Faith towers over all other Christian duties throughout the Bible, and the preacher or leader who omits the conscious and careful nurture of congregational faith misses a paramount pastoral objective. Our longing should be that our congregation as a whole will have unwavering confidence in the faithfulness, provisions and promises of God, and trustingly obey him in all things.
Congregational faith is encouraged and extolled frequently by Paul in his epistles. Individual faith is the life-blood of the believer, but congregational faith is also a high and precious grace in the teaching of Paul. When he lists the corporate virtues of the Corinthian congregation, he writes – ‘Ye abound in every thing, in faith, and utterance, and knowledge, and in all diligence, and in your love to us.’ He looks forward also to their corporate faith being increased.
Writing to the Philippians, Paul describes their faith in action, despite persecution, as a sacrificial offering.1 He has in mind the faith of the whole congregation, and he rejoices immensely to think of it. Concerning the Thessalonians, Paul remembers without ceasing their (corporate) work of faith, and labour of love.2 He speaks of how Timothy brought his news of their (corporate) faith and love.3 He thanks God that their collective faith ‘groweth exceedingly’ and that all the churches have praised God for their faith (as a congregation) under persecution and tribulation.4 He is surely still speaking about them as a whole congregation when he prays that God would fulfil in them ‘the work of faith with power’.5 Congregational, collective or corporate faith is a glorious apostolic aim and policy.
Solid confidence in the Lord and his Word is a vital precondition for blessing upon churches, just as upon individuals, as we are repeatedly told in Scripture. Who are the people who may rejoice in the knowledge that the Lord will defend and vindicate them? It is exclusively those who put their trust in him (Psalm 5.11). Yet the frightening reality of our time is that the trust of God’s people has been undermined and sometimes even destroyed by faithless workers who have substituted human inventions for the ways of God’s Word.
The promoters of modern methods effectively tell us that we do not have to trust the power of the Word and the Spirit of God any more, because their clever systems and super-gifted people will give the desired results. In their eyes their ingenuity has eclipsed and supplanted the backward, stumbling, slow, inadequate habits of former times.
We are now called to trust entertainment techniques with the aim of closing the gap between the church and the world in order to attract a reluctant generation. We are urged to trust dance and drama (and the ‘Jesus’ film). To stir stony hearts we are told to trust spectacular gifts such as healings and prophecies. Famous evangelists have long insisted that we should trust ecumenical cooperation to get the crowds. Leading pastors press us to trust in a new, liberal, worldly lifestyle for Christians as the means of holding the young.
The reality is that faith, on the part of congregations, is a dying grace. Many pastors report that they cannot persuade even genuine Christians to attend times of prayer, because they seem to have lost their once-strong conviction that these are worthwhile, and that prayer will be powerfully answered. Pastors also report great difficulty in raising teams for visiting the community and rounding up neighbourhood children for Sunday School. Why should God’s people have become so reluctant to do these things? It is surely because people have lost their trust in the usefulness of such labours, and are no longer excited by the certain prospect of a blessing from God upon them.
Yet, what can be more pleasing to God than faith – not in money, nor our abilities, nor great pastors, nor groups of churches – but in him? We are saved by faith, and we are subsequently blessed throughout the Christian life by faith. We are called to walk by faith. The worldly modern methods we have mentioned have no doubt been permitted by God as a test of our faith – a test so often failed. How may we go about the work of promoting faith?
1. A conscious aim
We should pray and long for the unity of the congregation in deep trust in biblical methods, and in the power of God to magnify and use them. To encourage this, faith and faithfulness must be prominent themes in our sermons. Both Old and New Testaments provide examples of God blessing faithful people. Equally, the Bible is full of promises, and these must always have prominence, not just in their individual relevance, but also in their congregational and Gospel outreach applications. Certainly we must also emphasise the integrity, love and power of the Saviour to keep his promises. Every so often we should reflect, ‘In what way am I currently fostering congregational faith?’
2. No ministry of despair
In these dark days there is a tendency for some pastors to paint such a picture of godless society that the people of God think all is utterly hopeless unless a great revival should come, or until the Lord returns. Stark realism this may be, but the picture is not matched by the exposition of the power and grace of God to save, and by his promises to work mightily in the most adverse situations. We must avoid falling into a ministry of total despair which crushes congregational faith. In our darkest moments, our motto-text should be – ‘But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.’
