The end of the semester is followed by the holidays so I just saw this post (HT: Aquila Report) discussing the declining fortunes of McDonalds restaurantsamong Millennials and comparing them to the church. The author notes
- “More people are wanting a customized, participatory experience”—so churches should be more participatory.
- “You never finish tweaking things”—so churches should be creative
- “Sometimes it’s good to simplify”—so churches should simplify
Congregations are organizations and like other organizations they have administration and business and they can learn from other organizations. Scripture does not teach us how to do paperwork or how to run a meeting efficiently. Robert’s Rules of Order are not Scripture. There is an important, old Christian distinction to be made between the sacred, i.e., that which is holy, set apart, unique to God’s church and kingdom and that which is secular, i.e., common or shared by believers and unbelievers. In case the adjective “common” troubles the reader please remember that common is not neutral. Remember, all human beings are made in God’s image (Gen 1:26). We have that in common.
Nevertheless, a true Christian church is not just any organization. The visible church was founded by Jesus Christ and, to be painfully obvious, McDonalds was not. We have our order and ministry not from any corporate handbook or administrative guru but from God the Son incarnate. In Matthew 16:19 our Lord said to a representative of the visible, institutional church: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” That’s a sacred charge that may never be secularized or made common. It may never be applied, e.g., to the state or to any other entity. Only the visible church, established and ordained by Christ, has the sacred ministry of the keys. So it seems essential that we know clearly what that ministry is and thus these comments were arresting:
Churches don’t have a flagship sandwich, but many do have certain things they do well that set them apart from other congregations. High-quality kids programs, relevant preaching, solid small groups, effective missions and service projects, etc. What is your church known for? What is its Big Mac? Figure out what it is and don’t let it get crowded off the menu.
We might even be able to agree that the church must identify and keep her metaphorical Big Mac but what ought to strike us is that nowhere in the author’s list of possible candidates are those which ought to be obvious to us: the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the use of church discipline (Belgic Confession Art. 29). We confess that these three things are the marks of the true church, the three indicators of whether a congregation that calls itself “church” really is a church.
Any group can organize and affective (moving) and effective (numerically successful) youth group. Any well ordered organization can arrange for “relevant” speeches, attractive small groups, and useful service projects. Your local Boys and Girls Clubs, Kiwanis Club, and Lions Club do this sorts of things weekly. Jesus, however, came preaching the advent of the kingdom of God and heaven (Mark 1:15). Only the church, however, has authority to administer the authoritative announcement of God’s Word (his law and gospel) to the church and to the world. Only Christ’s church has authority to administer the signs and seals of Christ’s kingdom (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) and only Christ’s church has authority to officially recognize the inclusion and exclusion of sinners from the Kingdom of God.
This is what we confess in Heidelberg Catechism 83:
83. What is the Office of the Keys?
The preaching of the Holy Gospel and Christian discipline; by these two the Kingdom of Heaven is opened to believers and shut against unbelievers.
We go on to say in 84 that by the preaching of the holy gospel that “it is proclaimed and openly witnessed to believers, one and all, that as often as they accept with true faith the promise of the Gospel, all their sins are really forgiven them of God for the sake of Christ’s merits” and that, in the preaching of the law and the gospel, to unbelievers and hypocrites (those who profess faith but who do not actually believe) the ministry of the Word announces “that the wrath of God and eternal condemnation abide on them so long as they are not converted.”
In 85 we confess that, in the administration of church discipline, Christ has commanded us to correct one another when we become “unsound either in doctrine or in life” by following the process Christ instituted in Matthew 18. If one should be impenitent (refuse to confess his sin and ask for forgiveness) he is to be “denied the Holy Sacraments and thereby excluded from the Christian Communion, and by God Himself from the Kingdom of Christ” but to those who acknowledge their sin and confess it and “promise and show real amendment, they are again received as members of Christ and His Church.” This is the preaching of the law and the gospel and the administration of the sacraments.
To anticipate some objections:
- Yes, the church has a mission to the world. That mission is administered through the preaching of the law and the gospel and the pure administration of the sacraments and the use of discipline. In the modern period the idea of “mission” and the adjective “missional” has become too often divorced from the institution ordained to prosecute that mission. The only entity charged with reaching the lost is the visible, institutional church.
- Scripture cares very little about efficiency. It took who knows how long for the promise to come to Abraham and 2,000 years for the incarnation after that. Israel wandered in the desert for forty years. The church was in captivity for hundreds of years and in exile for hundreds of years. Jesus did not accomplish salvation for 30 years and repeatedly told his disciples not to tell people who or what he was. I understand the concern about the slowness and apparent inefficiency of the church but speed and efficiency are not biblical priorities. We cannot leverage the clear teaching of God’s Word as confessed by our churches with our culturally-determined notions of efficiency any more than we can leverage God’s clear commands about worship with our culturally-determined aesthetics.
The author is right. “Just remember to keep the Big Mac.” Indeed.