A few years ago, while we were on one of our trips to see her family in LA, my wife and I visited a local church on Sunday morning during their normally scheduled worship time. This was a church that was affiliated with two networks which we were familiar with. Both networks exist to help churches meet a common cause. The first network is devoted to the cause of church planting, the other network exists to help local churches reach their community. We were excited to attend what we thought would be a meaningful worship service.
Well it turns out it was meaningful – just not for the reasons we expected! When we arrived, we were surprised at just how sparse the number of people in attendance was. When the pastor got up in front of the room, we expected to hear a call to worship. We instead discovered that we had not walked into a worship service but a congregational meeting of a church which was about to close its doors.
The pastor walked through a detailed history of how the church had reached the low point that it had. When the church was first planted about 5 years prior to our visit, it consisted of a group of young zealous Christians who were fired up for church planting and reaching the community. But the group became so committed to these two causes that they hadn’t even considered the kinds of structures that would help them be effective and endure in the long run.
Even after 5 years of existence, this church had never implemented any form of membership. For this reason, the normally scheduled worship service had to become a congregational meeting – they had no mechanism to invite members or call a vote in any other way. While they really did have a desire to reach their local community, due to a bad evaluation process they had made the mistake of planting a White, middle-class church in a primarily minority and low-income neighborhood. They found themselves struggling to reach their surrounding context with the gospel, and therefore they were failing to recruit anyone else for their causes.
I’ve reflected often on that church visit. One of the things that I’ve learned since then is that zeal, without a healthy consideration for how and why things ought to be done, can easily shipwreck long-term, healthy ministry. At the same time, a lack of zeal for a godly cause can lead us to get stuck in a certain way of doing things which can make us ineffective. This is one of the harder aspects of ministry to balance.A strong ecclesiology serves churches by helping ensure and protect faithful gospel ministry. Click To Tweet
The Importance of Ecclesiology
As a committed Presbyterian, I am a big believer in having a set way of doing things to help me remain faithful to the Bible and gospel ministry. These structures and ways-of-doing-things in ministry falls under the idea of ecclesiology (the theology of the Church and its practice) and church government. A strong ecclesiology serves churches by helping ensure and protect faithful gospel ministry. It is always unfortunate for me to see a church close to shutting down simply because they hadn’t given any thought to their ecclesiology and church government.Robust ecclesiology will fuel healthy ministry. Without it, our zeal can lead to rash and unhealthy decisions. Click To Tweet
My denomination has what is called a Book of Church Order (BCO). This manual is our faithful guide to protecting our ministry and giving our churches a common way of doing things. For instance, it has procedures to protect churches from pastors trying to split the church, or to protect pastors from being unjustly fired. I’ve seen both of these things happen in churches without a strong ecclesiology – often to disastrous consequences.
A strong ecclesiology promotes the health of a church and her members. In a well-articulated ecclesiology, the rights and responsibilities of church members are clearly communicated. The roles of church officers are outlined so that everyone knows what to expect (and what not to expect) of those who serve in an ordained capacity. Procedures for church discipline and other important matters are defined for the protection of all who call the church home. The peace and purity of the church is safeguarded when these kinds of considerations are made.
Robust ecclesiology will fuel healthy ministry. Without it, our zeal can lead to rash and unhealthy decisions. As the Puritan Stephen Charnock said, “Zeal is like fire; in the chimney it is one of the best servants, but out of the chimney it is one of the worst masters.”
The Importance of Cause
While I am committed to this system of church government in the Presbyterian church, I also want to lead and serve in ministry that is committed to a cause and sense of purpose. What I love about churches and ministries really committed to a cause is that they tend to be those wrestling with great questions, like: “What does it mean to be a Christian at this particular time and in this particular place?”, “How do we bring the gospel to bear on the hearts of the people in our surrounding neighborhoods?”, “What is our culture like, and how do we both connect with it and challenge it?”, and “How do the ministries of our church relate to one another and advance a common mission?”
These are the kinds of questions local churches must ask for their ministry to be fruitful. But sometimes we can confuse our ecclesiology for our cause. It is not difficult to fall into a place of comfort and complacency with the way things are done (or the way we think things ought to be done). When this happens, we become ineffective in ministry, unwilling to ask the difficult questions, and unable to partner with anyone who sees things differently than we do.What I love about churches and ministries really committed to a cause is that they tend to be those wrestling with great questions, like: “What does it mean to be a Christian at this particular time and in this particular place?” Click To Tweet
Many churches, out of devotion to their ecclesiology, think that having a clearly stated cause will somehow be a deviation from the gospel message. But if ecclesiology exists to serve and guide faithful gospel ministry, then this fear betrays the very system which they claim to love.
In their newest book Together for the City, authors Neil Powell and John James make the case that while churches can and should have strong ecclesiological commitments, they also need to partner with other churches who share a common cause – other like-minded churches which are also wrestling with what it means to be faithful in the same time and place as you. This means that while your church may be partnered with other churches in your denomination with common ecclesiology, it could also be beneficial for your church to partner with a church that doesn’t share your ecclesiology but does share your cause. As one of my seminary professors once said, “We might not be able to sing out of the same hymnal, but we can serve the same people.”
The Challenge of Finding Balance
The challenge is balancing our cause with our ecclesiology. The contexts and cultures that churches minister in are incredibly diverse. While churches may be committed to the same ecclesiology, their common causes may be incredibly different. Two churches, one in Los Angeles and another in Northern Virginia, may have a nearly identical ecclesiology but end up with very different causes.What is needed then, I think, are hearts filled with love and wisdom; a love for the people God has put around us and therefore called us to reach, and wisdom to be faithful for many years to come. Click To Tweet
It can be really difficult to strike this balance. Some churches – like the one we visited in Los Angeles – are so focused on a cause that they haven’t given thought to the structures and practices which protect and grow faithful gospel ministry. Other churches can be so committed to their ecclesiology that they confuse it for their cause, and are thus unwilling to ask the hard questions, adapt to their context, and work with other local churches who might do things differently.
What is needed then, I think, are hearts filled with love and wisdom; a love for the people God has put around us and therefore called us to reach, and wisdom to be faithful for many years to come. May He be so pleased to grant that to us!