If you read and study about the health of the church for any length of time, you will run across the phrase, “ordinary means of grace.” The theologians of church history and many of our contemporary scholars, theologians, and pastors are all pressing the importance of clinging to the ordinary means of grace. What exactly does this phrase mean? In an age of cultural relativism, how can a church become extraordinary by being ordinary?
The Meaning of the Phrase
The phrase, “ordinary means of grace” is communicating something specific, and we must avoid two big misconceptions from the beginning. First of all, the phrase is not intending to mean that grace is earned in any way by participating in certain acts of worship. Secondly, grace is not ordinary in the slightest degree. Grace is God’s gift to fallen, guilty, and wretched sinners who do not deserve anything other than God’s wrath. So, with that being said, what exactly does the phrase mean?
In the Scriptures we are given an opportunity to look behind the curtain into the life of the early Christian church community. In Acts, immediately following Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, the church grew from 120 in the Upper Room to over 3,000. In Acts 2:42-47, we see the church meeting together for worship and fellowship. In those meetings, we see three primary things happening (other than the fellowship) in their worship. We see the ministry of the Word, the practice of the ordinances, and prayer.
Throughout history, preachers, scholars, theologians, and groups of Christians have sought to highlight the profound simplicity of the early church’s worship. In doing so, we see statements like the following one contained in the Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q: 88):
Q. What are the outward means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption?
A. The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption, are his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.
In a similar vein, we find the following statement in the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith (chapter 14, paragraph 1):
The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word; by which also, and by the administration of baptism and the Lord’s supper, prayer, and other means appointed of God, it is increased and strengthened. ( 2 Corinthians 4:13; Ephesians 2:8; Romans 10:14, 17; Luke 17:5; 1 Peter 2:2; Acts 20:32)
Once again, it should be noted that it’s not through the media gratiae (means of grace) that a person earns salvation in any way. It’s through the ministry of the Word that grace comes (Rom. 10:17). It must likewise be noted that once a person is converted, grace is needed on a daily basis. The grace of God is not a one time event, but a daily need from the point of conversion until we all stand in the presence of Christ. Therefore, it’s through the ministry of the Word, the ordinances, and prayer that the Christian continues to be strengthened in the grace of God.
The Purity and Health of the Local Church
Today’s local church culture has, in many ways, lost what it means to be an ordinary means of grace church. In an attempt to grow, expand, and do radical things for God, in many cases the local church employs methods and strategies that minimize the ministry of the Word, the ordinances (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), and prayer. You can see my recent article titled, “The Church Is Not Six Flags over Jesus” for more on that subject.
The evangelical landscape is littered with many different methods for reaching the modern culture. We see everything from the “seeker sensitive” model to the “purpose driven life (and church)” model. The evangelical church has toyed with ideas such as the emergent church methods and other relevant strategies geared to reaching a post-modern (or post-post-modern) culture. Many Christians who focus on the cultural landscape are saying that we are living in a post-Christian era and that in order to reach people today the church has to do more than preach the Word, observe the ordinances, and pray.
Before we buy into that type of thinking, it would be wise to consider the landscape of Jerusalem at the time of Peter’s confrontational sermon at Pentecost. It would also be extremely informing to explore the city of Ephesus with all of the idolatry and self exaltation and then consider the words of Paul to Timothy—”Preach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:2). If an ordinary means of grace method of ministry could reach Jerusalem in a post-resurrection era and if that same type of church could reach a sin saturated “Vanity Fair” city named Ephesus, why must we change directions and commitments in our present day?
If we’re honest, the early church was powerful and earth shaking in their mission as they were led by the Holy Spirit. However, in all honesty, they were rather ordinary, simple, and straightforward in their approach to ministry. If the early church was extraordinary by remaining ordinary in their obedience to the Lord, why would we seek to become extraordinary by abandoning the ordinary means of grace?
The extraordinary church focuses on the ministry of the Word, the ordinances, and prayer. The ordinary church is really extraordinary. When people ask you to describe your church, you may consider a long list of glowing adjectives as a description, but don’t underestimate ordinary.
