Many wrongly view the local church as a social society that exists to meet their needs or desires. On the contrary, the church exists to bring glory to God, to spread and defend the Gospel, to build up and equip the saints unto mutual edification in love and to carry out the good works for which Christ has redeemed a people (Eph. 2:10; 4:11-16). To this end, the Christian life and Christian ministry requires personal commitment, sacrifice and diligence. There is always a real danger that believers will grow weary in well doing (Gal. 6:9). When church members cease “giving all diligence” to living out the Christian life (2 Peter 1:5-7), they sometimes start looking for the local church to live the Christian life for them. They adopt a mechanistic view of the role of the church in their lives. When they do not feel as though the church is “working” for them, they grow discontent. Discontentment then often fosters and fuels division. Likewise, when pastors or elders grow discontent in waiting on the Lord to bless His appointed means of grace, they can slide into mechanistic ministry mode–trusting in programs or external accommodations to do the work of ministry for them. This is one of the most difficult issues to expose, since those who begin to do these things are usually not aware that they have begun to do so. It is a subtle and deceitfully sinful mode of operation.
To be sure, we should all have the deepest love for the local church, because the local church is God’s sphere of special, redemptive blessings (Eph. 3:10). We should long to see believers give the better part of their lives to the growth, provision and nourishment of the local church. That being said, God never meant for the church–in its organization, leadership and structure–to live the Christian life for its members. Likewise, God never intended for programs and ministry accommodations to do the work of ministry for its leadership.
Burk Parsons has made the important observation that often “the local church programs its people with so many activities that people have no time left to spend with their families and friends to enjoy life together and rest together—let alone take care of widows and orphans.” It is also sadly the case that the local church has programmed its people with so many activities that many of the congregants have convinced themselves that they are serving the Lord, when in fact they are merely living as ecclesiastical consumers. Whether it is singing in the choir, volunteering in a church food bank, participating in a home fellowship group or serving on a ministry team, individuals can convince themselves that they are living a faithful Christian life because they are participating in one of these or similar programs. It is altogether possible to be involved in activities in a local church without “making every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love” (2 Peter 1:5-7).
I am certainly not against church programs. However, when members of a local church grow discontent because the local church to which they belong is not large enough to have a size-specific or context-specific programs, it often reveals a defect in their own hearts more than it reveals a defect in that particular local church or its leadership. When members of a local church begin to complain because they want some provision or program that God has not commanded in His word, they are manifesting spiritual unhealthiness in their own hearts. Leadership can also fall prey to this pernicious phenomenon in the realm of ministry. Instead of relying on the Holy Spirit and God’s ordained means of grace to convert and sanctify the people of God, the ordained and staff leadership of a local church can begin to look to music, programs, facility accommodations, etc. to do the work of ministry. Here the old adage holds true: “What you win them with you win them to.” If you win people to the crucified and risen Christ, who reveals Himself through the means of grace (i.e. the word, sacraments and prayer), you win them to the Lord Jesus. If you win them with music, programs, advertisement or buildings, you will always have to do better music, have better programs and develop better buildings. God never intended for these things (which in and of themselves are not unlawful or unuseful) to work in the hearts and lives of individuals. They have their place in a local church, but they must never be in the driver’s seat of the Christian life or Christian ministry.
The New Testament gives us more than enough commands to carry out among the members of whatever congregation we have committed ourselves. For instance, we are called to “bear with the failings of the weak” (Rom. 15:1), to “be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another” (Rom. 12:10), to “lay something aside, on the first day of the week, as we may prosper” (1 Cor. 16:1), to “serve one another through love” (Gal. 5:13), to “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2), to “share all good things with the one who teaches” (Gal. 6:6), to “do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10), to “bear with one another in love, with all lowliness and gentleness, with long-suffering” (Eph. 4:2), to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32), to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in our hearts to the Lord.” (Col. 3:16), to “increase and abound in love to one another and to all” (1 Thess. 3:12), to “exhort one another daily, while it is called ‘Today,’ lest any be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:13), to “consider one another in order to stir up love and good works” (Heb. 10:24), to “obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account” (Heb. 13:7), to “visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27), to “confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16), to “love one another fervently with a pure heart” (1 Peter 1:22), to “have compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous” (1 Pet. 3:8), to “be hospitable to one another without grumbling” (1 Peter 4:9), to “minister to one another, as each one has received a gift” (1 Peter 4:10), and to “love one another” (1 John 3:11, 23; 4:7, 11, 12; 2 John 1:5). These are merely a few of the hundreds of apostolic imperatives that God has given to the members of His church. All of them require prayerful and purposeful pursuit. They involve personal commitment, sacrifice and diligence.
If you are a member of a congregation that is faithful to the sound preaching of the Gospel, the right administration of the sacraments, prayer, the singing of God’s truth and the faithful practice of church discipline, you have every reason to be thankful and to give yourself diligently to developing your Christian life. God has appointed the means of grace for the growth of His people. They will not, in and of themselves, live the Christian life for us either. We must be diligent to “make our calling and election sure” by working out what God is working in (Phil 2:12; 2 Pet. 1:10). We must not grow weary in well doing. We must resist the urge to look to either practices or programs, procedures and policies, to live the Christian life for us or to do the work of ministry for us. Our God has given us the enormous privilege and responsibility of diligently living out, on a daily basis, the spiritual life that He has given to us in Christ.