Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Purpose of the Church

Church buildings dot the landscape in Western countries. Many are old and represent an bygone era. Some are very new and look more like modern shopping malls or office buildings. Most fall somewhere in between. These edifices are an unquestioned part of Western culture. The church has become so unquestioned that we rarely think about the role or the purpose the church plays from God’s perspective. For most, it is assumed that the church provides spiritual services for the sake of people who feel that they need such things.

Sadly, the idea that the church is a provider of spiritual goods and services is not limited to those outside church life. Many faithful church members perceive the church as being a spiritual association that is primarily designed to provide a certain set of spiritual services. And if those services are not met according to their liking, there are plenty of church options who may meet their needs better. As a result the church is often viewed as a spiritual vendor and attenders are customers whose needs are met by the church.

Of course, there are many faithful followers of Jesus Christ who do not view the church in this way. They are fully invested in their local churches and its life. However, the question of God’s vision for the church requires more clarity. The stories of the Bible and church history make it clear that the people of God have found it very easy to lose sight of the calling. Over and over God’s people have fallen into the trap of hording God’s grace for themselves and failed to see God’s vision for the people of God to be a light to the world, for the church to offer an alternative way of living that stands in contrast to the principalities and powers of the world, for the Israel of God to live in a way that demonstrates God's Kingdom ways here on earth.

If the church today is going to be a conduit of God’s grace, then the people of God must see God’s vision for a way of life that extends beyond just offering a nice set of spiritual goods and services. This is much more than simply having a vision to improving church programs so that more people might come as attenders. This is a vision for peoplehood, a way of life together so that the people of God might engage their communities with the Gospel. This is a vision of being on mission, which means being sent out into our neighborhoods, schools, businesses, grocery stores, parks and other places to engage people who do not know God’s good news of the Gospel of grace.

What does this mean for the church? Let me suggest the following:
  1. Re-Imagine Church: We need to capture a new imagination about the what the church is all about. We have been so consumed about finding ways to make the church work (i.e. church growth, church health, church leadership, church transformation, church multiplication, etc.) that we have not allowed our imagination to be captured by the vision of church for the sake of the world. If you are anything like me, you know how to do church in a way that is focused on doing church for the sake of church. That imagination has been drilled into me since my childhood. But church for the sake of the world is different. (Consider reading Introducing the Missional Church by Alan Roxburgh and myself.)
  2. Re-Invigorate Equipping: I'm not going to denigrate preaching, but preaching and a weekly small group is not going to change much. At most it keeps people connected and our churches will work a bit better. We need these things, but we need more. We must equip people in ways of life that reflect the ways of the Kingdom. This requires more than preaching and studying about it. It requires leaders to equip people in spiritual disciplines, to give people experiences of engaging the neighborhoods with the Gospel, and to train people in relational intelligence (See post on this topic.) I wrote the book Difference Makers to help with this.
  3. Re-store the Art of Experimentation: Not everyone is ready for church for the sake of the world. In fact, in a church of 200, if you have 12 that are ready for this, you are in a great place. This is a great number with which to experiment with ways of engaging your neighborhood. How do you experiment? Here a tool worth considering is Moving Back into the Neighborhood.

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