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What is the church? Part 2: Its purpose

A sermon by Rod Benson

What is the purpose of the church? What is its reason for being? Paul says in Ephesians 3:10-11, “[God’s] intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The humble church, comprised of flawed and faltering people like you and me, is nothing less than “the centrepiece of God’s plan to display his mind-boggling wisdom and goodness to all angelic powers.”[1]

The church is not the same as the kingdom of God, but there is a close link between these two spheres of God’s presence and activity. The kingdom of God (God’s sovereign rule, or reign) extends beyond the church. The church witnesses to the kingdom of God in its proclamation and ministries. The church is the instrument by which God achieves his purposes today, “a manifestation of the kingdom or reign of God, the form it takes in our time.”[2] The kingdom of God is present wherever God rules in a human life, wherever God’s will is done, inside and outside the church, before the creation of the church and after the consummation of all things.

Yet, as Cyprian observed long ago, in our time “outside the church there is no salvation.” And as John Calvin said, if God is our Father then the church is our mother.[3]

Life in the church is essential to experiencing all that God has done for us, and has planned for us; and without the church, fully committed to its God-given purpose, God’s will will not be done on earth as it is in heaven. Last week we reflected on the nature of the church, as portrayed in biblical images of the church such as “the people of God,” “the body of Christ,” and “the temple of the Holy Spirit.”

If those images give an indication of the nature of the church, what is its purpose? American megachurch pastor Rick Warren condenses the biblical teaching on the purpose of the church into five areas: exaltation, encouragement, edification, equipping, and evangelism; or, worship, fellowship, discipleship, service and evangelism.[4]

He is right, in my opinion, and every church should do all it can, with the wisdom and resources God supplies, to ensure that each of these five areas are addressed and emphasised in order to maintain church health and vitality. Let’s look more closely at the

1.   Worship

Worship is the praise and adoration and exaltation of God. We may worship God alone, or in a family or small group setting, or as a local church, or in larger gatherings. A church should gather for worship at least weekly (1 Cor 16:2; Heb 10:25). Worship exalts and extolls God, and celebrates his greatness and goodness; it also benefits and edifies the people of God (1 Cor 14:15-17). Our worship fuels everything else we do.

There are no prescribed stereotypes for the practice of our worship in the New Testament, no set liturgies or rigid rules except for the need for order and decency, and the avoidance of offensive behaviour and drunkenness which so often accompanied pagan worship. Wide variation is permitted in personal expression, music, prayers, preaching and teaching, both formal and informal, organised and freestyle, as the Holy Spirit directs and guides, as long as everything is done “in a fitting and orderly way” (1 Cor 14:40), and in ways that do not “quench the Spirit” (1 Th 5:19).

True worship, the mingling of head and heart in the contemplation and adoration of God, is one of the best experiences we can enjoy in this life, and it is often best done in fellowship with others who share similar convictions and commitments.

“What life have you if you have not life together?” asks T.S. Eliot in Choruses from The Rock (1934), lamenting the loss of community in modern suburban industrialised society. We may echo the same thought, accentuated by the rapid social changes since that time, despite the apparent wonders of virtual reality, speed dating, electric cars and Facebook.

As we worship God together, we fulfil our spiritual purpose, and counter the ill effects of individualism, autonomy, modernity and the sense of brokenness and lack of community so evident all around us. Worship brings us together, creates community, and helps us express our core created purpose.

2.   Fellowship

The church – that is, the people of God today – is neither boring nor insignificant. The church, and its place in the kingdom and will of God, inspired Jesus, the Son of God, to become human, to consent to betrayal, to be handed over to political and religious leaders will ill intent, and to suffer a shameful and excruciating death on a cross.

There was more to the death and resurrection of Jesus than the salvation of individuals. Through those great gospel events the church was established and set on its journey. As theologian J.I. Packer says,

None of us is the only pebble on God’s beach! On the contrary, we have been brought into a new solidarity: that of being, first, adopted children in the Father’s family and, then, linked units in God’s new creation through union with the risen Christ by the Holy Spirit. This new creation is the reality that is called the church.[5]

It is not possible to separate being a Christian from belonging to the church. We may try, but we will fail. When God saves me, five things assuredly follow. First, the story of Jesus and the story of the church becomes my story. Jesus came to build his church, and I am a part of it (Mt 16:18).

Second, my salvation involves my union with Christ, and that implies a corporate dimension shared with others who are also united with Christ (1 Pet 2:10).

Third, Christ is the head of his church, and we together comprise the body. There is nowhere else for us to be, either logically or practically (Eph 5:23).

