Pastors’ and Theologians’ Forum on Corporate Witness
“What must pastors do to help their members regain a sense of the church’s corporate witness, which is so vital to evangelism? What stands in the way of that recovery?”
- Thabiti Anyabwile
- John Folmar
- Ryan Fullerton
- J. D. Greear
- Dave Harvey
- R. Albert Mohler Jr.
- Phil Newton
Pastors must teach their people that the corporate gathering of the church is not a setting for mass individual devotions. We’re not fundamentally assembled so each individual can “engage with God” in a way that fits his or her personal tastes or predilections. Rather, we are a people assembled by God, united to his Son, adopted into his family, and governed in our worship by his Word. The Lord God is seeking a people, not merely individuals, to worship him in spirit and in truth.
This has implications for our preaching. Our preaching should draw attention to the corporate aspects of Christian life and counter the self-centeredness and autonomy found in so many Christian circles. We have to apply God’s word in a way that makes evident the centrality of relationships both to God and to one another. The plural or corporate emphasis of 1 Peter 2:9-10 must inform at least some of our illustrations and applications. Otherwise, our people will read and hear the scriptures as though they sit alone before the pulpit and the Bible.
Pastors should also consider actively using documents like a church covenant or statement of faith to succinctly remind members of their relatedness to others in the body. We should encourage active hospitality among both the leaders and the membership, where we encourage each other in testimony and fellowship. And we should pray that our love, stirred up and manifesting itself in good deeds, would be evident and convincing to all.
Several factors are impediments to recovering a healthy sense of corporate witness, but perhaps none so troubling as “privatism” and individualism. Far too many Christians hold that their lives are their own, to live as they wish, protected by an inalienable right to privacy. The New Testament’s call to follow Christ is diametrically opposed to this way of viewing church membership. The Lord and his apostles teach that our lives should be open letters read and circulated among all, edited in brotherly love by others.
Thabiti Anyabwile is the senior pastor of the First Baptist Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands, and the author of the forthcoming The Faithful Preacher: Recapturing the Vision of Three Pioneering African-American Pastors (Crossway, 2007) and The Decline of African-American Theology: From Biblical Faithfulness to Cultural Captivity (IVP, 2007).
I came to know Jesus in large part through the corporate witness of a local church. To be sure, the gospel was explained to me in a one-on-one setting, and I benefited from personal, one-on-one friendships. But the gospel was “enfleshed”—it was made real—through a network of multi-generational relationships in the gathered assembly. I longed for the joy that I observed in the church. It was there that I saw the gospel portrayed, and I was drawn in. I heard in the church a true echo of what I was confronting in the Scriptures about God’s holiness, my own need, and Christ’s bountiful provision for us.
Nowadays, following Jesus is generally considered to be individualistic: from quiet times to Bible study to personal evangelism. Rarely are we told that true godliness shows itself in the rough-and-tumble of community life. How often do we even hear corporate applications in sermons? (For example, a preacher who says, “How should we as a church respond to this truth?) But Jesus and his apostles strongly emphasized the distinctly corporate aspect of our lives together without neglecting individual disciplines (Matt. 5:13; John 13:35; 1 Peter 2:5, 3:8).
Most of us, sadly, have never been a part of churches where a robust community has existed, so it helps to know other pastors who are blessed to be shepherding churches that do enjoy a healthy corporate witness. Whenever we can, we should visit and learn from churches that are known for their corporate priority. Second, we should preach in line with the apostolic emphasis on body-life. It’s unavoidable. Just read John’s epistles on loving our neighbors, or Paul’s injunctions concerning humility. They were all writing to churches! Third, we should cultivate an atmosphere of thriving community, both through our personal examples and through encouragement. Become a master at matching people up, and winsomely suggesting that, say, Jim get to know Biju, because the two of them live in the same neighborhood and could be mutual sources of encouragement. Work to master-mind relationships in the church, and then teach others to do the same. And don’t neglect prayer. At the end of the day, only God’s Spirit will create the atmosphere of love and service which is distinct from what the world outside is offering.
John Folmar is the pastor of United Christian Church of Dubai, Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
The church in our day has the idea that people’s negative ideas about Christ and Christians are primarily formed by what they read in the newspaper or watch on television. In truth, many of our neighbors are turned off from the gospel because of what they have seen in our churches. The media may be biased, and Hollywood may be blasphemous, but if the non-Christian guy at the office uses the name of Christ as a swear word, it is largely our fault. When the people of God are hypocritical, the scripture comes true, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Rom 2:24).
