Big Idea: The church is a community in which you’re equipped to help the church become what it should be.
When you think of the church, what image comes to mind?
It’s an important question, because our expectations will shape our experience. According to Colin Smith, a pastor in Illinois, there are four common distorted images of the church:
- The church as a gas station. For some people today, the church is a place where you fill up your spiritual gas tank when you’re running low. Get a good sermon, and it will keep you going for the week.
- The church as a movie theater. For many people, the church is a place that offers entertainment. Go for an hour of escape, hopefully in comfortable seats. Leave your problems at the door and come out smiling and feeling better than when you went in.
- The church as a drug store. For other people, church is the place where you can fill the prescription that will deal with your pain. For many the church is therapeutic.
- The church as a big box retailer. Other people see the church as the place that offers the best products in a clean and safe environment for you and your family. The church offers great service at a low price—all in one stop. For many people, the church is a producer of programs for children and young people.
I know that not all of these apply to a church like Liberty Grace. If you’re here for a movie theater experience or a big box retailer, you’re in the wrong place. But it’s still possible to come together with a wrong picture of what the church is to do and be, and to walk away very disappointed.
So today we want to look at this. If you hear nothing else, I want you to hear this: The church is a community in which you’re equipped to help the church become what it should be. Let me say that again: The church is a community in which you’re equipped to help the church become what it should be.
That’s a mouthful, so let’s back up and look at this.
Verse 7 tells us an important reality that you probably don’t realize to the extent that you should: you’re needed. “But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.”
The big idea here is that God has sovereignly given each person within the church special abilities to minister to other believers within the church. Everybody’s been given gifts just as Christ wanted. Why? Paul tells us in verse 16: “…the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” We’ve all received something for the benefit of the church. When we use these abilities, then the church matures. Paul compares the church to a body that works properly, every part growing and getting stronger and more mature as the different parts of the body play the role that they’re designed to play.
This is revolutionary, but it’s a theme that appears over and over again in Scripture. We talked earlier about the images we have of a church. This one truth alone gets rid of a lot of the faulty images. The church is not a gas station where we get filled up. It’s not a drug store where we get prescriptions to deal with our pain. There will be times that we need to be filled and recover, but that’s not the normal image that should come to mind.
The church certainly isn’t a movie theatre or a big box store, nor is it a bus where we sit in the seats while someone else drives. It’s a body. You’re part of the body. You have an important role to play. In fact, the church can’t possibly become what it’s designed to be without you.
Cal Ripken Jr. is one of the greatest baseball players who’s played. He was successful, but he also understood that what mattered most to him was succeeding as a team. In an interview, he says:
I’d much rather be referred to not as an individually great player, or someone who tore up the record books, but someone who came to the ball park and said: ‘Okay, I’m here. I want to play. What can I do to help us win today?’
Amidst still photos and replays from the World Series, Ripken speaks directly to the issue of how true success is a team accomplishment, not an individual accomplishment. He says:
A lot of people ask, “What is your greatest play—your greatest accomplishment?” I say, “I caught the last out of the World Series.” It wasn’t a great catch—I didn’t dive, I didn’t do a cartwheel and throw the guy out at first base. People’s mouths didn’t drop open on the play. We all want to be part of something bigger. But we all have our little jobs that we have to do as a member of a team … I’ve had great years when we haven’t won, and they have not been really fulfilling. I’ve had not-so-great years, but we’ve had a good success as a team, and they were more fulfilling. So the most fulfilling moment I could ever have, again, was catching the last out of the World Series—knowing we did it!
I love that. It’s not so much about us winning. It’s about the team winning. For the team to win, every player has to play their role.
It’s the same in the church. When we show up, the real question isn’t, “How will I win?” But “How will we win together? I’m here. I want to play. What can I do to help us win today?”
Because we’re in a series on spiritual friendship, I want to expand this a little more. C.S. Lewis wrote a great book on the different kinds of love. He said that if you take a group of friends, and one of them dies, then you don’t just lose your friendship with that person. You also lose what that friend brought out in others.
In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s reaction to a specifically Caroline joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him “to myself” now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald … In this, Friendship exhibits a glorious “nearness by resemblance” to Heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition which each has of God … The more we thus share the Heavenly Bread between us, the more we shall all have.”
I’ll just tell you frankly: you’re needed here. You’re needed because you have special abilities that God has given you to serve others within the church. But you’re also needed because you bring out something in the rest of us that we need. God has made us so that you’re needed within the church. There’s a role that only you can play.
