When Kyle and I first started dreaming about what kind of church we'd like to plant in Charlottesville, approximately none of our conversation centered around programs. Instead, we talked about relationships, community, grace, and, mostly, how we'd like to see the gospel of Christ bring new life in us and in our adopted city. We hadn't really seen what we envisioned church to be, but we had a God-given dream and we had a calling to a city, and we just kind of went to work carving out what we held in our hearts, praying for God to move so we could see it come together in real life.
I love the church, the bride of Jesus Christ. I have a passionate desire to see her beautiful and lovely, even in her temporary, earthly brokenness. I believe the church is something much more profound than a set of programs and a good children's ministry and a bunch of people getting together on Sunday mornings. I believe the Bible is alive and active and that it speaks powerfully when it's preached. I believe, as my husband says, that the church is a battleship, not a cruise ship, and that as a people, we must enter the messiness and darkness of the world with the Light.
I also believe it's really important that we plant and build new churches with great care to detail and with the loftiest of goals. And that we build them according to the gospel and not according to our own desires, the desires of others, or our own dreams.
Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church by Michael Horton, and he described in accurate detail the vague dream Kyle and I set out with in the beginning. He also describes what we hoped and still hope to leave behind. I hope this selected passage encourages you as you plant and build with gospel-precision:
Imagine two scenarios of church life.
In the first, God gathers his people together in a covenantal event to judge and to justify, to kill and to make alive. The emphasis is on God's work for us--the Father's gracious plan, the Son's saving life, death, and resurrection, and the Spirit's work of bringing life to the valley of dry bones through the proclamation of Christ.
The preaching focuses on God's work in the history of redemption from Genesis through Revelation, and sinners are swept into this unfolding drama. Trained and ordained to mine the riches of Scripture for the benefit of God's people, ministers try to push their own agendas, opinions, and personalities to the background so that God's Word will be clearly proclaimed. In this preaching, the people once again are simply receivers--recipients of grace.
Similarly, in baptism, they do not baptize themselves; they are baptized. In the Lord's supper, they do not prepare and cook the meal; they do not contribute to the fare; but they are guests who simply enjoy the bread of heaven.
As this gospel creates, deepens, and inflames faith, a profound sense of praise and thanksgiving fills hearts, leading to good works among the saints and in the world throughout the week. Having been served by God in the public assembly, the people are then servants of each other and their neighbors in the world. Pursuing their callings in the world with vigor and dedication, they win the respect of outsiders. Because they have been served well themselves--especially by pastors, teachers, elders, and deacons--they are able to share the Good News of Christ in well-informed and natural ways. And because they have been relieved of numerous burdens to spend all of their energy on church-related ministries throughout the week, they have more time to serve their families, neighbors, and coworkers in the world.
In the second scenario, the church is its own subculture, an alternative community not only for weekly dying and rising in Christ but for one's entire circles of friends, electricians, and neighbors.
In this scenario, the people assume that they come to church primarily to do something. The emphasis is on their work for God. The preaching concentrates on principles and steps to living a better life, with a constant stream of exhortations: Be more committed. Read your Bible more. Pray more. Witness more. Give more. Get involved in this cause or that movement to save the world.
Their calling by God to secular vocations is made secondary to finding their ministry in the church. Often malnourished because of a ministry defined by personal charisma and motivational skills rather than by knowledge and godliness, these same sheep are expected to be shepherds themselves. Always serving, they are rarely served.
Ill-informed about the grand narrative of God's work in redemptive history, they do not really know what to say to a non-Christian except to talk about their own experiences and perhaps repeat some slogans or formulas that they might be hard-pressed to explain. Furthermore, because they are expected to be so heavily involved in church-related activities (often considered more important even than the public services on Sunday), they do not have the time, energy, or opportunity to develop significant relationships outside the church.
And if they were to bring a friend to church, they could not be sure that he or she would hear the gospel.
Dream of what church can be when it's centered on Christ as its Head and when His gospel of grace is preached. Now go in the Spirit's power to be a part of building that church.