Sunday 23rd of May 2021
Missions and Ministry in the Local Church
Grab your Bible and turn with me to Matthew chapter 5. Well this morning we're going to tie up some loose ends and bring our brief consideration of the Church to a close. Over the course of the last 6 weeks we've asked and answered a series of questions that has hopefully given us an understanding of who the Church is, what she is for, and the leaders that she's been given to drive her forward in pursuit of her purpose. But there are, by my reckoning, two loose ends that our sermons up to this point have not covered:
- What about reaching people, evangelism, the great commission? Or, to state it in the modern evangelical vernacular, "what about missions? How can you talk about the church without talking about missions?"
- What about ministries? What ministry environments should exist in a local church to coordinate and facilitate the sanctification and discipleship that we've been talking about?
Today we'll take up these two questions and seek instruction from God's Word regarding them.
On our first question, "How can you talk about the church without talking about missions?" We'd say, "you can't." And further, I'd say, we haven't. We haven't been talking about the church without talking about missions, because a personal pursuit of holiness and giving ourselves to the process of sanctification is the necessary pre-condition for reaching people with the Gospel.
 "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.
This section of the sermon on the mount, which is certainly germane to the question of missions, evangelism and reaching people presupposes something as being foundational to our reaching the world. The foundational presupposition of all Christian missions is our distinctiveness from the world that we're seeking to reach. Or stated differently, Christian distinctiveness is the necessary precondition for successful missions, evangelism and great commission work.
When the church begins to loosen her grip on distinctives, whether in doctrine or in practical living, or both, she is signing her own death warrant and resigning herself to futility. Once being like the world, as opposed to distinct from it, becomes the focus of the church, the church has in fact given up on reaching the world and has instead decided to be reached by the world. We are either reaching the world by being distinct from it, or we are being reached by the world and becoming less and less distinct.
The modern church has adopted a, "be like the world in order to reach the world," approach to missions, evangelism, and great commission work which has lowered the emphasis on holiness, sanctification, being set a part, and the like. In fact, we've generally pitted those two concerns against each other as if they are mutually exclusive or worse, detrimental to one another.
You've got the holy people huddled over here reaching nobody and justifying it by quoting verses about being unstained by the world, and you've got the low standard, run of the mill evangelicals over there who are indistinguishable from the world justifying themselves by quoting verses about being all things to all people and drawing attention to the fact that Paul quoted an Athenian poet during his interaction on Mars Hill.
But our Lord doesn't bifurcate reaching the world and being distinct from the world, rather, He assumes Christian distinctiveness as the necessary precondition for reaching the world. To give up distinctiveness, holiness, sanctification, everything we been talking about...give that up, and you've given up on reaching people.
In Matthew 5:13, Jesus calls us to be salt in the world. In antiquity salt was used as a preservative to keep meats from decay. Jesus is making an implicit statement about the world then when He identifies it as being in need of salt. The world, left to itself is decaying, but Christ has commissioned His Church as the salt that would prevent that decay. This means that we cannot ourselves be corrupted by the rot of the world, but must maintain our distinctiveness from it or else we are salt that has lost it's saltiness.
In Matthew 5:14, Jesus calls us the light of the world. Again, Jesus' implication regarding the world is clear. The world, left alone, is dark, so He has commissioned His church as the light that will penetrate the darkness. This means that we cannot ourselves be corrupted by the darkness of the world, but again, must maintain our distinctiveness.
Christian distinctiveness is the necessary precondition for all successful labor in missions, evangelism, and great commission work. And it is the lack of Christian distinctiveness, in the name of reaching people, that has lead to the precipitous decline of Christian influence in the Western world. Again, in the name of reaching people we have deliberately dispensed with our distinctives in order to, "tear down barriers to the Gospel," without realizing that what we tearing down weren't barriers, but bridges. The distinction is the invitation.
We've got this notion that we need to downplay or under emphasize the points of contrast that the Christian faith has with the world and instead emphasize and focus on the, "common ground." When we do this, we are subordinating Scripture to the secular social program which tells us that we are allowed to have our faith distinctives so long as we kindly leave them at home when we come to matters of society. We seek common ground because we've got a distaste for contrast because we fear the confrontation that will inevitably attend any attention paid to that contrast.
