How many times have you heard that the church is not a place but a people? Across the board, from more traditional to more experimental approaches to ministry, the dominant perspective seems to be that we gather on the Lord’s Day primarily in order to do something for God and each other rather than first of all to receive something from God. Drawing on Darrell Guder, Emerging church leader Dan Kimball has recently argued that in its emphasis on the “marks of the church” (preaching and sacrament) the Reformation inadvertently turned the focus away from the church-as-people who do certain things to the church-as-place where certain things are done.
But there’s nothing inadvertent about it. With Scripture itself, the Reformers were very explicit about the fact that we come to church first of all because the Creator of the universe has summoned us to appear before him in his court. Entering as his covenant people, we invoke the name of Christ for our salvation, God addresses us again in judgment and forgiveness, and we respond with our “Amen!” of faith and thanksgiving for who God is and what he has done for us. The gifts of the Father in the Son by the Spirit come first; our action is a response to God’s action.
Because the church is first of all a place where God does certain things, it becomes a people who do certain things. We cannot take God’s action for granted or assume that it has been done in the past. Christ, both Lord and Savior of his church, appointed an official ministry (including officers) so that he could continue to serve his covenant people and extend his kingdom of grace to the ends of the earth by his Spirit. Even in the present-every time we gather-it is God who summons us in judgment and grace. It is not our devotion, praise, piety, or service that comes first, but God’s service to us. This is why we must assemble at a place where the gospel is truly preached, the sacraments are administered according to Christ’s institution, and there is a visible form of Christ’s heavenly reign through officers whom he has called and sent.
Pastors, teachers, and elders are not “life coaches” who help us in our personalized goals for spiritual fitness, but gifts given by the Ascended Lord so that the whole church might become mature and less susceptible to being spiritually duped (Eph. 4:1-16).
The reigning paradigm of churches today, however, seems to be quite different. Two characteristics especially stand out when we think of American Christianity: activism and individualism. Known for our self-confidence, Americans do not like to be on the receiving end. Even when we are receiving something, we prefer to think of it as something we deserve rather than an outright gift.
We’re also individualists. We do not like to be told who we are and what we need by someone else-even God-but would much rather decide who we are or will be and determine our own felt needs accordingly. Our emphasis on choice in this culture collides with the biblical emphasis on God’s electing, redeeming, and calling grace as well as the covenantal, communal, and corporate nature of our growth in Christ. Even when we come to church, it is often as individual consumers of spiritual experiences, with opportunities for self-expression in worship and “finding our ministry” in the church rather than being beneficiaries of God’s gifts to us through servants whom he has called to be our shepherds under Christ (see Eph. 4:1-16).
Not surprisingly, ministers today are regarded more as “life coaches” who facilitate our self-transformation than as ambassadors of Christ, devoted to the Word of God and prayer, so that they can spread a feast on behalf of the King for his people in this world. If the focus of our message falls on our “willing and running” rather than on God’s mercy (Rom. 9:16), it will follow that our methods will concentrate almost exclusively on finding the best techniques for transforming ourselves and others. It is a simultaneously activistic and individualistic approach. Yet this subverts God’s whole intention on the Lord’s Day. He comes not to help you “become a better you,” but to kill you and raise you together with Christ as part of his redeemed body.
Churches of the Reformation have always agreed that the true church is found wherever the gospel is truly preached and the sacraments are administered according to Christ’s institution. But this means that the public ministry provided on the Lord’s Day is primarily God’s ministry to us. We are not individuals who come together simply for fresh marching orders for transforming ourselves and our culture, but sinners who come to die and to be made alive in Christ-no longer defined by our individual choices and preferences (the niche demo-graphics of our passing age), but by our incorporation into Christ and his body.
