©1997, 1998 Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals
How would you rate the work of your church? A ministry scorecard might include the following categories: if your church has a children's ministry give it 2 points; a welcome team ministry, 1 point; a tape ministry, 1 point (but if a tape and book ministry, 2 points). A couples' ministry should be worth 2 points as should an international student ministry, a mothers' ministry, and a newlywed ministry; but subtract a point if it is a newlywed mothers' ministry. Women's ministry should also receive 2 points and--in the spirit of equity--a men's ministry should receive the same, but if your men's group is an adjunct of Promise Keepers don't give any points--you have to start it on your own. AIDS ministries, homeless ministries, and low-income housing ministries all receive 3 points, a score befitting a big church with many resources and talented members. Throw in 1 point each for a weekly Bible study, foreign missions, and the Sacraments (2 points for the latter if your church allows the laity to set up the Lord's Supper). Finally, add 1 point for a Sunday morning service, 2 points if you have both a contemporary and a traditional service.
Now tally up your score. How did your church do? Be careful, though. Before you delight in a double-digit number you should know that this game is like golf--the higher the score, the worse the performance. The reason, of course, for this inverse method of scoring comes from our Lord himself. When he sent his disciples out into the world he prescribed the means that they would use to disciple the nations. In the Great Commission Christ tells the apostles to teach and baptize. In other words, he defined the ministry of the church as encompassing two tasks only--Word and Sacrament.
Such a narrow view of the ministry means that par for the church is 4: 1 point for preaching, 2 points for the Sacraments, and 1 for prayer. Any activity beyond these results in a bogey church.
How Did Churches Become Ministry Samplers?
The contemporary proliferation of ministries has many sources, but three factors are especially important. The first is the demise of the doctrine of providence, the second concerns the neglect of traditional means, and the third relates to the highly touted Reformed "world-and-life" view.
If one doctrine defines contemporary evangelicalism more than any other it is a belief in miracles or the idea that God can and still does intervene directly and immediately in human affairs, thus, manifesting his supernatural power. Among Pentecostals and some charismatics, speaking in tongues, healing, and direct revelations from God constitute evidence of God's miraculous activities. But for evangelicals who like their God a little more subdued, the new birth or conversion experience suffices. Being born again is the best indication for many that God is still alive, active, and saving his people. This may explain why evangelicalism has been so identified with the new birth and why the media refers to evangelicals as "born-again" Christians. The name reinforces the miraculous and is, therefore, proof that God still exists.
Modern-day evangelicals inherited this heightened supernaturalism from their fundamentalist grandparents. That older generation of conservative Protestants who battled liberal theology in the 1920s and 1930s did so in part because modernists abandoned supernaturalism. In liberal Protestant hands the virgin birth of Christ became a mythological account of the advent of someone the early church revered as God, and the resurrection became simply an expression of the first Christians' wishful thinking. Liberal Protestantism made these theological moves in part to defend Christianity from the findings of modern science which denied the possibility of miracles. Such science limited truth to that which could be verified by the human senses. But while conceding large chunks of Christian teaching to science, modernists were unwilling to abandon Christian convictions altogether. So they clung to belief in God but reduced the divine, even redemptive activities, to natural processes. God was immanent, modernists argued, and was at work in the evolutionary forces of natural development and human progress. Thus, while Darwinism proved to skeptics that God did not exist, liberal Protestants saw it as God's way of fashioning higher forms of life and nobler civilizations.
Fundamentalists, however, opposed liberalism as a betrayal of the gospel. Conservatives were especially keen to assert the transcendence of God (as opposed to his immanence) and to defend the miraculous character of salvation. Hence the fundamentalist habit of placing the virgin birth, the resurrection, the deity of Christ, and divine character of Scripture foremost on various lists of essential doctrines. Creation was especially important to fundamentalists partly to counteract the evolutionary scheme of modernist theology. Fundamentalists described the creation of man in immediate supernatural terms, thereby denying the liberal notions of mediation and development. Thus, what was true for conversion also became true for the creation of man: just as God miraculously and instantly regenerated the heart of the believer, so God also supernaturally created man's physical form in one immediate act.
