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.
Well, it’s been quite some time since I last posted and I have every intention of being better about this work, but who knows how well I’ll do. Anyway ….
My wife and I went to see the new Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. It’s an interesting place to visit and you can easily spend an entire day there. Some of it is first rate, some is less so for a person who already knows a lot about the topic, and some is, well, vaguely irritating. I was especially turned off by a section quoting the deist Thomas Jefferson and the Unitarian John Adams about the importance of the Bible. But, all in all, it’s a trip worth doing.
I was most taken by a display of the first editions of Tyndale’s New Testament, the Coverdale Bible, the Geneva Bible, the Great Bible, the Bishop’s Bible and the King James Version. As an English speaking Christian there is a kind of thrill in thinking about the people who actually held those books in their hands and read God’s Word in their own language.
One of the troubling things about the visit was the amount of security they feel is necessary. There are guards stationed inside and outside the building. Metal detectors, of course, and some of the most interesting bag check machines I’ve ever seen were also present. I’ve been told that there were threats made against the museum while it was being built. Satan’s minions are ever active in this world and evidently this privately built 6 story museum just off Capitol Hill is deemed by our enemy to be dangerous to his plans.
My wife commented to me that any other book that had as much impact on the world as the Bible would be required reading in every school. And she’s absolutely correct. The Word of God comes off the pages with power and with effect. Nothing is so threatening to our debased and evil national culture as God’s Word found in Scripture. Nothing speaks Truth with such authority as Scripture. Nothing is more precious to those who have God’s Word than it is. And nothing has changed the world as much as the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen for us.
It is impossible to imagine Western Civilization without the Bible. Many of the common phrases used in conversation are the result of translation decisions made by men like Wycliffe and Tyndale. Slavery was abolished because of Christianity. Women received equal rights because of Christianity. Music and visual arts have been profoundly affected by Christianity. The first hospitals were inspired by the proclamation of the Gospel. Public education was started so men and women could read the Bible.
I could go on, but you get the idea. So if you have the opportunity to get to Washington, take the time to visit this museum. It could inspire you to open the book it celebrates a little more often.
Well, it’s happening again–some people have supposedly figured out that the Lord will come again this Saturday, September 23, 2017. I’m not sure of their exact calculations, but I’ve been told it’s based on some counting of Jubilee years. Now for all I know these folks could be right–but I’m still going to have a sermon ready for Sunday, just in case.
Repeatedly the Lord’s disciples asked Him when the Day of the Lord would occur, and repeatedly, Jesus told them to mind their own business. Now it seems to me that, if being faithful involves listening to God’s commands and obeying them, then the folks who keep trying to pick the date when the heavens will roll back and every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father, then, the folks who find messages hidden in the Bible text are straight up sinning.
I’m never quite sure why eschatological speculations are so pervasive in American Christianity. Why can we not be content with the work God has given us to do and allow the hidden things of God’s plan to remain hidden? Isn’t there something almost demonic about trying to discern those things known only to God? Doesn’t attempting to know the things God has told us we are not to know seem very much like Satan’s temptation in the Garden of Eden? “Go ahead,” the serpent told Eve, “eat it and you will be like God.” Now the enemy says go ahead, don’t spend your time on teaching and baptizing and things like that, spend it trying to figure out when the Day of the Lord will be.
Now I know there are many good and faithful Christians who have been taught to spend their time thinking about this stuff. But friends, it’s just plain wrong. It’s bad Biblical study and it’s a waste of the precious time God has given us to do the work He prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10)
So my advice to anyone who reads this is to stop worrying about the end of time and focus instead on who you’re going to tell about Jesus today. Because today is the only day we can know for sure.
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.