Paul’s Blueprint for a Working Church

In Spurgeon’s day an American Christian newspaper editor once decided to spend a week at the Tabernacle to make a survey of the great man’s ministry. But as this editor surveyed the work of the Tabernacle evening after evening, an entirely unexpected scene met him. The basements and rooms of the building were constantly alive with activity. Groups assembled for district visitation; prayer gatherings convened; ragged school classes were under way; Sunday School teachers’ briefings took place, and a host of other activities. This editor came to extol the work of a pulpiteer, but discovered also a working church.

Sadly, in many fellowships today, most members loyally attend the services and financially maintain the work, but beyond this they are little more than comfortable observers. On the principle that God uses human instruments, nothing much can be accomplished if we do not persuade as many people as possible to be willingly committed to avenues of Christian service. This is the policy of the working church. It is magnificently spelled out in Ephesians 4.16, where Paul attributes church growth to ‘the whole body fitly joined together’ in Christian service. It is ‘according to the effectual working in the measure of every part’ that the body secures its growth, and edifies itself in love.

Many local church leaders today say they would love to have vibrant Sunday Schools, but they cannot persuade anyone to staff them. Good Christians have lost touch with the old standard of a working church, and no one wants to be committed to demanding tasks. It may sound unspiritual, but the fact is – no Christian service means no growth. Furthermore, the absence of Christian service eventually leads to an introspective, self-preoccupied, spiritually unfulfilled people, dependent for happiness on self-indulgence in the secular aspects of life.

Let us champion once again the biblical doctrine of the working church, taking special note of the great working verbs of the New Testament. Four great terms are used by Paul to advance the imperative duty of Christian service. First there is the labouring term, and it is applied not only to preachers but to all believers. Paul uses it often, a prime example being the promise-laden verse of 1 Corinthians 15.58  – ‘Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.’

The Greek word for labour speaks of hard toil. It is a strong word, signifying that the worker is pressed with pain. Significantly, this is Paul’s most-used term, by which the Lord calls us not to mild service, or only to what is enjoyable to us, but to sacrificial effort for his glory.

A second term used by Paul to describe Christian service is a striving-contending word, an athletic term, used to convey the idea of determination and intense effort.

A third term is an even stronger word from the field of competition, a Greek fighting term from which the English word ‘agonising’ comes. This has in mind the supreme effort required to sprint the last yards of the race, or to escape the crushing hold of a contestant wrestler and turn the tables.

A fourth term used by the apostle is the aspiring-to-honour term, showing that Christian people should serve with a level of commitment only achievable because the final crowning day is kept in view. Such terms, in many passages, are the authority for the working church concept.

It is a glorious sight to see a church where the people work willingly to press forward the Gospel and to keep the coals of the testimony glowing hot. There is so much to be done, and pastor and elders will need to initiate a programme, enthuse God’s people, train the young, and so implement the work. There is the work of the Sunday School, with its weeknight support meetings. Regular visitation needs to be carried out, and hospitality given, to mention just a few labours.

The voluntary principle must, of course, be honoured in our efforts to draw believers into avenues of service, but once a church is moving forward in this respect, the desire to serve will inevitably spread among the godly, and the hearts of the people will find their true fulfilment. Let us build working churches, for these are growing churches, and these are the churches peopled by those whose hearts beat in sympathy with the beautiful words of Frances Ridley Havergal:

Jesus, Master, whose I am,
Purchased thine alone to be,
By thy blood, O spotless Lamb,
Shed so willingly for me,
Let my heart be all thine own,
Let me live to thee alone.

Other lords have long held sway;
Now thy name alone to bear,
Thy dear voice alone obey,
Is my daily, hourly prayer:
Whom have I in Heaven but thee?
Nothing else my joy can be.

Jesus, Master, whom I serve,
Though so feebly and so ill,
Strengthen hand and heart and nerve
All thy bidding to fulfil;
Open thou mine eyes to see
All the work thou hast for me.

Jesus, Master, wilt thou use
One who owes thee more than all?
As thou wilt! I would not choose;
Only let me hear thy call.
Jesus, let me always be,
In thy service, glad and free.

Longer comment on the concept of a working church is assembled in a booklet by the author – Your Reasonable Service in the Lord’s Work.