Last Sunday, the day most churches gather to worship, if averages prove true, about 70 church congregations met for the last time. Studies show that somewhere between 3500-4000 churches closed their doors for good last year.
Jesus promised to build his church so despite the fact some local congregations cease to exist, this in no way negates Christ’s promise in Matthew 16. Nothing will stop the church, but it doesn’t mean a particular local body will last forever.
Sometimes in a desperate attempt to avoid this plight of the defunct local congregation, churches who struggle with declining attendance, declining giving, and declining enthusiasm will resort to all sorts of gimmickry to attempt to keep the machine running. This of course is nothing new. Paul exhorted his son in the faith, Timothy, to “preach the Word; be ready in season and out of season” (2 Tim 4:2). Exactly what the “season” is doesn’t really matter — the point is it’s always either in or out of “season,” so always preach the Word. The next verse is revealing and helpful. Paul tells Timothy there would be a time when “people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions” (2 Tim 4:3). Sadly, the market creates the minister.
How can we evaluate a ministry using biblical metrics? Ballooning attendance and a healthy budget does not necessarily equate to biblical. Some of the largest “churches” in the world today have very little glimmer of the true gospel or the markings of a biblical church. Counting nickels and noses does not measure true spiritual life.
To answer this question, a good place to go is to the Apostle Paul’s words in Colossians 1:28-29. While it’s not best to play favorites with books of the Bible, I have to admit, the book of Colossians strikes me as one of the most helpful books in the New Testament. Paul takes us on a journey from the heights of high Christology to the valleys of real life as he helps believers who are struggling with the reality of the sinful desires of the flesh. This book covers an amazing amount of theological ground in only four chapters. I want to draw our attention to the last two verses of Colossians 1. They serve as a paradigm for evaluating a ministry.
Ministry Proclaims Christ (Him we proclaim – 1:28)
The ESV translation of this verse preserves the original emphasis in the Greek by saying, “Him we proclaim.” While making for a slightly awkward English sentence, it’s spot on for the capturing the original emphasis. The point of any ministry is to proclaim Christ. Earlier in this chapter, Paul cites what was probably one of the earliest Christian hymns in verses 15-20. The verses are all about Christ’s supremacy in creation and his preeminence in redemption.
A ministry that hides their association with Christ is no ministry at all. To summarize what DA Carson has helpfully said, “The first generation believes the gospel, the second generation assumes the gospel, the third generation forgets the gospel.” We are always a generation away from losing the gospel. Whether we make the top 10 fastest growing churches in America list is irrelevant. Are we a faithful ministry saying, “Him we proclaim?”
Ministry Involves Everyone (warning everyone, teaching everyone, presenting everyone – 1:28)
Interestingly in verse 28, Paul uses the word everyone three different times. I wonder what he’s trying to say? Sadly, many associate themselves with the church but are little more than professional sermon listeners. What does it mean to include everyone?
Paul says proclaiming to everyone is going to happen through “warning” and “teaching.” Sometimes it’s necessary to admonish or warn believers. We tend to not like admonishment, right? But we need it.
Many people use multiple mirrors to get ready in the morning. Why is that? They need to know what’s going on back there. When the hair starts to fade, like mine, that’s not much of a concern. Your friends are like those mirrors, helping you see the blind spots. If you have friends who are loving enough to tell you the truth, be thankful for them.
Paul also says this process involves teaching. This happens in a number of ways. Of course, formalized teaching is a major part. The weekly teaching of the Word is paramount. But that’s not the end. Everyone is a teacher at some level or another. Someone is always watching. If you have kids, you know this is true!
Ministry Remembers Its Purpose (to present…complete in Christ – 1:29)
What is the goal of a ministry? Is it just to have people in the seats? We never see that type of goal in the New Testament. Of course, we want people to hear the message and be saved. And better for many to be saved than a few. But what are we going to do to deepen people so that they are presented “complete” in Christ? The word carries the idea of mature or developed.
Endless sermons aimed only at inviting people to “ask Jesus into their hearts” do little to develop mature, thoughtful believers. Of course, there is always an entry point, but Christians need to move past the basics of the milk and dig into the meat of Word. Discipleship doesn’t happen via osmosis.
Ministry Depends on God (I toil, struggle…he powerfully works in me – 1:29)
The tension between the sovereignty of God and responsibility of man is beautifully maintained by verse 29. This happens all the time in the Bible. Paul says he toiled, struggled, but it was God’s power that worked in him. So which is it, Paul? Is this your effort or God’s grace? The answer: YES.
This of course isn’t the only place we see things like this. Paul again said in 1 Corinthians 15:10 that it was by grace, “I am what I am” but yet he worked harder than them all. God is absolutely sovereign but the point of sovereignty isn’t to give up but rather to press on.
Tom Nelson says it well, “The purpose of the sovereignty of God isn’t to lean on a shovel and pray for a hole” (A Life Well Lived, 179). While recognizing God, and God alone, is able to build the spiritual house, we nevertheless apply ourselves with all diligence to the task trusting God will do his work with his Word.