Church: Seeking a Center for the Church
Our Identity and Our Mission
Various authors have various ideas about what Christian churches ought to be doing – and there is much validity in what they say. Pastors can find many helpful points in books by Rick Warren, Christian Schwarz, George Barna, Lyle Schaller, and others. A healthy church will be doing things that help members and things that attract new members. We have used such books ourselves, and have published similar ideas.
Yet it is possible to turn a perfectly valid list of ideas into legalism – or even into a program that works without Christ, simply because it hits smart sociological buttons. We do not have to look far to find growing churches that have bad doctrine. In some cases they are growing because of their bad doctrine. The world is not lacking for people who like dogmatism, moralism and separatism.
The cultish groups that are growing are obviously doing something right. They project a clear sense of identity, they may have programs for families, children, women, etc. They have methods of getting people involved in the work of the church, in sharing the message, in studying doctrines and doing good works, etc. They may be socially healthy and increasing in membership, and they may look good by external measurements, but inside they are spiritually weak, blind and naked.
A spiritual focus
Our vision for the church must not make outward results its priority. When Christ established the church, he did not focus on family ministries, worship styles or special interests. He did not tell the apostles to create special programs for building fellowship, service and ministry. Those things might well happen, but they were not the priority.
The priority that Jesus gave the church was the gospel. Take this message into all the world, he said. “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47). God, true to his promise in the Scriptures, has provided for forgiveness for all nations, and this forgiveness is possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Paul said almost the same thing when he defined the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.”
This is the foundation of Christian identity, and it also is the foundation of church identity. We are to be a people who believe and teach the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection, of repentance and forgiveness, all according to the Scriptures. This is not just one of the many things that the church does – it is the central thing, the spring from which all else must flow. Our identity, our mission, our ministries, should all radiate from this center.
Grace and sin
For example, Paul tells us that we are to forgive other people as Christ has forgiven us (Col. 3:13). The gospel of grace leads us to minister Christ’s grace to the world. We are a forgiven people, a church in which prostitutes and chiselers are welcome so that they can receive assurance of God’s mercy and pardon along with the godly love, acceptance and encouragement that leads to a new life.
In the gospel, God’s righteousness is revealed (Rom. 1:17). The righteous God, who is faithful to his promises, forgives and cleanses all who are in Christ. All who put their trust in Christ belong to God and are given the righteousness of Christ. We have no righteousness of our own. We stand only by grace, and the better we realize it, the better we are able to receive others who desperately need grace.
That does not mean that we are oblivious to sin. Far from it! We could not appreciate grace without knowing how evil our sin is. The New Testament gives us plenty of commands, so it is not difficult for us to see that we fall short. Our strength is not in ourselves, though. It is in Christ, through whom we are not only cleansed and reconciled, but also sanctified and made righteous. In Christ’s power through the Spirit, we struggle with sin as long as we live, and that should help us be patient with others, especially those whose sin happens to be different from our own.
Jesus died for our sins because he loves us. His goal is forgiveness. He was gentle with prostitutes, gentle with Peter’s failure, but he pulled no punches with the Pharisees’ attitudes of religious superiority. Are our attitudes toward sin similar to his?
As Paul’s letters show, there is a place for loving discipline, but his letters also show tremendous patience in dealing with problem-filled churches. His letters are filled with grace, not with stern condemnation. We must be a church in which grace and forgiveness are more prominent than condemnation.
Jesus told his apostles to teach believers to obey everything Jesus commanded. As we consider what the church should be and do in its future, we need to consider this pair of commands: Sin not, and judge not.
Love and remembrance
Love one another, Jesus commanded. The church is to be a people who love one another. They spend time together, they care about one another, they help another with spiritual and material needs. They live the “footwashing” life Jesus commanded.
Jesus also commanded, “Do this in remembrance of me,” so his people share bread and wine in remembrance of Jesus’ body and blood. Jesus didn’t give us any other rituals. He was not big on rituals, but he did command this one. It was not because he was interested in the external formalities or because he was wanted a certain kind of bread or a certain kind of wine. Rather, he assigned this sacrament because it uniquely identified his people – they are the people who find their identity in a crucified and risen Savior.
We are to remember Christ – and we are to remember him in the way that he commanded, through bread and wine. As often as we do this, we are confronted with the gospel that Jesus died for us and that we now live in his resurrection. He died not just for me – he died for us. We are all equally indebted to him; there is no room for arrogance at the Lord’s Supper; we are all being served by our Savior. The Lord’s Supper reminds us of who we are, and that our message is built on an ignominious death and a glorious resurrection. That puts us in perspective. That tells us what our sin deserves, and with what power we have been rescued.
|*This is not the place to show that “breaking bread” means observing the Lord’s Supper. Perhaps it is not possible to prove it. However, it would be odd to list ordinary meals in this verse of otherwise worship- oriented actions. There is nothing unusual or noteworthy about being devoted to eating.