3. Prayer meetings
We have already considered the place of prayer, but it is important to see that faith is not only a prerequisite for prayer, but a fruit of it also. Persistent prayer must be the greatest feature of our church life, second to hearing God’s Word. Encourage individuals to attend, and teach this as the key to blessing. Soon the hand of the Lord will be seen, and faith will grow even more. Be careful to bring every great trial or hindrance to the work of the church straight into the prayer meeting, for such things are appointed by the Lord that we may prove him and obtain a blessing.
4. Careful cautions
Warn, but never in a caustic, superior or combative style, about the modern gimmicks and trends mentioned earlier in this chapter. Do not do this so often that people no longer listen, or take such warnings seriously. But as teachers clearly motivated by a desire for souls, and the preservation of God’s ways, carefully explain where all these antics go wrong, and why this is so important. These things undermine faith in the Lord, and our people must have light on them.
5. Keep a balance
Even in the life of a faithful church some practices and activities may slide across the line between trust in God, and trust in means. Games and refreshments and outings used in young people’s activities can easily become excessive, as though success depends upon the scale of these things. The use of visual aids in teaching, and the reasonable occasional use of videos and other helps may easily become excessive. We mean well, but are we crossing the line? Is impressive technology laying bare in us a rundown of faith in the spoken appeal under the blessing of God? We must keep all supplementary helps within bounds, and be sticklers for ‘proclamation’, dependent on the power of God. Let us jealously guard our faith at all costs. A gentle leadership hand on the tiller is often needed, but the ideal is to impart understanding at the same time.
By the blessing of the Lord the goal of congregational faith will be achieved. It will become increasingly evident that the beauty of solid trust in the Lord characterises our church. We will become a ‘believing’ church, fixed and rooted in an enlightened way in God’s methods.
Every so often we meet a person known to us in previous years as one who stood firmly by conservative principles and ways. However, times change, and this person now smiles in a rather superior way and tells us that he is ‘more broad-minded’ than he used to be. It becomes apparent that he has moved on from trust in biblical methods, and has gone along with the ‘progressive’ ideas of worldly Christians. Another person who has gone the same way looks sadly at us and claims that he became ‘battle-weary’, and so learned to put ‘Christian love’ and ‘liberty’ before minor scruples.
Many Christians are sliding into modern alternatives to trusting in the power of God. If we are leaders, we must be urgently committed to safeguarding our people for the Lord. May he help us to bring about through our ministry and unwavering example believing churches, pledged, solid and loyal to the Truth and the ways of the Lord, and living under the promise – ‘The Lord, he it is that doth go before thee; he will be with thee, he will not fail thee, neither forsake thee: fear not, neither be dismayed’ (Deuteronomy 31.8).
The pre-eminence of faith in the life of the church is clearly seen in 1 Timothy 1.5 – a perfect affirmation for conclusion: ‘Now the end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned.’
- Philippians 2.17
- 1 Thessalonians 1.3
- 1 Thessalonians 3.6
- 2 Thessalonians 1.3-4
- 2 Thessalonians 1.11
Imitating the Apostle
‘Thou hast fully known my . . . purpose,’ wrote Paul to Timothy (2 Timothy 3.10), meaning his policy or design or blueprint for the establishing and building of churches. The ten policy points outlined in these short articles can be clearly established as Paul’s own from many references in his letters. Some of these have been cited, but there are many others not referred to here, and together these show that these ten principles were major features and priorities in the apostle’s personal methodology.
With these great aims we are safe because they are God-given and part of the pattern of apostolic conduct which we are commanded to follow. Says Paul – ‘Brethren, be followers [literally: imitators] together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an ensample [literally: pattern].’ He also writes, ‘Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you.’1
The Lord will certainly be with us. To follow the schemes, policies and gimmicks drawn up by mere men – however well-intended they may be – will lead to ultimate disappointment and disaster, but to draw our objectives and methods from the infallible Word will bring us surely under the promises of God, and the power of the Spirit will rest upon us, bringing true conversions, genuine hearts, and all the fruits of righteousness.
- Philippians 3.17 and 4.9. See also 1 Corinthians 4.16 and 11.1.
by Peter Masters
Available for purchase from the Tabernacle Bookshop
‘Prothesis’ / Policy 1: A Worshipping Church
Policy 2: A Praying Church
Policy 3: A Sanctified Church
Policy 4: A Working Church
Policy 5: A Learning Church
Policy 6: An Evangelistic Church
Policy 7: A Separated Church
Policy 8: A Sacrificial Church
Policy 9: A Loving Church
Policy 10: A Believing Church