Our pragmatism without reflection, or utilitarianism, or whatever you want to call it, is more limiting and less helpful than we'd like to admit. Take for example that more Millennials believe that it is more important to be a good parent than a good spouse (52% to 30% according to PEW). It is a safe assumption to say that is connected to the fact that a majority of that age group grew up in broken homes where their parents were divorced. "Marriage is broken and outdated" is the thought. As a result, we see start see trends the rise of cohabitation that is content to have no intention of marriage and women who want their career and a child but see a man (and marriage) as redundant or even inhibitive.
What begins as legitimate suffering from distortions or abuses of marriage, contorts in a cloud of confusion, and we end up undermining the very relationship meant to be the foundation of a family and cutting the very roots out of an institution meant for our flourishing. If only we'd stop long enough to ask, "What is God's intention for marriage?"
Similarly, when it comes to the church many people approach it from the perspective of distortions or abuses they’ve sadly experienced. The correction isn’t to perpetuate the distortions and abuses or to abandon the the church altogether, but to instead ask “What is God’s intention for the church?”
The short answer to that question is that since the beginning God has been gathering a people and giving them a new identity has his own. The New Testament gives believers instructions that both help us to proclaim the excellencies of him who called us and to form us as disciples together.
So who are the church, what do they do, and what is a healthy church?
Who are the church?
• God’s people (Exodus 6:7, 1 Peter 2:8-9)
• Those who Jesus gave himself up for. (Eph 5:25)
• Those who God has called to himself; God gives growth and life. (Acts 2:47)
• Those who Jesus reigns over. (Eph 1:22-23)
If you have faith in Jesus' life, death, and resurrection then you are called to be a part of the church. You are one of those that Jesus gave himself up for, who God has called to himself, who he gives growth and life to, and those who Jesus reigns over. You are the blood-bought, chosen, Spirit-empowered, Kingdom-minded people of God.
They are Visible & Invisible
Yet, not everyone in the visible church is part of the invisible church. Or to say it another way, there will be those in our gatherings on Sundays who may have the appearance of a Christian but who don’t love Jesus. The visible church is temporal, the invisible church is eternal.
You are a part of a lineage of faith stretching back centuries, across peoples, places, kingdoms, tribes, languages, nations. Christianity, the church, is the most diverse, inclusive, group in the history of the world.
They are Local & Universal
You are a part of a local body of believers called to this people and place, who play a role in the greater body of Orange County, and who a part of the universal church. Over two billion people around the globe identify as Christians. Cross of Christ is one local church that counts people in Santa Ana, London, Ulanbaataar, Rio De Janeiro, and Nairobi as brothers and sisters. The church should be the most collaborative, supportive, encouraging group of people because of the Gospel and the Great Commission. You are called to be a part of God's mission here in Orange County and where else he may call you.
Pictures of the Church
You are part of a family with a Father who is strong and loving (1 Timothy 5; 1 John 3); a bride to a husband who laid his life down for you (Ephesians 5:25); branches connected to the only source of true life (John 15; Romans 11) and a dignified member of Christ’s body (1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4). You are intimately connected to a group of ragamuffins dependent on the grace and love of an Almighty God.
Now, out of that identity, God has given us instructions to help us proclaim his excellence and to form us, together.
What does the church do?
- Gospel Preaching from the Bible (Luke 24; Acts; Romans 10; 2 Timothy 3:16)
- Sacraments of Communion & Baptism (Matthew 26:26-29; Matthew 28:19; Acts; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26)
- Singing, Scripture Reading, Prayer (Acts)
- Qualified Leadership (1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, Acts 6)
- Holiness & Growth in Grace (Matthew 18; Galatians 2; Pastoral Epistles)
- Unity (John 17)
- Regenerated Membership (1 Corinthians 12)
- Giving & Generosity (2 Corinthians 8-9; Galatians 6)
- The Great Commandment to love (John 13:35; 1 John 4; 1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4)
- The Great Commission to witness and make disciples (Matthew 28; Acts)
Each of these activities is a gift from God to help us to worship him, to form and bless us, and to serve as a witness to those who do not know him yet.
What is a healthy church?
Success? On one end of the spectrum some people determine a healthy church by the level of success it has – the number of conversions, Sunday attendance, number of members, amount of giving. In this paradigm, the temptation is for the church to function more as a business and the pastor as businessman. Critically, the criteria of success caters to our culture’s individualism, consumption, and desire for spectacle (bigger, faster, 'better').
Faithfulness? On the other hand of the spectrum some people determine a healthy church solely by its faithfulness – being sound in doctrine, godly in character, faithful in preaching and pastoring people. But this view is oversimplified because you can be faithful but nothing can come of it. There may be very little discernible outward growth. With faithfulness as the primary criteria of a healthy church, the church is more of a classroom, pastor functions much as a professor.
Fruitfulness. (John 15:8, Romans 1:13, Galatians 5:22). A third way, and one could argue more biblical way, to determine a healthy church is by fruitfulness. In addition to the texts listed, 1 Corinthians 3:9 pictures the church as a garden, the pastor and leadership as gardeners, and God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, as the one who determines the fruit. Tim Keller helpfully said, "Gardeners must be faithful in their work, but they must also be skillful, or the garden will fail. Yet in the end, the degree of the success of the garden is determined by factors beyond the control of the gardener…When fruitfulness is the criterion for evaluation, we are held accountable but not crushed by the expectation that a certain number of lives will be changed dramatically under our ministry.”
Both success and faithfulness will be tempted to boast in themselves and not the cross, not God. They will be tempted to boast in their numbers, systems, processes, skills, adherence to doctrine, or style of preaching and worship. Fruitfulness removes all ground of boasting because if there is any fruit, only God alone gets the credit.
If I'm honest, unchecked I'm prone to go between the either extremes of measuring solely by success or faithfulness. I imagine many pastors are the same. Honestly, success or faithfulness are easier to quantify or evaluate; you always know where you stand. But that's the thing, both are temptations to base your standings on performance, status, power, or the esteem of others rather than living in faith from your identity in Christ. The question is, can we correct, repent, and return to aiming for the right thing, a healthy church that makes much of Jesus and nothing else?
Fruitfulness leads us to ask questions like: Out of hearts that are changed and growing by the Gospel, are our people proclaiming the excellencies of God in their homes, church, and cities? Are they growing in the Fruit of the Spirit? Does our church enjoy Jesus and celebrate his grace, love the light, and love others? Fruitfulness leaves no place for boasting except for only in the excellencies of the Trinitarian God who calls, redeems, and empowers.
Why does this matter for us?
See that God’s design is good! The answer is not to resign to distortions or abandon the church, but to joyfully live out God’s design for his people! Since the beginning God has been gathering a people and giving them a new identity has his own. The New Testament gives believers instructions that both help us to proclaim the excellencies of him who called us and to form us as disciples together.
You may have experienced distortions or abuses of God’s design for the church, but how have you been blessed by good expressions of it? That is his grace!
Where have you been selfish or consumeristic towards his body, his bride, his family? How is he calling you deeper into his design for his church?
Building a healthy church will take all of us playing a role — and that is his great design for his glory, our joy, and the people of Orange County.
For further reading:
Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology
John Stott, The Living Church
Tim Keller, Center Church
John Calvin, notes on The Institutes
Martin Luther, notes on On The Councils and The Church
And here is Lecrae’s song “The Bride” that does a way better job in 3 minutes than I did in far longer. Bet you’ve never heard anyone rhyme “salvific history”.