By Robin G. Jordan
Being a church isn't dependent on a particular type of building.
It doesn't depend on having an ordained minister in every town necessarily.
All it requires is God's people gathering around God's word and seeking to be a blessing to the community of which they're a part.
I’m not anxious about the future of the God's church in Bathurst or anywhere else because it is in his hands - not in our hands, not in the hands of the bankers.
I'm absolutely confident that as we partner together, even in difficult times, that we'll see some new and exciting ways of the people of God emerge.
This statement appeared in the July 23, 2014 edition of the Australian Broadcasting Company’s News. Mark Short who made it is referring to the court suit that Commonwealth Bank has filed against the Diocese of Bathhurst. Commonwealth Bank is seeking to recoup 25 million dollars from the Diocese of Bathurst and its parishes. The Anglican Development Fund defaulted on a loan from Commonwealth Bank and Commonwealth Bank is seeking the liquidation of the property of the diocese and its parishes. Short is the National Director of the Bush Church Aid Society of Australia.
As someone who has been involved in various roles in church planting in a number of denominations since the mid-1980s, I agree wholeheartedly with what Short said. Short makes five important points. Let us take a look at each point and weigh its implications.
1. Being a church is not dependent on a particular type of building.
Being the church does not require a particular type of building or even a building at all. The Journey, the church in which I have been involved for the past 7 years, gathers around God’s Word on Sunday mornings in the banquet room of a university student center or the center’s theater, depending upon the availability of the banquet room. This is intentional: our gatherings are in close proximity to the residence halls where most of the university’s students live. Students and other young adults are one of our primary ministry target groups.
We actually have four large gatherings at different times on Sundays. We have separate gatherings for Ignite—our middle school group, and Drive–our high school group, as well as the two main gatherings—one at 9:30 AM and the other at 11:00 AM. The principal difference between these gatherings is the content of the message which unpacks the Bible for each particular age echelon and relates its principles and truths to their concerns and needs. We also have smaller gatherings for our pre-school, kindergarten, and elementary school groups and a nursery for infants.
Since the mid-1980s I have gathered with fellow Christians around God’s Word in a variety of settings—a tennis club’s club house, an office, a storefront, a school gymnasium, houses, a maritime museum’s conference room, a fire station’s garage, a café, and a campus ministry’s meeting room. The church that gathered in these settings was no less the Body of Christ than the church that gathers its own worship center.
2. It doesn't depend on having an ordained minister in every town necessarily.
Just as having a particular type of building is not something that is necessary to being a church so is having an ordained minister in every town. What every congregation does need is qualified individuals who can teach the gospel and the Scriptures. Every congregation also needs qualified individuals who can plan and lead worship. These individuals do not need to be ordained—only “called and appointed.” Licensed readers and pastoral assistants in an Anglican jurisdiction can perform both functions.
The members of the congregation themselves can be taught to provide pastoral care to each other and to individuals and families outside the congregation.
Advances in digital information technology make possible not only distance learning but also internet conferencing. Sermon preparation groups that once were required to meet face to face can now meet online. A district pastor supervising the licensed readers and pastoral assistants of a network of congregations can maintain contact with his fellow gospel workers by Skype.
Being a church does not require Sunday or weekly celebrations of the Holy Communion. It does require Sunday or weekly gatherings around God’s Word. At such gatherings God is praised and worshiped, God’s Word is proclaimed and expounded, and prayer and thanksgiving is offered. The Anglican Church of Australia, the Anglican Church of Canada, the Anglican Church of Kenya, the Church of England, the Church of Ireland, the Diocese of Sydney, and the Scottish Episcopal Church have produced liturgical material for such gatherings.
A district pastor can officiate at celebrations of the Holy Communion on his regular visits to each congregation in the network of congregations in his care. Should the Anglican Church overcome its hesitation with regard to the propriety of licensing readers and pastoral assistants to officiate at such celebrations, these congregations may enjoy more frequent celebrations of the sacrament. Even Anglo-Catholics should have no scruples about licensing readers and pastoral assistants to baptize.
With their emphasis upon a Sunday or weekly celebration of the Holy Communion a number of the more recent Anglican service books, the 1979 Book of Common Prayer among them, have inferred that a church, if it is not centered on the sacramental ministry of a priest, is not a real church.
This view of the church, however, is neither Scriptural nor practical. Nowhere in the New Testament do we find anything that suggests that a Sunday or weekly celebration of the Holy Communion is essential to the existence of the church. We find several accounts of the institution of the Lord’s Supper but nothing that ties the church’s existence to its observance.
What we do find infers that the observance of the Lord’s Supper is a part of the fullness of the church but not its essence. Jesus did not establish his Church to celebrate the Holy Communion. He established the Church to go and proclaim the good news to all humankind and to make disciples of all people groups.
