Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Great Commission Church Planting

By Robin G. Jordan

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. Acts.1:8

In my article, “Sacramental Church Planting: An Assessment,” I question the giving of such prominence to the celebration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper that their celebration conceals and obscures the importance of other aspects of the common life of a new congregation. The giving of prominence to their celebration also conveys the message that they are far more important in the economy of salvation than they actually are. The Prayer Book Catechism recognizes the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper “as generally necessary to salvation.” This is an important qualification. In The Tutorial Prayer Book for theTeacher, the Student, and the General Reader Charles Neil and J. M.Willoughby explain:
The expression ‘as generally necessary to salvation’ does not mean that “they are universally and in all cases absolutely necessary (for then none would be saved without receiving them); but that as a general rule (allowing for exceptions, e.g., the thief on the cross) they are requisite. This interpretation harmonizes with the words of the Second Exhortation in the Office of Adult Baptism: ‘Whereby ye may perceive the great necessity of this sacrament where it may be had’; and also with the rubric in the Communion of the Sick, ‘But if any by reason the extremity of sickness,’ etc. (p. 419)
The premise of the article, “Sacramental Church Planting” that the celebration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper should shape the pattern of the common life of a new congregation makes a particular form of sacramental piety and even a particular theology of the sacraments the principal determinant of how the members of the new congregation should live their life together. What the author of this article does is create a hierarchy of Christ’s commands in order of obedience with observance of the ordinances of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper at the top and obedience to Christ’s other commands ranked below their observance. Such a ranking of Christ’s commands, however, is not reconcilable with what is written in the New Testament. Christ in his teaching emphasizes faith, repentance, obedience to God, forgiveness of others, compassion toward others, the proclamation of the message of salvation, and the like. So do the apostles in their teaching.

In arguing for the giving of such prominence to the celebration of the sacraments, the author appears to be overcompensating for the attitude toward the observance of the Lord’s Supper that he encountered on his visit to a particular new church plant. I have never encountered a similar attitude toward the observance of the Lord’ Supper on any of my own visits to non-Anglican churches. The communion elements may have been received while seated and grape juice may have been used instead of wine but the ordinance was observed with appropriate solemnity. The presiding minister invited only believers to participate and then after a period of self-examination.

In reaction to one extreme the author is championing another extreme—an extreme which would have detrimental effects upon the efforts of his denomination to reach and engage unreached and unengaged population groups on the North American mission field if what he is championing is widely adopted in that denomination.

The practice of weekly communion in Anglican and Episcopal Churches is traceable to the influence of the liturgical movement in the United States and the influence of the parish communion movement in the United Kingdom. It has had both intentional and unintentional side effects. It fostered in Anglican and Episcopal churches the view that they were not fully Christ’s Church if they did not have weekly communion. It came at a time when Anglican and Episcopal churches were experiencing a decline in members and baptisms and their congregations and their population bases were shrinking. A growing number of churches could not afford the stipend of a full-time priest and were required to share a priest with one or more other churches. This contributed to their feelings of inferiority and to their perception of themselves as being something less than Christ’s Church. The result was attitudes about the clergy and themselves that were really not consonant with the teaching of the Bible and which increased their vulnerability to false teaching. Accepting the ministry of a priest who fell short in a number of areas became the tradeoff for having weekly communion. This in turn affected their public image in the community and added to their woes. A number of churches were forced to close their doors.

The Bible does not teach that weekly communion is necessary to being Christ’s Church. Nor do the historic Anglican formularies, including the two Books of Homilies. The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, the Anglican Church’s confession of faith, identifies three marks of the visible Church, a congregation of the faithful, the preaching of the pure word of God, and the administration of the sacraments according to Christ’s ordinance, and infers a fourth mark—the exercise of church discipline. The Articles do not prescribe how often the sacraments are to be administered and only require their administration by someone who is “lawfully called and sent.” Historically the Anglican Church has limited the administration of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper to presbyters and bishops. It does, however, have a history of lay baptism. The requirement that only minister may administer the sacrament of Baptism is a later addition to The Book of Common Prayer and was a concession to the Puritans who objected to the practice of midwives baptizing newborn infants in private homes. The Bible, however, does not prohibit lay baptism.

To be fully Christ’s Church a congregation needs to have a vital faith, to hear the preaching of the pure word of God, to observe the ordinances of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and discipline its members when their correction is necessary. It does not need to have a full-time seminary educated, stipendiary priest or a weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper. Rather the Articles’ definition of the visible Church permits a variety of expressions of Church and a variety of patterns of congregational life. A congregation of twenty-five or less people gathered around God’s Word on a convenient evening in a private home is as much Christ’s Church as a congregation of five hundred or more people gathered around the Word on Sunday morning in their own worship center. Their size and their circumstances may differ and with these variables their congregational dynamics. However, they both are the Body of Christ.

When our Lord entrusted the disciples as representatives of future generations of his followers with the Great Commission, he did not instruct them to promote a particular expression of Church or pattern of congregational life. What he basically told them was to multiply themselves, to make more disciples in ever widening circles to the very ends of the earth. The multiplication of disciples was to be the chief focus of his Church—its central activity. If anything is to serve as the primary determinant of how the members of a congregation live their lives together, it is this activity.  

In the Great Commission baptizing and instructing are subsidiary to disciple making. Integral to the Great Commission is going—outward-directed movement and engagement. This is further emphasized in our Lord’s words that the disciples and hence all of his followers would be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. They were expected to bring the good news of salvation to others, not to passively wait for seekers after salvation to come to them. They are promised the Holy Spirit to empower them and assured of Christ’s presence with them to the end of the age. This promise and assurance were made not just to them but also to future generations of his disciples.

The kind of church planting in which we are expected to engage is not sacramental church planting but Great Commission church planting. We are expected to plant new congregations that have a strong culture of disciple-making and which are devoted to multiplying disciples. Christianity at its heart is a disciple-making movement. The multiplication of disciples is the task that we have been divinely appointed. It is not optional. It is not just for a few more zealous Christians. It is for all who name themselves followers of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Regrettably we are tempted to substitute other activities for this task both as individuals and as congregations—activities that are more appealing and less challenging than leaving our comfort zones, meeting new people, forming relationships, and having spiritual conversations, all of which are necessary steps in disciple making. Multiplying disciples requires us to walk by faith and not by sight, to place ourselves wholly in Christ’s hands and to fully trust Christ and his promises.

Disciple making involves risk taking. It may involve disapproval, rejection, enmity, physical suffering, and death. It is the way of the Cross. Yet at the same time it offers great rewards. Among these rewards is witnessing God at work in hearts, minds, and lives, transforming people before our very eyes.

Christ has tasked his whole Church with making disciples, not just one segment of the Church. It is a responsibility that all members of a congregation share. God may gift some members of the congregation to lead and equip the rest of the congregation as its elders. However, the task of making disciples is not theirs alone.

While disciple making may involve working individually with one or more people, it is not a solitary task. It is something that we do as the Body of Christ. Christ gifts his whole Church for the task. How the Holy Spirit manifests himself in our lives is for that purpose. When seen in this light, disciple making is not as daunting as it may first appear.

Disciple making does not require a congregation of a particular size. It does not require that a congregation gather in a particular setting. What it does require are disciples of Jesus Christ who have a genuine commitment to multiply themselves.

Envision a North American mission field in which every community, every neighborhood, and every relationship network is the focus of one or more groups of disciples who are reaching and engaging the unreached and unengaged people in that community, neighborhood, or relationship network. Great Commission church planting is all about forming, equipping, and multiplying such groups. 

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