Fourth, we find God most fully and most satisfyingly when we gather as the church (Heb 12:22-24; 10:24-25).

Fifth, Jesus is not embarrassed about belonging to his family (Heb 2:11). We are his sisters and brothers, and we belong to him and to each other.

One of the best ways in which you can defeat the devil and his evil purposes is to be an active, consistent, dependable, prayerful, long-term member of one local church. The modern phenomenon of consumerism creeps into every church and threatens its health and vitality by giving the impression that when we attend a gathering of the church we are experiencing a product, and if we don’t like it we will stop paying for the product and go elsewhere in search of a better, or more convenient, or less challenging product. This is complete nonsense, straight from the slimy tongue of the devil.

In C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, a senior devil (Screwtape) writes to an underling named Wormwood, encouraging him to corrupt an unwitting Christian, and berating his incompetence which allows the Christian to grow and be active in mission. Screwtape writes:

My dear Wormwood,

You mentioned casually in your last letter that the patient has continued to attend one church, and one only, since he was converted, and that he is not wholly pleased with it. May I ask what you are about? Why have I no report on the causes of his fidelity to the parish church? Do you realise that unless it is due to indifference it is a very bad thing? Surely you know that if a man can’t be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighbourhood looking for the church that ‘suits’ him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches.[6]

Church is not a consumer product but the means by which God prepares you for heaven and deploys you in reaching out to a lost world. As if to extinguish the threat of consumerism from the start, Paul makes the astonishing claim in 1 Corinthians 3:21-23 that “all things are yours … and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.”

3.   Discipleship

Here the focus is also on ourselves and our fellow Christians. The emphasis is on mutual edification through the fellowship we share, bearing one another’s burdens, and “[guarding] against the tendencies of individuals to deviate in favour of the bias of their own ideas and desires”[7] (Eph 4:12, 16, 29; 1 Cor 14:4-5).

The church is the community where we should most expect to experience grace and mercy, love and justice, encouragement and hospitality, and all the good things that go toward building a healthy, flourishing, godly, altruistic personality, which then contributes to the blessing of others inside and outside the community.

Pastoral care of fellow believers is the responsibility of every Christian, though some are gifted and trained in particular ways for this ministry, and some are paid to do it in systematic and comprehensive ways: feeding, guiding, guarding and healing the people of God, encouraging and training them to become mature disciples of Jesus, equipped and experienced, and ready to train others.

4.   Service

Here the emphasis is outward-looking, and the commitment is to social concern and justice. “Cutting across the various functions of the church is its responsibility to perform acts of Christian love and compassion for both believers and non-Christians,”[8] as Jesus himself exemplified and taught (e.g. Lk 10:25-37; cf Mt 25:31-46; Dt 10:17-19; Jas 1:27; 2:15-17; 1 Jn 3:17-18).

It is our sacred responsibility as the church, as followers of Jesus together, to serve others wherever we perceive a need, hurt or wrong, whether acting immediately to alleviate specific evil or injustice, or acting strategically to change the circumstances and reform the structures which have produced the problem.

We have much to do, but at the same time we should remember and celebrate just how much has been achieved by way of Christian social responsibility.

5.   Evangelism

The heart of all our efforts as the church of Jesus Christ must be, in my opinion, the task of evangelism. As our NSW & ACT Baptist Association puts it, we are to be “mission shaped, committed to the announcement and demonstration of the universal reign of God through Christ: motivated by love for God and others; seeing people, communities and societies transformed; [and] biasing our resources toward mission, both locally and globally.[9]

The good news of Jesus Christ is, and always will be, “the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes (Rom 1:16; cf Mt 28:19; Ac 1:8). “If the church is to be faithful to its Lord and bring joy to his heart, it must be engaged in bringing the gospel to all people … [including] those who are unlike us.”[10]

How are we doing today in achieving these five great purposes of the church?


Sermon 677 copyright © 2016 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 12 June 2016. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).


References

[1] J.I. Packer, Taking God Seriously: Vital Things We Need to Know (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), p. 89.

[2] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (third edn; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), p. 964.

[3] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.1.1 and 4.1.4.

[4] Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church: Growth Without Compromising Your Message and Mission (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995).

[5] J.I. Packer, Taking God Seriously: Vital Things We Need to Know (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), p. 89.

[6] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (1942), quoted in Michael Lloyd, Café Theology: Exploring Love, the Universe and Everything (third edn; London: Alpha International, 2012), p. 360.

[7] Erickson, op. cit., p. 975.

[8] Ibid., p. 978.

[9] http://thecorefive.nswactbaptists.org.au/Core_Five/The_Core_Five.html

[10] Erickson, op. cit., p. 974.

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