who gather in His name.

In the New Testament, there are nearly sixty unique commands to Christians about how they should behave in a local church family. These commands, directed at Christians in fellowship together, are often called the “one anothers” because the phrase “one another” is in each of them.

Christians would do well to consider their obligation and privilege to participate with one another in a local church. While these communities are imperfect, they are the only context in which God has ordained cultivation and nourishment for His people.

The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome was written with incredible theological precision and insight. After his magnificent treatise on the Gospel of Jesus Christ for all who believe, he concluded his letter by calling Christians to live accordingly.

Romans 15 includes three of the “one another” commands directed at Christians in a local church family.

Live in harmony with one another (Rom. 15:5).

The command is fairly straightforward. Harmony is grounded in the Gospel of Christ, and it is preserved there as well. Church members should never create strife over issues that are less significant than those doctrines associated with (or very near to) the Gospel itself. Harmony in the Gospel is essential, and harmony in everything else is most often a matter of humility and patience.

Welcome one another as Christ welcomed you (Rom. 15:7).

This seems like an odd command. Why would fellow believers need to be commanded to “welcome” one another? Well, the kind of open-handed welcome in mind here is much more significant than an occasional greeting on the way into a church service. Consider what it means that “Christ welcomed you [Christians].” Once the Christian begins to focus on the depth of meaning found there, then what it means for church members to “welcome one another” will come into fuller view. Christ, in the Gospel, welcomed His most rebellious enemy as His brother… This is an exemplary welcome indeed!

Be full of goodness and filled with knowledge, so that you are able to instruct one another (Rom. 15:14).

Whether Christians actually welcome one another and truly live in harmony with one another, most Christians know they should. However, many Christians might be surprised to learn that they are commanded to “instruct” one another as well. In the context of the local church, Christians are meant to form a community of mutual discipleship and growth. Like a mechanic might teach his son to repair and rebuild cars (both by informing and demonstrating), so too every Christian ought to inform and demonstrate genuine Christian discipleship. Christ commanded all who would follow Him to “make disciples” by “baptizing” and “teaching” anyone else who would become a Christ-follower  (Matt. 28:18-20).

These three “one another” commands only begin to form the full landscape of a local church community. The wise Christian will assess his/her current perspective of the local church, make note of any needed adjustments, and commit to participate in a church family as God has designed it.

May God give us all the grace to love Him, the wisdom to know His instruction, and the courage to live accordingly.

Who needs Church History? YOU DO!

Church History is a fascinating subject. From the rapid growth of the first century to the prevalent darkness in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and the contrasts of liberalism and fundamentalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Church has experienced God’s grace with varying degrees of visibility.  Always the object of God’s mercy and kindness, the Church has appeared to both love and hate the world, to both love and hate the unregenerate, and to both love and hate the very God who bought her from the enslavement of adulterous idolatry.

The Church is an invisible formation of sinful humans; which God uses as living stones in His miraculous construction. The Church is imperfect in her mortal and visible state, but one day She will be arrayed in a glory that was not Her own. The Church shall be presented before Christ as His holy and blemish-free Bride, and such an end is marvelous indeed.  All of Church history is moving Her from one measure of glory to another, and thanks be to God that He is the provider and sustainer of His Church.

The nitty-gritty of Church history has exposed me to some extraordinarily high highs and some shamefully low lows.  The first moment in Church history that captured my attention was a mixture of both.  The Council of Nicaea met in 325 AD in order to discuss the triune Godhead[1] and particularly the hypostatic union[2] of God and man in the person of Jesus Christ.  The council meeting itself was an odd concept. Those men who led the assembly were the objects of great persecution only a short time before. In fact, the very same governing officials who were calling for the convention were the ones who had led the charge against them. This new arrangement (not new to human history, but new to these Church fathers), combining the Church inseparably with the state, was all-too-well embraced by these Christian leaders.  Noll said,

“Nicaea was a turning point that set Christianity on a course that it has only begun to relinquish, and that only reluctantly, over the past two or three centuries.  That course was the addition of concerns for worldly power to its birthright concern for the worship of God.”[3]

While Nicaea certainly did produce some high quality theology, this point in Church history also marked the beginning of a struggle for worldly power and shameful exploitation of such authority by many of the mortal leaders of the most holy terrestrial institution – the Church.

