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What It Take To Make A Living Church

by E L Jorgenson

Elmer L. Jorgenson (1886-1968)

(Reprint from January 1920 Word and Work)


     Let us assume that the congregation has been established on true New Testament ground, and that to all outward appearances at least it still stands there. We are not inquiring, therefore, into the steps by which the members of the church became members of it, nor into the correctness of its methods in work and worship. These things are important, but they do not belong to our present discussion.

     Granted that the church is thus established and is thus worshipping, what does it take to make it a ‘‘live” or living church?  A church is not necessarily a living church because it is a working church. Of course, a living church will be a working church. There will be found the work of faith, the labor of love, and the patience of hope. But, just as it is possible to cause the muscles of a dead body to move after the fashion of a living man by means of the galvanic battery, so it is possible to stir up much activity which is not of God in a church, by human means. So it is with a church which is not indwelt by the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 6:6, 19), and which does not minister in the strength which God supplies.

     Sardis is a case in point: There they were working and had a “name to live,” the reputation of being a live church: but this is the verdict of Jesus—“thou art dead.”

     Among the factors that go to make a living church, I would name as one of the most fundamental, a thoroughly converted and genuinely consecrated leadership. This will include elders, deacons, teachers, preacher—all those who, officially or unofficially, take the lead, determine the policies, and so give tone and color to the work of the church. Church leaders are not always thoroughly consecrated nor even wholly converged. There are men who have gone through the outward forms of salvation who have never really been born again; and in some places they have not only got into the congregation but actually into the saddle, through the wicked custom of making an elder or leader out of a man because he is wealthy, or popular, or possibly in order to win and “hold” him to the church Every man serving as elder who knows that he does not come up in a degree to every qualification named by Paul (in Timothy and Titus), and every teacher, conscious in himself of some unsurrendered field in his life, ought immediately to resign. No, let me improve that statement: that would be too much like refusing the Lord’s supper because one is “not good enough.” Every elder or other leader thus conscious of shortcoming ought immediately to lift the life up, in the strength and by the grace of God, to that altitude upon which a man may stand and be fit to serve. A living church will of course have new members and younger members who have not grown in grace and! knowledge, and consequently an outer circle concerning whose conversion and consecration there may be some doubt; but there will be no doubt on these points with reference to those who are in the place of spiritual leadership and power. Their consecration will be beyond all question; theirs the “perfect heart” (even if there should occur inadvertent failure at times in conduct) ; theirs the “single eye,” the one purpose of building up the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.

     The second essential factor in a living church is the regular systematic feeding of the membership on the Word of God. “The word of His grace—is able to build you up” (Acts 20:32). No church can live on whippings, no church can live on scolding, nor yet on protracted meetings, nor on sermons. Building up on the Word is the thing;. From the days of prophets, apostles and the Lord Jesus Himself, the public discourse has been an indispensable means of propagating truth. But it is only a small proportion of the Word that anyone ever gets that way. I would like to look up into the face of Jesus some day and say, “I have not shunned to declare the whole counsel of God;” so far as duties are concerned I may be able to do it; but as far as those stirring, stimulating, teachings which move men to do the things they already know they ought to do—the limitations of time, knowledge and ability, render it well-nigh impossible. After seven years’ ministry with one church I find vast fields of the Book that have never been traversed there. The average preacher puts forth only a limited part of the Word, the average Christian does not hear or grasp all of that; and he remembers and retains only a very small part of what he hears! I am persuaded therefore, that no preacher will ever succeed in declaring to his people “the whole counsel of God,” except that man whose preaching drives them to the Book itself, first-hand.


     Aside then from what may be learned from preaching, the two main ways of building up the church upon the Word are, first, Regular, systematic, personal reading—what is known as Daily Bible Reading; and second, The public Bible class. Each has its own advantages. Personal Bible reading is probably the most essential thing in all the Christian life, because it is fundamental and everything else comes out of that. It is not possible to do too much of it, because the Bible won’t let you! It is possible to imagine folks reading all day to the exclusion of service, but that does not happen in real life. This is the time of year to begin daily Bible reading. I often say I would rather a given sermon might lead every member of the church to become a daily reader than to have ever so many additions; because that would mean more additions in the long run. Nothing can take the place of daily Bible reading.

     Yet not even personal Bible reading can take the place of the public class. The class offers certain special advantages. There the learner has help on the hard places from an experienced student and teacher; there is the exchange of ideas, the sharpening of the interest in animated discussions, and there is that strange, indefinable something which comes from group work—we may call it atmosphere—so that along with the enlightenment of the  head, there comes the enkindling of the heart, the rising emotions (by which means a man becomes “fervent in spirit”) the growing enthusiasm, all of which lead to noble resolutions and brave deeds in His name.

     A third thing that goes to make a living church is a careful attention to exercise. First the feeding, then the exercise. The secret of “holding” men and boys to the church—everybody for that matter, but especially men and boys—lies in giving them something to do. I do not mean that a novice is to be put in the place of power and spiritual leadership; but that is one thing, and giving them something to do is another. David Lipscomb said the best excuse for backsliding he ever heard a man make was, that in twenty-five years he had never been asked to do anything in the church.

     By exercise, I mean not only acts of Christian love and service in the daily life, but particularly, exercise within the assembly. When the Corinthian church assembled together each one was permitted and encouraged to take part. (1 Cor. 14:23, 26). A living church will surely provide one meeting or more for the exercise, within the assembly, of individual gifts.

     But someone will say, “Yes, but even with a consecrated leadership, with the regular teaching and preaching of the Word which builds up, and with a careful attention to exercise, some will not respond and will fall away.” That is true, and on that account we are bound to add a fourth thing among the fundamental factors that go to make a living church; namely, that there should be the faithful exercise of scriptural discipline. Some are quick to reply, “Oh, I don’t believe in discipline!” Of course, they do not mean that. They do not mean to disbelieve Matt. 18:15-17; Rom. 16:17; 1 Cor. 5:2; Cor 2:5-7; Titus 3:10; Rev. 2:2, and other verses. What they mean is, they do not like discipline, or to have to exercise it. But surely we are not to set our feelings and preferences or even our judgment over against the clear Word of God on this point. Furthermore, to hold up the standard in this respect will usually obviate the necessity of discipline; or, if such action must be undertaken, the preparatory restorational process (which must always be carried out in love and sincerity, and if anything beyond what is required) will usually make discipline unnecessary. But if not, and if the final step of exclusion should result that step will, in many cases, bring back into fellowship, communion and service the disorderly member. For his salvation, therefore, and in the love of his soul, on the sinner’s part, and in order to prevent the leakage of spiritual power through those members of the church who have broken the insulation between it and the world, the faithful exercise of discipline becomes essential in every orderly, living church.

     Given, a wholly converted leadership; regular feeding of the membership on God’s word; careful attention to exercise; and the faithful exercise of discipline—given these things, and we are sure to see a living church; for these things are both the means to life, and the sure sign of it.

E. L. Jorgenson

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Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.

2 corinthians 1:3-4