This otherwise commendable defense of God's transcendence and sovereignty in salvation unfortunately ignored the doctrine of providence. According to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, for instance, providence is "God's most holy, wise and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures and all their actions." What lies behind this understanding is the belief that God works his purposes through secondary means, not simply through his direct and miraculous deeds. Whatever appears to be the cause of natural effects, as believers we know also that God is using those secondary causes for the effects he desires. To say that the sun burned off the morning fog does not deny God's hand in nature; we are merely describing the means he used to clear the sky. Likewise, in Reformation studies, to claim that the buffer role Prince Frederick III played in the life of Martin Luther doesn't negate God's role. Frederick was the secondary cause God used to protect Luther from the higher powers of the papacy and the emperor (something that the martyrs John Wycliffe and John Huss lacked).
The same point can be made about conversion or salvation. Ordinarily God does not dramatically claim us as he did the Apostle Paul. God does not appear in person and blind the new believer. Rather, he uses a variety of means in the course of a believer's life to carry out his saving purpose. One example of this kind of providence is the influence of family and friends. Statistics reveal overwhelmingly that those who come to make a profession of faith do so in part because of the influence of a believing family member or friend. Another example is preaching. God does not wallop sinners over the head but uses the proclamation of the Word as a means toward faith and repentance. The same is true of sanctification. Paul exhorts us to work out our faith in fear and trembling. This means that we must, in the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, make "diligent use" of the means of grace: the Word and the Sacraments. But we know that ultimately it is God who is at work in us (Phil. 2:10-11).
These secondary means alone do not guarantee God's saving grace. His Spirit has to be at work for any of these means to be effective; thus, the need for supernatural and miraculous activity as the fundamentalists insisted. But Scripture clearly teaches that God uses secondary means to carry out his purposes both in restraining evil and in redeeming his people. In other words, God saves both though providence and miracles. What is more, the secondary causes are as much the work of God as are miracles. If we fail to see this we run the risk of espousing a deistic view of salvation, one where God winds up the clock of the soul in the act of conversion and then lets it run its own course by its own powers. Contrary to deism, the Bible teaches that God is always involved and ever active in sustaining and upholding his creation. The same is no less true of redemption. Whether it occurs providentially or supernaturally, nothing happens without God's purpose.
Of course, recovering a full view of God's redemptive acts, one in which we take greater notice of secondary means, does not settle the issue of ministry. Couldn't it be the case that God has ordained ice hockey ministries to bring some of his people to himself? Or what about evangelistic crusades? Isn't the proof in the pudding? As long as some are coming to Christ aren't these unusual ministries ordained by God?
To answer these questions we need to remember the means that God has promised to bless. The Apostle Paul, both in Romans 10 and Ephesians 4, places great stress upon the ordained ministry and the public proclamation of the Word, even asking in the former how the elect will come to Christ without preaching. This underscores the importance of means. Ordinarily, God uses means and so these means are not something that we may disregard. We may even say that they are necessary.
We should also observe that these means are ordinary, to use the language of the Shorter Catechism again, not simply in the sense that this is the normal way that God works, but also in the sense that from the world's perspective they aren't very noble or glamorous. This is the reason Paul describes preaching as foolishness. Not only is the cross itself foolish to the unregenerate mind (I Cor. 1:23), it also views the great and mighty redemptive power of God as packaged or conveyed in a flimsy and unconvincing form. As Paul writes to the Corinthians, it is the preaching of Christ and him crucified that is a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles (I Cor. 1:24). The church as defined by the ministry of Word and Sacrament is in the business of being ordinary!
Most Christians, however, don't want to admit that the church is ordinary. On the one hand they want to show off the greatness of God and so devise different strategies (i.e., "ministries") that will demonstrate just how great, mighty, and merciful God is. On the other hand, the "outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption" aren't very attractive or fun to so-called seekers. Preaching and the Sacraments will hardly allow a small church to compete with the megachurch that produces (at a rate of $5,000 per video) a weekly dramatic video for its youth group meeting. Nor, do they think, will Word and Sacrament alone be very effective in reaching unchurched Harry and his wife, Harriet.
But isn't this precisely the point of the Apostle Paul's teaching in the first chapter of I Corinthians as well as the Bible more generally? If we look at all of the great redemptive acts in the history of redemption we cannot help but be struck by the ordinary quality of these miracles. The Exodus is probably the most spectacular event, but it relies simply upon a wind (a strong one to be sure) but not a tornado. We also have the example of Joshua and the Israelites walking and blowing trumpets to bring down the walls of Jericho. David's encounter with Goliath also speaks volumes about God's understated ways of protecting his people and slaying his foes. Of course, the greatest example is our Lord himself. He came to earth as the Messiah and Lord of glory to vanquish sin and death, not with fanfare but in the contemptible surroundings of a barnyard. All of these examples underline the Apostle Paul's instruction in II Corinthians 4:7 that God uses "earthen vessels" to show that "this unsurpassing power" is from him, not from human hands or wisdom. The same is no less true of the way that God now works in his church. God uses the plain and simple means of Word and Sacrament to keep us humble and to ensure that he receives all the honor and glory.
