Learning the Priority of the Local Church

Founders Journal · Spring 2002 · pp. 5-9

Learning the Priority of the Local Church

Byron Straughn

Beginning in January of 2001 Campus Crusade for Christ loaned me to Capitol Hill Baptist Church for six months as a pastoral intern with the goal of exploring the pastorate and ministry partnerships. Seven years of experience with campus ministry could not offer me insight and distinctives that only a church could provide. Moreover, so much of what is tied up in ministry is caught, rather than just taught, so the time to observe and participate propelled my understanding beyond what a reading list could accomplish. There were several experiences and lessons that I gained as an intern. I will elaborate on three and also mention how the internship has shaped my current ministry as a Campus Crusade staff member.

Reverence

Early during the internship, we began to discuss a book called Reformed Worship. The content of that book and the discussions the pastoral team had about it caused me to meditate on reverence. The seriousness and solemnity that characterized our morning service was not a bi-product of old hymns and the main hall’s architecture. The service was clearly planned to help communicate, in both word and song, the holiness of God. His condescension and love never rob him of his majesty and awesome power. Our God is to be feared and one way we show our fear is in the attitude with which we approach him.

By not feeding into an entertainment mindset, the church deliberately chooses to make God the focus of its attention and of its praise. There is nothing wrong with a level of comfort (air conditioning is fine), but that is not the reason why God has called Christians out of the world. God has called us out of the world so that we will worship him and glorify him.

Personally, this made me more aware of the services and their construction. They are not random collections of someone’s personal favorite songs, nor do they consist of prayers that will make people feel good, though the nature of God’s sovereignty and love should bring consolation. They are centered around the revelation of God’s truth in Scripture. The hymns, readings and even prayer magnify and underscore aspects of his character and this should lead one into a deeper sense of reverence and awe.

Reverence had also lead me to reflect on the way that I think of God and approach him in my daily life. Location changes nothing about God’s character. The reverence I have for him should be consistent throughout my life throughout the week.

Time

Time, as we know it will not last forever, nor will the window of repentance. The urgency of the gospel is precisely because one day, for an individual and for the world, it will be too late to repent and the dye will be cast. This internship has caused me to reconsider how I understand time.

First, it has made me value it more. What minutes lack in length they make up for in importance. They should not be viewed as crumbs of the day that have no real significance. In each moment eternal matters hang in the balance. The decisions that are made, the thoughts that are pondered, and the plans that are executed–all of them exist in time.

People really do need to hear the message of repentance and belief. What makes me believe that the 15 minutes I threw away on daydreaming was really my 15 minutes to waste? And could not those minutes be used to encourage a struggling brother or warn a non-Christian of the coming judgment?

Stewardship is not the same thing as busyness. Inseparable from using the time is prioritizing the events and activities that consume the time. Something I’ve been encouraged to see and also convicted by is how much time I spend alone. Granted, solitude and personal time in Scripture and meditation should not be replaced with small groups, but there is so much of my day that can be spent in the company of others and this can provide accountability, spontaneous time to encourage or opportunities to disciple. Independence can often be a cover for selfishness.

Second, this understanding of time’s value and its finiteness has made me more aware of the need to be intentional. When I plan on seeing a friend for dinner, I should not just wing it and hope some encouragement will come out of it, though that’s certainly possible. But prayer about the dinner-meeting, consideration of my friends spiritual state and ways that I can encourage him to grow in Christ and pursue godliness should be strategized.

As a whole, this internship has forced me to evaluate the ways I administer God-given time and the ways that I squander it. His rightful Lordship of my life extends into the way I use time.

Corporate nature

During the internship I also learned and meditated on the corporate nature of the church. This may be one of the strangest aspects of the church for new members or new Christians, but it is one that most grow to appreciate. The congregational life is witnessed in many ways.

Priorities

Because this corporate nature is so foreign in many churches, CHBC may appear cult-like to some. I have admired the church’s commitment to be faithful to God at the risk of being misunderstood by people. One example is the priority placed on Wednesday evening Bible study. Though many churches are built on small groups, cell groups and house churches, CHBC decided to place the congregation above smaller affinity groups. Members should commit themselves to Wednesday Bible study before they commit themselves to a small group. It is important that we grow as a family and not just as peers.

Initially, this sounded strange to me. Everyone knows that the dynamics of a group change once you go beyond 10 people. How do you get to know 50 people very well? Won’t sharing and vulnerability be greatly hindered? And won’t it feel more like a meeting of people than a gathering of close friends? There may be some truth to this. However, I’ve come to see the value of having a cross section of the congregation which has covenanted together, rather than in a select group of twenty-something-year old women who had previously known each other.

