Friday, July 18, 2008

From "feed my sheep" (John 21:17) to "sheep feed yourselves"

Christ, both Lord and Savior of his church, appointed an official ministry (including officers) so that he could continue to serve his covenant people and extend his kingdom of grace to the ends of the earth by his Spirit. Even in the present--every time we gather--it is God who summons us in judgment and grace. It is not our devotion, praise, piety, or service that comes first, but God's service to us...churches of the Reformation have always agreed that the true church is found wherever the gospel is truly preached and the sacraments are administered according to Christ's institution. But this means that the public ministry provided on the Lord's Day is primarily God's ministry to us. We are not individuals who come together simply for fresh marching orders for transforming ourselves and our culture, but sinners who come to die and to be made alive in Christ--no longer defined by our individual choices and preferences (the niche demographics of our passing age), but by our incorporation into Christ and his body.

Even the purpose of our singing is not self-expression (witnessing to our own piety), but is to "teach and admonish one another in all wisdom" so that "the word of Christ [may] dwell in you richly" (Col. 3:16), "giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of Jesus Christ" (Eph. 4:20). We come to invoke the name of our Covenant Lord, to hear his law and receive his forgiveness. Only then are we able to receive his gifts with the "Amen!" of faith and repentance, with a heart full of thanksgiving toward God and love toward our neighbors.

But if "church" is primarily about what individuals do (even if they happen to do it in the same building), then it stands to reason that our services will focus on motivating us for action rather than ministering to us God's action here and now in the Spirit, through Word and sacrament, that which he has already accomplished for us objectively in Jesus Christ. The liturgy will be replaced with various announcements of church programs; the songs will simply be opportunities for self-expression; the preaching will largely consist of tips for transformation; baptism and the Supper will afford opportunities merely for us to commit and recommit ourselves rather than serve as means of grace.

Before long, it will be easy for churches to imagine that what happens on the Lord's Day is less important than what happens in small groups or in the private lives of individual Christians. In fact, this is explicitly advocated today.

In a fairly recent study, Willow Creek--a pioneer megachurch--discovered that its most active and mature members are the most likely to be dissatisfied with their own personal growth and the level of teaching and worship that they are receiving. From this, the leadership concluded that as people mature in their faith, they need the church less. After all, the main purpose of the church is to provide a platform for ministry and service opportunities to individuals rather than a means of grace. As people grow, therefore, they need the church less. We need to help believers to become "self-feeders" the study concluded.

Michael Horton, No Church, No Problem? (Modern Reformation, July/August 2008)

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