The point here is not simply that God ordinarily works through foolish means and therefore the church must do likewise. This is true. But we also need to see that the church has been commissioned to disciple the nations and God has promised to bless the church's work. The only means that God has promised to bless are Word and Sacrament. To establish other ministries that appear to be more attractive and effective not only detracts from God's ordained means but also implies that we are wiser than God and that we do not trust his gracious provision. If the church is to be faithful she must also be content with the means God has given to his church. And unless he sends a word of knowledge promising to bless the youth group, then we need to continue on with the ordinary means of Word and Sacrament.
But, you may ask, aren't some of these other ministries effective? Don't people come to know Christ through various ministries? These are good questions but they beg themselves. How do we know if ministries other than Word and Sacrament are effective? Is it simply because a certain parachurch ministry announces in its newsletter that so many came to Christ (and oh, by the way, please send a monetary gift to continue this crucial ministry)? Or do we look at statistics from weekly men's group meetings? Ultimately, any so-called ministry depends upon the Word and Sacrament to determine its effectiveness or, in other words, to tell whether the profession of those who came to Christ is credible. If a 12-year-old boy comes home from summer camp professing to be a Christian or if a soccer mom goes to a mid-week women's Bible study, are we going to say that these professions are credible if these individuals don't gather with other believers each Sunday to hear the Word and receive the Sacrament? What if they fail to do so for the rest of their lives? If professing Christians do not participate in the means of grace and neglect assembling with God's people, just how credible are their professions? Of course, some might still defend the credibility of professions that do not draw upon the riches of Word and Sacrament. They will, however, have a hard time doing this from Scripture. The Bible does not say that either weekend retreats or low-income housing (even though they may be beneficial) are the means God uses to save and build his church.
Still, evangelicals are not solely to blame for the proliferation of ministries these days. The Reformed also need to shoulder some of the responsibility. Here the widespread idea of kingdom work or a Reformed world-and-life view, requires closer scrutiny.
The notion of kingdom work stems from good intentions. Abraham Kuyper was probably its best exponent when he said, "there is not an inch in the entire area of our human life which Christ, who is sovereign of all, does not call ŒMine!'" The Reformed worldview aims to do justice to the cultural mandate of Scripture which calls us to worship God not just on the Lord's Day but also during the week in our vocations. Kuyper, in fact, refined and developed the notion of sphere sovereignty to include not just the idea that Christ is Lord of the church, family, and state (the traditional Reformed spheres) but also extends to the whole range of human endeavors, from the natural sciences to the arts. This idea has appealed greatly to evangelicals and former fundamentalists who desire some religious rationale for not being a missionary or evangelist ("full-time Christian service"). Among believers who associate secular occupations with worldliness, the Reformed world-and-life view provides relief by recognizing the religious dimension of all legal vocations.
One sees the downside of the contemporary "worldview" operations, however, when they lead to the idea of cultural transformation, as they usually do. Here "kingdom work" takes on the progressive notion of Christians going into every field of human endeavor, serving God in all occupations, and eventually redeeming the culture to Christ. According to this logic, any legal form of employment is as worthwhile as the ministry of Word and Sacrament. After all, Christians in all sorts of callings, so the argument runs, are transforming the culture just as much as pastors; sometimes, if the occupation is on a large enough scale, such as in the media or entertainment industry, it can be even more effective than the work of the church. It is as if writing the script of a successful sitcom is more important than the proclamation of the Word.
As it turns out, this understanding of Christian cultural engagement never really escapes the otherworldliness of fundamentalism. In order to legitimize all non-religious vocations this view of cultural transformation gives them a quasi-religious purpose by saying that they are redemptive or extend Christ's lordship. Older Protestant understandings of vocation, however, recognized secular occupations as good, not because they were evangelistic or redemptive, but because God had ordained them. Worldly occupations, according to this view, were still worldly, but worldliness in this sense was good because God created a good world. But the Protestant understanding of vocation still recognized the sacred and unique function of the ministry. While baking and preaching were both legitimate callings (a person was not a better Christian because ordained), the Reformers understood that preaching (even if conducted by the unregenerate), not baking, was the means God used to extend his kingdom. Thus, the popular idea of "kingdom work" misunderstands the nature of both secular and sacred occupations. It carries with it a fundamental misunderstanding of the kingdom of Christ and how it is realized.