Membership course

The membership course provides some of the first, formal teaching that one receives about the corporate nature of the church. Especially the talks on “The Covenant” and “Why Join a Church?” If the church is understood to be part of the family of God, then this could be especially needed in the lives of those who come from broken and dysfunctional homes. Those basic qualities of faithfulness, tenacity, care and sacrifice can be learned, experienced and practiced in a redeemed family of faith. During the membership course, participants gain a clearer vision for what it is they may be embarking on. The corporate nature of the church helps them to consider what it means to be a Christian and how they will live that out.

The actual membership

This congregational life is seen in the way that the members relate to one another. Having a focus on others (besides yourself and your immediate family) shows up in a number of ways. One of the most simple ways is attendance. During the membership course, regular church meeting attendance is taught to be part of congregational life. But, beyond the normal scheduled services, there are also special occasions like weddings, receptions, showers, funerals and good-bye parties. Showing up at these is one way that the church cares for itself and shares in each member’s joys and sorrows. The flip side to this idea is the concern members show for those who have been absent from meetings.

The way that members take an interest in each other through encouragement and admonishment also reflects the corporate nature. There is a positive effort to know and spur others on in the faith. Often this comes in the way of older people encouraging younger members. But one would also see this manifested as a younger member might seek to serve an older one through domestic chores or even teaching. It has not been uncommon for the Senior Ladies class to be taught by women/men half the age of the ladies. In the same vein, the congregation frequently prays for individual members. And just as the congregation reasons together in applying God’s Word on Wednesday evening, so it decides together on matters of the church at the members’ meetings. One of the most important parts of the meetings is the receiving of new members into the church. This corporate aspect of the church is vital and evident.

Current ministry

And last, with regard to my future work in campus ministry, the internship has re-shaped the way that I conceive the relationship between the church and the para-church. For years I have sought to build partnerships between local Campus Crusade movements and local churches. This tended to be on an organizational level. One of the greatest areas of learning during the internship was to think more seriously about ecclesiology. Better understanding of what a church is has helped me to understand what a para-church ministry does, and this understanding reformed my concept of partnership.

Partnering has pragmatic overtones and, I believe, membership is the biblical alternative. Instead of linking two organizations, the way to bridge the gap between campus and church is through student membership[1] for the following reasons:

  • Student membership keeps the primacy of the church clear. The church isn’t just some other organization that can help another organization reach its goals. Membership recognizes that fundamentally, students are Christians and Christians are part of a local body. Their identity is tied to a congregation not a campus group. They are church members who happen to be involved in a college ministry.
  • Student membership provides venues for spiritual growth and transformation. During four years of college, one is more likely to hear the whole counsel of God preached in church rather than at the campus ministry meetings. Likewise, there are aspects of the Christian discipleship that will be taught in the ministry of the church that may be or will be missing from the teaching found on campus–giving and baptism, for example. In addition, students will benefit and learn from the walks of other Christians, such as people twice their age or with different backgrounds and family situations. A campus ministry is limited and rather homogenous in its make up.
  • Student membership provides a firewall or level of accountability to the campus group. Though the ministry in and of itself is independent, should a core group of leaders be persuaded that the ministry is straying, the student leaders (church members) can pull out and continue their ministry with the church. From a preventative standpoint, the students can also seek the advice or counsel of the church and its leaders on foggy theological issues. Doctrinally, the student group might have a safeguard or mooring from going adrift.
  • Student membership provides a base of support that is consistent with the church covenant. Students spending the summer in Kazakhstan are not viewed as outside missionaries, but as members of the local body. This should teach students that the church is evangelistic. It is clearly the church that God intends to use in fulfilling the Great Commission. Membership provides opportunities for students to receive and also to give as they support the ongoing ministry of the church. Even though they may not make much money, membership provides a context to instill habits of giving. This support will be more than financial. It will include prayer and other forms of service. Just as a child is the object of much care and love, so a student may learn what it is like to a part of a family. With time and maturity, the student would learn not only to look out for himself, but for others.
  • Student membership provides more opportunities for outreach. Because students are being fed and able to take part in corporate worship services, they will not need to recreate the wheel. Students often spend hours in meetings and preparing for meetings that are basically pseudo-church services. If students took advantage of healthy church life they could be free to focus their endeavors on campus more evangelistically. They could spend more time in outreach events/speakers, building relationships naturally or in clubs/sports, and doing follow-up/Bible studies that incorporate new Christians into churches. Campus ministries would then see themselves even more clearly as missionary enterprises and gather for the specific purpose of evangelism.

Of course, all of this assumes on some base level that the church is healthy. Being a campus minister has given me an added incentive to see churches grow in health. If a church is healthy it will be a faithful witness to the world around it including the universities looming near.


Notes:

1 By student membership I mean normal membership. I only mention student for emphasis. There are some churches that actually create an associate membership option for various reasons, but I am primarily referring to membership that any adult would seek.