I remember this past summer going to the beach on the Carolina coast. One day the current was particularly strong. Filled with the zeal of a guy who spent the last year in a landlocked state like Nebraska, I ignored the intense tugging and swam around like a Golden Retriever let off his leash. When I got the sense to look back to the shore I noticed I could not see my family. I was out fairly far and was in need of getting to shore.
Does it seem to you like some churches are drifting from the shore? Perhaps with the zeal of ministry expansion pastors and ministry leaders can be pulled by the tide of success or a crowd. As a Christian I am burdened that the church reflect God’s design. If you are a Christian then I am sure you can relate. It does seem that there are a cacophony of voices out there talking about what a church should be and do. Sometimes when there a lot of voices we can begin to think that we have freedom to choose what the church should be like. I don’t know about you, but when I wade through the different types of churches it sometimes feels like I am a consumer walking through a holy mall. Certainly this can’t be right.
I’m a simple guy so I look at it plainly. What is the church supposed to be and do? It seems like the Great Commission is the place to start:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”” (Matthew 28:19–20)
Disciples of Christ are to make disciples (evangelism), baptize them into the church, and teach them to learn and apply the Bible. Then the cycle repeats itself: evangelism, baptism, training.
Another passage that is immensely helpful is Ephesians 4. God gives gifts to the church and these gifts related directly to the ministry of the Word (Eph. 4.11).
- What are they to do? They are to equip and build up the body of Christ so that it does ministry (12).
- How long does this go? Until we are all unified and perfectly reflecting Jesus (13).
- What are the marks of this? It is marked by maturity, unity, and knowledge of Christ (13b).
- What is the contrast to this? Immaturity, vulnerable, and spiritual weakness (14).
- What should the church be characterized by? Lovingly speaking the Word of God to one another in such a way that we grow by it (15).
Do you see the common theme here? It is spiritual maturity. Note the words: equipping, building up, mature, maturity, unity, grow, and so on. The means by which the church does this is the Bible. If the church is not working together to see people grow in Christ, then they are leaving off a fundamental aspect of what it means to be a church. In other words, without the ministry of the Word the church is not being a church.
To make this even more clear. Suppose I was to tug on one word in this set of verses, I want you to consider what would happen. Let’s say I pulled on the word “Word” and pulled it like a thread on a cheap sweater. I pull it out and it’s gone. What’s left? What do you have in this church without the Word? You may have people, a building, activities, and even some relatively good things. However, you don’t have the church. The ministry of the Word of God is essential to the life of the church. Without the Word in the church it is reduced to something like a spiritual country club.
This observation is particularly important in light of the various pulls that we feel within evangelicalism. People often want a lot of things out of their church, but the Word of God is not always at the top of the list. For this reason it seems like we are simultaneously expecting too much and not enough out of the church. If our goal is to make and train disciples, then our means must be the Word of God. To leave off of the latter is to abandon the pursuit of the former.
Christians who are being shaped by what the Bible says about the church will demand that the Word be central to everything that is done. There must be preaching from the Bible, teaching on the Bible, discipleship in the Bible, prayer in light of the Bible, community through what is in the Bible, discussions on the Bible. The same Word that gives life to the church is to actually shape the life of the church.
Sometimes we can wander off and other times we can get pulled off. In either case, remember that there is good news if we have been pulled out to the ministry sea; we can get back to shore and get synced up. Books like Ephesians are immensely helpful for the church to stand on the solid ground and hear her marching orders. As I left the beach I remember seeing the sign that warned against riptides with an explanation that people could die. In ministry it is equally sobering. With the church we are talking about life or death. We live, serve, preach, pray, teach, and do everything as if lives depend on it. May we never forget what the church is to be and do. And may we never lose the Word.