As pastors, we must help our congregations see that the state of our churches is primarily responsible for our culture’s perception of Christ. Our churches can give the gospel a black eye, or they can be used by the Holy Spirit with magnetic effect to draw people to Jesus. The believers we serve must understand that our churches were meant to powerfully reinforce and to attractively adorn our evangelistic message.
Think about what we want people to learn through evangelism. We want them to believe that Jesus was really sent by God. Well, Jesus prayed that Christians would be united, so “that the world may believe that you [God] have sent me” (John 17:21-23).
In evangelism, we want people to believe that we are really following Jesus, and not some cult leader. Well, Jesus says that “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34).
In evangelism, we want people to give glory to God. Well, Jesus told us “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). Lives of sacrificial, loving good deeds will be used by the Holy Spirit to convert people into God glorifiers.
In evangelism, we want people to realize that they are in danger of hell. Well, Paul tells the church in Philippi that their fearless unity amidst persecution is “a clear sign to them [unbelievers] of their destruction” (Phil 1:28).
When our lives together are divisive, unloving, selfish, and fearful, Christ and Christians look about as believable as the tooth fairy. Yet when our lives are united, loving, sacrificial, and fearless, our verbal witness to the cross of Christ becomes weighty. For many, our witness will become believable. As pastors, we need to help our congregations make this link.
Ryan Fullerton is the pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Louisville, KY.
John 17 has always been a haunting passage for me. Is Christ’s prayer that the world would “know him through us” being fully answered in our church? Clearly, he intended for the world to see his Trinitarian glory in the corporate witness of the church I serve, the Summit Church.
God has led our church to ask three questions in this regard:
1. Do the lives of our members demonstrate the beauty of holiness? We have begun to see the issue of church discipline as a matter of evangelism. The holiness of Christ is beautiful and attractive for those who are “being saved.” Tolerating sin in our midst blunts the gospel, because an unbeliever must see holiness in action before his heart will be convicted of sin. In other words, an unbeliever must learn what sin is before he can learn grace.
2. Does our city know that we love it? It is said that when Philip preached the gospel and healed people in Samaria there was “much joy” in the city. We want our city to rejoice that we are in it. We don’t want simply to stand in our pulpit and shout “peace, be warm and full!” to the hungry outside of our doors. We must feed them.
3. Are we known primarily as the people of the gospel? As churches and denominations grow large, we seem tempted to use our “corporate power” in pursuits other than the spread of the gospel and the planting of churches. Without question, social justice and political activism are the duty of Christians who possess a comprehensive worldview, and we need committed Christians to enter those areas as full-time vocations. But these worldly areas are not the domain of churches or organizations of churches. These affairs distract us from excelling in our one, unique calling and distract the world from hearing that one message they can only hear from us.
Perhaps one word of caution is in order: I do not think that an effective corporate witness necessarily means that the world will laud us for our “goodness.” Sometimes, they will call our righteousness “judgmentalism.” For many, the beauty of Christ’s glory will be the “savor of death.” The secular world took the head of John the Baptist, and it has systematically killed the prophets. Such might be our fate. But when they speak against us as evildoers, they will, through our good works, have a chance to glorify God on the day of his return.
J.D.Greear is the lead pastor of the Summit Church, Durham, North Carolina.
We pastor people steeped in a culture that treats the gospel as incomprehensible and the church as irrelevant. But hope grows as more pastors see the sacred center of their work “to know nothing among [them] except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).
The potency of the church springs from the clarity of our message. Without an authentic gospel—one that calls for our purity, grounds our witness, and inspires our vision for evangelism—we are indistinguishable from special interest groups that merely trumpet the latest cause. An obscured message or subtle cultural accommodation trivializes God’s people and silences the church’s witness. Without the gospel, the church just makes no sense.
How do pastors help churches regain their witness?
1) Use the pulpit to steer the ship. The charge issued to pastors is splendidly summarized to Timothy:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus…preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching (2 Tim. 4:1-2).
Pastors serve by preaching relentlessly, courageously, and patiently, executing their charge as ones who steward the very words of God. Through their faithful exposition, they navigate the church away from error and towards the safe shores of gospel clarity. Gospel clarity from the pulpit functions in two ways: it equips church members with the essential message for their personal evangelism, and it allows unbelievers to encounter the saving message of the cross applied to the realities of daily life.
