Let’s explore the implications of fellowship a little more deeply. It means that gospel centered ministry should be the center of the larger organization’s and its leadership’s existence. But not its own gospel ministry (it has none) but the gospel ministry of the local congregations. And those in leadership positions in the organization who are clergy are still simply “stewards of the mysteries of God” (ministers of the gospel) and have no reason for existence except to ensure that the pure gospel is effectively proclaimed by pastors and local congregations and to support this ministry. It means that the larger organization has no importance apart from its support for the gospel ministry of the local congregations. It has no importance in itself and if it fails in its support of the local congregations, or goes off in its own direction apart from the local congregations, or starts to support things that are not gospel centered ministry, or inflates its own importance and starts to suck money from local congregations to support its own existence, then the larger organization has lost the reason for its existence and is no longer useful, and may even be detrimental, to the gospel ministry of the local congregation. In short, when the culture of the larger organization strays from a truly gospel centered ministry in support of local congregations and wanders into its own imaginings and tries to redefine the purpose for its own existence on its own terms, then this can only be detrimental to the lives of the local congregations and the organization may have either outlived its usefulness or else require a radical overhaul of its defining culture. Local congregations do not need synods or districts for their existence and there are always other confessional church bodies which can provide the support that a local congregation may want.
The culture of the church presented here is a culture which is at strict variance with the culture of the world and is counter-cultural to it. The culture of the world is centered in fulfilling the felt needs, wants and desires of people which is centered in the self, even if these needs and desires include wholesome things like loving and supporting communities. This is also true of the culture of modern Evangelicalism. Modern Evangelicalism is also centered in fulfilling the felt needs, wants and desires of people, at least in its practical application to their lives. They just see Jesus (or the Holy Spirit) as the means of fulfilling those felt needs and so forth and as the way of having a full, happy, and self-fulfilled life in the here and now (a theology of glory) rather than a life hidden in the cross and suffering. This is what a true culture of the church centered in the gospel entails. It entails a life hidden in the cross of Christ where there is little glory in terms of what this world desires or hopes for. It is a culture centered in dying to self and simply receiving everything as gifts from God centered in the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ given through the means of grace.
This means that extreme caution is required when trying to import anything into the church from the world or from Evangelicalism. We must ensure that anything which breathes a contrary spirit or brings with it cultural connotations which are contrary to the pure gospel are not allowed to infect our church. Our church must look different from the world (or Evangelicalism) because the culture of our church is different from the world (or Evangelicalism.) If our church starts to look no different from the world then it is a danger sign that we have lost the true culture of the church. When the world looks at the church it should see something mysterious and different and which it does not comprehend but about which it wonders. If we try to make the church look like the world or make it understandable to the world in order to attract the world (same kind of music, same kinds of messages to address their felt needs and so forth – just like the Evangelicals have done) then we are in trouble. If we start to say to the world that they should just come and join us because we are really no different than they are, except that we have the real answer to all their felt needs and desires, then we have lost it all. Then we have become just one more alternative among the worlds many other alternatives offering the same thing and people will just move on when we no longer offer what they want in the moment.
What the true culture of the church offers is contrary to what the world desires and which the world can only reject when it looks at it on its own terms. What the world wants is the aggrandizement of the self. It wants the solution to all problems to be found in the self. It wants itself to be part of the solution to its own salvation. It wants the glorification of what the self can contribute to the good of society. But the culture of the church speaks counter to this. It says to the world, “You are nothing and worth nothing. You are a worm. There is no good in you but only evil. There is nothing good you can ever contribute to anything.” And then into the midst of this despair it speaks the gospel of the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. And when this message is grasped and believed by the power of the Holy Spirit then, despite having and being nothing in oneself, suddenly one has everything “in Jesus Christ.”
Let us ensure that this true gospel centered culture is always the culture of our church.
Gordon Schulz is a layman and life long Lutheran who lives in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia. He’s a member at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Vernon, BC. He studies and writes on issues of faith and theology.