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Church Minimalism

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Date May 7, 2010

After World War II there was a movement in the arts known as minimalism. This approach involved stripping down a work to its most fundamental features. What was really essential to the existence of a piece of music, an object of design, or a sculpture?

We live in an age of church maximalism. Churches provide everything from community development programmes to aerobics classes to food courts. And, of course, something resembling worship, which may be a meeting of people with some music and an inspirational talk.

I have found myself over recent years becoming a church minimalist. That is, I have considered, ‘What does it take for a church to be a church? What does it have to have, no matter how much it has, to be the church?’ Or, ‘However little it has, what things are required for it to be a fully viable church?’ In my thinking, the list of things the Bible requires for the church to be the church, and fully the church, is quite short.

Someone may be tempted to think, ‘Well, of course you think that. It’s defensive thinking. Covenant Church is a pretty small church. It simply doesn’t have the resources to be a “full-service” church. So, if you want to keep up your morale and our morale you’ve got to think and say such things.’

Maybe. But, maybe not. When I was senior pastor of First Reformed Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, my associate and I used to talk about distinguishing our church among the other Reformed and Presbyterian churches as a ‘full-service congregation.’

And, as I think back, even with my fading memories, I can come up with quite a list of ‘ministries’ we offered. Such things as: a full Sunday school programme for every age group, including several adult electives, children’s choir, youth choir, sanctuary choir, Pioneer Girls, Pioneer Boys, Women in the Church, home Bible studies, Mothers of Pre-Schoolers, missions trips, junior and senior high youth groups, diaconal ministries that included home repairs and rehabs and winterization of single women’s vehicles, etc.

But I remember a couple of other things, too. I remember that we always said that the primary thing was worship, that worship was the beating heart of everything else, that if we did not get worship right the rest was useless, and that worship was not only the most important thing we did but the one thing essential to the life of our people. We emphasized morning and evening worship as both ‘indicators of and means to’ the spiritual health of the congregation.

I remember this also. Though I tried not to show it, I was sometimes frustrated when people called, asked for me, and then wanted to know what we had to ‘offer.’ In one sermon I told my people about such a call and told them I had been tempted to say, ‘We have words, water, bread and wine.’ What I meant was, ‘We have the Word of God, read and preached, and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. That’s what we have to offer, and, in the end, that’s just about all we have to offer.’

I am convinced this is what our Confession says the Bible teaches. Our Confession asserts this from two perspectives:

The first perspective is how God works in the lives of people: ‘What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption? The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates 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.’ It could not be clearer. God works in the lives of his people by the means of grace which are the Word, sacraments, and prayers.

The second perspective is what Christ has given uniquely to his church; that is, what things Christ has committed to the church only and not to individuals, or other organizations and not to families. The Confession teaches that the visible church ‘is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.’ That’s pretty strong stuff for people accustomed to think, ‘It’s just a personal matter between me and the Lord.’

But then the Confession says what Christ has given the church, and only the church as his kingdom and the house and family of God: ‘Unto this catholic, visible church Christ has given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, and to the end of the world: and does by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto.’ Christ gave and gives to the church, the ministry (the offices of the church), the oracles (the revelation of God recorded and preserved in Scripture), and the ordinances (the ordinances of public and corporate worship, primarily the Word, sacraments, and prayer.)

Considered from the perspective of either the church as instrument of God’s work in people or from the perspective of the things entrusted uniquely to the church, Christ is a minimalist when it comes to what is essential to the church. What the church must have and do to be the church is worship – overseen and conducted by Christ-ordained ministers, founded upon the oracles, and administering the ordinances.

But actually this may be maximalism. Perhaps the non-essentials dilute the potency of the essential.

At any rate, I am confident that the church which provides the ordinary means of grace is in every sense the church. The church at worship is the church.

William H Smith is Pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Louisville, Mississippi.

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