Local Ministry, Unstable Foundations, and Church Partnership
This post is the first in a series on encouraging strong, meaningful church partnerships.
I want to convince you about the importance of real, biblical partnership between churches––the kind that involves councils and committees and even a Book of Church Order––and I want to do this by telling you about a house I once almost bought.
Miraculously, almost impossibly, the house appeared in our search for our first home. It was in the perfect area of town. It was exactly the age and style we dreamed about. It had recently been upgraded, with a refinished gorgeous wood floor and granite countertops and new paint. When we first walked in, we immediately imagined parties in the den, hanging out in the kitchen, and walking to the park nearby. It seemed simply perfect.
But then we noticed that while the walls were painted with a textured and cracked look, there were also very real and non-decorative cracks in the walls. And when we brought in an inspector, he found that the very foundation of the house was bad and that this meant the structure and walls it supported were unstable. Quite literally, the inspector said, the house could split open one day. While the property owner had spent significant money on the inside of the home, they had neglected the less obvious but more important aspects of the house.
Here’s the point: In day to day life in our churches, we often focus on the stuff inside the house, but the stuff we don’t see matters at least as much, if not far more. We see tweaks and changes to ministries and groups, like furniture being rearranged in a room. We see new and departing members and leaders, like friends coming and going inside the house. We get really excited when we knock down something existing to create a new ministry, like a wall being knocked down to expand a room. But behind the scenes, you need the foundation of the house to stand firm, you need the beams in the walls to hold, you need the roof to stay strong.
Think about what supports your local church life through the metaphor of the house: You need a solid foundation of theology, you need healthy beams of structure and governance, you need to tap into resources your church does not have by being hooked up to utilities, you need a life beyond your house, and you need help from outside you when something in the house goes really wrong. You should care deeply about these things as a pastor, or deacon, or church member. Much of this happens solely on a local level, but there are very key ways that being linked together with other churches provides needed strength.
I believe in our polity and governance at Sovereign Grace, first because I believe it accords with Scripture. But beyond the question, “Is it Scriptural?” comes the second, but extremely important question, “Is it helpful? Does it make a compelling difference in my local church?” I believe the answer is a resounding yes. Look very briefly at the four points that Phil Sasser shared with my church earlier this year and see their practical value:
1) Our union of churches itself is a testimony to the gospel. It is one thing when a neighborhood or city has the same zip code, but it is another thing for that place to feel and act like a real community. It is one thing to confess the unity of the church on a theological level, but it is another to see a group of diverse churches link arms and commit to walking together through the good and bad and to practically live this union out. In the same way, the unity of a local church is testimony to the gospel (Ephesians 4:3, 13)—the unity of a family of churches points to the gospel.
2) Our union of churches helps to guard the gospel and sound doctrine. If the foundation of our church is our theology, it means we should do everything possible to build and keep strong foundations. Being linked theologically and confessionally with other churches holds our foundation steady. See Acts 15:1–35 for a compelling example of this reality.
3) Our union of churches provides help in troubled times. Most home problems we handle ourselves, but when a pipe bursts or a roof caves in, we need help. While a biblical process for handling accusations against an elder, or providing an avenue of appeal may not seem particularly exciting, it’s absolutely vital when things go wrong. In places like 1 Corinthians, an Apostle outside the church helps a local church when things go wrong. While we have no more Apostles, we should display the same heart and desire to be helpful to one another in ways that respect our local governance but provide extra-local help when needed.
4) Our union of churches enables us to much more effectively accomplish the mission of the gospel. One house on its own can accomplish significant things, perhaps even faster without red tape or pesky neighbors. But that pales in comparison to what a city can do, to what whole groups of homes can do when they have a common mission and purpose. In the church in Antioch, we see a local church that both receives help from outside pastors (Acts 11:22), as well as sends some of its own pastors beyond itself on mission (Acts 13:1). Key people from other churches join this mission team (Acts 18:18, 16:13), and some return later to strengthen the church again (Acts 15:35).
So by all means, pursue ministry in your church––meet with your small group, participate in mercy ministry, tell others about Jesus. But don’t neglect the foundation and walls, because they are the parts that make ministry possible. And while you give attention to the unseen things, pray for the unseen union of churches that helps each church stay strong.
Photo from Shutterstock.
Ricky is the lead pastor at Cross of Grace Church in El Paso, Texas. Additionally, he serves on Sovereign Grace’s National Church Planting Group. He and his wife, Jenn, have two sons.