(This is part 1 of a 3-part series on the local church)
A few years ago, I remember someone asking the members of our church why they attended worship. Many people responded that church made them feel good or they loved the songs or the fellowship. By their answers it was clear that they understood the church to be something that existed to provide an emotional / therapeutic service to them. For clarity, there is nothing wrong with enjoying worship and fellowship, we have a spiritual need to worship and to gather with the saints. This is why David said, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’” (Ps 122:1) and the Psalmist says, “Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere” (Ps 84:10). But the local church does not exist primarily to make us feel good.
In cultures around the world, I have seen a similar phenomenon. People come to church with the belief that they will receive a “spiritual blessing” of some kind; whether it might be healing for an ailment or the hope for greater prosperity in a particular area of their lives. The idea is that if they come into God’s presence in worship there will be some sort of supernatural blessing that He will give them. Or worse, if they do something for God (like attend worship), He will do something for them. Of course, God does heal and bless people as He wills, but this is not the primary purpose of the local church either.
Sadly, errors in understanding the purpose of the church are not limited to the laity but are present in pastors and church leaders as well. On one end of the spectrum there are pastors who seek to use guilt and shame to keep members of the congregation faithfully attending services. On the other end, there are pastors who try to make services as culturally relevant and entertaining as possible in hopes of drawing a crowd. For both these types of pastors the ideology is the same; they desire to see as many people as possible fill their pews (or cushioned seats).
To truly understand why the local church exists, it’s important to first understand God’s intention in creating us. When God made man, He made him in his own image and likeness and told him to fill the earth (Gen 1:26-27). God made us to be his children on the earth (cf. Gen 5:1-3). Had man not fallen into sin, all the earth would worship God and we would all live in relationship with God; that was God’s design—to fill the earth with His glory. But, as we all know, this is not what happened.
Instead of filling the earth with God’s glory, we filled it with sin; but God’s plan for the earth hadn’t changed. God indicates throughout the Bible that He still intends to accomplish his purpose. God said, “all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord” (Num 14:21, cf. Ps 72:19) and that the knowledge of his glory would fill the earth, “as waters cover the sea” (Hab 2:14). God has demonstrated his desire for a holy people to fill the earth through the flood (Gen 6:7-8; 9:1), the Exodus (Ex 9:16), and the creation of the nation of Israel (Ex 19:6, Is 42:6). But, in each of these cases, God’s people failed to serve God faithfully (cf., Gen 10:32-11:9, Ex 32, Jos 2). Yet God promised that he would eventually establish this holy people, a kingdom of God, through the line of David (2 Sam 7:12-13). God’s promised King, the Messiah, would rule over the nations and bring the whole world into subjection to Him (Ps 2).
Jesus began his ministry by proclaiming the kingdom of God was at hand (Mt 4:7). He called his disciples and told them they would become “fishers of men” (Mt 4:19) and “the light of the world” (5:14-16). After Jesus died and rose again, he commissioned his disciples to “make disciples of all nations” by baptizing people and teaching them to obey his commands (Mt 28:19-20). He told them they would be his witnesses in “ in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
The primary work of the local church then is to continue the mission of expanding the kingdom of God. Consider what Paul says about his work of being a missionary, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Cor 5:19-20). In other words, the purpose of the cross was to create a way that the world could be brought back to God’s initial design, God has established the local church to accomplish this purpose on the earth.
The local church fulfills God’s purpose of filling the earth with his glory in four basic ways. First, and most obviously, is the act of worship. Since God’s purpose is to be praised and glorified in all places by all peoples it only stands to reason that our churches would be places to come and worship God. Worship, however, is not transactional; we worship God because He is worthy of our praise, not because we are expecting something in return (even a warm, fuzzy feeling).
Additionally, the church accomplishes its purpose through evangelism. While the gospel should be ever-present in our services, our outreach is predominantly executed outside of the church gathering by the local church’s members. Each member of the church is responsible for bringing the message of the gospel to their circle of co-workers, friends, and family members. To accomplish this, however, local congregations must be intentional in training their members to clearly communicate the gospel message.
The local church is also responsible for training its members in doctrine (Eph 4:11-16) and obedience to Christ (Mt 28:20). Training serves a two-fold purpose in the local church. First, for believers to be effective in reaching the lost in their communities their lives must reflect an attitude of submission to Christ (Mt 5:16). Second, the church is responsible for training up individuals who may one day pastor churches, lead ministries, and disciple others in their own congregation; which leads final means that the church accomplishes its purpose of expanding God’s kingdom.
The local church must raise up, send out, and support laborers to areas outside of the church’s own community. Missionaries and church planters should not be thought of as fringe ministries, but extensions of a local congregation. Likewise, each member should see their church attendance as an opportunity to grow in their understanding of how to be used for God’s kingdom. Pastors should see each church member as their responsibility to equip to be used in some way for building God’s kingdom. Local congregations should not see success in terms of how many people they can attract and keep in their church, but rather how faithfully they are sending people out from their church into the harvest of God.
Live for Jesus.