The Church as Incubator

The church is God’s incubator for making disciples.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them” (Matt. 28:19). 

I was born at an early age. That is to say, I emerged from my mother’s womb ahead of schedule, weighing only about three and a half pounds. 

I’m told that my first days were spent in the hospital, in an incubator. The incubator provided a controlled environment where I could develop well enough to thrive on my own - a half-way house of sorts between womb and world. 

Our Lord Jesus has this sort of image in view for His church. At the close of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus instructed His disciples to make disciples of the nations, baptizing them in the name of the triune God. Baptism points us to the doorway to God’s covenant community, His visible church. 

The church is God’s incubator for making disciples. Through the means of grace made effective by the Holy Spirit, the church provides the light of God’s Word in an atmosphere oxygenated by prayer – the perfect environment for spiritual growth and development. 

Unlike my time in a hospital incubator, the disciple is never released to be on his or her own. The need for Christ is constant and the church makes that apparent through celebration of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, both of which sustain the disciple in this world and anticipate the world to come. 

The Bible gives us numerous ways to understand what it means to be a disciple and to grow as a disciple, all related to Jesus Christ and His transforming grace in our lives. For example, Peter speaks of growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. The heart of Christian discipleship is growing to know Jesus, beholding Him through faith, loving Him who first loved us. 

To grow in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ sets the trajectory of the Christian life. Grace points us away from self to Christ. We decrease; Christ increases. Our unworthiness, waywardness, and inability lead us to deny ourselves, take up our cross daily, and follow Jesus. Christ is formed in us. 

Paul uses a variety of images that convey a before and an after suggesting the movement of maturity as a disciple. We move from being a slave to sin to being a slave to righteousness; from living as dead in sin to living as alive in Christ; from being of the flesh to being of the Spirit; from inhabiting darkness to inhabiting light. 

Each of these metaphors for metamorphosis carries with it a mandate. For example, Paul explains: “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth), finding out what is acceptable to the Lord” (Eph. 5:8–10). Once but now – the indicative mandating the imperative, the imperative manifesting the indicative. 

If the church is an incubator for spiritual growth and development that means it is incumbent on those who lead to ensure that the church is functioning according to Christ’s design. The light of Christ must shine with clarity of God’s truth and warmth of His love. The atmosphere must be oxygenated with prayer in communion with God and dependence upon Him. Discipleship will not be reduced to mere information but transformation into maturity, the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. 

Digging Deeper

  1. Paul wrote that the Ephesians should speak the truth in love. How do these two aspects – truth and love – relate to an environment for spiritual development?
  2. How had the church at Ephesus become dysfunctional (Rev. 2:1-4) and what remedy was called for (Rev. 2:5)? 

Lord Jesus, grant us grace that we, Your people, called by Your name, would humble ourselves and pray, seek Your face and turn from our wicked ways, that You would hear from heaven, forgive our sin and heal the distortion and dysfunction that we have made of Your design for Your church. 

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Scripture quotations marked NKJV are from The Holy Bible, New King James Version, copyright ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved. Those marked ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright ©2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Stan Gale

Stanley D. Gale (MDiv Westminster, DMin Covenant) has pastored churches in Maryland and Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He is the author of several books, including A Vine-Ripened Life: Spiritual Fruitfulness through Abiding in Christ and The Christian’s Creed: Embracing the Apostolic Faith. He has been married to his wife, Linda, since 1975. They have four children and nine grandchildren. He lives in West Chester, Pa.

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