As I mentioned in my last post, I’m thinking about the nature and current state of the Church in the 21st century. Just to let you know up front, I am a committed congregationalist. I believe, as we say in the AFLC, that the local congregation is the right form of the Kingdom of God on earth.
That said, we must now answer what the nature of a true congregation might be. First and foremost, a true congregation is one which gets the Gospel right. There is no true Church where the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen for us is not frequently and properly proclaimed. One of the worse things that can be done by a preacher is to assume the Gospel is known and remembered among the people in the pews. Because the Gospel is so contrary to what our sin soaked minds can create, we must be reminded over and again just how we are justified before God. Our natures want to earn heaven so that we can be like God–the very sin our first parents committed. But that is impossible and so it is only through grace giving faith that salvation is possible.
If a congregation is to be Church, it must also be a living congregation. That is, the local congregation will not be Church if it is simply a gathering of friends or a club, or doers of good deeds or a group of people who gather in one place but neither share concern for one another and the trials of our lives. If a congregation is to be Church it should be a place where people of all sorts gather together for Word and Sacrament, share with one another our walk in this world with all of its joys and trials, and work together to build up the Kingdom of God on earth. Anything else would be a false “church”.
In my opinion huge congregations can be many things, but they fail at being the Church because they lack the closeness and shared life together that is required to be a free and living congregation. The former Pope Benedict, when he was a young priest, wrote a book in which he argued that no parish should have more than 300 members. If there are more than that, there is not a true community because of the inability to know one another in any meaningful sense of the term. It’s also just about the place where a solo pastor would no longer be able to do his service well.
There is another problem that comes with a large congregation–it is easy for people to hide there and not engage in the life of the Church. A living congregation, a true Church, has a place for the service of every member. There is no room for spiritual hitchhikers, every member in service ought always to be a goal of the true Church. Now some of our members might be physically or mentally unable to serve in most respects. But prayer is a service; telephone calls to shut ins is a service; buying flowers for the chancel is a service; and the list could go on. The point is that a living congregation is one in which all members know that they are a contributing part of the Kingdom of God–they are the Church.
Our congregation is at the beginning of a renewal program in which we are seeking to prepare ourselves for ministry in the years ahead. That and my reading material of late have caused me to spend a good amount of time thinking about the nature of the Church in our world. With this blog I’m going to begin a series of musings on what the Church is meant to be and where we are failing at that task–because I’ve come to believe that we are indeed failing.
The Reformers of the 16th century had to redefine what was meant by Church when they left the Roman communion. For centuries the Church meant the physical institution governed by the ecclesiastical hierarchy in Rome and its delegates around Europe. [There were, of course, other Christian churches, Eastern Orthodoxy, Coptic Christianity in Egypt and Ethiopia, etc. But the Reformers knew little of them and much of what they thought they knew was wrong. So for today I’ll talk only about Rome and the Reformation]
Accused of splitting the one holy catholic Church, the Reformers redefined the nature of the Church as consisting of the people of God known only to God, wherever they might have been. Wherever God’s people were, whether in Roman Catholicism, Lutheran polity or Reformed polity, they were part of the Church. Frankly there is more than a little sense to that because not everyone on the roles of a Church body is a saved saint of God.
That said, though, what of the visible Church, for there must be a visible Church according to the clear teachings of Scripture. The apostles had no thought of an unaffiliated Christianity, no thought that people would stay in their homes, believing in Christ but not associating in any organized way with other believers. Indeed, the author of Hebrews admonishes believers telling them they are not to cease to meet together.
Certainly at the very center of the Church Militant is the local congregation where believers gather to hear the Gospel proclaimed and to participate in the Sacraments God has established for His Church. At no other place do these events regularly happen, so we know that the Church is present where these things occur. But what about relationships outside the congregation? What is the role of the Church there? What are the relationships among Christians that make them the Church together?
In our nation today there are who knows how many “community churches” and para-church organizations and preachers who function under no one’s authority but their own and their personal perception of the will of God. I have come to believe that the Church, the Body of Christ on earth, is being harmed in many ways by this sort of “independence”. That’s what I’m going to be musing about in this space in the weeks ahead.
I’m teaching through 1 Thessalonians right now and I’m using multiple commentaries as part of my preparation. One is the popular Daily Study Bible Series by William Barclay. (Look, I know there are some problems with his theology, but that doesn’t mean there is no good fruit there. F. F. Bruce considered him a Christian brother so who am I to deny that assessment?)