Observing the Lord’s Supper may be one of his commands but it is not the central task that Jesus gave to his Church. Jesus does not insist that his followers should make it their number one priority.
The New Testament does not specify who should officiate or preside at a celebration of the Holy Communion, who should give thanks over the bread and the cup, and who should distribute the elements. We may conclude from its silence that these matters were not matters of importance in the New Testament Church.
Paul in the instructions that he give the church at Corinth with regard to the observance of the Lord’s Supper is addressing not the elders of that church but the whole church. Nothing in the Scriptures prohibits a lay person from officiating or presiding at a celebration of the Holy Communion, giving thanks over the bread and cup, and distributing the elements.
What Anglicans believe about who should be the president of the Eucharist is based upon human tradition, not God’s Word. Even Anglicans who agree that the Eucharist’s president should be a presbyter do not agree on why.
Anglo-Catholics and those who have come to similar views by a different path do the Anglican Church a disservice in emphasizing the importance of the sacraments and the role of the priest as a mediator between God and his people. Their emphasis upon the sacraments’ importance and the priest’s mediatory role hobbles any Anglican jurisdiction in which this view is prevalent and places unnecessary limitations on its church planting activities and its growth in general.
The only mediator between God and humankind the Scriptures recognize is Jesus. The Scriptures emphasize that we have no need of any other mediator. An inconvenient truth is that what Anglo-Catholics and those of similar mind are emphasizing is not Scriptural. It is not compatible with what the Scriptures plainly teach.
The Thirty-Nine Articles recognize the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper “with due order and discipline as ordained by Christ” as mark of the visible church. The Articles say nothing about how frequently the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper should be ministered.
The Articles state that those who exercise the office of ministration of the sacraments should be called and appointed to fulfill this office. They make no mention of the need for ordination as a pre-condition for the exercise of this office.
While frequent celebrations of the Holy Communion may be desirable, they are not absolutely necessary to the church being the church. The rubrics of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer require the celebration of the Holy Communion only on four Sundays of the church year, one of which is Easter Sunday.
As in the case of a prevailing emphasis upon the importance of the sacraments and the priest’s mediatory role, the normalization of frequent celebrations of Holy Communion in an Anglican jurisdiction unnecessarily hampers its church planting activities and its growth in general. Churches that have less than a Sunday or weekly celebration of the Holy Communion are made to feel like they are less than real churches.
These beliefs—the importance of the sacraments, the priest as a mediator between God and his people, and frequent celebration of the Holy Communion as a norm—have a particular cultus associated with them. This cultus includes beliefs, rituals, ceremonies, ornaments, and even a requisite type of building. It is an expensive cultus to maintain as is the priest whose sacramental ministry it insists must be at the center of a church’s common life and ministry. The increasingly prohibitive costs of maintaining this cultus and its priests has greatly slowed the progress of church planting in Anglican jurisdictions in which it is prevalent.
In many parts of North America this cultus has not proven attractive to large segments of the population. The churches of the Anglican jurisdictions in which this cultus is prevalent have a very small population base. They have not had any success in expanding this population base. The cultus itself for a substantial part of the general population carries with it negative associations. It is too reminiscent of the cultus of the Roman Catholic Church.
In some North American Anglican jurisdictions church leaders have sought to make their churches more attractive to a larger segment of the general population by blending this cultus with a more spontaneous and free-flowing style of worship, borrowed from charismatic and Pentecostal churches. This, however, has not mitigated the cost of maintaining the cultus and its priests. What they are essentially trying to do is put new wine in old wine skins. Catholic sacramental theology ties the work of the Holy Spirit to human actions; charismatic and Pentecostal theology recognizes the freedom of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit works in ways of his own choosing and not ours.
In recognizing that every local manifestation of the Body of Christ does not require a priest nor does it need to celebrate the Holy Communion every Sunday or week, an Anglican jurisdiction would be untying its own hands as well as well as freeing its churches from unnecessary burden. It could refocus its energies on training and equipping cadres of licensed readers and pastoral assistants for gospel ministry. These readers and pastoral assistants would minister in the community where they live and work or in an adjoining community. They would largely be non-stipendiary but would receive some remuneration for travel expenses, educational materials, and the like.
Rather than viewing the use of licensed readers and pastoral assistants as a stopgap measure necessitated by a shortage of clergy and funds for clergy stipends, we should see their use as an additional way of mobilizing more gospel workers and an integral part of a strategy to expand the Anglican Church’s population base in a particular country or region. In taking this important step a Anglican jurisdiction would enable even small communities in North America to have an Anglican church.
3. All it requires is God's people gathering around God's word and seeking to be a blessing to the community of which they're a part.