2) Connect the dots between the gospel and godliness. Getting the gospel right is a great start, but applying it leads to lasting change. Good pastors move from information to application, beginning with their own lives. Paul tells Titus,
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age (Titus 2:11-12).
Grace arrives with an agenda. It targets ungodliness and worldliness and trains us how to say “no,” and mean it! Then it works powerfully to replace carnal impulses with godliness. Changed lives and godly living—the fruit of the gospel—become a powerful witness to a dying world.
3) Spread the news: the gospel moves us outward. The gospel is a restless power. It challenges our comfort and prods us beyond the settled Christianity of an affluent society. With sound, expository preaching which explains the implications of the gospel, the church-going Christian looks beyond the walls of the church to the world. The result is an impassioned, risk-taking, church planting, gospel-proclaiming group of Christians that delight in their call to be salt and light.
Dave Harvey is the senior pastor of Covenant Fellowship Church in Glen Mills, PA.
R. Albert Mohler Jr.
The church’s corporate witness is one of the missing concepts of twenty-first century Christianity. I speak specifically of evangelical Christianity in North America, which has adopted the autonomous individual as the primary focus of attention and has minimized ecclesiology for decades.
In this postmodern world, persons have grown sufficiently sophisticated to tell the difference between presentation and reality. This presents the church with a significant challenge at several levels. As a local congregation, the church is to represent the fellowship of the redeemed—a representation of true community. The superficial fellowship and lack of accountability and engagement among members stands as a stark contradiction to the kind of community we believe the church is called to be. When evangelical churches satisfy themselves with a low level of authentic community, the church’s corporate witness suffers.
Of course, the corporate witness of the church also suffers when the congregation is in any way unclear about its convictions and commitment to the gospel. As the redeemed community, the local church is to stand as a picture of a coming kingdom. That is why the New Testament gives such urgent attention to an issue like church discipline, where the essence of true Christian community is seen as members hold each other accountable under the authority of the word of God.
In our society of quick and easy joining and leaving, the idea that the local church is a place where one would invest one’s entire life is a largely foreign concept. Nevertheless, the development of strong congregations, based without equivocation upon the word of God and the power of the gospel, is the necessary corrective to the unfortunate impression given by many churches—that they are franchises of the Christian corporate chain. We should pray for a recovery of true ecclesiology in our time – and know that it will come only through the corrective power of the word of God.
R. Albert Mohler is the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and has contributed to numerous books. More of his work can be found at www.albertmohler.com.
Phil A. Newton
Several years ago, the U.S. Army produced a catchy new recruiting slogan: “An Army of One.” Rather than the “Be All that You Can Be” emphasis on self-development, the new slogan turns to the narcissistic worldview so common in America—life is all about me.
Perhaps the Army developed its strategy by observing the role narcissism plays in the church. For several decades, churches have trended toward sermons, music, worship styles, programs, and activities favoring self-enhancement rather than emphasizing the corporate nature of the church. Highlighting a few church all-stars takes precedence over developing the body into “a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). How do we change this unbiblical practice? Pastors don’t need new programs to recover the church’s corporate witness. Rather, they should make effective use of normal pastoral ministry, e.g. preaching and teaching, church covenant, and pastoral care.
Through preaching and teaching, remind the church of its corporate nature. Pastors have ample biblical texts to expound and apply this corporate picture. The Scripture does the work; the pastor need only open the texts. My own sermon files yield scores of examples in expositional series from Old Testament historical and prophetical books, as well as every New Testament book that I’ve preached through.
Regular reading of the church’s covenant serves as a confessional means of stressing the corporate nature and responsibilities of church membership. We read the church covenant monthly while observing the Lord’s Supper, which is yet another reminder of the church’s corporate devotedness to Christ.
Membership care by pastors, elders, and deacons must encompass the entire church. This involves teaching, nurturing, exhorting, admonishing, and disciplining. Tolerating absenteeism or sinful patterns among members hinders, and sometimes nullifies, the church’s witness to the gospel’s power. By emphasizing the role of the corporate body bearing testimony to the gospel’s transforming work, church leaders find an appropriate trajectory for their labors with the body. The church, then, bears evidence of gospel effects, demonstrating biblical Christianity to the community.
The key to regaining the corporate witness is not by pastoral creativity, but through faithfulness to the details of pastoral ministry.
Phil Newton is the pastor of Southwoods Baptist Church, Memphis, TN, and is the author of Elders in Congregational Life: Rediscovering the Biblical Model for Church Leadership (Kregel, 2005).
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