What is church for?

We Christians are very interested in church, and we have vested interests in church. For those of us who are pastors and ministers of the gospel, the church is our business and our life. It employs us, directs us and consumes most of our waking hours. This tends to give us a very high view of the importance of church and its significance. It’s very hard to work out what church is in the grand scheme of the universe when church is what my job is, where my pay comes from, and provides my ‘customer’ and my friends.

In fact, this is one of the great problems within church circles where I live: we have moved away from parish ministry into church ministry. We are ceasing to evangelize because we spend all our time in church, with church people, running church, making church work, making church better, and trying to grow our church, because church is so important. Instead of leaving the 99 to go and find the one, we are unwilling to leave the 50 go and reach the 30,000 who live all around us, and who are not hearing the gospel because we’re spending all of our time with the 50 in church.

At the moment we’re caught somewhere between everywhere and nowhere as to the importance of church. At one level, church seems to be everything to us. I’ve been preaching through 1 John recently, and I’d always believed that 1 John was about a split in a church—that people had left as a result of rejecting the incarnation, and John was writing to the congregation that was left. But it’s very interesting: there is no reference to a church anywhere in 1 John, no synonym for a church, and no discussion of the concept of church. There is no indication whatsoever that John is writing to or addressing a church.  1 John 2:19 says “They went out from us, but they were not of us”, but who are the “us”? And why do we assume it’s a church? We read ‘church’ in, because for us church is so important that we see it everywhere.

On the other hand, church is nowhere today, because more and more of our society regards church as being of almost no significance. We have been post-Christendom since the Reformation; so church in terms of church-and-state no longer has the power and importance it used to have. We’re also supposed to be ‘post-Christian’, although interestingly the majority of our community are still calling themselves Christian, in whatever sense or understanding they have of what that means. 60%-70% of the community call themselves Christian, but you and I would say only 3-4% of the community actually trust Jesus Christ as their Lord. There seems to be a huge gulf in understanding between church people and their perception of Christianity, and the wider community. It may be more accurate to say that we are in a post-church era rather than a post-Christian era, or perhaps that we’re in a post-organized-religion era. That is, many people say, “I believe in God and I believe Jesus is God, but I just can’t stand church and I don’t go to it. I find other activities are more interesting, and you don’t need to go to church to be a Christian, do you?”

Regrettably, the idea that you ‘don’t have to go to church to be a Christian’ is an argument we ourselves have been using for 50 years, to try to point out the difference between Christianity and church-ianity. Becoming a Christian, being a Christian, is not the same as being a church member. Catholicism is wrong in replacing the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ with church,  as if all you need to do is belong and you’re in. And indeed that kind of Catholicism has come to us again through the new perspective of recent times where belonging is more important than believing. It’s also in the church growth literature: get people to belong first, get them to believe later. This method is fundamentally wrong. The church doesn’t give us the gospel; the gospel gives us the church. But when we argued “you don’t have to be in church to be a Christian”, people heard us say: “you don’t have to be in church”. And they’ve taken us seriously and stopped coming.

Not only is church a nowhere event that only extremists like us attend, but we’re also in an age of post-denominationalism. So what church is church, and which church is church? Individualism has come to the fore, and so my church is church. There’s any number of people who are very keen to plant churches, but they’re not actually planting churches; what they’re doing is founding their own church, which they are going to stay in for the rest of their life as it grows bigger and bigger into a megachurch, and they will continue to be the pastor of a one-church denomination. So what is church and what is it for?

What is church for?

We have to begin by realizing that there is something false about this question. Because what is anything for?

Recently I went to a graduation of the arts faculty at the University of Sydney. It was quite fascinating really, because no longer were they just giving out Bachelors of Arts, Master of Arts, and PhDs. Now there were Graduate Diplomas in Creative Writing, Applied Linguistics, Cross Cultural Communication, Museum Studies, Professional Communication (also known as journalism), Liberal Studies, and so on. A person in Liberal Studies basically got a degree in philosophy and history, but why it was Liberal Studies and not Arts, I couldn’t understand. Because what is an Arts degree for? That question shows the person hasn’t understood the nature of an Arts degree. It’s a perspective that sees university as a trades hall, a place where you go to be equipped to do something. An Arts degree is simply an education—that’s what it is.

