The Purpose of the Church
By Stephen Terry
“Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’” Matthew 28:18-20, NIV
Today we commonly meet people who say “I am spiritual but not religious.” Usually, that translates into “I consider myself on the right spiritual path but I do not go to church.” When pressed about their position, they will tell of things done by the church that do not fit what they consider to be particularly Christ-like. But if asked if they have any idea why the church exists, they are at a loss to say.
If we look at the church today, we see it is involved in many things from pot lucks to passion plays. Churches are often equivalent to social centers in small communities but struggle to compete against the social alternatives in the cities. Working hard with innovative forms of outreach, these urban churches, and to a lesser degree their country cousins, attempt to bring non-church members from the community into the church building. However, once the people arrive, the members are not quite sure what to do with them. As the saying goes, “Standing in a church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.”
When the event that brought them into the church is over or becomes uninteresting, the visitors leave. They leave behind the members who watch their church shrinking and are at a loss to know how to stop the hemorrhaging. So what’s the answer? Do we just attribute the lack of interest to the times we live in? Has the church been overcome by the secularization of society? Do we just withdraw into our churches with an inwardly focused fortress mentality while we wait for the end? Is this what God wants of His church? The verses from Matthew 28 quoted above cause me to wonder if the church is still aware of its purpose. Maybe we have confused the intentional with the accidental.
When I was younger, I was fascinated with history and would play table games to re-enact historical battles. At the start of the game, each player would be assigned a mission. If he or she achieved their mission, they would win the game. Of course their opponent’s mission was to prevent the other player from achieving their mission. For example, suppose a player was required to take their small force up a valley and capture a building within a certain number of turns. The force was adequate to accomplish that goal but no other.
Their adversary then had to decide how to deploy their forces. Sometimes they would be tempted to place their entire force in the building to defend it. However, the more successful approach was to deploy along the sides of the valley and harass the attacker with inconsequential firing. If the attacker ignored the firing and proceeded to the building, they would succeed in their mission. But if they responded to the harassing fire coming from the sides of the valley they would lose. As they pursued the units firing from the sides of the valley, time would run out, and the mission would not be accomplished. When asked later why they had lost, the answer was always the same. They had forgotten the mission.
As a church, we have only one intentional mission. Jesus gave us that mission when He left. He also told us we had a limited amount of time to accomplish it. So how are we doing? In the historical re-enactments, we could tell how intentional a player was about the mission by how much of his or her resources were directed at accomplishing the goal. When we see how resources in our churches are distributed, how would we measure up?
How many of our resources are truly directed toward the mission Jesus assigned in Matthew 28? Do we find it easier to justify an expense if there is a financial return as opposed to a spiritual one? Would we find it easier to justify spending $20,000 on a promising real estate investment for the church than in paying the same amount for an evangelistic series? Do we feel that if we spend the money for the real estate and everything does not go as expected, we at least have the land, whereas if we spend the money on soul winning and the new converts decide not to stay, we have nothing? Jesus knew that how we allocate resources would tell the story of how we are doing with the mission. He said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Matthew 6:21, NIV
Sometimes, we are not so obvious about how we are doing. Sometimes we are divided. We feel we are allocating resources to the mission with pot lucks and social events. While these things are not necessarily bad, they become problematic when they move from the accidental to the intentional. You see, these are not the mission. Inviting someone to a social event is not the mission.
What do we hope to do with them once they are there? Talk them into becoming a Christian? Even if we could accomplish that, we are expending too many resources in the wrong direction to accomplish the mission.
Time is short and the Holy Spirit is working on hearts all over the world to bring souls into the kingdom. We need to find those who are already drawn to Jesus. As Jesus said to his disciples, “Do you not say, 'Four months more and then the harvest'? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest.” John 4:35, NIV and again “He told them, The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. Luke 10:2, NIV
Even Jesus did not try to push or trick those whose hearts were not open to Him. Instead, He welcomed those whose hearts had been prepared beforehand. He said “…This is why I told you that no-one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him.” John 6:65, NIV
We look at studies today that reveal that the world’s population is growing faster than the membership of the church, and we panic that the mission should ever be accomplished. We only make matters worse when we try to win converts by winning arguments about theology or prophetic interpretation. We don’t have the time for that. Jesus is coming soon. We have a full time job simply finding and gathering the harvest of those whose hearts are already ripe for salvation. These will not argue the point with us. The message of God’s love will be like living water on parched ground to these souls. (See John 4:10-14)
Perhaps we have misinterpreted the parable of the lost sheep. We have felt that it has meant that we have had to pursue lost people who do not know they are lost and convince them to accept the Jesus we are offering. Maybe instead, we are searching for lost individuals who know they are lost and are desperately seeking rescue. They know what it is like to be lost and are only too happy to follow their rescuer to safety.
If we want to be intentional about the mission of Matthew 28, we need to question our strategy and allocation of resources. If the harvest is ripe in the fields, should we be pursuing unripe fruit? And if there are not enough workers to bring in the harvest, should we be allocating manpower and resources to that which is only of accidental value to our purpose as a church?
Like the game player in the historical re-enactment, are we running out of time while pursuing strategies not relevant to reaching our objective? If we are, we may find that in the end, we will not only lose the objective, we may lose ourselves in the process.
This Article is a Service of Still Waters Ministry
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