Christ promised to build and bless one, and only one, institution in the universe: the church (Matt. 16:18). The true church exists, then, not consequent of man’s power and method, but God’s. However, this is not always articulated and practiced by professing Christians. Ours is a day which has witnessed that. This past weekend, I attended for the first time a conference which addressed the issue head on.
The annual Ekklesia Conference is hosted by Grace Immanuel Bible Church in Jupiter, Florida, pastored by Jerry Wragg. Ekklesia has as its mission, “to instruct Christians in the inseparable truths of Christ’s church and His gospel. Our desire is that believers would passionately serve and commit to the advancement of those realities with lifelong conviction.” As the previous 5 years of the conference, a theme is chosen which relates to the local church. This year’s was the mission of the church. Today’s post is a brief review of this worthwhile event.
So that readers may get a better feel for the flavor of the conference, here is a brief rundown of the speakers and their respective sermons:
Jerry Wragg set the course for the conference with a compelling sermon from John 6. Among other things, he pointed out something that’s often hidden out in the open before evangelicalism’s eyes: sometimes acts of social action are the very thing that hardens the unregenerate to the gospel. John 6 is a great illustration of this. Further, the greatest act of compassion is calling the lost to putting faith in Christ and face their individual obstacles to repentance.
Jon Anderson, pastor of College and Career ministry at GIBC, then preached a summary of his critique of Tim Keller’s ecclesiological text book, “Center Church.” Jon necessarily identified that much of Keller’s ecclesiology is incompatible with Scripture. A number of alarming mission ideas were identified from the book. For example, “Our criticism of the culture will have no power to persuade unless it is based on something that we can affirm in the beliefs and values of that culture.” The problem is that Keller’s ecclesiology “makes a gospel out of common grace and an authority out of general revelation.”
Smedly Yates, a pastor at Grace Bible Church in Tempe, Arizona, brought a sermon from Revelation 2:1-7 into the mix, calling God’s people to cling to their first love in the consideration of the mission.
Joel James, pastor of Grace Fellowship in Pretoria, South Africa, came with his 21 years of experience on that continent to bring an arresting perspective on the mission shift. He demonstrated how the erroneous substitution of social action for the church’s mission has done damage in Africa. A comparison to the approach to missions in Acts spotlighted how far off that approach is. Joel’s sermon was taken from a journal article he wrote along with Brian Biedebach, pastor of International Bible Church in Malawi. Eight problematic implications were identified with mission drift. In adopting this wrong view of the church’s mission, the gospel is redefined from what God has done in Christ, to what man can do in social action. Jesus is not really needed for a mission of social action, demonstrated by many humanitarian organizations outdoing the church (as they should be). “Digging a well is not the gospel…because the gospel is what God has done in Jesus Christ.” And speaking of needs, Joel said: “Money is not the greatest need of Africa.”
Up next was a Q & A with all of the speakers plus Dr. George Zemek, long-time exegete ninja and academic dean of the Expositor’s Seminary. In many ways this was a rich discipleship time for the audience as the men shared everything from recent impactful books, thoughts on parachurch, maintaining personal love for Christ, battling selfish ambition, staying faithful in ministry, and Smedly Yate’s captivating account of installing missionaries with the unreached Ndo people of Papua New Guinea.
After some refreshing fellowship, Phil Johnson, a pastor at Grace Community Church and executive director of Grace to You, brought 1 Corinthians 2 to bear on evangelicalism’s mission confusion. Paul argues there that the source, substance, and style of faithful biblical ministry cannot be found in anything of the world. Having her source as God alone, the church’s mission, then, is opposed to the world. And it is precisely a mission that is opposed to the world which will have the power to most love and save the world. Efforts to empower her mission from the world’s methods and values, the church becomes spiritually anemic in her purpose. To put social action on plane with gospel proclamation is to functionally deviate from trust in God’s word as the power to regenerate the spiritually dead.
The conference continued on Sunday with three additional sessions and a baptism service. Rick Holland, pastor of Mission Road Bible Church, launched the Lord’s day with a study of the Great Commission from Matthew 28:18-20. In doing so, he gave a helpful and down-to-earth perspective on personal evangelism.
Matt Waymeyer, pastor at GIBC and professor at the Expositor’s Seminary, followed with a study on three motivations to fulfill our mission from 1 Peter 2:9-10. “The purpose of the church is not to make people feel comfortable…but to proclaim the excellencies of [Christ].” “Our mission,” he said, “is not to be attractive to the world, but to proclaim the glory of God as displayed in the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Jerry Wragg, concluded the conference with a fitting exhortation from 1 Corinthians 1:30-31. In it, warning was given to pull back from the easy drift to mission failure. The stakes are too high to capriciously approach the issue. If we’re not careful, we can become an accomplice to others’ eternal punishment.
