What should our local church be doing? Is it missions? How about kids’ ministry, choir, youth programs? What do the people of God do when they come together? What is the mission of the Church?
With a nail, a hammer, and a document of 95 thesis, Martin Luther turned the world upside down in 1517 seeking in part to answer the question: “What does a local church do?”. He knew that the local churches of his day exported religious vice and wickedness to the medieval world. The gospel seldom appeared in church, the clergy at all levels lacked biblical knowledge, and the sacraments were twisted into graceless works the little resembled the teachings of Scripture. Luther started out to reform the church seeking to answer the question what does the local church do.
Since 325 A.D, the church has defined itself as the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church. The local church was defined as being a church that submitted to the Bishop Rome, which was made holy by Christ through salvation, that was universally recognizable, and that was founded on the teaching of the apostles which was often interpreted and expanded upon by church officials.
Luther and Reformers redefined these historical terms to better reflect the gospel. The Reformers claimed that the church was one under Christ. All who were saved were saved by Christ to be part of the church. They believed that church should be holy; it should be composed of those who had been redeemed by Christ and who were being sanctified. They agreed to the catholic nature of the church. But they did not believe all churches had to look the same and practice the same liturgy. Rather, they claimed the church was catholic in its timelessness. All true churches in all ages were viewed as being part of the universal church. And they believed the church was apostolic. But the Reformers believed that the apostolic nature of the church should be limited to the teaching of the apostles. Solo Scriptura, Scripture Alone.
The Reformers sought to clearly divide themselves from the Catholic Church by adding two more marks to the definition of the local church. The Reformers said the local church should rightly administer the sacraments and preach the Word.
Now back to our question. What does the local church do?
The local church comprised of holy believers who have been united to the universal church by salvation in Christ Jesus preach the Word and administer the sacraments correctly. For a group of believers to be a church, they must preach the Word and practice baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
John Calvin plainly said,
Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists.
What about kids’ ministry, Super Youth Sundays, the choir, missions, singing, and prayer? All of those things begin and flow from the preaching of the Word and from the sacraments. You can have church without them. But you cannot have a church apart from the preaching of the Word and apart from the Sacraments.
Paul tells Timothy:
“Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. 14 Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. 15 Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. 16 Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers (1 Tm 4:13-16).
Do we want to have a healthy God glorifying church? Do we want to reach young families, encourage the old, and bless the new converts? Then, we preach the Word. Paul tells us we keep a close watch on our doctrine on the truth of the Bible and teach it to others.
What saves people? What makes our church look attractive to lost world? What breathes new life into the exhausted and crumbling congregation? It is the Word of God. The preaching of the Word of God is central to all that we do. The Holy Spirit works through his Word to redeem the lost and to sanctify the redeemed.
Christ is the Word become flesh.
John 1:1-4 states:
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
To know Christ, to experience him, revive our hearts through his presence, we must preach the Word. As Jesus says in John 17:17, “Sanctify them in truth; your word is truth.” The church must be dedicated to the proclamation of the Word.
How is the done? The Word is proclaimed and taught through every element of the service. Pastor Mark Dever rightly notes,
Everything teaches, whether you intend it to or not. The songs teach people doctrine and proper affections for God. Your prayers (or lack of them) teach people how to pray themselves. The kinds of prayers you pray or don’t pray) teach people about the important difference between prayers of adoration confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. The way you administer the ordinances teaches people about their meaning and even the very meaning of the Gospel. You preaching teachers people how to study and use the Bible appropriately. Everything from the call to worship to the benediction counts as teaching. Teaching is everything.
Everything the local church does begins and ends with the Word of God. Singing, prayer, and evangelism are all driven by our understanding of the Word of God. The songs that we sing reflect what we believe about the Bible. The prayers that we pray reflect our understanding of God and ourselves. Our passion and methods for reaching the lost are driven by our understanding of what the Bible says about salvation. All the other functions of the local Church can only exist if the Word is fully, accurately, and faithfully preached. And all the other functions of the church help with the preaching and dissemination of the Word. In short, if we get Sunday morning preaching wrong, we will work in vain to fix our church. The struggling church does not have a discipleship, outreach, or kids’ ministry problem. It has gospel proclamation problem.
Martin Luther notes,
Outwardly he deals with us through the preached Word, or the gospel, and through the visible signs of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Inwardly, he deals with us through the Holy Spirit and faith. But this is always in such a way and in this order that the outward means must precede the inward means.
If a local church hopes to be filled with the Holy Spirit and wishes the world to be changed by Christ, that assembly of believers must preach the Word.
Any local church that does not preach the Word is not a church. Religious clothing, sacraments, stain glass windows, and the sacraments alone do not make a group of people a local church. Religious minded people can have and do all these things and never preach the gospel. They cease to be a church when they preach a different gospel proclaiming salvation through other names, deeming sins to be acceptable, and demanding good works in the place of grace. Paul writes in Galatians 1:8
“But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.”
The one true, holy, catholic, apostolic church preaches the one true gospel.
Our Motivation: The Glory of God
Why do we do this? Why should the church be passionate about preaching the Word?
The local church should be passionate about the Word because Christ is only present where the Word is preached. And we as the people of God can only expand the kingdom of God through the power of Christ. Moses nails this truth on its head in Exodus 33 when he says,
And he said to him, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. 16 For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?”
What makes the people of God distinct? What makes our local church distinct from every other social group? It is the presence of God via the Holy Spirit who works through the words of God as revealed in the Scriptures. The local church desperately needs God.
When the church fails to value the Word’s of God, God will not be present. And when the church ceases to experience the supernatural presence of God decay sets in. When the church cares more about tradition, cultural acceptance, and political power than about glorifying God, God will leave the church. James McDonald rightfully notes,
God will quickly withdraw His favor where sin is ignored or avoided and difficult people are coddled instead of confronted in love.
The local church should be about the preaching of the Word because she desires to experience the presence and power of God. Apart from Him, the local church can do nothing. And with Him the local church can do everything.
What does the local church do?
The local church preaches the word and rightly performs the sacraments (more on that soon!)