Church Life, Health, and Mission in the EPC’s Presbytery of the East

I’ve drafted a white paper as a proposal to guide a presbyterially strategized, congregationally executed approach to church health. It is tailored to the EPC’s Presbytery of the East, where I am and the congregation I pastor are members. But the principles apply to any connectional denomination. David Brooks recently in The New York Times highlighted Tim Keller’s 8-point plan for Christian renewal in the United States. Jake Meador today drew out some of the implications of this plan for institution building. That is what this paper I drafted is trying to capture: a fresh, rooted, and aggressive approach to concrete institution building oriented by the church as God’s institution for mission.

The paper can be found here. Below is an excerpt of the first section.

Church Life

The church receives its life from Jesus. The church is united to him spiritually and mystically, and receives its life from him. He is the vine, we are the branches. No approach to church health, revitalization (i.e. literally “re-lifeing”), or mission can proceed biblically without this reality foregrounded.

Churches are alive and healthy insofar as they truly united to Christ and practicing the means by which that union is deepened. Any conversation about church life cycles, budgeting practices, change management, congregational outreach, effective small groups, etc. is all tertiary to the redemptive work of God in Christ and the means by which the church receives those benefits.

Assuming this or backgrounding it in conversations about church health and mission only results in unhealthy churches and mission unaligned with God.

God has instituted means by which Jesus by his Spirit effectively applies to the church the benefits of his redemption: the word of God, especially preached; the sacraments of the new covenant; and prayer. Churches are true and pure churches in their use of these. A church’s health must be evaluated by whether the gospel is preached and received, the ordinances of God administered in their integrity, and the worship of God performed in purity.

It is the Spirit who gives life, not the flesh. No program, strategy, or culture sanctifies. Yet the Spirit uses these means of grace to work faith in Christ’s people. These means are the true elements of church health because these are the ways in which Christ calls and unites us to himself. The work of the church and its ministers is to steward these ordinances. We plant, labor, shepherd, but God gives the growth. De-emphasizing the ordinary means of God’s grace is to de-emphasize God and life in Christ.

The three predominant scriptural metaphors of the church are sheep being shepherded, the household and family of God, and the body of Christ. In these metaphors the congregation is being ministered to by the church: the sheep are being fed by the shepherd, the parents take care of the children, the weaker parts of the body are cared for by the stronger. In the latter example particularly, officers of the church (are all prophets?) are set up as those who lead and care for other parts of the body. In none of these metaphors is there an expectation that every single congregant is called to carry out the ministry of the church. Rather, the expectation is that every single congregant is called to receive the benefits of the ministry of the church: the means of applying the benefits of Christ’s redemption.

A church’s health is determined by the food being served to the sheep, not the quality of their wool. Fruit in ministry (loving fellowship, care for the poor, enthusiasm for mission, eagerness to repent, striving for holiness) is a result of God’s means of grace. But they are God’s; he gives the growth. It is the Spirit who produces fruit. Churches feed and water. Church health should not be reverse-engineered from the appearance of good or bad effects. Church health should be determined by faithfulness to the means that God has given to the church to sanctify it.

The fruit of the Spirit is good and should be desired and cultivated, but it is cultivated through the means of grace. Loving fellowship in the church should be desired and cultivated, but is cultivated through the means of grace. Faithful witness by Christians in the world should be desired and cultivated, but it is cultivated through the means of grace.

If someone is sickly, overweight, eating poorly, and weak, those are all symptoms of bad health. A doctor does not prescribe the results (have good health, lift massive weights) but means of getting there (eat better and less, take medicine, exercise). When the church is not loving enough the solution is not law: be more loving! It is grace, namely the ordinary means by which Jesus sanctifies his people. The church through its pastors administer the medicine of Christ, and he gives the fruit.

Any presbytery effort to assist congregations in church health must start here. Are the means of grace being faithfully administered? Is God’s worship being performed purely? Is the congregation praying? Without these all other efforts just lead to a streamlined, well-oiled, gospel-less organization. It is only after this has been addressed should questions of organizational administration and culture be examined.