Creature of the Word — Church Planting with Luther
By Revd Robin Ham
The practical should be shaped by the theological. In other words, our processes should flow from our convictions.
Because we care about being faithful to God – to what he has revealed about who he is and how he works.
Because we want our methods to mirror up with his God-given means of grace.
Because we care about growing genuine disciples of Christ, rather than just getting bums on seats or putting on a holy firework show.
That’s why I think the context of church-planting reveals what’s under-the-bonnet of the ministry, theologically speaking, in a much more obvious way than with in the context of sustaining an existing church ministry.
Why? Because with the latter there’s already something happening. Activity, structure and strategy are already in motion. It therefore takes time for any changes in the under-girding theology to become apparent. But start something from scratch and you’ve immediately got to go face-to-face with the question, ‘what is church and how might it grow?’ Answer that question and, like it or not, your theology is instantly laid bare.
Learning from Luther
So here’s where one particular phrase continues to serve as something of a compass to guide my time and labours and prayers in Barrow – and I think it’s an absolute corker. The credit here goes to the German Reformer, Martin Luther, because it originates in his second major work, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, from way back in 1520.
He describes the true church simply as a “creatura verbi divini”. And for those of us who aren’t fluent in Latin (yup, me too) that translates as ‘a creature of the word’.
In other words, it is the Scriptures that give birth to the church, through the power of the Spirit, for it is they that make known God’s gospel promise about the Son.
Elsewhere Luther puts it like this, For since the Church owes its birth to the Word, is nourished, aided and strengthened by it, it is obvious that it cannot be without the Word. If it is without the Word, it ceases to be a Church.” (LW, 40:37)
Words are powerful. We all know that. We know that positively in the well-timed word of affirmation or the stirring speech. We know that negatively because, hey, although we may say ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’, that doesn’t actually stop the punch-in-the-gut feeling of a cruel word.
But God’s words are even more powerful. As the apostle Paul puts it in his famous ‘armour of God’ piece, the word of God is the ‘sword of the Spirit’.
Just Another Ingredient?
Here’s another way of thinking about it — Often we think of the Bible as a part of a church. We almost approach it like a list: “what do we need to make a healthy church?” And then we make our shopping list: Worship, Prayer, Bible, Coffee…
The Bible becomes one element, one activity, whether it be in the form of sermons, Bible-study, teaching, etc. It is an activity that sits alongside other activities. It’s one ingredient in the recipe, but we need all the ingredients to make the cake. But the point that Luther’s phrase captures is that God’s word forms God’s church. It converts and disciples and sanctifies and multiplies and sustains.
Sow, Sleep, Repeat
So for the church-planter, sowing this word becomes so critical, so central.
If the church is the creature, then the word is the seed. As one planter has put it, “We sow, sleep, repeat.”
Whether it’s in the weekly gathering, or over a beer with individuals, or in an evangelistic course.
Whether it’s the word read, sung, prayed, preached, or made visible in the sacraments.
After all, Paul tells the church in Colossae to “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly…”
It might not always feel spectacular, but if God’s word is how God grows his church, then what is all too often seen as ordinary is treasured as supernatural and what is sometimes assumed can be valued as life-giving.
The Revd Robin Ham is a church planter in Barrow. This article was excerpted from his blog, www.thathappycertainty.com.