There’s no lack of new ideas when it comes to church growth.
Jesus had a couple ideas himself, and we refer to them today as the sacraments. A sacrament may sound to you like something from the middle ages, but the word simply means a visible sign of a spiritual reality. In Protestant churches we celebrate two that we believe were instituted by Jesus himself: baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
If the sermon is God’s Word preached, then the sacraments are God’s Word seen and participated in. The New City Catechism puts it this way: sacraments are “visible signs and seals that we are bound together as a community of faith by [Jesus’] death and resurrection. By our use of them the Holy Spirit more fully declares and seals the promises of the gospel to us.”
When the body of Christ grows in unity it is the equivalent of church growth. So how do sacraments bind us “together as a community”? Think of watching someone get baptized in front of church. As you see him or her go down into the water and then come back up, you are reminded of the gospel truth that Jesus died, was buried and was raised to life. Baptism is a visible sign of the spiritual reality that this new believer has also died and been raised with Christ, and he or she is now bound to the body of Christ – the Church – with a spiritual relationship stronger than blood.
Think also of the Lord’s Supper. Our tendency is to make Communion a very personal and introspective affair; a time for a little navel gazing and self-reflection. It’s true we ought to receive the bread and wine with a humble and repentant heart. But Jesus didn’t pass out dinner rolls to each of his disciples. He broke one loaf and passed out pieces; he shared one cup with them. Paul put it this way: “Is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf (I Corinthians 10:16b-17).
I also love to think about these two sacraments continuing unbroken since Jesus ordained them 2,000 years ago. The Church consists not just of those we see today who are taking communion and being baptized; we are also bound together with our ancestors in the faith: with Peter, Mary Magdalene and Paul, with Augustine, Luther, C.S. Lewis and Elisabeth Elliot, along with untold numbers of forgotten believers who really are alive in the presence of the risen Christ!
Next time you take the Lord’s Supper in church, don’t just look down, look around. Look at the believers around you and remember that you are part of one Body. Jesus gave us the sacraments as an illustration of this, and as an aid to this.