Anyway, Barclay has this sentence in the commentary on 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12; “A tree is known by its fruits; and a religion is known by the kind of men it produces. The only way to demonstrate that Christianity is the best of all faiths is to show that it produces the best of all men.”
That raised the question for me–have I been one of the best of all men this week? Could people see Christ in me when they looked at my ways. Frankly, the answer is kind of mixed for me. Some see the caring pastor, but others see the guy who can be angry and dismissive. Some see a model of the faith, others see a man who is less than perfect in his family relationships. Some see a busy man who works hard, and others see someone who has a tendency to put things off until the last minute or find excuses for not doing what needs doing (apologies to Garrison Keillor).
Sometimes I think we are often too ready to use the idea that we are simultaneously saint and sinner as an excuse for failure to grow in sanctification. In chapter 4 Paul writes to the Thessalonians and to us that, “this is the will of God, your sanctification …”
So I ask you, friends, when someone looks at your life, do they see that faith in Christ produces the best of all men (and women)?
In the 18th century Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield were the principal leaders of something called the Great Awakening. The Holy Spirit moved with might and power in the American colonies with thousands coming to an assurance of their salvation and many more finding their faith strengthened and renewed. In the early 20th century there was another great revival in Wales. And there are many more we could name. These mighty works occur when the Church of Jesus Christ has fallen into a spiritual stagnation, a time when we go through the motions but we don’t live the faith. Friends, the Body of Christ in this country is now in just such a state.
Many people share my view of the situation, some are even trying to do something about it. But few are doing the things that have led to widespread revivals in the past. Too many believe that marketing techniques and entertainment oriented worship services will make the Church grow, and if it grows it will necessarily be revived. But revival is not about crowds. Revival is not about how we make people feel for an hour on Sunday morning. Revival is not about any of things the people who are focused on church growth are doing. Revival is about changing lives.
God used Jonathan Edwards, a thorough going 5 point Calvinist, to lead the Great Awakening in New England by preaching both Law and Gospel in their purity. It wasn’t through gimmicks and meeting the “felt needs” of the public that there was such a mighty movement of the Spirit there. No, friends, it was the proper preaching of the full counsel of God.
I told my confirmation class last week that if they ever hear someone get into a pulpit and preach, but omit the proclamation of the Gospel, they may have heard a good talk, but they did not hear a proper sermon. The job of a preacher in the pulpit is not to tell people how to make their marriages better or raise their kids better or any number of other good things that might be said. Such things belong in a Bible study, not a sermon. The sermon is the public proclamation of the Good News that sinners like us don’t have to go to hell because Christ Himself bore the punishment for their sins on the Cross at Calvary.
When people hear the pure Gospel and the Holy Spirit changes their hearts, that’s when lives are changed. That’s when renewal appears in a spiritually sluggish church. We don’t need gimmicks, we need the Gospel.
It’s time for a sleeping church to wake up. It’s time for pastors to return to preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen for us. It’s time, friends, time to rise and shine.
I usually check the obituaries every morning before I go to the church. I want to see if there is anyone listed who could be connected to a member of my congregation so I can be what they call proactive if that happens. Some obituaries are long and filled with all sorts of details of the person’s life. Others are short on information. But all of them mention the people who are grieving the impact of the death of a loved one on their lives.
One of the things I’ve noticed over the years is the decline in the number of people with a church affiliation. We used to at least see that someone was “of the Protestant faith”, but now we don’t even see that. Instead all we find are that they were alive and did stuff, now they’re dead and we’ll have a party to talk about them. It practically breaks my heart to see how many people are going to spend their eternity outside the presence of God–frankly, in hell.
When I perform a funeral (and I only perform funerals–never life celebrations) my sermon is always an evangelistic sermon. I know that there is almost always someone in front of me who does not know Jesus as their Lord and Savior and at least on that day they’re going to hear the Gospel. As someone else wrote recently, a funeral is not about the deceased and it’s not about those who remain–it’s about Jesus and His substitutionary death on the Cross and His resurrection from the grave, the first among many. If I know the deceased was a believer we’ll close the service singing Victory in Jesus.
What do you want your obituary to say to the world about you? Do you want it to recount your successes in this life? Maybe you want it to say how much you loved your family or your dog and how much you liked playing golf or bingo. I guess an obituary can have many things in it without going over the top. But I pray that the one thing it will say to the world is that you confessed with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believed in your heart that God raised Him from the dead that you might be saved unto eternity.
