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Michael Horton on what makes the church “the church.”
What makes the church “the church”? Is it the type of music that’s sung? The discipleship programs? The missional outreach? The variety of ministry opportunities? The outlets for connection and conversation? The charitable causes that are supported by its donors? There are, indeed, an array of ideas you could insert as possible answers to the question of what a church is, but the truth is, the only components that are required are the Word, the sacraments, and the gathering. What makes the church “the church” is the assembly of God’s redeemed around the Word and sacraments of God, as they are equipped and enveloped anew in the grace of God through both proclamation (Word) and participation (sacrament). Every other supposed necessity could very well fall away and the church would still remain, because the church itself isn’t tethered to any of those other things. It’s tethered to Christ alone.
In Michael Horton’s Christless Christianity, in which many of the modern notions of church mission and structure are taken to task, we are greeted with a rather exemplary summary of what makes the church “the church.” He states, plainly:
The church is an intergenerational covenant community of sinners gathered by the Spirit through the gospel preached and the sacraments administered and reaching out to the lost with Good News and to the neighbor in love.
This means that the church is not a club for those with similar cultural tastes, political views, ethnic backgrounds, and moral leanings. They do not meet because they share a hobby called spirituality or because they have the same vision for transforming culture. Believers gather to be regularly reconstituted as the body of Christ, receiving Christ as their living Head. They do not gather on their own initiative but are gathered but he Spirit through his ordained means of grace.
Unlike voluntary associations (book clubs, political parties, or fans of the opera or garage bands), the church is not made up of people I chose to be my friends. God chose them for me and me for them. They are my family because of God’s election, not mine. Gathered to be redefined by the kingdom of Christ rather than by the kingdoms of this age, we are then scattered again into the world as salt — not huddled together in Christian societies for moral transformation and ecclesiastically sanctioned political causes, but dispersed into the world as doctors, homemakers, plumbers, lawyers, truck drivers, citizens, and neighbors . . . the gospel creates community around Christ rather than around itself and provides exactly what is needed for well-informed and motivate witness and service to our neighbors outside the church during the week . . .
The church has a very narrow commission. It is not called to be an alternative neighborhood, circle of friends, political action committee, social club, or public service agency; it is called to deliver Christ so clearly and fully that believers are prepared to be salt and light in the worldly stations God has called them. (226–28)
The church doesn’t gather around something other than the Christ of God. Nothing else should galvanize us to assemble like the Word become flesh for we who deserved nothing and yet, in grace, were given everything. Perhaps the next time you go to church (hopefully this weekend), a dose of introspection is in order. What compels you to gather? What draws you to that place? If it’s the programs or the people or the preacher, those affinities may soon dwindle. But if it’s the Person, the Author and Finisher of your faith, well, that’s the sort of dynamism that enables us to endure. What makes the church “the church” — and what keeps the church “the church” — is its stubbornness to delight in, and only in, Christ alone.
Grace and peace to you, friends.
Michael Horton, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008).