Even the purpose of our singing is not self-expression (witnessing to our own piety), but is to “teach and admonish one another in all wisdom” so that “the word of Christ [may] dwell in you richly” (Col. 3:16), “giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of Jesus Christ” (Eph. 4:20). We come to invoke the name of our Covenant Lord, to hear his law and receive his forgiveness. Only then are we able to receive his gifts with the “Amen!” of faith and repentance, with a heart full of thanksgiving toward God and love toward our neighbors.
But if “church” is primarily about what individuals do (even if they happen to do it in the same building), then it stands to reason that our services will focus on motivating us for action rather than ministering to us God’s action here and now in the Spirit, through Word and sacrament, that which he has already accomplished for us objectively in Jesus Christ. The liturgy will be replaced with various announcements of church programs; the songs will simply be opportunities for self-expression; the preaching will largely consist of tips for transformation; baptism and the Supper will afford opportunities merely for us to commit and recommit ourselves rather than serve as means of grace.
Before long, it will be easy for churches to imagine that what happens on the Lord’s Day is less important than what happens in small groups or in the private lives of individual Christians. In fact, this is explicitly advocated today.
In a fairly recent study, Willow Creek-a pioneer megachurch-discovered that its most active and mature members are the most likely to be dissatisfied with their own personal growth and the level of teaching and worship that they are receiving. From this, the leadership concluded that as people mature in their faith, they need the church less. After all, the main purpose of the church is to provide a platform for ministry and service opportunities to individuals rather than a means of grace. As people grow, therefore, they need the church less. We need to help believers to become “self-feeders,” the study concluded. (1)
How far can this trajectory take us? Evangelical marketer George Barna gives us a good indication. Like the recent Willow Creek study, Barna concludes that what individual believers do on their own is more important than what the church does for them. Barna, however, takes Finney’s legacy to the next logical step. A leading marketing consultant to megachurches as well as the Disney Corporation, he has recently gone so far as to suggest that the days of the institutional church are over. Barna celebrates a rising demographic of what he calls “Revolutionaries”-“millions of believers” who “have moved beyond the established church and chosen to be the church instead.” (2) Since “being the church” is a matter of individual choice and effort, all people need are resources for their own work of personal and social transformation. “Based on our research,” Barna relates, “I have projected that by the year 2010, 10 to 20 percent of Americans will derive all their spiritual input (and output) through the Internet.” (3) Who needs the church when you have an iPod? Like any service provider, the church needs to figure out what business it’s in, says Barna:
Ours is not the business of organized religion, corporate worship, or Bible teaching. If we dedicate ourselves to such a business we will be left by the wayside as the culture moves forward. Those are fragments of a larger purpose to which we have been called by God’s Word. We are in the business of life transformation. (4)
Of course, Barna does not believe that Christians should abandon all religious practices, but the only ones he still thinks are essential are those that can be done by individuals in private, or at most in families or informal public gatherings. But by eliminating the public means of grace, Barna (like Willow Creek) directs us away from God’s lavish feast to a self-serve buffet.
Addressing his readers in terms similar to the conclusions of the Willow Creek study cited above, Barna writes, “Whether you choose to remain involved in the congregational mold or to venture into the spiritual unknown, to experience the competing dynamics of independence and responsibility, move ahead boldly. God’s perspective is that the structures and routines you engage with matter much less than the character and commitments that define you.” Believers need not find a good church, but they should “get a good coach.” If the gospel is good advice rather than good news, obviously the church is simply “a resource” for our personal development, as Barna suggests. (5)
If the local church is to survive, says Barna, authority must shift from being centralized to decentralized; leadership from “pastor-driven” to “lay-driven,” which means that the sheep are primarily servers rather than served by the ministry. Further, ministry must shift from “resistance” to change to “acceptance,” from “tradition and order” to “mission and vision,” from an “all-purpose” to a “specialized” approach to ministry, “tradition bound” to “relevance bound,” from a view of the people’s role as receivers to actors, from “knowledge” to “transformation.” (6)
“In just a few years,” Barna predicts, “we will see that millions of people will never travel physically to a church, but will instead roam the Internet in search of meaningful spiritual experiences.” (7) After all, he adds, the heart of Jesus’ ministry was “the development of people’s character.” (8) “If we rise to the challenge,” says Barna, America will witness a “moral resurgence,” new leadership, and the Christian message “will regain respect” in our culture. (9) Intimate worship, says Barna, does “not require a ‘worship service,'” just a personal commitment to the Bible, prayer, and discipleship. (10) His book concludes with the warning of the last judgment: “What report of your commitment to practical, holy, life-transforming service will you be able to give Him?” (11) The Revolutionaries have found that in order to pursue an authentic faith they had to abandon the church. (12)
This is finally where American spirituality leaves us: alone, surfing the Internet, casting about for coaches and teammates, trying to save ourselves from captivity to this present age by finding those “excitements” that will induce a transformed life. Increasingly, the examples I have referred to are what people mean by the adjective “missional.”
