There it was on Facebook, an advertisement for a book on how to begin and grow a church from zero to one hundred in a year. Hmmm, I think to myself. Have I not seen this book before? Have I not read this book before?
Well, no. I’ve not this particular book, so my judging a book by its cover may be way off. Yet just based on the summary, it sure seemed like many other books I’ve encountered and my cynical reaction is always the same… If only it were so simple. I’m sure there are some helpful insights but in our post-Christendom society, where more and more people are skeptical of churches. Whether leading in an established church or a new church plant, the challenge is not about any formula for growth but tending to the gospel story — the good news of Jesus Christ.
The gospel story was the framework and foundation for the ministry of the apostle Paul. He understood salvation was promised as a blessing from God through the faithfulness of Christ and therefore a blessing the church entrusted God with as participants made alive in Christ. Faith, an embodied participation in the gospel, opened space for the church to portray this good news through good works.
What we have is the story of the redemptive work of God, centered in Jesus Christ and oriented towards the kingdom of God. It’s a story that involves grace, faith, and good works, and not good works to earn salvation but as participation in the salvation already received. The apostle Paul expresses the idea in Ephesians 2:8-10, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
This text has been very formative in my theological formation, especially as it pertains to ecclesiology and particularly how the church participates in the mission of God. One keyword that I want to emphasize is “handiwork” (v. 10), which comes from the Greek word poiēma and is where our English words “poem” and “poetry” derive from (Hiebert, 1994, 117). It’s a word that describes a piece of art, like a sculpture, a painting, or even a poem. That’s why the New Jerusalem Bible renders v. 10 saying, “We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus for the good works which God has already designated to make up our way of life.” (italics mine).
God’s intention for the church, both universal and every local church, is to be a living portrait of the new creation he is bringing about in Christ. The church, as followers of Jesus, live as a community participating in the mission of God so that the future, the fulfillment of God’s redemptive work in Christ is visible. This is the embodied gospel of the church in Christ. Hence, the church is “God’s handiwork” or “God’s work of art.”
We might think of the church as a canvas upon which God is painting a picture. This painting is a proleptic portrait of the future, which simply means the church is portraying the future within the present as an already accomplished reality. Now because the church consists of people who still sin at times, sometimes egregiously, we might think of the portrait as still awaiting its completion and sometimes is in need of correction. That is, God needs to repaint or restore some aspect of the canvas so that the picture will reflect the work of art he is painting. However, since the portrait reflects the future, the embodied gospel is not about restoring the past. Attempting to recreate the first century, sixteenth century, etc… embodiment of the gospel is not how the church participates in the mission of God. Rather the portrait is embodying the future of God’s kingdom in fresh ways that are contextualized to the present.
As the onset of a post-Christendom society become more and more apparent, the challenge of leading churches will most most likely defy any cookie-cutter approach. They already do. Some churches will thrive and some will struggle. Some church plants will lead many to follow Jesus and even plant new churches themselves, while other church plants will struggle and may even have a short life. There are too many variables beyond the control of any church leader to say what will guarantee success. However, if leaders will focus on the faith-formation of the church, cultivating the gospel in people so that they learn to follow Jesus as participants in the mission of God, then God has a work of art to display among society. That’s an attractive church to others seeking something beyond the mundane life of old creation and what they’ll find is a masterpiece that only God can create.
~ K. Rex Butts
K. Rex Butts, D.Min, serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE. He holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura and together they have three children.