‘Solid’, ‘strong’, ‘robust’ are all words which describe a fortress church. These buildings were constructed during the Middle Ages, especially in Southern France and Transylvania (Romania). In addition to being a place of worship, a fortress church was used by the local population as a retreat and defensive refuge against the constant threat of invaders. A fortress church was enclosed by its own fortifications to prevent outsiders getting in.
‘A mighty fortress is our God’, Martin Luther’s paraphrase of Psalm 46, has been called the ‘Battle Hymn of the Reformation’ and beautifully expresses the strength, power and protection of the God in whom we trust. Our Lord is a mighty fortress, but should the church of the Lord Jesus Christ be a like fortress church in her ministry to others?
This article is not about church architecture, but about the attitudes and activities which permeate the leadership and membership of a local church and lead to her being either more outwardly or more inwardly focused. The ‘outwardly serving’ church is interested in and actively engaged with the non-church community in which the Lord has placed her. On the other hand, the ‘fortress’ church focuses almost exclusively on her own members rather than on those who are in spiritual need outside her own ‘walls’.
We’ll begin by looking at four factors which can lead towards a local congregation functioning like a ‘fortress’ church, and then consider four corresponding factors which characterise an outwardly-serving church.
A ‘fortress’ church has an excessive focus on order
Any wise observer, observing the physical laws by which the universe ordinarily functions and seeing the mighty works of God as revealed in His Word, would conclude that our God is a God of order. The chaos which we see in Creation is the outworking of the effects of sin so that the entire universe is in ‘bondage to corruption’ (Rom 8.21). The church of Christ is to reflect the nature of her divine Saviour and to do all things decently and in good order (1 Cor 14:40). Her covenant community worship is to be structured and organised, in contrast to the chaotic public corporate ministry of the 1st century church in Corinth (1 Cor 14).
Our Lord Jesus Christ was ‘orderly’ when He read the Scripture in the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4:16-20). However when a sinful woman wet his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair, kissing them and anointing them with oil (Luke 7:36-50), her action was unexpected, shocking, and could accurately be described as ‘disorderly’. The Pharisee, in whose house this took place, thought that Jesus was remiss in allowing such a woman to touch her in this way, whereas Christ received her as she was and ministered to her where she was. In His ministry Jesus repeatedly came into contact with the messiness of a fallen world precisely because this was His mission: “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).
A ‘fortress’ church has such an excessive focus on order that she, consciously or unconsciously, builds barricades which prevent the messiness of the broken lives which surround her from impacting on the orderly structures within.
A ‘fortress’ church has an excessive focus on covenant community
It is very evident from Scripture that the church is called to have an inward focus on her own members. The many ‘one another’ commands in the Bible clearly teach that we are to be actively engaged in close relationships with our brothers and sisters in the local church1.
However, the church is also called to have a focus on those with whom her members come into contact from outside the covenant community. The main mechanism for drawing the Gentile nations to the covenant God of Israel in Old Testament times was that of living in such a way that the unbelieving nations were attracted to her (e.g. Isaiah 42.6). Christ affirmed the continuation of this ministry of attraction (e.g. Matt 5:13-16), but added to this the active making of disciples by all His followers as they went about their daily lives (e.g. Matt 28:19-20).
A ‘fortress’ church has such an excessive focus on her own covenant community that she does not effectively or actively engage with the non-believing community around her with a view to making disciples of all different kinds of people.
A ‘fortress’ church has an excessive focus on overseas missions
Scripture foretells the ‘end-goal’ of Christ’s gathering of His church; a diverse community composed of people from ‘every tribe and language and people and nation’ (Rev 5.9).
John Calvin wrote that God “means that the work of this deliverance will be so excellent that it ought to be proclaimed, not in one corner only, but throughout the whole world.” Historically and currently Reformed Churches have been particularly faithful in supporting overseas missions. However local missions have not always been pursued with the same level of zeal or had allocated to them similar levels of human and financial resources.
Jesus brought fierce judgement against the Scribes and Pharisees for not being faithful leaders of God’s people (Matt 23). They travelled to distant lands to make a single proselyte (Matt 23:15), but were not active in humble obedience on their ‘home turf’.
A ‘fortress’ church has an excessive focus on overseas missions, expending large amounts of financial resource in distant lands. However in comparison she has minimal involvement in local missions which have the aim of making disciples from many different people groups and incorporating them into the local church.
A ‘fortress’ church has a fear of ‘contamination’ from outside
The covenant community of God’s people are set apart from the unbelieving world as a result of God’s saving grace (e.g. Exo 19:6; 1 Pet 2.5). We are called to keep ourselves ‘unstained from the world’ (James 1.27) as pilgrims passing through a land which is not their home (1 Pet 2.11). However, we are also called to be involved with the unbelieving world so that our good works may be seen (Matt 5:16), our verbal proclamation of the gospel heard by those who are yet lost (1 Pet 2.9) and a gentle, respectful, explanation of the gospel conveyed to those around us (1 Pet 3:15).
