What is the Church? When the first Lutherans confessed their faith before Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, in 1530 they addressed this very topic. Article VII of the Augsburg Confession says in the article “Concerning the Church”: “It is also taught that at all times there must be and remain one holy, Christian church. It is the assembly of all believers among whom the gospel is purely preached and the holy sacraments are administered according to the gospel” (VII.1).
The Lutherans defined the Church as believers gathered around the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments. This is a definition that is centered in the Means of Grace. It’s really not surprising that they chose to define the Church in this way. They had just confessed in Article IV that, “we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God through our merit, work, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sins and become righteous before God out of grace for Christ’s sake through faith” (IV.1-2). They had confessed that we are forgiven and saved by God’s grace through faith in Christ. After confessing that this forgiveness is on the basis of faith and not works, they had gone on to say in Article V: “To obtain such faith God instituted the office of preaching, giving the gospel and the sacraments. Through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when he wills, in those who hear the gospel” (V.1-3).
We are saved through faith in Christ and not by our works (Article IV). The Holy Spirit creates this faith through the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments (Article V). It follows that when it came time to define the Church, they did so on the basis of the Means of Grace. It is through these gifts of Christ that saving faith is created and sustained, and so all of our thought about the Church must always remain centered and focused there.
It also follows from this that the reason for the Church’s existence and the definition of the Church are basically one and the same. The Church exists so that the Gospel is proclaimed and the sacraments are administered in order to create and sustain faith in those who gather around the Means of Grace.
This is why your congregation exists. As a congregation, she is a specific instance of the Church. She exists so that the Gospel is preached and the sacraments are administered in your town. The purpose of your congregation is that through these Means of Grace, faith will be created and sustained in people from your town and the surrounding communities.
This is the reason why we come to church. We attend the Divine Service each Sunday so that our faith in Jesus Christ will be sustained. We go to receive the forgiveness of sins as we receive Christ’s word of the Gospel in its various forms. Through these Means of Grace the Holy Spirit nourishes the new man within us so that we can continue to walk in faith as we look for our Lord’s return in glory.
However, your congregation does not only exist so that this happens for you. The risen Lord was very clear that the mission of the Church is to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). He said, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47 ESV). This means that the calling of the Church is to bring others to Means of Grace, so that faith may be created and sustained in them as well.
The life of every congregation, therefore, has a dual goal that is centered on the Means of Grace. On the one hand, we center our lives on the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments so that we receive forgiveness and are sustained in the faith. And on the other hand, we seek to bring others to gather around the Means of Grace so that saving faith will be created and sustained in them.
It is not hard to fulfill the first of these goals – you go to church on Sunday and attend the Divine Service. However, the second goal requires us to do something different. Many times the Church veils this in a seemingly mysterious word: “evangelism.” Yet this often makes things seem more complicated than they really are.
If the goal of your congregation is to gather people around Christ’s Means of Grace so that faith is created and sustained in others, then the means of achieving this is very simple and straight forward. We bring people into contact with the Means of Grace by inviting to them to gather around the Means of Grace – by inviting them to the Divine Service.
Consider this question: When was the last time you invited a person to visit your congregation and attend the Divine Service? If you haven’t done this in some time, ask yourself another question: Why is this the case? Perhaps you fear rejection, or have in fact experienced rejection in the past. This happens. After all, we confess in Augsburg Confession article V that the Holy Spirit “produces faith, where and when he wills, in those who hear the gospel” (V.3). We confess in the Small Catechism’s explanation to the third article of the Apostles’ Creed that, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the truth faith.” We know that we cannot control the outcome. We can only invite people to our Lord’s gifts.
Yet it is the calling of the Church to invite. It is the calling of your congregation to invite. We invite and then we entrust all to God. This is in fact quite liberating. It’s not up to you. There is nothing you can do. All there is for you to do, is to invite (for more on this see, Do you think evangelism is hard?).
So think about the people you know in your life who do not attend church, and ask yourself this question: Whom do I know in my life that I can invite? If you don’t know whether they attend church, ask the simple question: “Do you have a church home?” Think about this. Make a list. And then one by one, invite them. Invite them, because in doing so you are fulfilling what the Church and your congregation are all about – both in what they are and their purpose for existing. You are inviting them to become part of the people who gather around the proclamation of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments. You are inviting them to join you in a life centered on Christ’s Means of Grace through which he forgives sins and sustains faith as we look for his return in glory on the Last Day.