Like the nineteenth-century revivalist Charles Finney, George Barna asserts that the Bible offers “almost no restrictions on structures and methods” for the church. (13) In fact, as we have seen, he does not even think that the visible church itself is divinely established. Nature abhors a vacuum and where Barna imagines that the Bible prescribes no particular structures or methods, the invisible hand of the market fills the void. He even recognizes that the shift from the institutional church to “alternative faith communities” is largely due to market forces: “Whether you examine the changes in broadcasting, clothing, music, investing, or automobiles, producers of such consumables realize that Americans want control over their lives. The result has been the ‘niching’ of America-creating highly refined categories that serve smaller numbers of people, but can command greater loyalty (and profits).” The same thing is happening to the church, Barna notes, as if it were a fate to be embraced rather than an apostasy to be resisted. (14)
However thin, there is a theology behind Barna’s interpretation of Jesus as the paradigmatic “Revolutionary,” and it is basically that of Finney. “So if you are a Revolutionary,” says Barna, “it is because you have sensed and responded to God’s calling to be such an imitator of Christ. It is not a church’s responsibility to make you into this mold….The choice to become a Revolutionary-and it is a choice-is a covenant you make with God alone.” (15) In this way, however, the work of the people displaces the work of God.
The gospel is good news. The message determines the medium. There is a clear logic to Paul’s argument in Romans 10, where he contrasts “the righteousness that is by works” and “the righteousness that is through faith.” We were redeemed by Christ’s actions, not ours; the Spirit applies this redemption to us here and now so that we are justified through faith apart from works; even this faith is given to us through the proclamation of Christ. Since this gospel is a report to be believed rather than a task for us to fulfill, it needs heralds, ambassadors, and witnesses.
The method of delivery is suited to its content. If the central message of Christianity were how to have your best life now or become a better you, then we wouldn’t need heralds, but rather life coaches, spiritual directors, and motivational speakers. Good advice requires a person with a plan; good news requires a person with a message. This is not to say that we do not also need good advice or plans, but that the source of the church’s existence and mission in this world is this announcement of God’s victory in Jesus Christ.
Coaches can send themselves with their own suggestions, but an ambassador has to be sent with an authorized announcement. If the goal is to get people to go and find Christ, then the methods will be whatever we find pragmatically successful; if it’s all about Christ finding sinners, then the methods are already determined. Simply quoting verses 13-15 reveals the logical chain of Paul’s argument: “‘For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ 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? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?” The evangel defines evangelism; the content determines the methods of delivery; the marks of the church (preaching and sacrament) define its mission (evangelizing, baptizing, teaching, and communing).
The marks of the true church are the proper preaching of the Word, administration of the sacraments, and discipline. The mission of the church is simply to execute these tasks faithfully. Throughout the Book of Acts, the growth of the church is attributed to the proclamation of the gospel: “The word of God spread.” Waking the dead, this gospel proclamation is not only the content but the method. Those who believed were baptized along with their whole household. They were not simply added to the conversion statistics, but to the church-the visible church, which is no more visible in this world than when it is gathered around the Lord’s Table in fellowship with their ascended head. Furthermore, the apostles and elders-and, by Acts 6, the deacons-served the church as officers representing Christ’s threefold office of Prophet, King, and Priest.
