Christianity is being increasingly marginalized and slighted in our culture today. The vast majority of people know very little, if anything, about the historic Christian faith. Therefore, the challenging question facing the church today is: how will the church bring the gospel to this generation? Stating the question another way, what approach to ministry should the church take in a post-Christian (or anti-Christian) culture? Many answers to these important questions are being suggested. There are purpose-driven ministries, missional ministries, word and deed ministries, emergent ministries, and the list could go on. It would be wrong to immediately dismiss the concerns of these various approaches, and surely there are some helpful truths within some of these philosophies of ministry. Nevertheless, each of these approaches has in some way allowed the culture to shape the methodology of ministry.
But there is another way, a better way. This method is time-tested and finds its origin in Scripture. In the Larger Catechism, it is called the ordinary means of grace. But what does ordinary means of grace based ministry mean? The Westminster Larger Catechism explains: “the ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to his church the benefits of his mediation, are all his ordinances; especially the word, sacraments, and prayer…” (Q. 154). These are the means which God has ordained for the building up of Christ’s Church, and those means include the Word, the sacraments, and prayer. While this is not all there is to the ministry of the church, these God-given means are central and requisite to the life of a healthy, growing, and maturing congregation.
An emphasis on the ordinary means of grace has several practical consequences. First of all, the word of God is central to everything in the ministry of the church, not just the worship service. God’s word is living and active (Hebrews 4:12); it is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16); it reveals the only way to the Father through Jesus his Son (John 14:6). The centrality of Scripture in a church’s ministry is not just a confessional idea; it is a command of God. The church is called to give attention to the public reading and teaching of God’s word (1 Timothy 3:13). Ministers are exhorted to preach the word, in season and out of season (2 Timothy 4:2). Furthermore, the centrality of the word in a church’s ministry is rooted in the Great Commission itself: “Go, therefore, make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).
A second practical consequence of an ordinary means of grace ministry is a biblical appreciation of the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. While the Roman Catholic Church errs by viewing the sacraments as automatic dispensers of grace, much of evangelicalism has erred in the opposite direction of seeing the sacraments as nothing more than mere signs. An ordinary means of grace ministry maintains a robust, biblical sacramental theology.
A third practical consequence is the centrality of prayer. Sadly, prayer is being pushed out of many church services to make room for other activities. But in the context of worship, Paul urges men to lead the congregation in prayer: “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people . . . I desire then that in every place the men should pray…” (2 Timothy 2:1, 8). A healthy church is saturated in prayer. Prayer is the natural outworking of knowing who we are as children of God the Father. The catechism tells us that prayer is "the offering up of our desires unto God" (Shorter Catechism, 98). Prayer, like the ministry of the word, goes beyond the worship service. God's word and prayer must be a part of the whole life of the church.
Many see these ordinary means as insufficient to address the challenges the church faces today. But despite the drastic cultural changes in recent years, the fundamental problem remains the same: sin. God’s answer to that problem never changes. His remedy is his grace offered to us in Jesus Christ, the only name under heaven by which men may be saved (Acts 4:12). The problem remains the same, and God’s solution remains the same. But furthermore, God’s given means of offering that solution and making the name of Christ known remains the same! The primary and ordinary way God gathers, saves, and helps people grow is through the word, the sacraments, and prayer. Therefore, these ordinary means are critical to the ministry of a healthy church.
To be sure, these are not novel ideas. They are not flashy, and they certainly won’t grab attention from the world. But they work. And that’s because these are the means God has chosen to give and bless for the establishment, growth, and preservation of his church in this fallen world.