There were perennial moments of both wonder and embarrassment from Nicaea onward, but it seems that one period rises above the rest on the skyline of Church history when it comes to a recapturing of the essence of Christianity.  The Protestant Reformation occurred during a time of deeply rooted corruption and far-reaching opposition.  This reformation of the visible Church had many contributing factors and countless men and women as its champions, but it is nearly undisputed that a single monk with a single mallet swung the first significant blows in the event that would come to be known as the Protestant Reformation.

Martin Luther grew up in Germany under the tutelage of the Roman Catholic Church as well as his stern mother and father.  Like any good Roman Catholic of his day, he exhibited both a diligent effort and a healthy distaste for various aspects of religious life.  This lawyer who had become an Augustinian monk finally traveled to Rome in anticipation of gleefully absorbing what he thought would be a hallowed city with devout men serving the holy God and His consecrated Church.  Instead, and to his extreme dismay, what Luther found was a debased city with corrupt men serving themselves in the name of God, and that at the expense of His Church.  Luther was heart-broken and furious at the sight of such a mockery, but his grand protest was actually intended to be something altogether different than what it turned out to be.

Luther composed ninety-five arguments against Papal indulgences, which was a corrupt use of Church authority to raise money for selfish gain.  Luther could not have known the impact he would make by nailing that text to the chapel’s wooden door at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517.  None of the most astute theologians, sociologists, politicians, psychologists or historians could have possibly understood how great the impact of this event would be.  It essentially marked the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

The arguments contained in Luther’s 95 theses were symptoms of a viral incompatibility, and Luther could not have known how the technology of his day would be harnessed to spread these ideas so far and wide.  Luther wrote to one publisher of his theses, “They are printed and circulated far beyond my expectation.”[4]  While Martin Luther may have intended a theological debate among learned church clergy, what he got was a firestorm that recalibrated the visible Church and set Her on a new trajectory for the future.

The Church continued on this persistently reforming path of orthodox growth for more than a few centuries, and then came liberalism in 1865.  Liberal theology, that is soft and/or hetero-orthodox positions on core Christian doctrines, began to dominate pastoral training institutions as well as pulpits, and the Church has suffered great loss because of it.  “J. Gresham Machen called it a new creedless faith with no relation to biblical Christianity in his popular Christianity and Liberalism (1923).”[5]  Where once the character and nature of God was disputed vehemently among theologians and the cost for error was death, there now stands a plethora of theological leaders unwilling to acknowledge that such things even warrant a discussion at all.  The God who has revealed Himself in special and particular terms has been relegated to the realm of the wholly unknowable. Mankind is left with a god of his own invention who bears no resemblance at all to the God of Scripture, except that it occasionally is labeled with His name.

Before looking more deeply at these points in Church history, and the many others that string along to connect them, I knew that theology was important.  I knew that ecclesiology, soteriology, Christology, missiology, and the relationship between Church and state were significant matters deserving thoughtful investigation.  However, I have seen the fleshing out of what can be the result of erroneous views in one or more of these areas.  The Church today is in dire need of an ongoing reformation – not a single event, but a continual discussion about what it looks like to live out the Faith that was once and for all delivered to the saints.

Such a reforming posture seems already to be the stance of many in the visible Church today, but many more are presumably asleep at the wheel.  This generation of pastors, teachers, elders, professors, and leaders (and all those who come after them) would do well to equip Christians to find their place in Church history.

By God’s grace, when Christians recognize their place in God’s plan of redemption they become commendable for eternal glory. But, in God’s providence, when Christians recognize their moment in God’s plan of human history they may become men and women of whom the sinful world is not worthy.

 

 

Footnotes

[1] Godhead is a theological term used to refer to the unity of Father, Son, and Spirit in one ontological being.

[2] Hypostatic Union is a theological label used to refer to the joining together of divinity and humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. He was and is both God and man; one person with two natures.

[3] Noll, Mark A. Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012. doi:WorldCat database. (p. 55).

[4] “How Luther Went Viral. (Martin Luther).” The Economist (US) 401 (2011): 8764. Accessed April 9, 2014. Academic OneFile.

[5] Cairns, Earle Edwin. Christianity through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub., 1996. (p. 459).