The Keys of the Kingdom
Despite obvious problems with the kingdom work model of cultural transformation, it does highlight the idea of kingdom in a helpful way. Here it might be useful to consider the nature of Christ's kingdom and what are the means by which he establishes it. Christ is indeed Lord of all things, but his rule will certainly look different in different places. Christ is Lord of the United States whether the Constitution recognizes it or not, because God has ordained the powers that be. In the same way, Christ is Lord of both Christian and non-Christian families because he has ordained this institution as a way to restrain evil and maintain social order. But this is a different kind of rule than what we see in the church. There Christ's kingdom requires bowed knees and tongues confessing Jesus Christ as Lord.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism renders Christ's kingdom as a place where he subdues us to himself, rules and defends us, and restrains his and our enemies (Q&A 26). The point is that Christ's kingdom is a spiritual, not a physical place. As a spiritual place, then it is one where his role as Savior, not as Creator, is primary. This means that the kingdom of God exists only where the benefits of Christ's redemption have been applied, namely among the elect, not within something as abstract as culture, society, or even the media. John Calvin, for instance, limits the idea of the kingdom in just this way when he writes of Christ's kingly office that we can perceive the
force and usefulness of Christ's kingship only when we recognize it to be spiritual. This is clear enough from the fact that, while we must fight throughout life under the cross, our condition is harsh and wretched. What then, would it profit us to be gathered under the reign of the Heavenly King, unless beyond this earthly life we were certain of enjoying its benefits? For this reason we ought to know that the happiness promised us in Christ does not consist in outward advantages--such as leading a joyous and peaceful life, having rich possessions, being safe from all harm, and abounding with delights such as the flesh commonly longs after. No, our happiness belongs in the heavenly life! (The Institutes, II.xv.4)
Calvin goes on to infer from Luke 17:21 and from Romans 14:17, where God's kingdom is described as being among his people and as "righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit," that Christ's kingdom "is not earthly or carnal and hence subject to corruption, but spiritual" and, thus, "lifts us up even to eternal life."
The idea of kingdom work is also helpful for pinpointing the means whereby Christ establishes his kingdom. Here the very words of our Lord in Matthew 16:19-20; 18:18; and John 20:22-23 are revealing. In these passages, Christ tells his disciples that he has given them the keys to his kingdom. Because Roman Catholics have used these passages to defend the primacy of the papacy, Protestants have been reluctant to make them carry too much weight. But the Reformers were not so squeamish. Zacharias Ursinus, co-author of the Heidelberg Catechism, wrote that the keys of the kingdom consist in preaching and discipline, "by which the kingdom of heaven is opened to believers, and shut against unbelievers." Through these spiritual means the church testifies the grace of God to those who live in true faith and repentance. Simultaneously these means declare the wrath of God to the wicked and their exclusion from the kingdom. Ursinus explains that the metaphor of keys borrows from the image of house stewards. "The church is the house of the living God," he writes, and "the ministers of the church are the stewards of God." In declaring the will of God for salvation, ministers have the keys to open and shut God's house.
Calvin and Ursinus would have had no trouble rating an "effective" church. For them preaching, the Sacraments, and discipline were the means that Christ had ordained for extending his kingdom. Anything else, they would say, was sheer gimmickry, efforts that might spring from good intentions but which ultimately detract from the means of grace and breed distrust of God's promises to bless the means of grace. The kingdom of God is not a moral American society, wholesome television programming, or more Christians in the arts. As Jesus himself said, "my kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36). The means by which Christ establishes his kingdom are not banners in the sanctuary, drama and dance in worship, or even a full slate of Sunday School classes. No, the keys of the kingdom, the instruments that lock and unlock it, are the sober responsibilities which our Lord gives to ministers. When churches reduce the clutter of their programs and when God's people recognize the ministry of Word and Sacrament for what it is, namely, the means whereby Christ communicates the benefits of redemption, then and only then will we have churches score well.
Dr. D.G. Hart is Head Librarian and Associate Professor of Church History and Theological Bibliography at Westminster Theological Seminary. From 1989-1993 he directed the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals and taught history at Wheaton College. He earned his Ph.D. in American History at The John Hopkins University and also did graduate work at Westminster Theological Seminary and Harvard Divinity School.