My very best memories as a boy growing up are often linked to my time around the church campus and with the church family. I will never know what it’s like to grow up disconnected from the life of the church. My days as a boy were spent building friendships with people in the church. I married a girl from our local church (we don’t remember the first time we met). Basically, I grew up in the church. I’m eternally grateful for my time spent on the church’s campus playing games with friends, playing basketball in the gymnasium, and going on church related trips. However, I’m most grateful for the time spent on the church campus gathered in one room worshipping God with the church.
Today, there are various and sundry opinions on how to make the church successful and relevant to a modern culture. Sadly, many pastors and church leaders are turning their local church campus into an amusement park for Christians rather than a campus designed for discipleship and worship. Everything from a fire truck baptistry to indoor fireworks and weekly rock concerts are being used to attract people to church. As we consider the importance of God’s church — the very bride of Christ — we should likewise evaluate the methods, strategies, and techniques that are being employed in our day beneath the umbrella of gospel ministry.
Pastors Are Not Performers
As a pastor, I’ve attended many different conferences designed for pastors and church leaders. I’ve likewise attended many denominational meetings designed for the local church and pastoral ministry. What I’ve seen in those conferences have troubled me through the years. It seems that new categories for ministry have emerged onto the scene including gospel ventriloquists, gospel puppeteer, gospel comedian, gospel magician, gospel power team, gospel actors, and more. It’s almost as if today’s church has lost confidence in the simple and straightforward proclamation of the gospel.
Many of today’s pastors are quite comfortable organizing special events and engaging in various types of entertainment to grow their church. It’s not uncommon today to see pastors dressing up in costumes and acting out their sermon as opposed to preaching it. Are pastors performers? Did Paul write to the church at Corinth in order to remind them that it pleases God to save sinners by foolish entertainment? Did Paul instruct Timothy to dress up and entertain the people of Ephesus or did he charge him to preach the Word? The pastor is not called to entertain goats. His duty is to shepherd souls by faithfully feeding the flock of God.
Worship Is Not a Roller Coaster
When I go to Six Flags with my children, they often want to get me on as many roller coasters as possible. My children are thrill seekers. If you look at the design of the roller coaster, it’s built in such a way as to get immediate results. From the first drop to the final sudden stop, the track is designed with the goal of entertainment. Nobody wants to ride a boring roller coaster—right?
When it comes to the worship service, many church leaders and pastors are now designing their worship services in similar ways. The goal of entertainment from the opening of the service until the benediction is evident from the time you walk into the church’s worship center. The choice of lights, their music, the lack of dead space, the lack of silence, the length of their prayers, the method of preaching, and the use of technology all point to a foundational goal of making people satisfied with the ride. However, today’s evangelical church needs to recognize that worship is not a roller coaster. Our goal is not always to have an immediate result of happiness and success. Sometimes worship isn’t fun. Sometimes worship isn’t a thrill. Sometimes genuine worship leaves us with conviction and tears rather than the giddy laughter of a thrill ride.
The Need for Healthy Church Membership
We do live in a day where puppets are often preferred over preachers and where the worship service is expected to be designed like an exciting roller coaster ride. There is much need for spiritual growth and maturity within the evangelical church today.
Although I critique the evangelical church in these areas, I am one who believes in God’s Church. I think it would be foolish to repackage the local church or to abandon it altogether. God has ordained the church as His plan for His people, but there is a need for greater health among the children of God in the area of ecclesiology. As we consider the next 500 years of church history in light of the approaching anniversary of the Reformation this October, the area that needs the most attention in our day is biblical ecclesiology. The church is not a waste of time nor is it a broken road. The church is God’s special and unique plan for all Christians. We must not give up on the church.
As we consider the need for health in the local church today, here are some areas that need attention:
- Biblical preaching (verse-by-verse preaching).
- The need for a high view of church membership. What does it mean to be in a covenant with one another?.
- The need to guard the front door and the back door. Is it too easy to join and leave your church?
- Functional church discipline in accordance with Matthew 18.