Coalescing Churches and Missionaries

The Church – the universal body of Christ – is a unique institution made up of people rather than materials or mechanisms. Established and sustained by God Himself, the Church acts most like she should when she fulfills the role for which she has been created. The oft-quoted passage at the end of Matthew’s gospel contains the commission of the Church – her purposeful assignment and the promise of her providential Lord. In Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus says to His disciples,

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Mark Dever (commenting on this very passage) says, “Jesus’ command to go ‘to the ends of the earth’ [or ‘all nations’] reminds believers that Christ is Lord over all, that he loves all, and that he will call all to account on the great day. Therefore, Christians today have a responsibility to take the gospel around the world.” Dever also understands that congregations (local expressions of the universal Church) are bearers of this same responsibility, because congregations are made up of individual Christians. “Christians together can pool wisdom, experience, financial support, prayers, and callings and direct them all to the common purpose of making God’s name great among the nations…” Dever leaves no room for individual Christians or assembled groups of the same to remain unengaged from this Great Commission when he says, “Witnessing the glory of God proclaimed around the globe in the hearts of all his people should be an end and purpose for every local church.”[1]

Involvement in this intentional activity is no peripheral matter for any local church, and many congregations have been purposefully working at it for a long time. However, recent research and contemporary conversations are revealing that a disconnect may have developed over time between the two prongs that have formed the spearhead of this Christian commission. Local churches in America seem to have been allowed to understand missions as something that is done over there – anywhere but here – by someone called a missionary. Many local churches support “missions efforts” with their financial backing, giving a portion of their budget to some kind of cooperative program that distributes funds to local and international missionaries. Sometimes local churches may even call a special prayer meetings with a “missions” emphasis, but taking ownership of particular missional efforts appears to be lacking at best. In addition, the perceived distance between missions and local church ministry has permitted most American Christians to remain personally unengaged from the Great Commission. This is a tragedy.

What is worse is that missionaries, having such a strong commitment to go and tell, are continuing to do so without an essential and healthy attachment to a local church or churches. “The problem is that there are now missionaries all over the world with virtually no connection to local churches to love and care for them, shepherd them, and join them on mission.” To compound the loss, “there are also local churches full of laypeople talking about being ‘missional’ without the benefit of learning from those who are actively crossing cultures with the Gospel. They are talking about mission without the input of missionaries (emphasis added).”[2] If one is to understand what it is to be missional, it is imperative that one understands what it is to be a missionary.

Ed Stetzer helpfully defines the term “missional” in his standard-setting work on the subject of “missional churches.” He says, “Missional means actually doing mission… adopting the posture of a missionary, learning and adapting to the culture around you while remaining biblically sound.”[3] With this definition in mind, it is helpful to consider that missional living may only realized in the local church context as missionaries and their efforts are appropriately known and celebrated in the local church.

The bringing together of missionaries and the local church is a combination that regains the benefits of the multi-membered body of Christ. If the missionary is the extended arm of the local church, then the local church is the core, which lends stability, resources, and strength to the missionary. Just as the arm needs the core to function properly, so the core needs the exercise, reach, and functionality of the arm in order to remain healthy. There are many more aspects of local church ministry that may not include a direct relationship to missionary efforts, but all of what the local church is and does should center around the idea of living missionally in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ – both in the context of its own community and in the world at large. These two distinct branches of missional engagement (missionaries and the local church) are so intertwined that each compliments the other in multiple ways, particularly when they are both functioning healthily.

The pervading goal of the missionary is the same as the local church, namely the Great Commission – make disciples, baptize them, and teach submission to Christ to the glory of His great name. If this directive is embraced and acted upon, the result will inevitably be a plurality of baptized disciples who will be life-long learners who grow in their submission to Christ. This plurality of Christians, if the missionary is properly focused on the task, will be formed into a local church themselves. “The result of [the missionary’s] work should be biblical, local, independent churches that reflect the soil in which they are planted.”[4]  Therefore, the missionary is most effective when he is planting local churches with those baptized disciples who have benefitted from his proclamation of the Gospel.