We try to get along in our interactions with the world by minimizing our points of contrast and emphasizing our points of commonality, or common ground. But in truth, it is often not genuine common ground shared between the believer and the world, it is a contrived and curated common ground that Christians have created by means of compromise because we are afraid of the inevitable confrontation that will arise with the world if we maintain our distinctiveness and don't shy away from the contrast. Common ground is, in most cases, ceded ground...territory given over to the enemy because the Christian was either afraid to fight, or equally likely, was taught by his church that fighting is mean and unChristian.
But what has happened on the watch of the strategy of cultural engagement that Christians have been employing for the last 50 years? What has the common ground approach produced? What fruit has minimizing contrast, eroding distinctiveness, and seeking common ground yielded?
Secularism, with ever growing statist impulses, has been enthroned as the national religion. "It's fine if you believe that marriage is between a man and a woman, so long as you don't try to impose that on anyone else." "It's fine if you believe that a divine being created the world, just don't try to teach that to children." "It's fine if you believe that sodomy is a sin, so long as you don't act consistently with that belief and instead show your allegiance to Ceaser by baking that sodomite couple a wedding cake anyway." "Believe what you want so long as it doesn't affect the secularist social order." Or stated differently, "believe what you want in private, so long as you bow to the state in public."
We sought common ground when we should have been taking ground and advancing Christ's Kingdom. The darkness and decay in our time, aided in its advancement by the secular state, is hell bent on getting Christians to shut up. And in the name of finding common ground, we have happily complied with their demand, frequently retreating in our discourse to personal conviction rather than asserting Christ's coronation as King of kings. Here's what I mean: say you're in a conversation with a non-Christian and they press you on one of our hot bottom social issues. In order to insulate yourself from the conflict that you feel growing, you say, "well my belief is..." or, "my church teaches..." or, "my personal conviction is..." This is a clear retreat, but we are called to advance. It is a retreat to the subjective ground that the Secularist will allow you to stand on without too much trouble.
When you say, "my belief is..." rather than, "Christ commands all men to..." you've just relativized God's Word and whatever true thing you say next will be little more than a flickering glow rather than a brilliant light because you covered your lamp with the basket of relativism. We aren't commanded to proclaim our personal beliefs and convictions, we're commanded to assert the Lordship of Christ.
Our focus on sanctification, holiness, being set apart, keeping ourselves unstained by the world, is actually the hope of the world. The mission is to be a city on a hill, not to blend into the landscape in order to avoid confrontation. We're called to this confrontation, we were saved for this confrontation, our salvation constitutes our conscription into the Lord's army which is engaged in destroying every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and taking every through captive to obey Christ.
We often like to focus on that last part as a kind of pietistic, personal, devotional thought, "take every thought captive to obey Christ..." when we say it we mean, "don't entertain lustful thoughts, instead immediately rebuke and mortify those thoughts and bring them under Christ's command." I agree that you shouldn't entertain those thoughts, but that's not exactly what Paul's talking about in 2 Corinthians 10. He's talking about his public ministry and the responsibility of Christians in the cultures that they happen to live.
Christians are supposed to be absolutely devastating to the false ideologies that abound, we are called to, "destroy them..." dismantle them, reveal the bankruptcy of them, and then demonstrate real thinking, the rationale of which, is based on submission to Christ. Someone forgot to tell Paul about the common ground theory because he seems to like the drop bombs that explode pagan world-views approach.
Look, Jesus knows that being salt and light in the world, that is being set apart from it in order to reach it, will bring trouble. He knows that contrast creates confrontation. That's why in Matthew 5:11-12, right after He gives us the beatitudes, which itemize the ways that Christians are to be distinct from the world, He says this, "Blessed are your when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets before you."
This text should broaden our understanding of missions, evangelism, and Great Commission work. When we think of those things, we think of people coming to Christ, repenting, confessing and believing, etc... but high conversion rates aren't the only metric for whether or not we're being successful... Pagans yelling obscenities at us may also be a wonderful indicator of success in evangelism, for great is our reward in heaven. That is to say that the very thing that we're afraid of and seeking to avoid, the very thing that causes us to fade into the landscape and cover our lamp is the very thing for which our Lord wants to reward us...let's stop avoiding it.
But let it be clear in your mind, the connection that our Lord insists upon in this passage: Christian distinctiveness is the necessary precondition for successful work in missions and evangelism. If we are to prevent decay we cannot be decaying. If we are to penetrate the darkness we cannot yet be consumed by darkness ourselves. So, perhaps unbeknownst to you, we've been talking about missions this entire time because without Christian distinctiveness, holiness, and sanctification, there is no mission. Now let's turn to Matthew 28.
