The Church on the Fringes
The church is a community of Christians living as the on-the-ground expression of the supremacy of Jesus by advancing his gospel in distance and depth. As the on-the-ground expression, and since gospel advance happens in distance, the local nature of the church is indispensable. The church is the place — the here and now — of Jesus’s new creation reign in an old creation world.
As the assembly of those made new in Christ, we come together in space and time, and we make Jesus known in those blessed limitations. Advancing the gospel in distance means we cross the street, and the oceans, to tell others the good news. It means we go out there into the darkness with the light of God’s love.
Far As the Curse Is Found
But we also remember that out there isn’t the only darkness. If we know our own hearts, we know it gets dark in here, too. So not only must the gospel advance in distance, it must also advance in depth. Jesus came to make his blessings flow “far as the curse is found,” and that means both the curse out there among the highways and hedges of this world, and the curse in here among the nooks and crannies of our soul.
Not only must the gospel advance in distance, but also in depth.
The “in here” domain refers to what we traditionally call sanctification. It is concerned with the gospel’s advance that invades every territory of our lives to bring it under the lordship of Jesus. This is what Paul means when he says, “[Christ] we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28).
This vision for gospel witness goes deeper than a few “decisions” made or baptisms recorded. Paul’s ambition for the gospel’s advance is mature disciples of Jesus — disciples warned and taught and made wise in the knowledge of God. Any church’s mission that doesn’t include this is, bluntly, sub-Christian. Put more bluntly, any church’s mission that doesn’t dream of making mature disciples of Jesus actually defies the gospel itself. Jesus died to make new creatures — to make a new world. Any discipleship vision that has standards lower than this is short-circuiting the gospel’s power, and therefore, the power of God (Romans 1:16).
No Other Institution
Gospel advance in distance and depth means the good news of Jesus penetrates every*where* and all of me — and this is central to who the church is. In fact, it is the church, and only the church, that has been given this mission from God and been molded for it by God. There are simply no substitutes. You will not experience the overcoming power of the gospel in your life without the local church. It will not happen.
You will not experience the overcoming power of the gospel in your life without the local church.
According to another sketch from Paul, the church is being built up “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” (Ephesians 4:13). Which means, if we will be mature in Christ, we must be mature together. We are a body joined together, growing up together in love. For there is no other institution under heaven given among men by which we must be sanctified.
Let’s Go There
This commitment to maturity is the responsibility of the church corporately, and our responsibility to the church as individuals. Jonathan Leeman writes, “The local church is your highest authority on earth when it comes to your discipleship in Christ and your citizenship in Christ’s present and promised nation” (Church Membership, 25).
The local church is who helps you grow in Christ, and who affirms your identity in Christ. Which means, if you say you are a Christian, but you are not a covenant member of a local church, there is no good way to know that you are legit. Saying you’re a Christian without being part of a local church is, by definition, to be nominal. It means you are claiming the name, but there’s nothing to vouch for it. Someone will say, “You have your local church and I have my personal Christianity.” Show me your personal Christianity apart from the local church; I will show you my personal Christianity by my local church — by the brothers and sisters who see my life up close and know how I’m really doing.
That is what depth means. It means we push through the name-only way of doing things and we live at the heartbeat — not where it’s comfortable, but where it matters. How are you? No, I mean, how are you? This is the repeated question of churches advancing the gospel in distance and depth.
To be sure, it’s not easy. The nitty-gritty of our lives is a frontier all its own. But there is more of Jesus to be known on these fringes. Let’s go there.