- Healthy and biblical leadership (church government that finds its roots in the Bible rather than corporate America).
- Congregational involvement in singing.
- Congregational engagement in the preaching (expositional listening).
- Spiritual maturity that’s achieved by biblical discipleship (a church of Bereans).
- A firm reliance upon the power of the Holy Spirit for ministry.
- Evangelistic zeal undergirded by theological conviction.
- A biblical understanding of conversion (centered on God’s sovereignty resulting in man’s response).
- Central and worshipful observance of the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Any method of growing the church that deviates from God’s design is foolish. When people become willing to employ gimmicks to “grow” their church — they’ve officially traded the Holy Spirit for schemes of man. No matter what plan someone thinks up in the future, the very best church growth strategy is simply this — “We preach Christ crucified and resurrected from the dead.” Can we have fun with the church? Can the church provide a wonderful atmosphere where we build lifelong memories? It absolutely can. However, we must not forget that the church is the bride of Christ—not Six Flags over Jesus. We as pastors and church members must be careful in how we treat the bride of Jesus.
We’re presently living an an age of church decline across America. Every year we see the statistics plastered before our eyes in printed reports regarding the decline of the church and the rise of paganism. The Pew Research Center reported that the adult population claiming a Christian identity has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, from 78.4% in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014. Many people have answers for this decline, but before we jump on any train, we should first consider its destination. Are these methods of addressing church decline God’s answer or man’s pragmatic approach to the deep rooted problem? How will the church answer the culture in day when everyone is doing what seems right in his own eyes? How will the church respond to the cultural pressures? How will the church rebound from the recent downward declining trends?
I have the privilege to meet with a group of godly pastors each month for lunch. During our meetings, we typically discuss theology and ministry. Right now, we’re reading Iain Murray’s documentary on D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and discussing a chapter each month over our meal. This time of fellowship is refreshing, encouraging, and profitable to my soul. This week, we discussed chapter 7, “A Different Kind of Preaching.” This chapter is devoted to the ministry of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones in Sandfields, Aberavon. From the very beginning, he demonstrated his method and devotion to the Word of God as opposed to the broken pots of human schemes and tricks of church growth programs.
When D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones entered the church at Sandfields, people wanted to know what he would do. In that day, the church was in decline and they were, in many ways, doing everything they could to answer this problem. Everything except for what The Doctor would do upon his arrival. With the looming black cloud of church decline, many churches were seeking to appeal to people by the use of more “high church” approaches by the use of liturgy, choirs, and organs. Other churches felt that people didn’t want to come to church to be “preached at” – so they repackaged the sermon as a relevant address which contained modern topics, poetry, and quotations from secular authors.
The church at Sanfields had sought to answer these problems. They had various activities going on within the church such as football, musical events, and a dramatic society. Some members approached D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and suggested that they could be successful if they majored on their children’s ministry. However, to their surprise, the new pastor wasn’t interested in using such things to attract people. In fact, the secretary was very surprised at D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ response to the question of his direction and the needs of the church. He was interested in the regular church services of 11am, 6pm, a Monday evening prayer service, a mid-week worship service on Wednesday, and a Saturday morning men’s meeting. In the words of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, all of the other things could go. When the Committee asked what they were to do with the wooden stage for the dramatic society, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones responded by saying, “You can heat the church with it.”
In a sermon, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said:
The world expects the Christian to be different and looks to him for something different, and therein it often shows an insight into life that regular church-goers often lack. The churches organize whist-drives, fêtes, dramas, bazaars and things of that sort, so as to attract people. We are becoming almost as wily as the devil himself, but we are really very bad at it; all our attempts are hopeless failures and the world laughs at us. Now, when the world persecutes the church, she is performing her real mission, but when the world laughs at her she has lost her soul. And the world today is laughing at the church, laughing at her attempts to be nice and to make people feel at home. My friends, if you feel at home in any church without believing in Christ as your personal Saviour, then that church is no church at all, but a place of entertainment or a social club. For the truth of Christianity and the preaching of the gospel should make a church intolerable and uncomfortable to all except those who believe, and even they should go away feeling chastened and humble.