 And Jesus came and said to them, "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."
So, why are we going into all the world to make disciples of all nations? Why does missions matter in the first place? Because people are dying and going to hell? No. Because people aren't living as fulfilled a life as they could be living if they had Christ? No. Missions matters because all authority in heaven and on earth belongs to Christ, but not all of His creatures have bowed to and acknowledged that authority. That's why missions matters. Evangelism is as much a work of subjugation as it is a work of salvation. There is a rightful King and there are all manor of usurpers unlawfully sitting on His throne pretending themselves to be lords. In evangelism we're calling the rebels to cease their rebellion, to cease pretending themselves to be lord, to cease their submission to false little "g" gods, and happily submit to the True King.
"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations..." Jesus Christ is King. His Lordship is a cosmic reality, an inescapable fact, and in asserting that fact, this text sets up another point of contrast, another dividing line. There are obedient disciples, and there are treasonous rebels. Christ has commissioned His obedient disciples to teach the treasonous rebels the obedience to Christ that we are already walking in.
You see the similarity to Matthew chapter 5? The whole text is built on the assumption of our distinctiveness from the world. They're in rebellion, we're in obedient submission seeking to make them as we are... properly submitted to the rightful King. So our pursuit of holiness, sanctification, Christian distinctiveness...it's the necessary precondition for the Great Commission. So again, I'd assert, we've been talking about mission this whole time.
Christians are set apart unto Christ to pursue becoming more like Him under the leadership of men who are themselves exemplars of Christian distinctiveness. That's the ground we've covered in this teaching series prior to today, and I trust that you can see that it is foundational to all missions, evangelism, and great commission work. Now let's look at Acts 2 briefly. Head to the right through the rest of the Gospels (Mark, Luke, and John) and you'll be in Acts.
 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts,  praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
One of the other things that we've discussed in this teaching series is the necessity of Christian fellowship. We must not forsake the gathering together of the saints during which we encourage and stir one another up to love and good works. That too, as is seen in the life of the early church, cannot be disconnected from missions, evangelism, and great commission work. Acts chapter 2 describes what could be called, "city on a hill missiology." You also get this really clearly in Deuteronomy chapter 4. Listen to the text again, "...day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved."
This isn't a disjointed summary of early church life, it is a picture of how the Gospel advances and how missions works...it works communally, it works corporately. As the community of God's people grows in their obedience to Him and in their love for each other, the world notices! If Christians obey God's command for the family, for child rearing, education, finance, etc...guess who in the society will have the healthiest families, the brightest children, and the most disposable income because they won't be in debt? The Christians. Guess who will notice? The pagans. What did Matthew 5:16 say? "...let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." Our obedience to Christ as a Church cannot not be separated from our success in evangelism, because it is a primary means of evangelism.
That's why Acts 2:46-47 flows the way that it does. They worshipped together, fellowshipped together, obeyed Christ together, and as result, that is through those means, God gave them favor with all the people and added to their number. God adds to the number of faithful churches because He wants His sheep to be fed. A huge aspect of the decline of the Church in the West is owing to the fact that there are very few true churches in the West, so God has shown no favor to them, nor added to their number.
Again, obedience to Christ in pursuing sanctification cannot be separated from missions, evangelism, and great commission work. The early church's distinctiveness is what gained them favor with all the people, they were a city on hill, they lived, spoke, interacted differently. They were obedient to Christ and that obedience produced it's good fruit, fruit which was detectable even by pagans. Now lets look at Acts 17 briefly then we'll move to our second loose end.
 Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.  So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.  Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, "What does this babbler wish to say?" Others said, "He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities"—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.  And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, "May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?  For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean."
There is so much in these verses, indeed in this chapter, but for our purposes this morning, I want you to note simply that it was the distinctiveness of Paul's message that gained him an audience with the Athenians, not an appeal to common ground. Paul was preaching the bodily resurrection of Christ, a doctrine which the Athenians were predisposed to disbelieve and dislike because their philosophical system regarded the material world as a prison from which we are seeking to break free. So when Paul is proclaiming the bodily resurrection of Christ and the hope that His resurrection secures ours, he is proclaiming precisely the opposite of what they want to hear.
