Since January of this year, I’ve had the privilege of serving the Evangelical Free Church of Taber, Alberta, as its transition pastor. This role involves providing pastoral leadership for the church as it seeks to understand its larger ministry better (usually following a pastor’s untimely resignation) with a view to also finding a suitable pastor for its next season of ministry. Transition pastoral ministry engages the congregation and leadership of the church in a process of assessment through preaching, personal ministry, and administration. It is a specialized kind of ministry that seeks to broaden the church’s vision of what might be accomplished under the appropriate pastoral leader.
It has been my delight to do this kind of work in more than a dozen churches in western Canada for the past fourteen years or so for an average of one year at a time. Each opportunity for service connects me intimately with the vital elements of the church’s congregation and leadership. Most of the time, my work involves engaging other dedicated staff who are eager to embrace new ways of strengthening the church’s ministry. My pattern usually consists in working with the church on-site for ten days each month over two weekends and then otherwise by working remotely from home—guiding the church through its staff and lay leaders. For me, as well as the church, it is always a remarkable journey of faith that results in new vision as well as new pastoral leader.
In working with the Taber church, one of my responsibilities recently was to meet with its key ministry leaders and their spouses for a short retreat on a Friday evening and Saturday. Its purpose was to engage with these ministry volunteers to strengthen their relationships with one another and the development of their ministry vision for the church. It was also a time to worship, pray together, and relax in a recreational setting–well removed from the ordinary location and routine of their lives. The site for this retreat was an amazing recreational facility, the Southern Alberta Bible Camp.
Because of its attractive accommodation for all manner of recreational needs, it is a bit of a misnomer to call it “a camp.” Its abundant space for recreational activity, large gatherings, fine dining, and many comfortable rooms, makes the facility more like a resort. The camp caters to a variety of events and social enterprises all year round in a Christian atmosphere. During the summer, a large staff provides a rich Christian camping experience for hundreds of children from pre-school to high school. This well-endowed facility, nestled by a small lake in the middle of the prairie in southern Alberta, is a profound testimony to the faith and commitment of many individuals and churches who take seriously the Bible and its message concering Jesus Christ.
To me, SABC is an example of a myriad of ministries that qualify substantially as the work of God’s kingdom. SABC, and so many mission ministries like it, do not exist formally as church ministries, but truly are the product of the church’s existence around the world. Besides the presence and work of Christians everywhere in their various places of employment and community engagement, there are literally thousands of charitable ministries worldwide that serve people in the name of Christ, both in word and deed. These are important God-ordained ministries of the kingdom of God. But, in my view, it’s important to understand that these ministries are not the church. Kingdom ministries are not structured or intended to function in the same way as the church.
The church, by definition, is a special community of those who have been called out from the world through their confession of faith in Jesus Christ. It consists of all those who have been baptized into Christ by the Spirit of God at the time of their confession (1 Corinthians 12:13). Based on their confession, they gather regularly for instruction in God’s Word, for worship and prayer, for sharing in Christian fellowship, and for proclaiming the gospel, especially through the sacraments of the Word, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. The church is called to assemble regularly (usually on the first day of the week, as mentioned in 1 Corinthians 16:2). It’s to be led by those who are divinely called to function as pastors and elders, as well as deacons. Their qualification and appointment are of primary importance because their roles include doctrinal instruction, pastoral (priestly) services, some degree of governance, prayer, and (sometimes) the discipline of church members (i.e. 2 Thessalonians 3:14, 15).
By contrast to kingdom ministries as described above, the work of the local church is highly specialized. While similar in many respects, church ministry is unique in the nature of its leadership and the regularity of its ministry. As mentioned, the church has the ongoing responsibility to gather regularly for the purpose of worship, prayer, instruction, fellowship, and “the breaking of bread” (Acts 2:42-47). The work of God’s kingdom, on the other hand, is much more generic. In essence, the kingdom is the extension of the church’s ministry in the world to proclaim the gospel through evangelism and various ministries of mercy and grace.
There is much more that could be considered in a discussion about the difference or similarities about the church and God’s kingdom. For one thing, it’s true that entrance into the kingdom of God is by spiritual rebirth as Jesus described it to Nicodeums, a leader among the Jews (John 3). And it is also by this means that a person becomes a member of Christ’s church. The church, however, exists to disciple and equip the new kingdom member for church and/or kingdom ministry. The kingdom-expansion ministry of the church seeks to remind people everywhere of God’s existence and of their accountability to Him. It’s ministry is largely evangelistic whereas the work of the church is largely a ministry of disicpling. That distinction, I believe, is both biblcal and practical.
I have often likened the work of the kingdom and the church, in their respective callings, to a comet. The center and forefront of the comet, the great ball of fire, is like the church which moves, as Jesus described it for Peter in Matthew 16:18, in such a way that the “gates of hell” cannot withstand its direction and force. The kingdom of God, on the other hand, is more like the tail of the comet that represents its glorious effects as it passes through the atmosphere. By its strength in the community, the church produces a multitude of kingdom ministries just as we might envision a comet and its tailing effects.
It’s important to remember that the ministries of God’s kingdom in all their goodness around the world could never happen were it not for the faithful, ongoing ministry of the local church. As goes the work of the local church, so goes the work of God’s kingdom. If the church is weak, so is the work of Christ’s kingdom. If the church grows strong, so does the work of Christ’s kingdom. To this end, may God strengthen HIs church wherever it is found for the bountiful expansion of Christ’s kingdom!.