As I’ve had a few days to reflect on Ekklesia, I wanted to give a few closing thoughts on the conference:
- There is a unique strength and benefit to conferences hosted by sound local churches.
A conference like Ekklesia remains necessarily accountable to, and under the care of, the God-ordained means of leading the church; elders. Further, there is a unique strength of the volunteers and staff serving at the conference. Being immersed in the same local church, there is an existing love and unity that empowers their serving. This was obvious in and through the army of conference staff and volunteers.
- The conference addressed a great need in contemporary evangelicalism.
The mission of the church is not a side issue any more than the gospel of Jesus Christ is a side issue. And the mission becomes that which we see addresses humanity’s greatest need. It’s a big deal. Souls are at stake. And the speakers understood the times and knew what to do.
- The speakers avoided pandering as they appropriately critiqued evangelicalism’s mission drift.
What I enjoyed about many of the speakers, and their messages, is that they felt the freedom to preach on a challenging and critical issue, without feeling the need to fluff the audience’s pillow with multiple levels of qualifications and apologies. They did what God commands preachers to do: preach the respective text clearly and unapologetically (2 Tim. 4:1-2). Speakers rightly identified gospel proclamation for disciple-making as Christ’s one mission for the church. Works of social action are necessary and good for the individual Christian, but the greatest work, disciple-making, is to be the priority of the local church.
- In clarifying the mission of the church, speakers clarified what foreign missions should look like.
This was well illustrated during Smedly Yates’ account of travelling to Papua New Guinea. Smedly remarked, “You can’t microwave a quality missionary any more than you can microwave a quality elder.” Ecclesiology is the same wherever we go since Scripture dictates our ecclesiology. “Missions is the local church.”
Also, Christians often mistakenly hold foreign missions as separate from a biblical ecclesiology. It’s often thought of as something different than local church life of equipping the saints through ordinary local church life under accountability to biblically qualified elders. But it shouldn’t be. Joel James’ African perspective brought clarity here with his adage, “Missiology is biblical ecclesiology with a passport.”
- The conference did not downplay social acts of compassion, but elevated gospel proclamation to God’s desired place.
Loving our neighbor is every Christian’s privilege. Even more, the 40 one anothers of Scripture become the exclusive privilege of God’s people as played out in the local church once we put faith in Christ. But this Christian love flows out of God’s people consequent of one thing: regeneration through faith in Christ by the hearing of the gospel message. Christ did not say, “Go and work in soup kitchens throughout all nations,” but, “make disciples”(Matt. 28:18-20).
- The mission of the church is not something that unbelievers can accomplish.
That’s why it’s the mission of the church. Those yet to surrender in faith to Christ can no more accomplish the mission of the church than a 7-year old can accomplish the mission of the Dallas Cowboys. Christ delegates his mission to his people. Yet for some reason, many evangelicals assume that the dead can do the work of the living. It’s a dangerous confusion because it tampers with biblical soteriology.
- Part of the strength of Ekklesia is a different theme related to the local church each year.
This is especially needed in our day with an anemic understanding and appreciation of the local church. Many Christians I meet have never experienced things like meaningful church membership, accountability to biblically qualified elders, and the sacredness of God’s desire for committed, consistent, and candid relationships under biblical shepherding. This conference is undoing this pandemic problem each year.
- Worship during the conference was expedited by excellent music.
Pastor Dan Kreider weaved a wonderful arrangement of worship songs throughout the sessions which complimented the respective sermons. Conference attendees were blessed with the hard work of the choir and orchestra.
The total content was almost too much to take in.
I have attended many meaty conferences, and Ekklesia was no exception. Saturday of the conference felt like it was about three days simply because of the amount and value of the content from the sessions combined with the rich fellowship.
- The conference concluded with the visible power of the gospel.
Ekklesia ended in spiritual crescendo with a tear-jerking baptism service. It was a fitting cap, as several new believers testified to the simple message of Christ crucified for the atonement of sin.
Overall, I recommend Ekklesia to both pastors and laymen alike. This would be a rich occasion for any church looking to quickly equip both veteran, and up-and-coming leaders, or, for any Christian looking to sharpen and inspire his/her approach to our great mission and privilege en route to glory.
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16).