Theologians like to speak of the distinction between the invisible church and the visible church. The invisible church “consists of the whole number of the elect” (WCF 25.1), meaning all true Christians. The visible church “consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion” (WCF 25.2), or in other words all those who are baptized and in Christian congregations. Every local congregation is part of the visible church, for it is the church that the world sees.
Yet I wonder if in our day and age the church may be too visible?
Churches today seem to be vying to be THE ONE SEEN. Almost every community in our land now has one or more churches with a huge megaplex campus that rivals the local mall, with signs all over pointing to it. Given the slick advertisements in magazines, newspaper inserts, radio, television, etc., the promotional line in many congregational budgets must equal, oh let’s say, the salary of one or two small church pastors. Pastors (here I warn myself) use social media and write blogs, which can serve an edifying purpose, but can also be a huge temptation just to be heard and seen by others (“How many Likes do I have? How many hits did that post get?”). This time of year sees churches seemingly trying to outdo one another’s Christmas pageant or nativity scene, with more special musicians or more live animals than the church down the street. Like the last two kids in musical chairs fighting for the final seat, churches seem to be scrambling hard to sit in the chief seat. Perhaps we have forgotten what Jesus said about it (Luke 20:46-47)?
And it is not just the big-time churches trying to get in on the action. I recall a billboard in the town of my former pastorate on the main highway on the east side. A congregation of no more than two hundred in the community had a huge picture of their two pastors dressed in white shirts and pants, leaning back-to-back with their arms crossed, smiling cheesily down at every passing motorist. I do not recall the goal of the billboard. All I know was that it gave me the creeps and tempted me to speed to get past it.
Two decades ago some leading pastors gathered as the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals and warned against this direction of marketing the church with the Cambridge Declaration. In part it stated:
The loss of God’s centrality in the life of today’s church is common and lamentable. It is this loss that allows us to transform worship into entertainment, gospel preaching into marketing, believing into technique, being good into feeling good about ourselves, and faithfulness into being successful…Our concern must be for God’s kingdom, not our own empires, popularity or success.
In other words, the church should not worry about being seen by man, i.e. of being too visible, but rather to consider of first importance how is it being viewed by God.
For that is the tenor of the New Testament. While the visible church should be bold in preaching the gospel and acts of mercy, and indeed shine its light to the world, still the manner of accomplishing these things should be that of faithful service that avoids seeking the spotlight. We are not to let our left hand know what our right hand is giving, and we are not to pray on street corners to be seen (Matt. 6:3-5). We are not to minister so as to seek man’s approval (Gal. 1:10). We are not to exalt ourselves, but humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God (I Pet. 5:5-6). Indeed, we should follow the admonition that Paul gave to bondservants, who were encouraged to obey their masters “with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man” (Eph. 6:5-7).
A remedy exists to encourage us in this direction. Spend some time in solitude with the Lord, and encourage as many others in your congregation as you can to do the same. Humble yourself before the Lord by asking him how you can pray, give, worship, serve, and live for him without seeking the world’s approval. Then go forth seeking his glory and not your own.