It is not at all uncommon for churches to wring their hands over this ministry or that event and wonder how we will ever get the workers to do it all. RW Dale once noted, ‘the evangelical saint of today [the 19th Century] is not a man who spends his nights and days in fasting and prayer but a man who is a zealous Sunday School teacher, holds mission services amongst the poor and attends innumerable committee meetings’.
Things haven’t changed much in the 21st Century. I was once reliably told, and have since found the comment to be entirely true, the fastest way to shore up support for anything in the church – no matter how poorly attended or contemptuously treated by church members – is simply to threaten getting rid of it. There is something in us that simply refuses to allow floundering works to end.
The question is, what do we need as a bottom line in order to be a church? It is helpful to be able to say exactly what we can do without and what we must maintain in order to be a functioning church. It is here that I think Acts 2:42 is instructive:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
This, I think, gives us a helpful bottom line. Four elements that provide the irreducible minimum of church life: teaching, fellowship, communion and prayer. Everything else, whether it falls under the category of stuff that may be ‘helpful’ or ‘desirable’ in church life, is essentially non-essential. That is not to say everything else doesn’t matter at all – some of it will do – but it is stuff we can, to some degree, do without.
The question, then, is what do you need in order to do these things? As far as I can see, you need a place to meet, some people to meet with, some stuff for communion and someone who can teach. In most places in the West, you can readily get on with the stuff of church if you’ve got someone with a key to let you in and someone who can teach. Frankly, even the key is optional if you copy those who, after the Great Ejection, ‘did church’ in the parks, fields and market squares nearby instead. This is helpful because it gives us an irreducible bottom line for what must take place in order for us to function as a church in reality.
This also helpfully clarifies those things that we can simply say are non-essential. We don’t need to worry if we have no musicians or we can’t run a Sunday School. It’s not that these things don’t matter, it’s just that they’re not essential to being a church. We can continue to faithfully press on as the Lord’s people wherever the Lord has placed us without these things. We can continue to devote ourselves to prayers and teaching, fellowship and communion without vast resources and many of the other things that some would deem vital for church life.
This permits us to genuinely appeal to our members that if people are not willing to serve in any given work, we will have to close it down. Those who feel overburdened do not have to be guilted into doing things the Lord considers non-essential. We don’t have to wring our hands and wonder how we can ever press on as the Lord’s people. If we have someone to open up and teach the word, we can function as a church.
The Lord was clear enough that our community and fellowship, our love for one another, others will find compelling. We can build one another up as a church, have meaningful fellowship, sit under the Word and offer a compelling apologetic to the world with little more than somewhere to meet, someone to teach and some love for one another. That is really all we need to be a functioning church.