Sunday, April 24, 2016

Sacramental Church Planting: An Assessment

By Robin G. Jordan

While doing a Google search on the ACNA Diocese of Pittsburgh’s bishop-elect, the Rev. Jim Hobby, I visited the ACNA Church Planting Initiative website and read an article on its blog entitled, “Sacramental Church Planting.” The basic premise of the article was that the observance of the ordinances of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper should shape the way in which a new congregation lives its common life. The author of the article claimed that this premise was consistent with an Anglican understanding of the dominical sacraments. I, however, found his particular view of the dominical sacraments more in tune with an unreformed Catholic understanding of the sacraments than a reformed Anglican one. It gives such prominence to the dominical sacraments that they overshadow other important aspects of a new congregation's common life. It suffers from a number of other major defects.

A careful reading of the Holy Scriptures does not support this particular view of the dominical sacraments. Rather it supports the view that faith in Jesus Christ and obedience to God’s Word should be shaping the common life of a new congregation, not its observance of the ordinances of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Through the teaching of the Holy Scriptures God establishes the pattern of its life together as a new community of believers and seekers. Observing the ordinances of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper play a part in that pattern as does spreading the gospel, making new disciples of Jesus Christ, teaching and practicing what he commanded, and building each other up in the Christian faith and way of life. Their observance, however, is only part of the pattern, not the shaper of that pattern.

The visible church does not exist to celebrate the sacraments. It exists to go into the world and to proclaim the good news to all people groups and to invite their members to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior and to become his devoted followers, living their lives in accordance with his commands and emulating his obedience to God in every aspect of their lives. It exists to form seekers into believers and believers into disciples, to encourage and support them in their often faltering steps toward spiritual maturity in Christ, to equip them for the work of ministry, to represent Christ in the world, and to embody God’s love for his fallen creation.

One of Christ’s commands is to baptize new believers. Another is to commemorate and proclaim his saving death in the observance of the Lord’s Supper. These commands, however, are not his only commands. He enjoins us to love God and those around us with our whole being. He likewise enjoins us to love each other. Our love for others must extend even to those who hate and despise us. He further commands us to serve him in the last and the least—the poor, the hungry, the destitute, the prisoner, the captive, and the refugee. He also enjoins us to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth and to fulfill his commission to spread the gospel and make disciples of all nations.

In his teaching Christ emphasizes that God does not desire sacrifices from us, a reference to the animal sacrifices offered in the Temple in Jerusalem, but rather that we show mercy toward our fellow human beings and in doing so, emulate the forgiveness and kindness that God shows toward us. By extension this includes the reiteration or representation of Christ’s own offering of himself on the cross for the sins of the whole world or the pleading of that offering in our observances of the Lord’s Supper.

In the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, which comprise the Anglican Church’s confession of faith and form along with The Book of Common Prayer and Ordinal of 1662 its longstanding doctrinal and worship standard, in its definition of the visible church, the order in which the three marks, or defining characteristics, of the visible church are listed is significant. A congregation of the faithful is listed first, then the preaching of the pure Word of God, and last of all the due ministration of the sacraments according to Christ’s ordinance.

The 1662 Ordinal emphasizes the centrality of the ministry of the Word to the ministry of deacon, presbyter, and bishop. It is not only evident from the Exhortation and the Examination in the 1662 Ordination Services but also from the presentation of new deacons with the New Testament and new presbyters and bishops with the Bible that these ministers are viewed first and foremost as ministers of God’s Word. As in the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, the administration of the sacraments is listed last in the order of importance.

The listing of the administration of sacraments last is consistent with the reformed Anglican understanding of the sacraments as signs and tokens that make visible or tangible the promises and truths of God’s Word. They are effectual signs because through them God accomplishes that which he purposes. As Isaiah 55:11 tells us, “my word that comes from my mouth will not return to me empty, but it will accomplish what I please and will prosper in what I send it to do.” Through these signs God works invisibly in us, invigorating, confirming, and strengthening our faith. It is by faith that we feed spiritually upon Christ in our innermost being, appropriating the benefits of his saving work. This spiritual feeding is not confined to our observances of the Lord’s Supper but occurs in the daily life of the believer.

