Not to be too simplistic, but it seems like most churches tend to be either focused on being grounded in doctrine or else on growing numerically. One kind of church is concerned with truth, tradition and theology. The other kind of church is concerned with growth, community engagement and relevance. So, which kind of church is better? It does seem like we need to choose, doesn’t it? Or do we?
How should we understand what makes for a healthy, growing, vital church? We’ve had books in recent years on Sticky Church, Simple Church, Deep Church, Deep and Wide Church, Total Church, etc. So, what’s the right approach for healthy churches?
Not to be too simplistic, but it seems like most churches tend to be either focused on being grounded in doctrine or else on growing numerically. One kind of church is concerned with truth, tradition and theology. The other kind of church is concerned with growth, community engagement and relevance.
So, which kind of church is better? It does seem like we need to choose, doesn’t it? Or do we?
Jesus said that the church would be both founded on a rock and storming the gates of hell. (“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” – Matt. 16:18, ESV) To be founded on a rock implies strength and stability. The truth that the gates of hell shall not prevail the church implies that the church is on the advance, dynamically advancing against the kingdom of hell.
God wants the church to be stable and rooted in the truth. One of the most centrally important passages in the Bible on the church is Ephesians 4:
“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastor-teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” – Ephesians 4:11-16, ESV
This passage makes it clear that God values maturity, knowledge, stability and wisdom in His church. Yet the passage also describes a church that is vital and active, where saints are being equipped for the work of ministry, where unity is not only in knowledge but also in love.
One of the big problems we have as believers is that we see things as being opposites or contradictions while God asks us to pursue both fully and unreservedly. This passage has a classic one: “speaking the truth in love.” Think about some others:
- Worship God in spirit and in truth.
- Pursue both justice and mercy.
- Value both righteousness and forgiveness.
- Pursue holiness and humility.
- Be in the world but not of the world.
- Love your neighbors but hate the world. (“Friendship with the world is enmity toward God.” – James 4:4)
- Be distinct from the world while reaching your neighbors in love.
- Love your enemies.
- Be hated for the sake of Christ and rejoice,
When I meditate on all that Scripture says about the church and the Christian life, I am led to an inescapable conclusion: Churches must be both deeply rooted in the truth and committed to reaching out in love.
What does it look like to be both rooted and reaching?
Well, a rooted church is one committed to being grounded in the truth and humble enough to realize that it needs the wisdom of the church through the ages to help keep it rooted in the truth. A rooted church thus values creeds and confessions and the classic works of theology. A rooted church also sees the value and wisdom of Biblical church government: rule by a plurality of qualified elders and meaningful connection between churches. A rooted church seeks to equip the saints for the work of ministry by building up each church member in truth, in the faith and in the knowledge of Christ, so a rooted church values Christian education and meaningful discipleship. In worship, a rooted church values truth and the best of tradition.
On the other hand, a reaching church is a church that values love and seeks to influence its community for Christ. A reaching church knows that the church gathers for worship and equipping so that it can scatter into the world to reach people with the love of Christ. A reaching church values fellowship and relationships within the church community and also values relationships in the community. Reaching churches show Christ to the world in words and in deeds, in evangelism and in mercy ministry, in apologetics and in practical care. In worship, a reaching church cares about spiritual vitality, passion and life.
To help us get a better mental picture of a rooted and reaching church, I like to think of a tree. It’s a Biblical picture, from Psalm 1:3 –
He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
This is a picture of the Righteous Man, ultimately fulfilled by Christ and is thus a good picture of the Body of Christ, the Church.
To be healthy, trees need roots and leaves. Their roots need to be deep and strong, to anchor them in the soil, which provides vital nutrients and also gives stability for weathering bad storms. But a tree grows as its leaves make food, which happens when the leaves reach outward and upward,
Roots: truth, Scripture, tradition, wisdom, stability, strength.
Leaves: vitality, life, outreach (evangelism), upreach (passionate worship).
This kind of tree – rooted and reaching – bears fruit and provides shade for those who need it. That is, the church that has deep roots and vital leaves brings both glory to God and a blessing to a world in need. These are the kinds of churches we need. These are the kinds of churches we must each be committed to helping build because they honor God and they advance His kingdom in this world.
Jason A. Van Bemmel is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. This article appeared on his blog Ponderings of a Pilgrim Pastor and is used with permission.