Last Sunday (1-15-17) was our second “family talk” discussing what it means that FPC-Clarksdale is a church.

In our first talk we saw how, according to the Word, the church is a living institution of Christ organized under the authority of elders, served by deacons, and with each member using his/her gifts for the benefit of the whole. 

In our second talk, we explored what Christ commands the church to do: what activities are essential to our identity as a church?

Westminster Confession of Faith 25:3 helpfully summarizes the Bible’s answer to this question:

“To this worldwide church Jesus Christ has given the ministry of reconciliation, the Scripture, and the revealed law of God. The church shall gather and nurture the saints until the end of the world. By the promised presence of his Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ will enable the church to do this ministry.”

The church has two defining tasks: one outward (“gathering”) and one inward (“nurturing”). It is to look something like the two-faced Roman god Janus (paganism notwithstanding!), simultaneously looking both directions:
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This isn’t just the Confession’s idea; it’s our Savior’s. Before his ascension to the Father, Jesus committed this “two-faced” task to his Church:

(Matthew 28:18-20) All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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. 

It is not enough for us to wait for outsiders to summon the courage to come inside our walls, we are tasked with going after them, evangelizing them, gathering them up into the life of our fellowship. But the task doesn’t end there! We also are to nurture believers, teaching those incorporated into the church to obey “all” (that’s a lot!) Jesus commanded.

Let’s explore a bit deeper each of these tasks:

  • Gathering (the outward face)Each local church is to be the hands of Jesus to those in its community, the means by which he gathers and saves those he has chosen.

Jesus’s memorable metaphors of salt and light come to mind. If the salt ceases to season and the light ceases to illumine, they are those things in name only. In the same way, if a local church ceases to penetrate and gather in the world surrounding it, it is a church in name only.

(Matthew 5:13-16)  “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.  “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.  Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

Outreach is no mere addendum to our church’s life; our future as a vibrant institution of Christ depends upon it. I quoted Edmond Clowney:

“The congregation that ignores mission will atrophy and soon find itself shattered by internal dissension. It will inevitably begin to lose its own young people, disillusioned by hearing the gospel trumpet sounded every Sunday for those who never march.” The Church (160)

We discussed in our time together ways we as a church perform the gathering task well, and ways we can do it better. It was observed that we are a welcoming church, and many extend personal invitations to outsiders. Others mentioned that processes for entering into membership and plugging into ministry are obscure. There was consensus that we need to think more systemically and strategically about how we build bridges to those in our community who don’t know Christ and/or aren’t engaged in a Gospel-preaching church.

  • Nurturing (the inward face): Every local church is tasked to see it’s people discipled, matured in their faith.

This, like gathering, is not a task exclusive to the pastors and elders; rather, it belongs to each member.

The Protestant Reformers talked about 3 primary ways the church nurtures it people: THE WORD, THE SACRAMENTS, and CHURCH DISCIPLINE:

i. THE PREACHING OF THE WORD. Talk of “preaching” automatically summons thoughts of the Sunday service, and, have no doubt, the systemic explanation and application of the Scripture by those specially called, trained, and gifted to preach is central to the spiritual life of God’s people. That public preaching (and worship as a whole) be done well and faithfully was of highest importance to the apostles. Listen to Paul’s charge to the young minister Timothy:

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths (2 Timothy 4:1-2).

Yet, as important as my or Mark’s preaching is to your spiritual growth, all of us in different ways and to different degrees have a ministry of the Word to one another. Hear Paul again:

(Colossians 3:16) Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

Our minds and hearts are to be so drenched in the Word that it comes out, in both formal and informal settings, to the edification of others.

ii. THE SACRAMENTS: Jesus gave his church two sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. They are more than empty symbols; they are visible signs of the invisible grace by which God saves his people.

Baptism speaks to the forgiveness of sins cleansing by the Holy Spirit by which we enter into God’s family. The Lord’s Supper speaks to the broken body and poured-out blood of Jesus, which is our true food and true drink.

In my experience, Christians underestimate the role of the Sacraments in their spiritual growth. May we as a church zealously desire to participate in them, as they are a primary means by which God sustains and matures us in our walk.

iii. CHURCH DISCIPLINE: Sounds fun, right? Truth is, so deceitful is our Enemy, so deceitful is our flesh when isolated from others, that all of us need desperately the accountability of the elders and others in the church.  If I am straying off the path, caught in some sin, or screwy in my doctrine, it is for my eternal good that you step in and call me on it.

In rare cases, discipline is severe (consider 1 Cor. 5, where Paul commands the elders to excommunicate the unrepentant sinner), but in most it’s gentle, the work of friends in accountable relationships. Consider Galatians 6:

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:1-2)

Church discipline is awkward and hard, but an absolutely necessary task of the church. The church that fails to hold its people accountable for their lives and doctrine fails to love them as Christ does.

Time was short, so we weren’t able to discuss particular ways FPC does the task of nurturing well and not-so-well. Let me offer my humble observations.

That the Word is honored and preaching is valued is a strength of our church. Our church loves its members well. The shepherding ministry of the elders is a sign of our spiritual health. WIC does an incredible job of providing discipleship and fellowship opportunities for our ladies.

We could improve in our commitment to Christian Education through Sunday School and Community Groups. More attention needs to be paid, I think, to the discipleship processes for children and youth. It’s important that we equip and spur on our diaconate to do its work well.

Conclusion 

The two tasks of the church are like the two polarities on a battery: both are required for the proper function of the whole. The consequences for neglecting either or making our church about something besides these are cataclysmic. May FPC in the days to come run on both polarities, living “two-faced,” following the example of the very early church:

(Acts 2:42-47)  They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

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