I’ve never seen a “Planting Holy Churches” breakout on the schedule at a pastor’s conference, and I suspect that’s because we wouldn’t sign up.
It’s not that we don’t think holiness is important. But talking about it makes us uncomfortable, and we have a list of practical things we need help sorting out. So we head to the “Planting Missional/Contextual/Whateveral Churches” session instead.
Given the prominence of holiness in Scripture’s teaching on the church, however, we should be talking about it more than we are.
Holiness originates in God; it describes his perfect, majestic transcendence. Holiness is how we describe the gulf between Creator and creation. The angelic beings describe him as “holy, holy, holy” (Isa. 6:3). God’s holiness is breathtaking, but it’s also terrifying. It should make us tremble.
Paul highlights the purpose of the wrath-bearing death of Christ: “that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:27).
Holiness is the status of the church, but the apostles also emphasize our calling to live out this new identity. Peter says: “be holy in all your conduct” (1 Pet. 1:15). Paul tells the Ephesians they were “chosen to be holy” (Eph. 1:4).
In Christ, the pursuit of holiness goes from dreadful to delightful.
And the remarkable thing is that through union with Christ, the holiness that once repelled us, now draws us. In him, the pursuit of holiness goes from dreadful to delightful.
Holy living inevitably sets us at odds with the world. Adapting the shape of your ministry to remove unnecessary barriers to the gospel (let’s call it “contextualization”) is vital. But still we must maintain a “salt of the earth, light of the world” distinctiveness.
No matter how contextualized your ministry is, no matter how gifted you are as a pastor or leader, if you are going to be faithful to the Bible, you’re going to be at odds with the world. Your values will be seen as prudish, your ethics regressive, and your message dumb (if not dangerous).
Here are four ways to pursue holiness as a local church.
1. Define a Distinct People
In the early stages of planting a church, this is crucial. But even for more established churches, it’s always important to solidify a robust ecclesiology.
In church plants, there’s often an amorphous group of people checking this “new thing” out. Some will be ministry-minded Christians, some will be interested skeptics, some will be eccentric church-hoppers, and (hopefully) some will be non-Christians.
Who among these folks have identified publicly with Christ and linked arms with you in the mission of this church? Who among them have agreed to submit to the elders and will your elders give an account for on the last day (Heb. 13:17)? To put it another way, what will you exclude them from if they persist in unrepentant unholiness?
Defining a distinctive people will help mark out who belongs to Christ and who does not. It is neither helpful nor godly to blur the lines.
2. Embrace a Distinct Worship
Throughout church history, the people of God have gathered for worship, and the exact shape has varied based on time and context. Regardless, though, the language used from the front should be accessible to those unfamiliar with Christianity (1 Cor. 14:25). Still, we must remember that when we gather to meet with the living God, we do so on his terms. Worship services should not try to look and sound as much like the world as possible.
When we gather to meet with the living God, we do so on his terms. Worship services should not try to look and sound as much like the world as possible.
We gather to confess sin, sing God’s praises, listen to his Word read and preached, pray, and celebrate the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. You can’t make these things exciting to unregenerate people, so don’t try.
3. Proclaim a Distinct Message
Western culture is marked both by optimism and also pessimism. Technology is advancing, and we’re becoming more innovative—and yet, here in London, innumerable persons are on depression medication.
Unashamedly preaching the gospel will address sin and suffering in all its forms.
Unashamedly preaching the gospel will address sin and suffering in all its forms. The reality of sin and judgment cuts across the secular narrative of progress, while the hope of redemption and free grace through Christ’s finished work offers hope in the face of despair.
In our context, people are beginning to find their secular boats running aground, whether intellectually or emotionally, and we are seeing people more open to engaging with the Bible.
4. Display a Distinct Unity
There is no unifying force more powerful than gospel grace. And in our increasingly fractured society, with people divided along cultural, political, racial, and socioeconomic lines, the church holds out an alternative vision for life.
In our increasingly fractured society with people divided along cultural, political, racial and socioeconomic lines, the church holds out an alternative vision for life.
In London, there is something profoundly distinctive about people from different backgrounds choosing to invest in one another’s lives. So when we had a young professional couple help a single mom from another country set up a website in order to get work, people noticed. And when the woman was invited into the couple’s social circle, people started to ask questions.
Living out this vision is not easy. It requires prayer and humility. But as the set-apart people of God, it is altogether achievable.
As we look to the day when Christ’s bride will be blemish-free, let us plant churches marked by the beauty of holiness in increasing measure, all the way to glory.