Verse 20 says "You bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean." Contrast, not common ground is what peaked the interest of the Athenians. God created the contrast between the world and His people precisely because He means to use it for evangelistic ends, so we must stop shying away from the very contrast to which we're called, because God wants to use that contrast to call others to Himself. So, what we've covered thus far about sanctification is the very foundation for the evangelistic enterprise of the church. Holiness, sanctification, Christian distinctiveness is the necessary precondition for all successful labor in missions, evangelism, and great commission work.
So I maintain that we've been talking about missions the whole time. That said, having talked about the foundation, there are still walls to be erected and a roof to be built, so have no doubt that we will consider more than the foundation of evangelism in future messages, but, you do lay the foundation first.
Now for the second loose end: What about ministries? What ministry environments should exist in a local church to coordinate and facilitate the sanctification and discipleship that we've been talking about? We'll tackle this question in two parts:
- We need to differentiate between discipleship and ministries.
- We need to consider which of God's institutions has been tasked with the project of discipleship and which has been tasked with the project of ministry.
On point 1, differentiating between discipleship and ministries, we should note that until relatively recently, when Christians talked about local church ministries, they were talking about the church mobilizing to meet some material need that had arisen in their community. Ministry was outward facing and tangible. Ministry was Paul fundraising for the famine stricken church in Jerusalem. Ministry was caring for widows and orphans. Ministry was churches starting hospitals. Ministry was the corporate efforts of a local body to ameliorate some identifiable ill in their sphere of influence.
Today, when we talk about ministry we're generally referring to what might be called Christian naval gazing- we get our men together and try to coax them into sharing their feelings and insecurities. We get our women together to complain about their domestic disappointments and difficulties. We get our children together to eat goldfish and color pictures of the disciples. This is what we call ministry in the modern era. Mens ministry, women's, ministry, kids ministry, etc... basically, if the church organization pays for and sponsors something, we call it a ministry.
Calling these things ministries is a historical misnomer, as the environments just mentioned are actually aimed at discipleship, not ministry in the outward facing, tangible needs, New Testament sense. So when we ask, "what ministries should exist in a given local church?" We should seek the answer by asking a follow up question: "What needs exist among and around us that we can meet together?" (2x). The answer to that question will give a local body its ministry marching orders. And while we aren't covering the specific answer to that question for our local body this morning, it is a question that our elders and deacons, with the help of the congregation must answer if we are to be a faithful church.
So, hopefully we've identified that what we usually mean by ministry should be properly termed discipleship. We're looking to the local church to create discipleship environments that are tailored to the gender and stage of development of its members. We want to connect to people who will help us move forward in Bible study and obedience, and we're looking for the church to create on ramps that provide easy access to those relationships. In short, we're looking for the church to organize the organic.
We want natural relationships to grow that will lead to mutual spiritual edification and discipleship. And we want the church to be the greenhouse in which those natural relationships grow. And indeed the church is that greenhouse. It is the local church gathering that God has chosen to bless and it is in this gathering that He promises us a unique manifestation of His presence for the nourishment and growth of His people. All that to introduce another question: what discipleship and spiritual growth environments should exist in the local church?
But in answering this question about discipleship environments in the church we have to start with a basic assertion that will sound heretical to modern ecclesiastical orthodoxy: All Christians should be ministered to, that is, discipled, the same way. All Christians are served, nourished, strengthened, challenged, and encouraged the exact same way, through the Word and the Sacraments- you'll find nothing else in the New Testament.
You'll find that in the New Testament even when specific instruction, encouragement, or rebuke is given to the men, or to the women, or to the children, or to the slaves and the masters, it is given in the presence of the whole body. This is because the men must know what the women are commanded, and the women must know what the the men are commanded and the the children must know what an adult is supposed to be and the adults must know what God expects of their children. Integration in discipleship, not segregation is the biblical norm.
That is why church ministries, or properly, discipleship environments, that segregate the body across demographic lines, whether it be by age or by gender are a historical novelty. Christian men, women, and children all have the same basic need and that need is met by means of the same things: the Word and the sacraments as administered by the Elders of their local church. Due to having the same need and the same source from which those needs are met, the church assumed for most of its existence that that need would be met at the same time in the same environments and felt no need or pressure to slice up the body by age or by gender.
