Let me put it like this. Picture in your mind some church you have known. Can you think of one? Now, for just a moment, take away the programs. Take away the children's nursery. Take away the parking lot and the musical instruments and the bulletins. Take away the building. Take away everything but the people of the church itself. Imagine all these members of the church standing together in a field. If you like, you can imagine it's a sunny day and that nobody's getting wet. Make the field as nice and flowery as you like. The point is, all you have are the people. You don't have any of the things we typically associate with churches. Do you have this church in your head? The question we want to ask is, what do we need to grow this church in both numbers and spiritual depth? Do we need the building back? Or the musical instruments or bulletins? What must we have?

Surely we need some water for baptizing people. And somebody needs to bring the bread and cup for the Lord's Supper. Both of these things are necessary for constituting the church as a church. Some people might also say that particular ministerial offices are necessary for constituting the church as a church, but let's leave that question aside for the moment. What's absolutely necessary for life and growth? 

Answer: God's Word working through God's Spirit. Somebody has to pick up a Bible and read it. And someone has to explain it so that people will understand it. When this happens, the Spirit begins to work upon people's hearts, causing them to believe the words and give a proper weight to them. The people then repeat the words in their songs and prayers. They discover, most remarkably, that they can speak to God as guided by these biblical words. They also repeat the words of God to one another throughout the week. They help each other discern his will for their lives. Then, their lives begin to be shaped by the words, so that they begin to live differently at work and at home. They discover that these words are life-giving, hope-giving, and love-producing. So they run and call others who have not yet heard these words to hear them. Words produce actions, and then those actions and words work together to give witness to the power of God to salvation, a salvation that begins now and stretches into eternity.

Leaving aside, as I say, the issues of baptism, the Lord's Supper, and ministerial office, what do we see in this picture of these people standing in our imaginary field? We see the church forming and coming to life. We see it growing. I'm not saying that any of the things that we removed from the picture are bad, and that we should not use them. I assume that church buildings, musical instruments, nurseries, and maybe even a few programs are good gifts from the Lord. God can and does use microphones, charismatic leaders, bulletins, a pleasant ambiance, and sometimes, perhaps, denominational structures. The point is, none of these things are necessary because none of these things are the source of a church's life and growth. They're all extraneous or instrumental, and we cannot let them jump to the top of the priority list.

What about obedient lives—aren't they necessary? Surely, but the key is to recognize that God has a different role for words and actions. Words create; actions are the creation. You see the same division of labor in Genesis 1 between words and physical matter. Words created; the physical universe was the creation. Now, apply that division of labor to the spiritual universe: spiritual words create spiritual actions.

True spiritual life is produced in the heart only when the Father speaks with creation power through the Son and by the Spirit. I'm not talking about reading magic incantations. I'm talking about the power of God for giving light to the mind, affections to the heart, and freedom to the will, which then move hands and feet into holy action.

Surprisingly, even lives of love and holiness are finally inadequate for knowing God apart from the spoken word, since words are necessary for "translating" or "interpreting" such love and holiness. People can talk about the "transformative power" of love, but apart from words about God, all such transformation is finally secular or godless. If you act kindly toward me, I'm going to praise you, not God. My opinion of God will not change one bit. You must say to me, "Don't thank me. Thank God who is kind and teaches me to be kind." Our invisible God is only known through his Word.