As fall creeps in on us the TV is filled with ads for the new movies coming to our local cinemas. Yesterday I saw one for the newest addition to our American culture–the assassin as hero. This is, by my count, the third motion picture this year to glorify people who kill other people for a living. Adding in television series’ that feature blow-em-up, shoot-em-down and then go out for a beer after work story lines, we seem to be a people entertained by violence–the more the better. If we add in the gratuitous sex scenes and the elevation of perversion to a positive good–well, back to my title–have we all gone stark raving mad?
What is behind this degeneration of our culture? Why is there no serious “push-back” from people against our glorification of what we have called sin for thousands of years? What has caused our people to be enamored of things which were either shunned or at least disliked by virtually everyone not too many years ago?
I have a tentative answer for that, but it’s only tentative. I believe we have become too individualistic in this country. We have too much democracy, too many “rights”, and not enough community. When I was in college I was a convinced libertarian. I borrowed my motto from a 19th century English woman whose name I now forget–I don’t care what people do as long as they don’t do it in the streets and frighten the horses. While that position modified as I grew older, and modified even more as I became a better Christian, it still fit in with a lot of my opinions. I have even voted Libertarian in several presidential elections. But I now see how wrong I was.
Society functions best when there are constraints on individual behavior such that good is promoted and evil is denounced. In this country we have experimented with removing those constraints and the results are horrible. Looking for statistics that indicate 21st century America is a just and good society is like looking for snallygasters–you can’t find them. Forty percent of babies are born out of wedlock. Half of all marriages end in divorce. Nearly half of the American people pay no federal income tax, essentially riding free on the national train. Our desires for the novel and the new are all consuming. Millions of babies have been murdered in abortion mills. Celebrities have more followers than Christianity. You all know how this can go on.
In the book of Hebrews the author tells us we are not to cease to meet together–in other words we’re not to cease going to Church. But I believe we can extend that idea a bit–we are not to cease to see ourselves as part of a larger community that has interests extending beyond our personally perceived well being. We have thrown aside all reason and inherited attachments to the seasoned and the accepted and replaced them with our own “feelings” and desires. We have become people whose inner sinfulness now knows no external boundaries. The America our ancestors sought to build is gone and I have no idea how to put that rabbit back in the hat. I suspect it’s too late for that.
But I do know this–no matter how degenerate our culture becomes, the Church of Jesus Christ will prevail. He has promised that not even the gates of hell could overcome the Church. Hard times are coming for the Church. We must put aside all thoughts of America being a Christian country. It’s not and it won’t be. We must be ready for persecution, for it is coming. And we must believe the promises of God that nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
I’ve been thinking a lot about worship lately and this is the second offering in this blog-series (!) Anyway, I mentioned in my first blog that true Christian worship is not about us doing something for God but about God doing many things for us. Today I want to think about how He does for us in the worship service.
First, God has chosen to work through what we call the means of grace. The means of grace are the Word preached and read, and the sacraments. There are many other things that are good gifts from God, but they are not means of grace. For example, confession is not a means of grace. The absolution given after confession is a means, but it is so only because it is drawn directly from God’s revealed Word in Scripture. An absolution that requires some work to be done, such as found in Roman Catholicism, is not a means of grace because it is not an application of grace but an application of Law. Neither is prayer a means of grace, but rather a means of communication. Of course prayer can give us comfort, but the grace of God shown forth in justification comes by the revealed Word only.
We must remember that what we know of God is only what He has chosen to reveal to us. His method of revealing Himself is in His Word found in Scripture. And therefore the written and spoken Word must be at the very center of all true worship. While I see true and God given grace at work in the services of our Reformed brethren, I find it somewhat sad that the only text read in many of their churches on a Sunday is the text the preacher is expounding. The Word of God from Genesis through Revelation is the means God uses to bring us to faith. And the Holy Spirit uses the preached Word to bring faith to people. “But how are they to call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? … So faith comes from hearing and hearing from the Word of Christ.” (Romans 10: 14, 17)
The Sacraments of Baptism and Communion are also means of grace because they apply the Word of God through external means to enact and strengthen the faith of God’s elect. “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved.” (Mark 16:16) “Baptism … now saves you.” (1 Peter 3:21) The question of why some who are baptized are not saved is always a sticky one until we learn to think about it rightly. Baptism, the Word and water, saves because it works faith in the heart of the elect through the Holy Spirit. It does not save those who are not elect. In the same way Holy Communion strengthens faith in the hearts of those elect who believe, but it also works to the condemnation of those who receive it without faith. That is why Communion is only for the baptized.
So God, who has elected those who will be saved, has also chosen those means through which their faith will be birthed and strengthened. There are no other ways because God has chosen only these.