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones remained steadfast and refused to entertain people and attract them into the church. He preached the Word faithfully, week-by-week. The results were amazing. Men who once squandered their money on liquor and were known around town as drunkards, became upstanding citizens, faithful church members, family men, and all of this without schemes or abstinence politics. It was by the power of the gospel. One particular woman was a well known spirit-medium in the community. On one particular Sunday, she was feeling ill and wasn’t able to do her normal work. As she observed the people passing by her house on their way to church, she decided to attend too. Upon entering, she would later recount, she could sense an overwhelming power in the room. She would later say, “I had a feeling that the power in your chapel was a clean power.” On that first visit to the church, under the preaching of the gospel, she became a Christian.
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones did the hard thing at first, he addressed the failed attempts of church growth and broken strategies of man. His decisions were not popular. In fact, when The Doctor announced that there would be no more stage dramas in the hall, a Mrs. Robson said to herself, “You’ll learn young man, you’ll learn!” However, as she would later tell her story, she said, “It was I who learnt.” In 1927 when D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones arrived at Sandfields, the church had enough seats for 400 people, but only 70 seats were occupied on the Lord’s Day. Under the preaching of the gospel, God added to His church. In 1930, the church at Sandfields recorded 88 new additions, and according to their records, 70 were “from the world.” These additions continued as the gospel was proclaimed. In 1931, the church experienced an addition of 135 new members, and 128 of those people were new converts to Christ.
As the downward trajectory in church numbers in America (especially in the Bible belt regions) continues onward, may God raise up pastors and church members who will be fearless and faithful like D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and keep their focus on the gospel of Christ. We cannot expect the decline of church attendance to be reversed and baptism numbers to increase through broken schemes of man and church growth techniques. Children’s ministries and other ministries in the church are important, but we must see the gospel of Christ as the central means of growing the church. Away with the power lifters, ventriloquists, and comedians – we need the gospel of King Jesus to echo loudly from the pulpit to the hearts of men, women, boys, and girls. Jesus and the apostles were committed to the preaching of the gospel. Men like The Doctor, all throughout church history, have followed in Jesus’ footsteps. May we be found faithful in an age of cultural compromise and church decline. Jesus is enough and His gospel is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes.
The annual Southern Baptist Convention is always preceded by the Pastors’ Conference on Sunday night and Monday. This year’s Pastors’ Conference was very helpful for pastors on many different levels. Several different types of messages were preached that addressed struggles in ministry, doctrinal issues, and Great Commission efforts.
Overall, the Pastors’ Conference was profitable, but there was one sermon that distinctly stands out from the others. The sermon on Monday night by Andy Stanley was not exactly what the pastors at the Convention needed to hear. While there may be a place for leadership models and corporate business plans – it certainly isn’t from the pulpit that is addressing thousands of SBC pastors. Andy Stanley was given the pulpit after a tribute to his father, Charles Stanley, the pastor of FBC Atlanta. Although Andy Stanley is a gifted speaker and has good oratory manners, his message lacked sufficient meat from God’s Word. It was like he was the chef at a large steak house standing there serving up cotton candy and lemonade to men who desperately needed a thick juicy steak. Many men were seated in the Convention hall listening to Stanley speak who desired to hear a message from God’s Word, but they didn’t receive it. They instead received a message full of leadership quotes, business plans, and stories from corporate America.
One of the most troubling parts of Andy Stanley’s message was his main objective that was quoted multiple times throughout his sermon. He continuously stated, “If you make your church better, they (the unchurched) will come and make it bigger.” In other words, Stanley was emphasizing numbers, growth, and catering to the unchurched in the local community. He stated that one of the main reasons that the unchurched do not come to our church is due to the fact that we have made it uncomfortable and unattractive to them. As he made these statements that were sandwiched between stories from corporate America, his points were lacking biblical evidence. He was given a great opportunity to minister to thousands of pastors, and he served up stories from the business world rather than preaching a text of Scripture and allowing the Holy Spirit to minister to the people’s lives from God’s Word.