If anything can be inferred from the New Testament, it is the importance of coming together around God’s Word and doing all we can to be a blessing to others. For Christians the Bible is our rule of faith and life. God’s word is a lamp for our feet and a light on our path (Psalm 119:105). The Bible tells us that we are to love even our enemies and those who persecute us. The kindness we show to others, in particular to the last and the least, is kindness shown to Jesus himself. We are urged to do as much good as we can at every opportunity that comes our way.
A friend of mine tells a story of how after a struggle with his conscience he stopped to help another motorist push his stalled vehicle off the road. He recalls how the young Episcopal priest who serves the Episcopal church in the community and with whom he has some business dealings drove past them without even stopping to see if he could be of assistance. My friend likens this incident to what happened to the poor traveler who was beaten by robbers and left for dead in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The priest and the Levite, when they saw the traveler’s body in the road, crossed to the other side of the road and walked hurriedly past the body. The person who stopped to help the traveler was the one who Jesus’ audience least expected—a hated Samaritan. Before he became a Christian, my friend was something of a Samaritan himself. He knows what it is like to be an object of scorn and disapproval. He hit rock bottom before turning to Jesus.
His story not only illustrates how one Christian responded to an opportunity to do good but also how God through his Word reshapes our hearts and transforms our lives. As the apostle Paul tells us, faith comes from hearing and hearing from the preaching of the Word. Through his Word God not only arouses faith in him but also confirms and strengthens that faith. Through his Word God renews our minds. God works invisibly in each of us to will and do his good pleasure. The Scriptures show us what is pleasing to God. The Holy Spirit prompts us to do what pleases God and enables us to respond to his prompting.
In C. S.Lewis’ Narnia story, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Prince Caspin, Lucy, and their companions reach the island of the farthermost west where dwells a fallen star and his daughter. Every morning a bird brings a fire berry from the sun and places it in the mouth of the retired star. Each fire berry burns away his old age bit by bit until he is as young as the day he was born. Then he will be able to return to his place in the heavens. Catholics may see in this story an analogy between the fire berry and the Holy Communion. Each time they receive the bread and wine, Christ present in these elements burns away a part of their sin nature and infuses into them in its place part of his own nature. I, however, believe that the affects of the fire berry on the fallen star are more analogous with the affects of Scripture on us. Each time we go to God’s Word, it brings about a change in us. It may not be a perceptible change. We may not feel or experience it right away but it does occur.
God’s people can gather around God’s Word in a number of ways. They can come together as a Bible study group in a house, apartment, office, dorm room, community center, classroom, shop, café, or pub. They can also gather outdoors under a shady tree or park shelter. They can contribute their presence, their talents, and their spiritual gifts to a Service of the Word in which the Scriptures are read and explained. They can meet as a small group to review the main points of the sermon and to decide how they are individually and as a group going to apply them to their lives and ministry.
Just a reminder, all God’s people are ministers. Some have discerned the ministry that God has given them. Others are in the various stages of discovering what that ministry is. All God’s people, however, have a ministry. It may change over time but they have a ministry none the less.
God’s people can be a blessing to their community in innumerable ways. My present church purchases nonperishable food and pack it in bags for distribution to needy children to take home and eat during the weekend or over longer breaks when they cannot eat breakfast and lunch at school. We also collect and donate food to the local food bank. We purchase school supplies for needy children at the beginning of the school year and warm jackets for the colder months.
On one Sunday the pastor gave every person at the church’s two main gatherings $50 with the instructions that if we saw a need, we should use the money to meet the need. The thrust of the message on that Sunday was—“see a need, meet a need,” in other words, doing as much good as we could whenever we saw an opportunity. I do not remember the exact amount of the money that given out but it was a sizable amount. The money enabled us to impact the community in numerous ways. In a number of cases congregants would pool the money to meet a particular need.
My small group has done yard work for seniors who cannot do it for themselves. We have planted a community garden and given the vegetables from the garden to the residents of the local public housing project. We have passed out cold bottled water at Freedom Fest, painted children’s faces, and given away helium balloons. Other small groups have served free ice cream at the Ice Cream Festival, taken photographs of children in Halloween costumes at Trail for Treats, picked up trash off the side of the highway, and taken on various community service projects.
God’s people can offer wise counsel and encouragement to members of the community facing life’s challenges. They can form support groups for community members struggling with alcoholism or drug addiction. Alcoholism and drug addiction are major problems in small communities as they are in large cities. A psychiatric nurse who was a member of my previous church led support groups for survivors of child sexual abuse.