Every time we read, in Old or New Testament, that the people of God are formally gathered together, it is men, women, and their little ones- with the exception of gatherings of the leaders of God's people which are gatherings of men. Again, integration, not segregation is the biblical norm. This informs, or should inform how the church thinks about her discipleship environments. In what follows, I'm going to argue that segregated discipleship environments, while not altogether evil or unbiblical often fail to acknowledge the God ordained institution in which He has commissioned discipleship to take place primarily. Let's take Deuteronomy 6 as an example:
 "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.  You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.  And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.
This text assumes that your children will be with you when you sit in your house, while you walk by the way, when lie down, and when you rise. If this is the biblical pattern, and it is, I don't believe that the local church should be creating discipleship environments that separate families and leave parents sitting in the house, walking by the way, lying down and rising without their children. God means for the family to be together.
Beyond this, what is clear from this text is that God didn't look to the formal religious establishment, in this context, the priests and the Levites, to see to the discipleship of families, rather He looked to that family and to the head of it and commissioned that task as an in home effort. We see the same thing instantiated in the New Testament:
"Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word..."
Husband are here charged to disciple their wives.
 Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
Fathers are here charged to disciple their children.
Discipleship is first and primarily a household project, such that we can safely assert that the institution that God has commissioned with the task of discipleship, is not, in the first instance, the church, but the family. Our modern church experiment which has sought to shift the responsibility for discipleship from the family to the local church has already borne its fruit. And an assessment of that fruit should result in a happy and speedy return to the biblical model.
The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest denomination of Protestant churches in the world. In Southern Baptist Churches, which are full to the brim with age and gender segregated discipleship environments, upwards of 80% of their kids leave the faith. But they colored so many pictures of Jesus! They went to youth camp every summer! They played in the youth band! Mom and dad were in men's and women's ministries! How could that happen?! Only that which takes root in and rules our homes will take root in and rule our hearts. God knows this, which is why He places the responsibility for discipleship in the hands of the head of the household.
When the church takes undue responsibility upon herself for the discipleship of families, we actually distort God's design. I've seen this over and over in youth ministries. You've got teenagers whose relationship with Christ is driven forward and held accountable by a boy who is 3 years older than the teens he's leading and knows little more. All the while the father is on the spiritual sidelines but has been made to believe that he is leading spiritually because he chaperones the youth outing to the trampoline park. This is not God's design, this is abdication.
I once had a youth pastor, who knew that I believe youth ministry to be a horrible idea, seek to persuade me otherwise. His attempt consisted of anecdotes about teenagers, male and female who confide in him, who seek counsel from him, who look to him for spiritual and practical leadership, so much so that he knows things about their lives that even their parents are unaware of. He was quite proud of this and took it as a mark of success in the "ministry." I said, "in what world is that a good thing?" What did you read in your Bible that made you think that you developing those bonds with those teens in place of their parents was healthy, or God-honoring, or wise?
Some of you have heard me tell this story before but it bears repeating. I used to lead a youth group at local church and my favorite memory from that time is when a young man who had developed a real seriousness about following Christ approached me to talk about how the teaching had been impacting him. I could feel that the conversation was moving in the direction of discipleship and I was sure that this young man was about to ask me to meet with him to help him move forward spiritually.
To my surprise and delight, he said this. "I asked my dad to meet with me in the mornings to study Scripture and pray." When this young man desired spiritual counsel, insight, and shepherding his instinct was, "God gave me all of those things when he gave me a dad." I don't want to be surprised by that at Christ Church because God has commanded that it be normal. In our day we have looked to the church to fulfill the role that a father is called to fulfill in his family, and it has worked abysmally. Looking to the church to drive discipleship is like looking to the government to support the family. It'll end up big, bloated, inefficient, and it will incentivize parental abdication. We will not do it here.
I'm not saying that there is never occasion for men to gather with men or for women to gather with women, we know that those kinds of relationships are encouraged, even commanded in Titus chapter 2, but the command is that individual men and individual women who have demonstrated faithfulness in following Christ take personal responsibility for coming alongside younger saints and showing them the way.
So, we'll start there at Christ Church. Let's get family discipleship right. Let's get older saints taking personal responsibility to come alongside younger saints right, and if after we're doing those things faithfully, we find that there are gaps to be filled, then we'll cross that bridge, but I suspect that obedience in those areas will provide what God's people need as that is what is revealed in His Word.
Because God has ordained that the family take responsibility for discipleship, next week we will begin a teaching series on the Christian household.