The biblical pattern for church ministry moves from the pulpit to the people, from the gathering to the scattering.1 Never the other way around. All other ministries should be subservient to and ordered around the church’s main gathering. It’s intended to be the roaring river that gives life and direction to all the other discipling tributaries of the church. The order is never reversed.
Regardless of how your church states its mission—”living and proclaiming God’s truth in the world” or “spreading a passion for God’s supremacy among the nations”—every biblical church exists to make disciples, that is, gospel-believing, Spirit-indwelt, Word-obeying, Kingdom-advancing followers of Jesus Christ. This goal can be stated in different ways and with different emphases. It can be cute or curt. The bottom line is churches make disciples.
Okay … but how does a church do this? How does your church do this?
A thought experiment might help us here. Let’s say someone is converted through a relationship with a member of your church. What do you do next? Do you put them through a class for new Christians? Rush to place them in a community group? Maybe you’ve read The Trellis and the Vine (ah, that’s where I remember this illustration) and you enlist that member to begin discipling them.
All that’s wonderful. Now let me ask a follow-up question: what does your church’s weekly corporate worship gathering have to do with that baby believer’s discipleship? Further still, what’s the relationship between that newly formed discipling relationship and the Sunday service? More to the point, does your church make disciples when it gathers or only when its members scatter?
If you do a quick Google search, or thumb through your favorite publisher’s most recent catalog, or pick up the latest popular book on discipleship, you’ll find a consistent theme: real discipling work happens either through well-constructed programs or organic personal ministry.
I don’t intend to disparage programs or discipling. A culture of discipling—where members do deliberate spiritual good to one another out of a sense of loving obligation—is necessary for a church to be healthy. Programs can help toward that end.
But I am concerned that many pastors unwittingly overlook the core discipleship program the New Testament prescribes: the corporate worship gathering. It’s more fundamental to Christian growth than any program. Yes, it’s even more fundamental than any personal ministry of the Word that ought to resound throughout the week. The Sunday gathering is the primary discipler of a local congregation. Why? Because of what it proclaims and the pattern it sets.
Proclamation: The Gathering Disciples
When saints gather on Sundays, they do so to worship, yes, and to grow. And God grows his people through the Word—his world-creating, life-maintaining, saint-sanctifying Word (John 1:3-4; Heb. 1:1; John 17:17; 2 Tim. 3:16). It’s no surprise, then, that Scripture regulates the service around itself. In the gathering, we should read and preach Holy Scripture (1 Tim. 4:13; 2 Tim. 4:1–3), we should sing its truths (Col. 3:16), we should pray its hopes (Eph. 6:18), and we should visualize its message through the sacraments (1 Cor. 11:26; 10:21).
A Sunday morning gathering isn’t a production. It’s not marked by pageantry or sophistry. No. Saints gather every Lord’s Day trusting their pastors have planned a service that delivers up their most important meal of the week.
In other words, the corporate worship gathering disciples the saints because it proclaims God’s Word which in turn teaches for growth and trains for ministry.