God’s people can visit the chronically-ill, the invalid, and the shut-in, prepare meals for them, and do housework for them. Small communities often do not have home help services that enable seniors to remain independent and stay in their homes as long as possible. Church volunteers can fill in this gap in community services. The youth group and men’s fellowship of my previous church repainted the interior of the house of an elderly woman who could not afford house painter.
God’s people can tutor school children. They conduct supervised after school study groups to work on homework assignments and complete out-of-classroom projects. They can teach illiterate adults to read. They can also help non-English speakers to learn English.
God’s people can support other community groups. They can undertake community projects with them. This is a good way for Christians to meet non-Christians. A common interest serves as a point of contact. It helps a church to build bridges to the community and to form relationships with other community members. The list goes on.
Even a micro-church can have a tremendous impact upon its community.
The most important way that God’s people can be blessing to the community of which they are part is to take time to become acquainted with the people that they do not know, establish and build relationships with them, and have spiritual conversations with them. Even if these spiritual conversations do not bear fruit, they should maintain the relationships that they have established and built.
God’s people should always bear in mind that they are Jesus’ ambassadors. They represent their Lord. They should also be mindful of the character of their Lord. The Jesus that other people encounter in them may be the only Jesus these people may ever know. Jesus grieved over the rich young man who was not willing to pay the cost of discipleship but he did not turn his back on that young man. The New Testament does not tell us but the Holy Spirit may have worked in the young man’s heart, causing him to change his mind.
God’s people can meet with non-Christians to read the Bible together. They can meet with a group of non-Christians and tell them stories from the Bible. They can purchase and give away digital audio Bibles to people who cannot read as well as printed Bibles to those who can. They can conduct backyard Bible studies. Here again, the list goes on. These are just a few of the ways that God’s people can be salt and light in their community.
What matters to God is not whether we are successful. What matters to him is that we are faithful. We are constant and true to God and trust in his Word. Adam and Eve’s sin was that they did not take God at his word. We follow in their footsteps whenever we do not accept what God says on trust.
4. I’m not anxious about the future of the God's church…because it is in his hands - not in our hands….
Jesus drew to his disciple’s attention the pointlessness of being anxious. Worry does not change anything. God’s care for us is providential. He will supply our needs as he provides for the needs of all living creatures. Jesus also told his disciples that they could expect to be persecuted as he was persecuted. At the same time Jesus also promised that the powers of hell would not prevail against his Church. He would be with his disciples and his Church until the end of time.
The future of God’s Church is in his hands. Local churches may come and go. Christians may suffer terrible persecution in various parts of the world. Churches may disappear because their members were lukewarm or cold in their faith. Churches may vanish or never even get off the ground because they were part of our plans for a community but not God’s. Jesus, however, has won the victory and his Church will be triumphant. We may not see it in our lifetime but we will see it on the day of his return.
5. I'm absolutely confident that as we partner together, even in difficult times, that we'll see some new and exciting ways of the people of God emerge.
As Christians partner together, they indeed can expect to see the emergence of new and exciting ways of being God’s people. Whether or not times are difficult does not matter. What does matter is responding to Jesus’ invitation to join him on mission.
In the United Kingdom and elsewhere we are seeing the emergence of fresh expressions of the Church. They are not old ways of being the church masquerading as new ways as is so often the case in the Anglican Church in North America. They represent a sincere effort to come to grips with the twenty-first century and the major paradigm shifts that have occurred in Western societies.
Partnering means taking part in an undertaking with others. It involves sharing in its risks as well as its benefits. It requires collaboration and cooperation.
An example of a partnering of churches is the Southern Baptist Convention’s Cooperative Program. Participating churches pool their resources to support an array of ministries and missions, including church planting and evangelism efforts in North America and missionary work outside of North America.
Churches in and outside of Australia partner with Short’s own organization, the Bush Church Aid Society, which also partners with other organizations. By partnering together networks of churches can achieve collectively what they cannot achieve individually.
Denominations are basically church partnerships, as are the judicatories that form them. The voluntary nature of these organizations is frequently overlooked. Unsuccessful partnerships can be dissolved and new ones formed to take their place.
A church partnership may be viewed as unsuccessful when some members of the partnership seek to impose their own agenda upon the other partnership members instead sticking to carrying out the original purposes for which the partnership was formed. The options are to dissolve the partnership by common agreement or to withdraw unilaterally from the partnership. As we have seen in the case of the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church of Canada, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and most recently the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia churches are exercising this second option.
Churches can partner with other churches and para-church organizations like the Bush Church Aid Society outside the formal structures of denomination and judicatory. It is these partnerships that I believe will produce the new and exciting ways of being God’s people to which Short refers. New wine cannot be stored in old wine skins. The wine skins will swell and burst and the wine lost. I share Short’s confidence that despite difficult times we will indeed see new and exciting ways of being a church.