These locally planted churches will be better churches if they resemble the same kind of local church(es) that have cultivated a quality relationship with the missionary who facilitated their own rooting and grounding. If missionaries and local churches work in tandem (as it seems they were designed to do), then the cycle will simply continue. Aubrey Malphurs says of church planting and its ultimate goal,

“We are not to start just any kind of church; they should be Great Commission churches. These are churches that take most seriously Jesus’s command to make disciples! Making disciples begins with evangelism and continues with edification or the building up of the saints in the faith with the ultimate goal of their attaining spiritual maturity (Col. 1:28–29; Heb. 5:11–6:1).”[5]

Malphurs’ statement brings us back to the beginning; the Church acts most like she should when she fulfills the role for which she has been created. The goal of newly planted church is the same as the missionary, and it is the same as the established local church congregation. When the established local church is healthy, she will serve her role well as a support structure for the missionary and a model for the church plants that (by God’s grace) result from his efforts. When the missionary is healthy, he will serve his role well as an evangelist and facilitator for the eventual indigenous church plant(s) as well as a motivation and inspiration for the congregants who support him. When the indigenous church plant is healthy, she will repeat the cycle with new missionaries and fresh groups of newly converted Christians.

There are so many benefits to this relationship that a brief work such as this cannot explore them all. Suffice it to say that the coalescing of churches and missionaries is a recipe for enjoying vibrant, Great Commission assemblies of vigorous, missional disciples of Christ – both locally and globally.

 

[1]Dever, Mark. The Church: The Gospel Made Visible. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2012.

[2]Crider, Caleb, Larry McCrary, Rodney Calfee, and Wade Stephens. Tradecraft: For the Church on Mission. Portland, OR: Urban Loft Publishers, 2013.

[3]Stetzer, Ed. Planting Missional Churches. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2006.

[4]Crider, Caleb, Larry McCrary, Rodney Calfee, and Wade Stephens. Tradecraft: For the Church on Mission. Portland, OR: Urban Loft Publishers, 2013.

[5]Malphurs, Aubrey. The Nuts and Bolts of Church Planting: A Guide for Starting Any Kind of Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011.

A Theology of Church Growth & Outreach

Church growth and church outreach have been topics of interest among church leaders for a long time.  These subjects are not new.  In fact, the biblical record can give us some incredible insight into these concentrated areas.

Far from being a field through which we may walk, seeking to ‘cherry pick’ verses to fit our agenda, the Bible is the storehouse of harvested wisdom and the place that one ought to begin his or her investigation of what it means for a church to be involved in outreach and experience real growth.  There are at least several things of which we may be certain as we study the biblical text with a keen eye towards the areas outreach and church growth.

The first thing we may clearly understand about outreach from the scriptures is that God intends His people to reach out.  There are many things that one might consider the ‘outreach efforts’ of a church, so it seems that defining biblical and effective outreach would be a good starting point.  Outreach may be defined as sharing in the ministry of proclaiming the message of Christ – the ministry of reconciliation – and living in (Gal. 5:25), walking in (Gal. 5:16, 25), keeping in step (Gal. 2:14) with that message and its implications.

One of the most famous passages in the Bible is the one found at the very end of Matthew’s gospel.  Jesus says to His disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).  There is much more that could be said of these verses, but we can at least see that there is indeed a great commission given here.

Jesus tells His followers that they are to be the ones who will now take the content of the message that Jesus Himself came to proclaim – namely the declaration of God’s grace upon sinful humanity (Luke 4:16-21, cf. Isaiah 61:1-2) – to the ends of the earth.  With the commission comes the promise that Jesus Christ, by His Spirit, will be with them in their outreach endeavor.

Discipleship seems to be defined, at least in overarching terms, by Jesus in the words that describe the activity of “discipling all nations.”  Baptize and teach are the two imperatives, and these are under the lead imperative of “make disciples.”  Therefore, outreach and church growth are closely linked, and outreach is every Christian disciple’s commission as well as privilege.

The effectiveness of a church’s outreach may be entirely based on its depth of its spiritual growth and understanding of the Gospel message.  Those who have received the message of hope, and trust in the Object of that message, will seemingly have an expected inclination to share that same hope-filled message with others.  A close consideration of what has actually transpired in order for a sinner to be redeemed will be helpful here.

The Apostle Paul says, “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.  More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (Romans 5:10-11).  Once we sinners were enemies of God and under His judgment.  Now, because of the death and life of Christ, we currently enjoy and look forward to the day when we will ultimately enjoy complete reconciliation with the God of our salvation.

As a Christian comes to understand more profoundly the reality of his or her new position before God, especially when contrasted with their previous position, he or she will likely become a more enthusiastic participant in the ministry of reconciliation – or outreach.  Turning again to the Apostle Paul, he says elsewhere, “All this is from God [the passing from death and judgment to life and new creation], who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18-20).  In other words, we who have been reconciled have received not only our own reconciliation from God, but we have also received the commission from God to play a role in His ministry of declaring reconciliation upon others.

