Our church is in a very odd place; nearly five years after originally being planted, we are essentially in the process of replanting the church. One of the great oddities of our area is that it is very transient, people move in and out of the area frequently. In fact, I am told by several pastors who have been in this area 20 years or more, that a church needs to grow 15%-30% a year on average to keep pace with shrinkage from families moving away.
And last year we were hit especially hard, with roughly 3/4 of the church moving away. There are now former Piedmonters in New York, Texas, Oklahoma, Washington State, California, Arkansas, North Carolina, Florida, and Alaska (and I’m probably forgetting a few places) not to mention in other areas of Virginia.
While this comes with some very significant trials in terms of leadership, ministry and finances it also comes with opportunities. Apropos of where we are as a church, over the last 4 weeks I preached my first ever topical sermon series, Church 101, laying out some of the very basics of being a biblical church to remind us of who we are as a church, as we seek to rebuild and replant the church (you can listen to the whole series here).
And these are truths we need to be constantly reminded of, as the hymn Come Thou Fount points out, our hearts are prone to wander. These basics serve not only as a foundation to build on, but also as guard rails that keep churches from wandering into dangerous territory. Rather than doing an exhaustive study of all scripture has to say about the church, and how ministry in the church should be conducted, I limited the series to four basic truths about the church and how she ought to conduct herself.
The Identity of the Church
The most basic truth about the church that must be understood is who she is, the chosen people of God in the church age. Echoing words spoken to Israel at Sinai, Peter says to the church:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. – 1 Pt 2:9-10
Of course, Scripture says much more about the identity of the church. The two most common metaphors for the church in the New Testament are “the body of Christ” and “the Bride of Christ.” And if you study these metaphors you will find that the body metaphor always emphasizes the necessity of the service of all members of the church, and the bride metaphor always emphasizes the purity of the church.
Putting it all together we can say with confidence that the church is a chosen people of God, indivisible, where everyone should serve according to their giftedness, and where the purity of the body is never to be compromised.
The Purpose of the Church
This is an area where a lot of churches go astray, often with the best of intentions. The singular purpose of the church according to scripture is to glorify God. In Ephesians Paul links his discussion of the redemptive work of Christ and the mystery of the gospel and his discussion of the practicalities of church life with a prayer. And that prayer culminates in a doxology that reveals the singular purpose of the church.
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. – Eph 3:20-21
The local church is to be God centered, and focused on His glory in all it does. The worship service of the church should be focused on glorifying God. The church’s ministry of edification to itself should be focused on glorifying God. The church’s corporate witness to the word should be focused on glorifying God.
Where things often go off track is when one of these means of glorifying God is substituted as the purpose of the church; things can quickly go astray when witnessing to the world, or edifying the saints, or even corporate worship becomes the raison d’etre of the church instead of the glory of God.
The Authority of the Church
There is one and only one source of authority in the church, Scripture alone. And I can’t emphasize the alone enough. Too often traditions or preferences or personal convictions are added to Scripture, and when they are viewed as authoritative, the results for the church are disastrous.
One of the most stunning warnings in the New Testament is found in Paul’s letter to the Colossians.
See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. – Col 2:8
What is so stunning to me is the description of dogmatic adherence to philosophy and tradition, it is acting according to the elemental spirits of the world, not according to Christ. In other words, it is demonic.
Certainly, churches have preferences and convictions, and those are good things, but when those preferences whether about musical style or home schooling or how people ought to dress or anything else are held as being as authoritative as Scripture (and often functionally as more authoritative than Scripture) the church has seriously lost its way.
And there is an important corollary, Scripture is clear. Often attacks against the principle of Scripture alone are smuggled into the church by attacking the clarity of Scripture. Recently I heard someone make an extended attack on the sole authority of Scripture in the church by insisting the phrase “and things like these” in Galatians 5:21 referred to a variety of things (like singing Amazing Grace to the accompaniment of a piano and an electric base) that seemed to bear no resemblance at all to sexual immorality, sorcery, fits of anger or any of the other named sins in Galatians 5:19-21. But Scripture is clear, it makes wise the simple (Psalm 19:7) and even includes commands directly addressed to children (Eph 6:1; Col 3:20). Any attempt to shoehorn tradition or preference into scripture through attacks on it clarity must be seen for what it is, demonic. (You can find a fuller discussion of the clarity of Scripture here, here and here.)
The Message of the Church
In this age of cultural warfare and the casual mixing of politics and religion (I wrote a little about why I am apolitical and I think all churches should be here) it is imperative that churches never lose sight of the core message of the church and the message that God has entrusted to the church. The church must preach Christ and Him crucified. And why wouldn’t we? Consider Paul’s words to the Romans.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” – Rom 1:16-17
Nothing else we could possibly say is as important as what is the power of God for salvation. Of course, not every sermon preached is going to focus on the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, but every sermon must be preached in light of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. If an unbeliever can listen to a sermon in a church and not know the answer to “what must I do to be saved” or worse yet have no clue that he or she even needs to be saved, that church has abandoned the message of the church. As Charles Spurgeon said:
The motto of all true servants of God must be, ‘We preach Christ; and Him crucified.’ A sermon without Christ in it is like a loaf of bread without any flour in it. No Christ in your sermon, sir? Then go home, and never preach again until you have something worth preaching.
Of course, much more could be said about the church, but these basics provide a sound foundation to build on, as well as a needed hedge against wandering into unbiblical models of ministry. And whether you are starting a church, revitalizing a church or cruising along doing well as a church you can never be reminded of these basics too often.