As well as being not consonant with the teaching of the Holy Scriptures, the concept of “sacramental church planting” is defective in number of other ways. In the Anglican Church sacramentalism historically has evidenced a strong tendency to go hand in hand with clericalicism, sacerdotalism, and other unreformed Catholic teaching and practices that have no basis in Scripture nor are in line with its teaching. It also associated with a particular ambiance that is pre-Reformation and Medieval in its origins and which in a number of its aspects is not reconcilable to biblical teaching.  

Integral to the concept of “sacramental church planting” is the organization of new congregations around the sacramental ministry of an ordained priest. This suffers from a number of drawbacks as an organizational principle for new congregations. It imposes a limit on the number of new congregations that a judicatory is able to plant, a limit determined by the number of priests that it can train, ordain, and deploy. It is also likely to influence what segment of the population that the priest-church planter targets. There will be a strong temptation to focus on families and individuals, who come from a church background, are baptized, and have a history of church attendance. There will also be a strong temptation to adopt an attractional approach rather than a missional one, relying heavily on a particular ambiance as a major attraction and focusing on those families and individuals drawn to that ambiance. Likewise there will be a strong temptation to focus upon a more affluent segment of the population, which has the financial resources to pay the priest’s salary and expenses, to purchase land, to construct a church building, and to provide the clerical and church ornaments that comprise an integral part of the same ambiance.

Historically the use of this organizational principle accounts to large extent for the slow growth of the Episcopal Church when compared with the growth of other North American denominations. Its heavy reliance upon a particular ambiance also account for its slow growth. The segment of the population that was drawn to this ambiance was far smaller than the segment of the population that was not. Another factor limiting its growth was its need for an affluent financial base. Together these factors help to explain why the Episcopal Church at its height was confined to a relatively small segment of the population.

Among the drawbacks of this organizational principle for new congregations is that they grow slowly except in communities that are themselves enjoying rapid growth. If the priest moves on to another church, retires, or otherwise leaves, they are apt to become immobilized or even fall apart. Their members tend to drift away. They are far less resilient than new congregations organized around the proclamation and exposition of God’s Word.

New congregations organized around the sacramental ministry of an ordained priest also tend to become spiritually immature congregations whose members are consumers of a product or service (e.g., Holy Communion, pastoral care, etc.) rather than disciples of Jesus Christ. When the source of these consumables—the priest—leaves and another priest does not immediately take his place, their members tend to go in search of another church to provide them with these consumables. This accounts for a large part for their fragility.

The concept of “sacramental church planting” does not encourage members of a new congregation to fulfill their role as a royal priesthood, a holy nation, whom God has called out of darkness into his marvelous light to proclaim his wonderful deeds. It encourages their over-dependence upon the ministry of one person while minimizing or ignoring the ministry to which God calls each member of a new congregation through his distribution of the manifestations of the Holy Spirit. In this regard it cannot be viewed as faithful to the Great Commission. Christ promised to send the Holy Spirit to the whole Church, not a segment of it. The Spirit-empowered witness to Christ to which all believers are called extends not only to every member of the Body of Christ but also to every aspect of their life together as Christ’s Body.

In new congregations that are effectively reaching and engaging the unchurched a large segment of the congregation is likely to consist of unbaptized seekers who are exploring the Christian faith and way of life and who have not yet accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord and turned to him in faith and repentance. A weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper will have no meaning for them at this stage in their faith journey.

Historically the Anglican Church has considered the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper as a sacrament for believers. The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion takes the Reformed position that only those who have a vital faith in Jesus Christ and receive the sacrament in a worthy manner benefit from receiving it. This means that only those individuals who have shown evidence of faith in Christ and repentance from sin and made a public declaration of faith and repentance in baptism may be admitted to the Lord's Table. The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion do not accept the Lutheran view that the sacrament itself confers faith or the Wesleyan view that it is a converting ordinance. For this reason it is preferable to observe the Lord’s Supper less frequently than weekly, at least at the main worship gatherings of the new congregation, at those gatherings which unbaptized seekers are most likely to attend. As the apostle Paul pointed to the attention of the church in Rome, "faith comes from what is heard and what is heard comes through the message about Christ."   The preaching of God's Word is the medium through which God effectually calls those whom he has predestined for eternal life. 

If the Anglican Church in North America is serious about reaching the unreached people groups of North America and beyond, it needs to base its denominational church planting strategy on the whole council of God as revealed in the Holy Scriptures and the realities of the mission field. Its main concern should not be the celebration of the sacraments but the salvation of souls and the formation of new believers into devoted followers of Jesus Christ.  

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