This is a marvelous and humbling reality for all Christians – we have been reconciled and we have been given the ministry of reconciliation, or we who are the beneficiaries have become the heralds of the same Gospel that we received.  Therefore, God intends His people to be actively reaching out with this message of hope.

The second thing that we discover clearly presented in the scriptures concerning outreach is that Christians are expected to stir one another up towards such efforts.  In addition to finding our motivation for outreach efforts in our own reconciliation, we may also find further encouragement towards this ministry in the camaraderie of our fellow Christian community.  The author of Hebrews writes, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25).

Two things seem to jump out from this text immediately.

One, love and good works are to be the theme of Christian life and activity.  Throughout the letter to the Hebrews, the author has been laboring the point that Jesus is the all-sufficient Savior.  Significantly, Christ has performed all that is necessary for sinners to be redeemed and glorified, and He has performed this task in exemplary fashion.  Jesus is the perfect example of all that He is and does – and this is particularly of interest to us because Jesus is both God and man.  Therefore, He is the perfect example for humanity in all that He did and does.  No one can be compared with Christ when it comes to love and good works.  His love was unconditional and His good works were (and are) the evidence of such love.  From self-sacrifice to enriching others in notably personal ways, Jesus is the quintessential picture of what a Christian life ought to look like.

Two, love and good works are clearly encouraged by other believers in the context of time and life spent together.  Love and good works are not meant to be done in passing at a weekly church meeting or merely articulated through some media outlet.  This may get more to the heart of what discipleship actually looks like, but doing life together is where love and good works are actually manifested.  Whether by living out a life of love and good works, or by lacking these in one way or another, only in regular close proximity are Christians able to stir one another to such love and good works.  It simply is not possible for real discipleship to take place without the deep relationship of Christian life upon Christian life.

Both love and good works are two sides of the same coin; good works evidences love, and one will not be present without the other.  These are to be enjoyed by all those who interact with Christians.  Believers and non-believers alike may benefit from the operation of love and good works in and through the life of a Christian.  Non-believers can especially profit from these in the area of outreach.

There may be much more consideration given to the form that love and good works takes on in each local context, but that Christians should impact their community with love and good works is evident.  God has instituted a community of faith wherein all believers are to stir one another towards love and good works as they live in step with the Gospel together.

The third and overarching characteristic of outreach that one might find in the biblical text is that it may be performed with confidence.  Christians may have the full confidence that the Gospel message they proclaim is true, and the One who promises to save will not prove to be unfaithful.  The author of Hebrews says, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23).

“Hope,” translated here from the Greek word elpidos, does not mean wishful thinking.  The term loses a bit of its original intent if we hear it with our contemporary ears.  Hope, in the biblical sense of the word, is much more akin to a confident expectation than to a mere possibility.  This has big implications for the confidence of every Christian – both for personal assurance and for public declaration.

Every Christian may indeed hold fast to their confident expectation of ultimate glory.  Why?  Because He who promised has demonstrated that He is faithful!  God has actually and surely saved sinners through the substitutionary obedience and sacrifice of Christ!  We can proclaim this truth with supreme confidence and more than sufficient evidence.

Christians may also proclaim the Gospel message in different ways and in diverse relationships with full confidence that sinners will be saved.  The Apostle Paul says, “If you confess with you mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.  For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’” (Romans 10:9-11).

The imperative here is to believe and confess, but the indicative (that which will be the subsequent result) is that salvation will accompany such belief and confession.  Christians may declare to their unbelieving friends that they not only might be saved upon placing full trust in the risen Lord, but that they most certainly will be saved.

Not everyone who hears the Gospel message will believe.  In fact, many will reject the claims of Christ and the claims of those who have trusted Him.  Conversion may be the result of evangelism, but it is not the ultimate goal; God’s glory is the ultimate goal of evangelism.  Christians glorify God in an accurate presentation of the character and nature of God, particularly as He has demonstrated and revealed Himself in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  We play the role of ‘planting and watering’ the seeds of truth, and it is God who causes the growth (1 Corinthians 3:5).  Additionally, we may endure the rejection and assault of as many as will not receive the Gospel message in order that we may continue to proclaim it for the sake of those who will (2 Timothy 2:10).  We proclaim this beautiful message of reconciliation and do so with total confidence in the God of salvation; He will do what He said He would do.

