Two Ways News is a weekly collaboration between Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen – a newsletter and podcast on a topic to encourage gospel thinking for today (subscribe at twoways.news).
Should we think of church mainly as a family which exists for its own sake and the building up of its members in Jesus Christ? Or is church more like a voluntary society with a mission—to reach the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ? And what are the consequences of emphasizing one of these options more than the other?
THE BUSINESS OF THE FAMILY
TP: In a speech in Sydney, Simon Flinders was talking about the importance of the local church. And after talking about God’s purposes in gathering his people around his Son through the gospel, he had this to say:
I don’t expect anything I’ve just said to be controversial. And yet curiously, in our time and place, people seem to often speak less about the church as the fruit of God’s work, and more about the church as the agent of God’s work. That is, people in our circles often speak as if the local church has a primarily missional value. And this kind of input often seems to come from church consultants with this sort of flavor. And I have to admit that this thinking troubles me.
Of course, the gospel of Jesus, which forms the church, also vivifies the church, and it propels the people of God to be zealous for the work of the gospel in the world. And of course, the local church proclaims the gospel and expects outsiders to come into her midst and to be exposed by the gospel, and so fall down and worship God, as it says in one Corinthians 14.
Yet, in Paul’s writings, that prospect seems more incidental than purposeful. And I want to put it to you that the idea that the local church has a primarily missional purpose is an idea that’s hard to find in the pages of the New Testament. And when we speak as if this is its purpose, I worry that we confuse church and gospel. What I mean is that it’s the gospel which is the primary agent of God’s mission in the world, not the local church. And I worry, too, that when we think and speak like this, we become foggy in our thinking about church in ways that might have a number of unhelpful implications. Because church is not merely a means to an end, but a glorious end in itself.
PJ: That’s a great quote, isn’t it? I think he has captured much of what I would believe about the church and evangelism. And he mentions the wonderful error of people being too concerned about the gospel being preached. That’s a good error to have, but it’s still an error to see the church purely in its instrumental character, rather than as an endpoint goal; to see the church as something we do rather than what God has done in Christ Jesus to build it. I think it fails to understand the church of old in Deuteronomy, where the purpose of the church is the gathering of God’s saved people to hear God’s word, not to do anything other than to come together to meet with God.
TP: Philip, I know this is something you’ve thought a lot over the years and written about the relationship between evangelism as something that we seek and are called by the gospel to do, and the congregation or the churches that evangelism forms. Particularly one article of yours lists a series of propositions that tries to connect these two. Why don’t you roll out those propositions for us and we can interact over them in response to what Simon is saying.
PJ: Okay. In that article Evangelism and Church, there were 10 propositions, each packed with arguments and biblical references:
- Church is built upon the Lord Jesus Christ and the apostolic ministry of the Word of God.
- Unbelievers may be present because the church is not conducted as a closed private or exclusive group.
- The activity of church life should always be to edify.
- The gospel word that converts unbelievers is the same word which builds the church and edifies believers.
- Church membership is the result of evangelism.
- An edified church will be wholly sanctified and different to the world, having members who are Christ-like in character and life.
- In the New Testament, the focus and the dynamic growth is not the church, but the gospel word.
- Evangelism doesn’t always have to be personal and private and individual. There is nothing inherently wrong for Christians to organize corporate evangelism.
- Planting and growing more gospel preaching churches is a fundamental strategy of world evangelization.
- Church growth and church planting can be a distraction from gospel growth and evangelism.
TP: What do you mean by #10 – Church growth and church planting can be a distraction from gospel growth, and evangelism?
PJ: Well, often church growth means little more than my church growing, just as church planting can be simply an egoist starting his own church. It’s more important to reach a growing number of people in the community with the saving news of Jesus than simply growing or planting churches. Each of these activities involves an enormous amount of energy, direction, and purposeful work, especially for the pastor of a growing church or the planter of a new church. But a lot of those activities are not actually evangelism. And the measurement of success seems to me to fail at this point, too, because if we’ve got a bigger, growing church, I’ve succeeded, whether or not anybody’s being saved, whether or not more people in the community are going to church or not. For example, my church may grow at the expense of all the churches around it. So overall, there’s no more Christians in church anywhere. And so I think I’m evangelizing because my church is growing, but actually, I’m not evangelizing; I’m just growing greener grass so that more sheep come my way.
TP: And ironically, it can be the case that as your church grows numerically by transfer and similar kinds of things, the building and growing and edifying of the members into Christ may actually suffer because so much effort is going into the recruiting and integration of new members. A growing church is a busy church; it’s stretched, it’s trying to get everything done.
