Monday, July 11, 2011

Let's Get Small!

Just Words, Water, Bread and Wine

After World War II there was a movement in the arts known as minimalism. This approach involved stripping down a work to its most fundamental features. What was really essential to the existence of a piece of music, an object of design, or a sculpture?

We live in an age of church maximalism. Churches provide everything from community development programs to aerobics classes to food courts. And, of course, something resembling worship, which may be a meeting of people with some music and an inspirational talk.

I have found myself over the years becoming a church minimalist. That is, I have considered, “What does it take for a church to be a church? What does it have to have, no matter how much it has, to be the church?” Or, “However little it has, what things are required for it to be a fully viable church?” In my thinking, the list of things the Bible requires for the church to be the church, and fully the church, is quite short.

Someone may be tempted to think, “Well, of course you think that. It’s defensive thinking. You have served some  pretty small churches. They simply didn’t have the resources to be ‘full-service’ churches. So, if you wanted to keep up your morale and the morale of congregations you had to think and say such things.”

Maybe. But, maybe not. I have also served as a staff member in a larger church and as a senior pastor of churches large enough to have staffs.  In Pittsburgh, my associate and I used to talk of our distinguishing features of our church among the other Reformed and Presbyterian churches as a “full-service congregation.”

And, as I think back, even with my fading memories, I can come up with quite a list of “ministries” we offered. Such things as: a full Sunday school program for every age group, including several adult electives, children’s choir, youth choir, sanctuary choir, Pioneer Girls, Pioneer Boys, Women in the Church, home Bible studies, Mothers of Pre-Schoolers, missions trips, junior and senior high youth groups, diaconal ministries that included home repairs and rehabs and winterization of single women’s vehicles, etc.

But I remember a couple of other things, too. I remember that we always said that the primary thing was worship, that worship was the beating heart of everything else, that if we did not get worship right the rest was useless, and that worship was not only the most important thing we did but the one thing essential to the life of our people. We emphasized morning and evening worship as both “indicators of and means to” the spiritual health of the congregation.

I remember this also. Though I tried not to show it, I was sometimes frustrated when people called, asked for me, and then wanted to know what we had to “offer.” In one sermon I told my people about such a call and told them I had been tempted to say, “We have words, water, bread and wine.” What I meant was, “We have the Word of God, read and preached, and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. That’s what we have to offer, and, in the end, that’s just about all we have to offer.”

I am convinced this is what our Confession says the Bible teaches. Our Confession asserts this from two perspectives:

The first perspective is how God works in the lives of people: “What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption? The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption are, his ordinances, especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.” It could not be clearer. God works in the lives of his people by the means of grace which are the Word, sacraments, and prayers.

The second perspective is what Christ has given uniquely to his church; that is, what things Christ has committed to the church only and not to individuals, or other organizations and not to families. The Confession teaches that the visible church “is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.” That’s pretty strong stuff for people accustomed to think, “It’s just a personal matter between me and the Lord.”

But then the Confession says what Christ has given the church, and only the church as his kingdom and the house and family of God: “Unto this catholic, visible church Christ has given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, and to the end of the world: and does by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto.” Christ gave and gives to the church, the ministry (the offices of the church), the oracles (the revelation of God recorded and preserved in Scripture), and the ordinances (the ordinances of public and corporate worship, primarily the Word, sacraments, and prayer.)

Considered from the perspective of either the church as instrument of God’s work in people or from the perspective of the things entrusted uniquely to the church, Christ is a minimalist when it comes to what is essential to the church. What the church must have and do to be the church is worship - overseen and conducted by Christ-ordained ministers, founded upon the oracles, and administering the ordinances.

But actually this may be maximalism. Perhaps the non-essentials dilute the potency of the essential.

At any rate, I am confident that the church which provides the ordinary means of grace is in every sense the church. The church at worship is the church.


Rod said...

Basically, I'm with you. But how would this intersect with what seems to be a "mission statement" of the apostolic church in Acts 2:42?
1) Teaching
2) Fellowship
3) Breaking of Bread
4) Prayer

I can make a case that items 1, 3, and 4 can be viewed as elements of corporate worship (with #3 referring to the sacraments). But what about "fellowship"? I think this is where the other ministries of the church can have their foundation.

I agree, though, that these other ministries often become the real drawing card for a church, and become what defines particular churches. I like your response that what the church offers is word, water, wine, and bread - those are things which cannot be found anywhere else, and should be the distinguishing characteristics of the church.

Maybe it's the same type of problem we have with the Christian life as a whole. Certain activities (not watching certain movies, not listening to some kinds of music, etc.) may very well be valid outworkings of growth in sanctification. But then we tend to make those things central to the Christian life, so a Christian is defined as someone who does not listen to rock music, etc.

Likewise with the church. As the worshipping community applies the concept of fellowship, activities such as Pioneer Girls, home Bible studies, etc. may be helpful ways of promoting the life of the church. But we must not reduce the church to those activities and lose the heart - the people of God gathered before His presence in worship.

Wes White said...

What about prayer?

Don Frank said...

Right on, Bill. Great clarification by Rod. I looked up fellowship whose root is koin┼Źnia. I suggest the understanding of that word at that time was more along the lines of behaviour that demonstrates that one is a partaker, or fully committed participating member of a group. In this case, the group is the body of Christ.

The Christian Curmudgeon said...

Re fellowship, I see NT fellowship in two ways. What creates it and gives it is primary expression is what happens when God's people worship - are engaged in Word, sacraments, and prayer. By the means of grace they share in God with one another.

Outside worship they share in the common experiences of life such as the joys of sharing food but especially in meeting the needs of fellow believers. Koinonia is one of the NT words for giving.

Re prayer, yes the church engages in prayer, "the prayers" of Acts 2:42. God willing, tomorrow I will have a post that deals with the means of grace and I will include prayer as one of the three. Here, I was thinking of the perspective of the consumer who is wanting to know what you can offer. My mind went to "we give out words, water, bread and wine." But, yes, I could have said we have words, water, bread and wine, and prayers.

Don Frank said...

Bill, I just read your full profile. I was surprised with the similarity of your and my favorite movies, music, and books. The title of this post reminded me of the movie "Get Low." Duvall is phenomenal.