When you think of the “church,” many people have different reactions, opinions, and expectations. Nowhere is this more evident than in the church itself. Some people believe the church should be a service or charity organization, taking care of those with physical or mental health needs. Others believe the church should be an engine for social or political action. Others believe it should be a social club for like-minded believers or a “safe harbor” for those who wish to protect their families from harmful cultural influences. What does the Bible say about the role and purpose of the church?
What is the Church?
The word “church” is used in the Scriptures in two ways. In one way, we see it used to describe the universal body of Christ, as in all those who have trusted Jesus Christ as their personal Savior. Even though the church is universal in scope, the second use of the word shows us how it is to function. The church is locally organized, and that is the second use of the word. In fact, that’s the most common use of the word in the New Testament. You had the church in Jerusalem, the church in Corinth, the church in Ephesus, the church in Philippi, the church in Rome, and so on. For our purposes, we will be talking about the local church.
What is the Purpose of the Church?
In The Purpose-Driven Church, Rick Warren explains how “multiple driving forces” often compete for attention in churches today, resulting in “conflict” and all too often churches that try to “head in several different directions at the same time.”
Most organizations that function effectively have mission and/or purpose statements. These statements clarify why the organizations exist and they help their leaders and members set goals and establish priorities accordingly. Likewise, Jesus Christ gave His church (and, let’s be clear, it is His church!) a Mission Statement. We know it as the Great Commission. The Gospel of Matthew records Jesus, based on His authority, issuing the following directive:
“Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.” (Matthew 28:19-20, KJV)
While the church can do other things (feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, lobby on social issues, etc., etc., etc.), its primary mission is to lead people to Jesus Christ, baptize those who accept Christ, and then teach them what Jesus taught. In other words, the church’s mission is to produce more disciples of Jesus Christ.
In Acts, we see a picture of how, practically speaking, the church is to accomplish these things. According to Luke, the early church “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42, KJV). The “apostles’ doctrine” represents the teachings of Jesus, as given by Him personally and directly as well as by His appointed disciples, the apostles. Fellowship refers to Christians in the church encouraging one another, supporting one another, and holding each other accountable. The “breaking of bread” is a reference to the Lord’s Supper or Communion. And “prayers” is obvious.
Yet all these things listed in Acts 2:42 were in the context of movement. They were in the context of God’s people carrying out an important mission entrusted to them by Jesus Christ Himself. In Transformational Church, Ed Stetzer and Thom Rainer write: “The church was designed by God to be on the move in the world, not sitting in the corner of the neighborhood waiting for the needy to show up on its doorstep.”
Scoring the Church
No matter how hard it tries, a church simply can’t do everything. It can’t please everyone in its own fellowship, let alone everyone in the community. It can’t meet every need or address every want. It can do some things, but not all things. The smaller the church, the truer this is. With that in mind, the church must focus its resources and energies around its mission. It must focus itself on the Great Commission.
In professional sports, the way you can tell whether a team is successful or not is by looking at their record. For each game, it’s the scorecard. For the season, it’s their win-loss record. With the church, the New Testament gives us the scorecard. Stetzer and Rainer explain: “The ultimate measure of a church is to see people following Christ and living on mission.”
We are to track the number of people we are reaching for Christ, those who have accepted Christ, those who are baptized, and those we are teaching and training to be disciples of Jesus Christ. That’s how we know whether a church is being successful or not.