We find no dichotomy between the official ministry of the church as a historical institution and the Spirit-filled mission of reaching the lost. The mission expanded the church; it did not subvert it. Through this ministry, “The Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). So when evangelists today qualify their invitation to receive Christ by saying, “I’m not talking about joining a church,” they are stepping outside of the mission established by Jesus Christ and evidenced in the remarkable spread of the gospel under the ministry of the apostles.
Christ has not only appointed the message, but the methods and, as we have seen, there is an inseparable connection between them. All around us we see evidence that churches may affirm the gospel of salvation by grace alone in Christ alone through faith alone, but then adopt a methodology that suggests otherwise. Christ has appointed preaching, because “faith comes by hearing the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17); baptism, because it is the sign and seal of inclusion in Christ; the Supper, because through it we receive Christ and all of his benefits. In other words, these methods are appointed precisely because they are means of grace rather than means of works; means of God’s descent to us rather than means of our ascent to God.
In this way, Christ makes himself not only the gift, but the giver; not only the object of faith, but the active agent, together with the Spirit, in giving us faith. And he not only gives us this faith in the beginning, but deepens, matures, and increases our faith throughout our lives. The gospel is not something that we need to “get saved” so that we can move on to something else; it is “the power of God unto salvation” throughout our pilgrimage. So we need this gospel to be delivered to us regularly, both for our justification and our sanctification.
We also need the law to guide our faith and practice. Christ not only saves, he rules. In fact, he rules in order to save. His sovereignty liberates us from oppression-not only the guilt and condemnation of our sins, but from the tyranny of sin. The gospel is not only enough for our justification; it is the source of our sanctification as we recognize that we are “dead to sin and alive to Christ.” The gospel tells us that Christ has toppled the reign of sin; it no longer has any legal authority or determining power over us. It can no longer define us. The old “I”-who was married to sin-has died, and we are now wedded to Christ and righteousness. The gospel is big news indeed. We need it not merely to subdue our doubts and insecurity, but our indwelling sin.
Submitting ourselves not only to the life-creating gospel but to the life-guiding commands of Scripture, we recognize our need for the spiritual oversight of our pastors and elders and the service of deacons. Like any family, the church needs proper discipline and order so that our personal and corporate life together will imperfectly but truly reflect the fact that the church is an embassy of Christ and the age to come even in this present evil age. God’s law, not our spontaneous sincerity, defines what we should do.
The individualistic emphasis of evangelicalism stands in sharp contrast to the covenantal paradigm that we find in Scripture. We are commanded not to become self-feeders who mature beyond the nurture of the church, but to submit ourselves to the preaching, teaching, and oversight of those shepherds whom God has placed over us in Christ. We read at the end of John’s Gospel the account of how Jesus made breakfast for seven of his astonished disciples in his third appearance after his resurrection:
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:15-17)
As the passage goes on to relate, Jesus was preparing Peter for a difficult ministry that would culminate in his own crucifixion (vv. 18-19). Unlike the false shepherds who scattered his flock (denounced in Jeremiah 23), the Good Shepherd has laid down his life for them and united them together under his gracious rule (John 10). And now through his under-shepherds Jesus will continue to feed his sheep and lead them to everlasting pastures. The church’s min-istry is exercised faithfully when the people are fed, not when the sheep are expected to become their own shepherds.
Christ does not deliver us from one tyrant only to leave us weak and isolated prey to weather, wolves, and our own wanderings. “Obey your leaders and submit to them,” Scripture exhorts, “for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Heb. 13:17-18).
Yet even this admonition is grounded in the gospel: submitting to the discipline of shepherds is an advantage to us because through it God promises all of his blessings in Christ.
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir 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 (Heb. 10:23-25).