After considering the implications of Andy Stanley’s message for one week, I would like to address his main points from Scripture.
1. The unchurched should be extremely uncomfortable in a gospel preaching church.
The term, church, in the New Testament is the Greek word, “ekklesia” (ἐκκλησία) which means literally, a called out assembly. Therefore, from the beginning, we should note that the church is a term that always means a group of born again Christians. These individuals who have been called out of darkness into the marvelous light of life by the sovereign hand of God are transformed into a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). They have different views regarding life and a worldview that is gospel centered. Therefore, any person who comes into that context and is surrounded by a group of gospel saturated people while hearing a gospel centered message will naturally be uncomfortable. In fact, they should be miserable in their sinful condition. However, Andy Stanley continued to press the point that we as pastors need to strive to make our church “better” so that we can become more attractive to the unchurched who will in return come and make it “bigger.” That idea does not seem to square with the truth of what the church is according to the Scriptures.
2. The “better to get bigger” model does not make sense in the context of the New Testament church. It may work in corporate America, but God’s Word does not instruct us to get “better” in order to get “bigger.”
Our central efforts in ministry should not be to grow our “church” but to evangelize the lost in order to see perishing sinners rescued by the Grace of God. According to Romans 3:10-11 and 2 Cor. 4:4, lost people do not desire to come to God apart from a sovereign work of Grace in their hearts by the gospel of Jesus Christ. If we design our church to be “better” in the sense of attracting “seekers” to come and make our church “bigger” we have missed the point of missions. The Great Commission is not about making our church “bigger.” The Great Commission is about fulfilling the calling of God upon our lives in order to see guilty sinners reconciled to a Holy God, worshiping, praising, and serving Him until He calls us all home. We must not design our church after business models or movie slogans such as, “If you build it, they will come.” That model may attract a crowd, but many of the people in that crowd may be unregenerate.
3. God’s Word is sufficient and is what the men in the Convention hall needed to hear.
The primary objective for any man who stands in the pulpit is to preach the Word of God. Andy Stanley did not do that at the Pastors’ Convention. The only time he used Scripture was once or twice during his message when he used the Word of God as a proof text to back up his points. The preacher’s job is to stand before people and tell them what God said. Anytime a man stands up before people and elevates any literature, plan, program, or book above God’s Word, he has undermined the very authority and sufficiency of Holy Scripture.
Sprinkled out through the Convention hall were pastors who were hurting from troubles in their ministry. Some were struggling with depression. Others were experiencing the weight of a failing marriage due to the demands of ministry life. Undoubtedly, some pastors were sitting in that hall listening to Andy Stanley who were ready to quit the ministry. Today, many of them have already submitted their letters of resignation. Andy Stanley had an opportunity to proclaim the truth of Holy Scripture and allow the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit to minister to the people, but instead he spoke about Chick-fil-A and Intel.
During the era known today as the “Conservative Resurgence” of the 80’s and 90’s, the SBC fought a battle over the inerrancy of Scripture, and by God’s Grace won the battle. Today, the SBC (and the evangelical church at large) is facing the challenges regarding the sufficiency of Scripture. Andy Stanley did not help the cause by modeling a non-Bible based delivery method before the thousands of pastors who were in attendance on Monday night. Rather than elevating the Word of God as the sufficient and powerful single tool for a minister of God – he led men toward a corporate America solution that will ultimately fail.
What the church needs today is a return to solid expository preaching that elevates to the people a strong understanding of the inerrancy and sufficiency of Holy Scripture. The models and methods that Andy Stanley delivered to the Southern Baptist Convention’s preachers will not work. Sure, we have the liberty to add new methods and ministry options to our churches, but we must not forget what the church is along the journey. We must also remember that lost people should be uncomfortable within our church – until the gospel of Christ transforms their lives. We must also remember that evangelism and gospel missions is the answer to reaching the lost rather than making our church appealing to the unchurched.
May God lead the SBC to greater things than corporate America can provide – all for His glory and praise!
Pastor Josh Buice