Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Body and the Local Church

“It’s very clear from scripture that the expectation of the church is that it grows (Ephesians 4)”
— Crawford Paul

This is an interesting statement, and it’s useful in helping us to consider the difference between the Church Universal and any given local gathering of saints, denominational or otherwise. See, I’m not entirely sure it IS the Head of the Church’s expectation of his local churches that they always be in a state of perpetual growth.

The letters to the seven churches in Revelation clearly contemplate local gatherings in danger of having their lampstands removed. That’s not a good thing, but it’s a recognized reality. And even if those seven letters hadn’t been written, human nature, history and simple observation should probably make us reluctant to consider local churches as much more than temporary fixtures in a much greater plan; pawns on the divine chessboard, if I can say that without offending too many who have invested their lives in the “local testimony”.

That being the case, so much for expectations.

Church and Churches

Now, I don’t think Crawford’s entirely wrong here; he’s merely conflated the Church with individual churches. That’s a pretty common and understandable error.

Still, if you wonder about that, check the context. It seems to me Paul is thinking of the Body of Christ in Ephesians 4, not the local church in Ephesus.

“There is one body and one Spirit,” he tells us. Later he writes, “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ”. These verses are near-universally understood to refer to the global Body, that worldwide entity which commenced at Pentecost and will continue to grow until the return of the Lord Jesus spoken of in Thessalonians.

I think Paul’s talking here about the Whole Nine Yards, the Body of Christ, the Church Universal (have I used enough caps there?). The gifts of the Spirit are ultimately for the building up of THIS great Building, not merely designed to make individual local gatherings hum along (though they certainly do that).

Gone Baby Gone

Last week I had a long conversation with my dad, who was instrumental many years ago in planting a couple of churches in the metropolis in which I live, and has managed to find himself used by the Lord in several other places since. We threw around the names of certain congregations in which he used to preach way back when I was nine or ten, when my primary interest in traveling to mid-week meetings with him was the hope of an occasional post-Bible study visit to Dairy Queen.

You would be amazed how many of those churches are “gone baby gone”. Most of them, I’d say.

That’s not as horrible as it sounds. Really. Those cherished buildings that once housed a particular strain of non-denominational Christian fellowship are now the home of Baptists, Pentecostals or Presbyterians, often of an international flavor.

Is this the end of the world? I contend it is not.

Tents in the Wilderness

Local churches are nothing more than tents in the wilderness for the people of God on their way to spiritual Canaan. They are short term residences, not institutions or pillars in some sort of heavenly temple. They have a lifespan of a generation or two, and then circumstances move them down the road, change their names or cause them to morph into something a little different and more in keeping with the times and circumstances. Maybe they vanish altogether, at least so far as the world is concerned.

But assuming there was any real spiritual work done in those little structures, that work is preserved forever in a Building far greater and eternal. It goes on and on in the lives and hearts of those who came to know the Lord there and were baptized and discipled within those walls. That’s true wherever they may end up, and these converts multiply themselves in future generations.

And even when one of these little temporary entities runs out of gas and eventually fades from our memories, it is not always because of some identifiable spiritual failure.

Reasons, Reasons

The cause may be purely practical. In more than one case, demographics dictate that young couples move to the ’burbs, leaving behind the downtown churches of their youth. It’s either that or raise their kids in an environment where real estate is prohibitively expensive. Meanwhile, the old white folks left behind do a rather sad job of reaching the neighbourhood around their old church building. I would count that as a failure if it wasn’t evident that, more often than not, ethnic Christian works have sprung up in the same neighbourhoods to do precisely the same job. By the time the old buildings are finally given up to new owners, I’m not sure anything of consequence has been lost. In most cases, the multicultural replacements are better suited to the neighbourhoods they have inherited.

Other times, the reasons are indeed spiritual. The first works are no longer being done, and the lampstand is finally taken away. Are we to plead for a different outcome? On what basis? The Head of the Church has ruled. Who has the impudence to gainsay his verdict? “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Long may it be so; the Body is better for it. The fact that we have to delete a malfunctioning or decrepit spiritual entity from our church directories is hardly cause to get ourselves in a knot and wonder what is going on.

The Church in Philadelphia

It’s time we took our eyes off our pet projects and the calculations of our church consultants and set them on what God is doing, which is the same thing he has been doing for almost two millennia. Crawford says, “A church that is dying or shrinking is not a healthy church that honors the Lord.” But if that is true, what do we do with the words of the risen Christ to the church in Philadelphia?
“I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie — behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you.”
Sounds to me like Philadelphia may have been shrinking or even dying. They were certainly taking a major hit. But the Lord doesn’t say to them, “Just make sure you keep growing” and “I’m looking for a 15% return on investment next year,” but rather, “Hold fast.” Basically, “Hang on to what you have, even if it isn’t much. Keep my word. Don’t deny my name.”

Is that such a tall order?


  1. Excellent and very encouraging. We are to be faithful to Him who is Head overall. Some plant, some water, but God gives the increase. He has promised to build His church.

  2. While I don't disagree with what you are saying, based on the rest of Crawford's article, it seemed to be more about the health of the church rather than the numbers of the church.

    1. You're quite right about the sorts of things he recommends, David, which are uniformly directed at spiritual progress within the church. That's one reason I comment that "he's not entirely wrong here."

      But Crawford starts with "A church that is dying or shrinking is not a healthy church that honors the Lord." That's a strong statement, and I trust I'm not putting an unfair construction on his words. I suppose by "shrinking" he might mean a shriveling of the corporate spirit despite steady numbers, but that wasn't how it struck me when I read it.