Outreach is the individual and collective participation of Christians in the ministry of reconciliation.  The particular application of what outreach looks like may vary greatly from one church to another and from one situation to another within each church.  The Bible is full of examples of outreach.  They are so numerous and distinctive that it seems foolish to attempt to construct a rigid theological framework around the method(s) of outreach and evangelism.

Of two things we can be sure; (1) the content of the Gospel message is essential to biblical outreach, and (2) that message may be communicated through all sorts of mediums.  Christians may, therefore participate in the ministry of reconciliation, live in step with that message as the Spirit of God empowers such life, and do so with tremendous confidence in the God of all salvation.

Church growth will positively impact outreach and will be positively impacted by outreach.  As was mentioned before, the two are closely linked.  While it is not true that every local community of believers must needs increase in number or that God promises to provide such inflation, God does indeed glorify Himself in the inevitable growth of His universal Church.  We may benefit from turning to the Scriptures once more, this time for wisdom and clarity on the subject of church growth.

First, any growth that a church enjoys is from God and according to His providential and gracious activity.  For the sake of clarity, church growth (at least in the sense it will be used in this essay) is not tantamount to numerical increase in any particular local church.  Instead, church growth is the deepening of spiritual maturity and the numerical proliferation of the universal body of Christ.  Church growth then will have a varying impact on all local churches, possibly even a negative effect on local churches who have become less than Gospel-centered or so liberal that they have lost the Gospel altogether.  Again, God providentially and graciously moves to grow His kingdom, the body of Christ, as He sees fit.

The Apostle Paul says, “Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God” (Colossians 2:18-19).  Paul’s letter to the Christians at Colossae includes this section of encouragement, which is that his readers hold fast to God/Christ – who is the Head of the body – as they understand their own operation as members of that body.  Elsewhere in 1 Corinthians 12, Paul goes into greater explanation of the relationship of one member to another.  Here we may at least understand his point that Christ is the head of the Church and He is the one that grows the Church with a growth that is ‘from God.’  Far from being attributable to man in any way, genuine church growth is from God.

Laboring this point further, and turning now to the book mentioned previously, Paul charges the Corinthian Christians to keep from forming factions around any particular man or group.  He says, “What is Apollos?  What is Paul?  Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each.  I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.  So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.  He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor.  For we are God’s fellow workers.  You are God’s field, God’s building” (1 Corinthians 3:5-9).  It seems Paul is not willing that anyone misunderstand his idea here.

There are at least three things of important note in this passage.

One, Paul says that he and Apollos are “servants through whom you [those Corinthian Christians] believed as the Lord assigned to each.”  The Lord’s assignment may be the ‘servant’ to the ‘believer’ or the ‘believer’ to the ‘servant,’ but either way this has profound implications concerning the numerical result of any Gospel ministry.  This statement clearly presents God as an ‘assigner’ of ministerial charge and reception.  Deeper study may demonstrate that both are surely assigned by God.  God distributes the one who spends incredible time and effort in Gospel ministry to the field in which he toils; and God consigns the believers who are regenerated by the Holy Spirit through the use of such ordinary means of grace – the preaching of God’s word – to the undershepherd in whose care they have been placed.

Two, Paul says emphatically, “Neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything.”  Now, most ministers would not likely consider their efforts “nothing;” and it does not seem that Paul intends to describe Gospel ministry as nothing here.  Yet, it does seem that he intends to make perfectly clear that all the effort in Gospel ministry that can be conjured by all humanity will amount to ‘nothing’ on its own or without something or someone else.  Unless or until God moves in such a way as to provide or generate growth, it will at best remain potential rather than actual.

Three, “God gives the growth.”  This statement needs no lengthy explanation.  God alone, only, and singularly is responsible and due glory for any growth of His Church.  When His good pleasure is to generate growth, His body will indeed grow.  All genuine, Gospel-centered growth that any local church enjoys is due to the sovereign work of God in and through the means of grace and by the power of His Spirit.