But we do know that Jesus commanded his followers to observe the Lord’s Supper, and that he made no restrictions on how often this should be done. The implication of 1 Cor. 11 is that it was frequent, and history shows that the Lord’s Supper was characteristic of the early Christian church meetings.
Luke describes the early church at its best: “They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread* and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). This is a praiseworthy response to the forgiveness and new life that we have in Christ. We need to be attentive to doctrine, especially the gospel, and to regular fellowship, worship and prayer.
Verse 46 repeats these thoughts: “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.”
Whether our church is large or small, rich or poor, modern or pre-modern, our primary sense of identity and mission should be in these things:
A. The gospel of Jesus Christ
1. The message about Jesus Christ, a Person, the Son of God, God in the flesh, crucified and resurrected for all people.
2. The message of God’s grace and forgiveness, which is manifest through Jesus’ death and resurrection for our sakes.
3. The call to faith (trust and confidence) in Jesus Christ, faith that is accompanied by repentance (acknowledgment in godly sorrow of personal selfishness and need for mercy) and salvation.
4. The central message of the Scriptures, both Old Testament and New.
5. Good news for all nations, for all sinners.
B. The commands of Jesus Christ
6. Love one another, forgive one another, serve one another – all illustrated by the gospel itself.
7. Share bread and wine in remembrance of Jesus Christ, for the bread and wine picture the central truth of the gospel, that salvation is possible because Jesus died for our sins.
C. The example of the early church
8. A concern for doctrine, for the apostolic teaching, which includes all the points of the gospel.
9. A concern for fellowship, for meeting with one another, sharing with one another, eating with one another, all in response to the gospel.
10. A concern for worship – prayer, praise, and the Lord’s Supper.
Ministries in perspective
The principles above help us keep our practical ministries in perspective. Small groups are not an end in themselves, for example. We do not create small groups just because other churches have them, or because some book said that this was a way to facilitate evangelism or growth. Small groups can help, but they are a method, and the goal is more important than the method. The goal is to meet together for worship, fellowship in Christ, sharing, and helping one another. If small groups help this happen, great! If they don’t, then their focus should be changed.
Similarly, we teach the “ministry of all believers,” but not because it is a buzz word in some circles. It has a theological basis, the fact that Jesus died for each of us, and has been gracious to each of us, and has commanded each to serve others. The way in which each one serves may be shaped by health, finances or other circumstances out of our control, but we are to serve in whatever way we can. We are to share our time, talents and treasures, because our lives have been bought by the blood of Jesus Christ. Christ owns us totally, not just ten percent of our money and one day of our week.
Racial reconciliation is an important and much-needed ministry in our multi-ethnic church. But it can flow only from reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ. When God gave us the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18), he meant first of all our reconciliation to him through Christ, and secondarily our reconciliation to all human beings, and flowing from that, reconciliation to specific people groups. Racial reconciliation, or any particular ministry of the church, is rightly understood not as an end in itself, but as a result of our reconciliation with God through Christ. Such ministries should spring from the gospel of grace at work in our lives, not merely from an effort to make the church attractive.
Children’s ministry is another example. We do not promote children’s ministry merely because “all growing churches have a good children’s ministry.” Nor is children’s ministry a church-growth strategy designed to attract a certain socio-economic group. Nor is it simply to perpetuate ourselves as a congregation. Children’s ministry exists to teach the gospel to children, because Jesus commands us to preach the gospel to everyone. There may well be numerous additional benefits to children’s ministry, too, but we need to keep the main goal in mind.
We could list a variety of other ministries, all legitimate in themselves. But the problem with lists is that they can easily become a list of things to imitate in order to look like a healthy church. But a pile of programs is not what makes a church healthy. The gospel is what makes a church healthy. We must keep the gospel in the forefront of our thinking and planning, or all our programs and ministries will be mere hollow shells.
Our identity is in Christ, in the crucified Savior who died for our sins and was raised in glory. That means that we were sinners, deserving shame and death. We can identify with Jesus on the cross. We were there, as it were, crucified with Christ. And the cross continues to be our point of identification – a call to humility, service, and grace. What we have been so freely given, we are to give freely to others. That is ministry.
When Christ returns, what will he look for? Will he judge us by the number of members, the size of our budget, or the number of magazines we print? Will he judge us by the days we keep, the songs we sing, the number of ministries we have? Will he look for the buildings we use or the decorations we have? No.
When Christ returns, what will he look for? He will look for faith – it is those who trust him who will be saved. And he will look for faithfulness – those who are doing what he told them to do. We are called to do his work, to be about his business – the task of trusting in his grace and mercy as we spread his good news and of living out its implications.
Author: Joseph Tkach