I’m Needed — but Differently Than You Thought
Paul starts there, but then he goes on in verse 8 and gives a fascinating image. The image is of a conqueror returning from battle. He’s coming back with all kinds of tribute and plunder. Picture the conqueror riding on horseback with carts with all kinds of riches behind him. And as he comes, he’s generously giving out the plunder that he’s received. You’re watching the conqueror travel by, and you catch a gold coin that he throws as he passes by you.
That’s the picture Paul gives us. Jesus is the conqueror. He’s giving out gifts. What are the gifts? Verse 11 tells us: “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers…” The gifts that he’s given you are leaders within the church. He lists some particularly gifted individuals within the community, and has given them as gifts to the church.
You may be thinking, “Jesus, you shouldn’t have! Really.” It’s like getting a gift that you really didn’t want. One of the realities of our world today is that we’re deeply distrustful of leadership. We generally don’t see leaders as a positive thing, certainly not as something that Jesus gives us as a lavish gift.
But according to Paul, leaders are needed. They’re a gift from Jesus himself. That sounds kind of self-serving, so it’s important that we understand what Paul’s saying. Why are pastors and other leaders needed? They’re needed so that you’re equipped to help the church become what it’s meant to be. Verse 12 says: “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…”
Let’s understand what Paul is saying here. There are two pictures of how pastors are supposed to function in the church:
- One is that the pastor and other leaders who serve as professionals and provide services to consumers. That’s often how we tend to operate, but it’s clearly not what Paul is talking about.
- The other image is that of pastors and other leaders serving the people of the church so that they can play their God-given roles. Pastors and leaders still lead, but they lead differently. They lead by serving and equipping.
According to Paul, that’s why I’m needed. I’m needed to help you play your role within the church so that the church becomes what it should be. Ministry isn’t carried out by a set of professionals who do the important work. Ministry is carried out by everyone within the church. We all play a role.
Paul goes on to explain how pastors and leaders do this. In verses 13 and on, Paul explains the work of Christian leaders in imparting correct knowledge, which leads to unity within the church and growth to maturity.
I love how one scholar describes it. We’re all engaged in acting out our parts. The script is Scripture, which tells us what to do. We are the actors. Pastors are the assistant directors, with God as the director in charge. Pastors have a role, but we’re not the actors. Our job is to help you play your role so that everyone benefits.
The Result Is That the Church Will Become What It’s Meant to Be
The result is a beautiful kind of spiritual friendship, as we read in verses
Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:15-16)
What Paul talks about here is maturity. But it’s not just a boring kind of maturity in which the church gets old and stodgy. It’s the kind of maturity that we need: one in which we’re speaking the truth in love to each other; one in which we’re building each other up in beautiful ways. We’re not just built together; we’re built together in love.
I have to be honest. I picked this passage because I wanted to speak on verse 15: speaking the truth in love. I wanted to talk about the need for both truth and love in our communication. It’s an important topic, but as I got into this passage I realized two things: first, that “speaking the truth in love” meant something different than I thought. It means, as one commentator put it, “accepting the truth of the gospel, speaking it out loud in the corporate gatherings of worship, talking about it with fellow believers, and upholding it firmly” (Clinton Arnold). We’re going to speak the truth in love in a few minutes when we read our confession of faith together. Paul wants us to be a church that holds the truth of the gospel and that lovingly speaks it to each other.
But then I realized something else. I realized that this passage does a much better job of speaking to spiritual friendship than I could have planned. What if we saw ourselves as a community in which all of us is needed, in which leaders play a role in equipping you to live out the beauty of your calling, and when we all help each other grow up in Jesus?
You’re needed. You’re needed to do more than show up and sit in a seat. We’re glad you do that, but we need more. You’re needed to use the special abilities God has given you. You don’t even need to worry too much about what they are. You’ll figure it out as you go. You’re needed to enter into relationship with us and to help us become the church that God wants us to be. And it’s simple, too. All you have to do is to get engaged, to look or a way to serve, and to look for a way to connect with others.
All of this comes because Jesus came to serve, because Jesus came to get relationally connected, and because Jesus died and rose again to create this kind of community that we all need.
Claude Alexander, bishop of The Park Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, urges Christians from all walks of life to step up into bold leadership. Here’s his take on bold leadership:
There are questions that beg to be answered. There are dilemmas to be overcome. There are gaps to be filled, and the challenge is for you to fill them. That is the essence of the high call of spiritual leadership. There is a purpose for your being here. You are meant to answer something, solve something, provide something, lead something, discover something, compose something, write something, say something, translate something, interpret something, sing something, create something, teach something, preach something, bear something, overcome something, and in doing so, you improve the lives of others under the power of God, for the glory of God.