Because church growth is from God, we may secondly understand that church growth is inevitable.  Christ, God the Son, has stated in no uncertain terms that He is about the work of growing His church.  “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16-18).  Whatever else Jesus Christ is saying here about Peter or the ‘rock’ upon which He will build His Church, He is at the very least declaring that He will definitely build His Church, and His Church growth production will actually be successful.  This clear pronouncement from the lips of Christ cannot be overstated. Coupled with the declaration of Christ (already cited in the previous section on the ministry or outreach of the Church) in the Great Commission, which seems to be the method by which He will do such a thing, Christians may be fully confident that Christ/God is successfully building His Church and will continue to be thus.

Briefly recalling the powerful claim of Jesus in Matthew 28, He says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples… And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20, abbreviated).  The King of heaven and earth says to ‘make disciples,’ and He will be with His disciple makers all along the way through the end of the task – He will build His Church!  Of this we may have no doubt – Church growth is inevitable.

Third and finally, Church growth is ultimately to the glory of God.  Because it is from Him and empowered by Him, it is to Him and to His glory that the task be done.  It is true that all things are created for the glory of God, chiefly God’s apex creation – man.  Everything of creation, because of the fall, has been marred by sin, but the purpose for which creation was brought into being has not changed.  In the current estate of creation, God is pleased to bring sinful rebels into His Kingdom – the Kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (Col. 1:13-14).  This extension of His Kingdom is for His glory and for the benefit of sinners.

The Apostle Paul says, “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were to first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory.  In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:11-14).  So much more is said here than what is of particular interest to the topic at hand, but there are at least a few things that apply.

Once again, as has already been presented at length, any who are beneficiaries of the ‘obtained inheritance’ have been ‘predestined’ thus ‘according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.’  God is the Giver of growth and the Appropriator of the same.  Additionally, the growth of each individual member of Christ’s body (to draw upon the analogy used previously) is ‘guaranteed’ to continue in growth until he or she is fully matured and takes complete possession of the promise in glory.  Lastly, and of great importance to the subject of church growth to the glory of God, both the obtaining of the inheritance and the delivery of such endowment is ‘to the praise of HIS glory’ (emphasis added).

God is about His glory!  He glorifies Himself in the conversion of sinners, the regeneration of dead men to life in Christ Jesus.  The growth of God’s Kingdom through the proclamation of the Gospel is to the praise of His glorious grace.  He also glorifies Himself in the sanctification of those He has redeemed.  The growth of love and good works (Heb. 10:23) enjoyed by the Church and by all those who are touched by her is to the praise of His glorious consecration.  God ultimately will, and now does, glorify Himself in the total salvation of all those who are found in Christ.  The steadfast God who is worthy of our confident hope above any other guarantees the growth to maturity, which every Christian will enjoy – sinners will be glorified to the praise of His glorious splendor!

We may at this point breathe in a restful sigh of worshipful serenity in the God of our salvation, for He does and will glorify Himself in our salvation and that of others.  However, as with seemingly every aspect of theology, there is a bit more that might take us over the superlative edge.  Just after the Apostle Paul speaks of the ‘mystery’ of the gospel, he closes the section of his letter to the Christians in Ephesus that consists of the basis for the unity and life of love, which is the thrust of the remainder of this letter, with a call to look to and trust God for that which only He can do.

He says, “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (Ephesians 3:20-21).

Through all generations this same God who works within us to will and to do His good pleasure will do far more than we might ask or think.  The fullness of His redeeming work, sanctifying progress, and glorifying result is too high for us to comprehend!

He who is able to do far more than our minds may conceive, to Him be glory.  To Him be glory in the Church – in the salvation and loving good works of those who are compelled by the Spirit of Christ towards such activity of thought, word and deed.  To Him be glory in Christ Jesus – as the Gospel of Jesus Christ is spread abroad by participants in the ministry of reconciliation and glorifies God in the exaltation of His triune salvific work.  To Him be glory throughout all generations – every generation that passes one to the next will be to His glory as sinners of a new demographic come to understand their universal dependence upon God’s gracious grace.

To Him be glory forever and ever – for we who are the redeemed will be the venerating display of God’s saving work among a sinful creation in order that all eternity will know that God is both the just and the justifier of all those who have faith in Jesus Christ!  Amen.

Contentment in Christ

Contentment is Serenity, Gladness, Satisfaction, Pleasure, Happiness; It is defined as the state of being contented; satisfaction; ease of mind.

The essence or heart of all the commands of God is summed up by Jesus in the single greatest command to love God with all your heart, soul and mind (Matt. 22:37).  In other words, look to God alone for the true satisfaction, gladness, serenity and contentment of your heart, your soul and your mind.