A ‘fortress’ church has a fear of ‘contamination’ from outside, being overly protective of her members and adopting a ‘siege mentality’ with a tendency to be isolated from the unbelieving world. Such an approach is excessively defensive, tends to result in little effective evangelism and consequently there is little numerical growth through people being incorporated into the church who are not from covenant families.
In contrast to the ‘fortress’ church, the outwardly serving church exhibits very different attitudes and activities.
An outwardly serving church has a willingness to be a somewhat messy church
The leadership and membership of an outwardly serving church recognise that the relationships within their own families and church are at times quite messy, and that despite following Christ they do not ‘have it all together’ in their own lives as yet2. God’s people in an outwardly serving church are therefore sympathetic to the struggles and difficulties which those who do not know the Lord are often beset by. They understand that when new believers come into the church community, their lives may not be as orderly as longtime members who have learnt what is expected of them (sadly at times by the social climate of the church rather than by the Word of God).
The outwardly serving church member is willing to experience some disruption to the orderly pattern of their week so that they can meet up with someone they have engaged with at work, during a leisure activity, or through some other providential encounter. Their desire to be faithful in disciple-making is stronger than their desire to have everything in their own schedule ordered according to a tidy plan. This member understands that individual ministry often doesn’t function well by rosters and strict timetables.
The outwardly serving church member knows that other Christians, looking for a spiritual home, may well not come from a Reformed Church background and therefore may not have the same Biblical understanding as they do. These wise members are careful to gently explain the truths of the Reformed Confessions from Scripture, having diligently studied the Biblical basis for the teaching of the church with this goal in mind. They are patient, recognizing that those who have not had the privilege of consistent Biblical preaching and teaching over many years, may have somewhat ‘messy’ theology for quite some time. They might wonder how well-informed the thief on the cross was when he entered the Kingdom of God3, or how well the 3,000 who were saved on the day of Pentecost knew the gospel4.
An outwardly serving church has an understanding of the needs of the non-church community
The outwardly serving church member likely comprehends that their local 21st century community may well not be so much a geographical one, as in times past, but is probably much more defined by inter-personal relationships and shared interests. These members seek to cultivate relationships with people outside the church community so that they can share the gospel, once they have built up an understanding of the other person’s needs and an appreciation of how Christ meets those needs.
An outwardly serving church has a commitment to local missions
Outwardly serving church members, especially in 21st century New Zealand and other western nations, understand that the mission field is right on their doorstep. Just as the Lord had providentially assembled people from all over the Roman Empire on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came in power, so today, the Lord has brought people from all over the world to our own country.
Outwardly serving church leadership recognises that actively engaging in effective home missions work is good stewardship of the financial and human resources with which He has blessed the church.
An outwardly serving church has a confidence in the sovereignty of God
The members of an outwardly serving church do not fear ‘contamination’ by people of different ethnicities or backgrounds like it seems the foolish Galatians did5. They understand that the tie which fundamentally binds us within the church is not our race, background, culture, social status or personal preferences, but Christ Himself6.
The outwardly serving church trusts in God’s sovereign control of all events and may well think along the lines of the Gaither Vocal Band lyrics:
“A little old Cajun preacher was preachin’, reminded me of an old camp meeting, it brought Saint Matthew 4:19 to life. He said, “I catch ‘em, God cleans ‘em, I bait the hook with the love of the Kingdom, I’ve been called to be a fisher of men. “I catch ‘em, God cleans ‘em, heaven knows He saves every soul that believes Him, I reel ‘em in and He washes away their sin”.
The outwardly serving church member understands their calling to be a ‘fisher of men’ and trusts the Lord to sanctify both themselves and any people He enables them to ‘catch’.
I love our Reformed Churches and it has been my joy and privilege to serve in our covenant communities over the years. I appreciate our commitment to ‘contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints’7, our careful instruction of our covenant youth and our orderliness of corporate worship.
However, as I reflect upon the contrasting attitudes and activities outlined above, I conclude that we are often more like ‘fortress’ churches than outwardly serving ones. My hope and prayer is that you, dear reader, and I will be willing to work towards changing this emphasis for the greater glory of God and the further extension of His kingdom.
A ‘solid’, ‘strong’, ‘robust’ church is one which keeps her eyes on Christ, practicing the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments and faithfully exercising church discipline8. However the church is not strong if she builds fortified structures thinking that with these she can keep those on the inside safe and secure. The strong church is an outwardly serving church which draws others to Jesus so that they may readily enter into the church and find safety and security in Christ alone. He is our Mighty Fortress.
1 e.g. John 13:14; Romans 12:10,16; 15:14; 1 Cor 12:25; Gal 5:13; 6:2; Eph 4:2, 32; Phil 2:3; Col 3:13, 16; 1 Thess 5:11; Heb 10:24,25; James 5:16; 1 Pet 4:9.
2 Phil 3.8b-12 “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith- that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own”
3 Luke 23:43
4 Acts 2:41
5 Gal 3.1-9
6 Gal 3.28-29
7 Jude 3b
8 Belgic Confession Article 29
Mr David Waldron is the minister in the Reformed Church of Christchurch (Cornwall Street)