PJ: Yes, and by concentrating on the quantity and comparing my numbers this year with last year’s or the year before, or comparing the amount of offertory that’s been given, I can be easily tempted to lower standards to make shorter, easier sermons or to preach topics that the non-Christian or the community wants to hear to encourage people to join us rather than making sure they’re converted and being built up in the gospel. Once numbers become the criterion of my effectiveness and my success, then the temptation to do whatever builds numbers becomes quite great.
TP: Does that mean numbers are unimportant, though? Should we measure numbers?
PJ: Numbers are always wonderful, as long as they’re going up. But yes, of course, there is a sense in which we want to see more people come under the sound of the gospel. And so we do need to pay attention to the fact of whether we’re achieving that, but numbers are not the ultimate test of what is taking place. And there comes places and times when you need to say, well, we’ve reached the maximum that we can reach in this present configuration. So we need to encourage somebody to come alongside us and start a new ministry.
TP: It’s interesting that even if the purpose of church is not evangelism—that we don’t gather to evangelize people but we gather as God’s people—yet evangelism will nevertheless still happen as the congregation builds up gospel-hearted believers who have a heart to go out into evangelistic activity and have an evangelistic life. So evangelism happens as we grow evangelistically-hearted believers in church. And it happens as we welcome unbelievers into our midst who will hear the same gospel word. And it will also happen as we organize various evangelistic activities together as evangelistically-hearted believers who belong to this church. And so, evangelism should be high on our agenda. It would be a very strange, dysfunctional and immature church in which there wasn’t an evangelistic heartbeat.
PJ: Well, you can’t grow to be like the Lord Jesus Christ and be unconcerned for the lost. If the church is being edified and becoming more like the Lord Jesus Christ, one of the immediate consequences of that kind of edification will be in some form or fashion, evangelism.
TP: And yet, what we’re saying through your propositions and what Simon is saying is it’s also a strange church in which the evangelism of outsiders is the primary purpose or focus of the church.
PJ: Yes, because church is not for unbelievers; church is for believers. Church is the consequence of the gospel. You don’t get converted by belonging—which is the great Catholic error—but rather it’s believing that leads you to belonging.
TP: It seems to me that in this whole discussion about the relationship of evangelism and the purpose of church, we kind of flip back and forward. On the one hand, we find it easy to become inward-looking, clubby, holy huddle congregations that have lost that evangelistic heart, and are very happy to only think of themselves and to build up one another without a heart for the lost. But then having perceived our error, we kind of flip over and get so focused on the mission or goal of growth that we lose focus on the church as an end in itself, as the glorious fruit of the gospel and not just an agency or an instrument for something else.
PJ: Yes, it’s important to tease the issues out theologically, so that we can then make good pragmatic decisions as to how we’re running church. Very often, it will look similar, but we might be doing it for different theological reasons. For example when you preach the Word of God, it is the same word that converts the unbeliever and builds up the believer. So you’re always preaching to two congregations: the unbeliever who may be there, and the believer who is there, but you don’t need two gospel messages. And so if you haven’t got a clear theological vision about who church is for, then I’m afraid pragmatism will grab you one way or the other—either of having a warm, friendly, happy in-group or of reaching out to other people. And that pragmatism without having a theological rationale is a mistake that leads to this flipping and flopping back and forth.
TP: Simon’s article also reminds me of another discussion that we’ve had in our circles over a number of decades. That is, the relationship between church as a household or a family that exists for its own sake, and church as a purposeful society that exists for a purpose beyond itself. These are the two classic sociological groupings. And looking at it through that lens, we flip back and forward from seeing the church primarily as a family or household that exists for its own sake or as an organization or society that exists for something beyond itself.
And that’s Simon’s point: that the church is not an instrument for something else; it exists for its own sake, gathered around the Lord Jesus Christ. But there’s also that sense in which we’re part of God’s big mission in the world, and there are purposes that we’re called to that are bigger than ourselves and beyond ourselves. And it seems to me that we struggle to hold these two things together in our minds at the same time. And I don’t know whether Simon was speaking about this or not, but certainly, here in Sydney, many churches are restructuring themselves around particular purposes and outcomes, rather than organizing or structuring ourselves around people in a more household view of who we are. And I think becoming overly purpose-oriented and instrumental in our view of church has real dangers to it (as does the holy huddle view). Might it be possible for us to hold both together in our minds and practices?
PJ: Well one way of thinking about is in terms of a ‘family business’. My father had a little printing shop. And every now and then Dad would bring work home and we’d all sit around a fire as a family, folding paper and stuffing things in envelopes. It was part of our family that we ran a business. It wasn’t a separate thing; it was all part of being in this particular family. And I wasn’t paid for the hours of the work. But I was provided for out of the work he did, and what we also occasionally contributed to. So yes, I don’t want us to go down a business model of church. Families are a much better theological view. But families don’t just sit around looking at each other and doing nothing.