All sinful expression may be boiled down to some pursuit of contentment – either of the heart, the soul or the mind – in some thing or place other than the God of the universe.  Look to the times when you and I sin… this is where we may find our desire to find our contentment in people, stuff, reputation or life experience – rather than in God.

The painful reality is that you and I are adulterous, thieving, lying and covetous people.

For now (and always), let us both rejoice in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  He is not adulterous, thieving, lying or covetous.  He is faithful, diligent, honest, and perfectly contented.

This is great news, not simply because of His example, but because He is our representative – the substitute for all those who trust in Him!  God the Father looked to Christ the Son and judged Him, the righteous and obedient servant, evil so that those of us who actually are evil would be given Jesus’ perfect righteousness.

What a beautiful scandal of grace!  Oh, that my heart and yours would behold this wonderful Gospel more clearly today…

My hope and yours is not that we might become faithful enough, diligent enough, or honest enough that we are acceptable before God.  Certainly we strive for a life of holiness, but… Our hope is that God has declared us perfectly faithful, diligent and honest – not because we practically are such, but because Christ has covered our rebellion and given us His righteous obedience!

Today, let us be content to behold (drink in with your mind’s eye) the King of Glory as we remember that He is our Redeemer (the one who bought us back from bondage at great personal cost) and not our Judge (the one who rightly condemns us for being the sinful rebels we are)!

Jesus Christ is the focal point of all true Worship in both the Old and New Testaments

Both the New and Old Testaments are acutely focused upon the basis and Object of worship.

Misconception #1:  The New Testament cares more about the heart of the worshiper than the Old Testament.

1) The OT is deeply concerned with the heart of the worshipers and the Object that they worshiped.  The list could be much longer, but these verses will do well to support the point.  Pay careful attention to the last citation here, for it has a direct reference to the issue at hand – namely the heart of worship is emphasized strongly in the OT.

  • God commands, “love and serve Me with all your heart and soul.” (Dt. 10:12)
  • “Circumcise the foreskin of your heart.” (Dt. 10:16)
  • Again, “love the LORD you God, and serve Him with all your heart…” (Dt. 11:13)
  • “Put away foreign gods and incline your heart to the LORD, the God of Israel.” (Joshua 24:23)
  • God rebukes His people for they, “said in [their] heart, ‘I am, and there is no one besides me.’” (Is. 47:10)
  • God rejects the outward displays of worship, because the heart of the worshipers is wicked… “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? …I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts… When you came to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts?… When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen.”  (Is 1:11-15)

Misconception #2: The Old Testament cares more about the practice of worship than the New Testament.

2) The NT is just as concerned with the manner of worshipers’ approach to God as the OT.  This list also could go on further, but it is likely that my point will not require much more than a few examples here.

  • Humans are still required to approach God through propitiating sacrifice and after their sin has been covered. (Romans 3:21-26)
  • The person and work of Christ justifies and only through Him does any human have access to the Father. (Romans 5:1-2)
  • Christians possess a righteousness, i.e. the ability to approach God, that has come from Christ (Phil. 3:9)

Misconception #3:  The worshipers’ approach to God in the Old Testament is different from or separate from the approach that New Testament worshippers must take.

3) The overwhelming point of the OT worship practices is to provide a type, shadow, or example of who and what Christ will be (from our future perspective – who and what Christ is).  Therefore, the OT does and should concentrate heavily on numerous specific practices and methods for approaching the one and only Holy God of all creation.  The NT also concentrates heavily on the single person and work, which has been displayed as the substance of these shadows, the antitype of these types, the real form of all these examples.

Both testaments point to the methods, modes and practices

Both testaments point to the heart of the worshipers. 

Both view each of these issues with great emphasis.

The OT emphasizes the shadows and the heart of the worshipers in relation to their trust in the promise…  The NT emphasizes the substance of the shadows and the heart of the worshipers in relation to their trust in the promise.

The promise in both testaments is that God will glorify, is now sanctifying, and has redeemed and justified sinful people through His own initiative and action.

Therefore, it is critical to lift up the continuity of the testaments concerning the basis (God-initiated mediation – ultimately Christ in both testaments) and Object (the one true God) of worship, while recognizing there is diversity in the outward practices of worship.