TP: Yes, exactly. And families exist in the world not just for each other, but also to fulfill God’s purposes for us in the world, to love other people, to be generous, to be part of a community in a society where we contribute.
PJ: Yes, and I will push it further then in that regard—the key thing is to raise children to be able to leave the family nest and make their contribution in the world. And so as you build up the members of the family, you increase the capacity for the family to be influencing the world through its members, and through its children becoming adults and growing up. We have a long-term family view. In our present society where family and family life has been seriously damaged, the resilience or ability to be well-grounded, self-sustaining young adults has been seriously damaged. Divorce does not help the raising of children. You’ve got to credit those who raise their children as single parents, but it’s not the ideal that produces the kind of robust, healthy adult psychology that enables people to hold down jobs and enables them to make contributions to society. Well, likewise, as the church grows in its love of the Lord Jesus Christ, and love for one another, so we create the kinds of resilient people who will be able to take the gospel to the world.
TP: It’s interesting though, isn’t it, that depending on which one you think is primary, you can see how a family business sometimes become dysfunctional, where the business becomes so important that the children just feel like they’re only useful because they’re the person who can provide cheap labour and man the shop at all hours, or that their family life and the importance of them as members of the family—as people—gets a bit lost in their functional importance to the family and what they can do.
PJ: Yes, it’s a big mistake and a big problem when you call it the business which is run by a family.
TP: It would be better to have ‘family’ as the noun, and the activity or purpose as the adjective—an outward-looking family, or a purposeful family, or a hospitable family.
PJ: Yes. If you raise your family without ever showing hospitality, you’re not raising your family properly, because hospitality is of the nature of God’s people. And so a church that is never taught to be hospitable, a church that never welcomes the outsiders, well, that’s not a Christ-like church, because Christ is very welcoming of the outsiders. So yes, the holy huddle is not in the end holy because it fails to reflect the character of God.
TP: In the same way, I would say that the very focused, intentional, purpose-oriented, volunteer society that some churches become is also missing something vital. They are no longer thinking of themselves (and structuring themselves) as a household—the household of God. They’ve become too much a group of people who just gather together for a particular mission or purpose.
PJ: Yes, although those societies are very important. That’s what things like the Church Missionary Society or Scripture Union or AFES are: they are purposeful organizations of Christian people to do things. But that’s why we call them parachurch, rather than church because the church is the gathering that comes as a result of the ministries. Often through parachurch organizations, many are converted—in schools through ISCF or in university through AFES or the Christian Union or something like that—and wind up in the church.
TP: It seems to me that in all of this, we’re thinking about how to apply the theological themes and ideas and direction and emphasis of the New Testament to how we end up actually doing things. And that wisdom will play out in different ways. But especially at our current moment where many churches are grappling and reorganizing their church structures around particular purposes—for example the 5 Ms or other models that churches use—it seems important to me that we don’t lose the theological priority of household, of the congregation as a group of people with an importance and a value in its own right and for itself. We need to be careful and remember to organize ourselves around the people that we’re caring for and growing and edifying in pursuit of purposes larger than ourselves.
PJ: Yes. And there’s another way of putting it too for Anglicans, and that is the difference between parish and church. When a minister is appointed to a parish, he is given the ‘cure of souls’ for everyone who lives in the parish’s geographical area. Every person within that area is the responsibility of the minister. For a vast majority of them the responsibility is to preach the gospel to them, but he’s also appointed at the same time to be the pastor of the congregation. And so we get a little confused between being the pastor of the church and being the rector of the parish, because it’s both jobs that we’re actually appointed to. Hopefully the two jobs will work together because by right pastoring of the congregation, we will have others to join in the evangelization of the parish. But this works better in country towns or in very settled suburbs. In a city where people don’t live their lives in suburbs but just happen to reside there, this becomes more difficult. I’m afraid these days we often flip-flop—we just look after the congregation and ignore the parish and then feel guilty about not evangelizing the parish.
TP: So I guess the question is whether—as the Americans sometimes say—we can walk and chew gum at the same time. Can we do both of these things, in their proper order? Can we give theological priority to the church as household or family, while building a family that has a gospel heart for those around us? I think that’s why Simon’s article was such a helpful one, because he was running up the flag that in his observation, we’re in danger of doing one of these flip-flops where we head over to the instrumental and purposeful side, and lose sight of the purpose and nature of a congregation as the household of God, which is an end in itself.
PJ: I think it’s a terrific summary of it. Thanks Simon for speaking and writing on that.