If you say “Well, that just moves the question along: what is education for?”, again that is a failure in understanding, because it’s a technological view of education. You pursue education so that you will know. You study history so that you will understand history, so that you’ll know who we are, where we’ve come from, how we’ve got here. That’s an end in itself, and a very worthwhile end. It’s like studying maths. Why do I study maths? In order to understand and articulate the patterns that are built into our world. It’s interesting to see how things interconnect with each other. It’s not so that I can build a rocket ship, or so that I can make a fortune on the stockmarket. Now, with a maths degree I might be able to do those things—with a history degree I may be able to do those things, although personally I wouldn’t go in a rocket ship built by an historian. But the degree itself is a degree.

Now, back at the Oxbridge days of yesteryear, you got an MA—well, you got a BA and then for ten pounds you got an MA. And then, on the basis of that, you went down to London and did some training to become a lawyer or a banker or whatever it might be. The first degree was in a sense what we might think of as high school; it was an education. It itself doesn’t go anywhere; it just makes you an educated person. Now, an educated person is easier to train to do certain kinds of jobs, but the education is the education. Not everything has to be an instrument for achieving something else; not everything has to have a purpose beyond itself.

As Christians, we have a teleological view of life. We’re always looking for purpose in things, because we know God has created the world purposefully. The world is not a gigantic accident. Nor is the world how the animist sees it, made up of all kinds of spirits that have physical manifestation but with no reason, no purpose, no rhyme. We believe because of Genesis 1 that there is a God who has created everything to fulfil his purpose. It was good, it was very good, it fulfilled God’s purpose. He created us with purpose, in his own image, to fill the earth and to subdue it. So purpose is built into the very fabric of our thinking and our way of operating. But you’ve got to remember that it’s God who determines purpose and his purposes are not necessarily ours.

So when you ask “What is the purpose of the church?” you really need to be asking “What is God’s purpose for the church?”, because it only comes out of the mind of God that the world has purpose. Things don’t have purpose in and of themselves; they have purpose because of their creator and because of their owner.

Now what if God doesn’t have a purpose for the church? What, in fact, if church is the end goal—not an instrument by which you do something else, but the finished product that other instruments are being used to build? What if church is more like a diamond than a hammer—an object which exists for the pleasure and glory of its owner, rather than as a tool for the making or achieving of something else?

Well, to answer all these rhetorical questions, we need first to clarify what ‘church’ is.

What is ‘church’?

You have no doubt heard this many times, but it is worth saying again: the word itself, ekklesia in the Greek, is an ordinary non-technical, non-religious word that simply means ‘gathering’ or ‘assembly’ or ‘meeting’. This is its consistent usage throughout the Scriptures. It can refer to any sort of gathering or assembly, such as the riotous pagan one in Acts 19.

Of course, apart from William Tyndale, none of our major English translators have ever translated the word consistently or helpfully. Tyndale translated ekklesia as ‘congregation’ wherever it occurred, but this was one of his innovations that did not last. It was still there in the Great Bible of 1539, but by the time of the KJV the uncomplicated English word ‘congregation’ was gone and ‘church’ had returned, with all its ‘ecclesiastical’ baggage. But this is all history.

If the word in our Bibles simply means a ‘gathering’ or ‘assembly’, our real question is: What is a Christian ekklesia? What is distinctive about the particular gathering or assembly into which God calls his people?

To answer this we need to look at the key places where God gathers his people together. In the Old Testament, the defining gathering of God’s people is the one around Sinai. Four times in Deuteronomy it is called the ‘day of the church’ (that is, the day of the assembly or gathering)—Deuteronomy 4:10; 9:10; 10:4 and 18:16. Stephen also calls it that in Acts 7:38, and when Hebrews 12 wants to contrast the ekklesia of the old covenant with that of the new, it too looks back to God’s gathering at Sinai.

So what is the nature of this gathering or assembly? At the most basic level, it is a gathering of the people God has redeemed out of slavery and called to himself. It’s a gathering of the saved. But let us look more closely at what Deuteronomy says about this archetypal gathering of God’s people:

Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children’s children—how on the day that you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, the Lord said to me, ‘Gather [ekklesia] the people to me, that I may let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children so.’ And you came near and stood at the foot of the mountain, while the mountain burned with fire to the heart of heaven, wrapped in darkness, cloud, and gloom. Then the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice. And he declared to you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments, and he wrote them on two tablets of stone. And the Lord commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and rules, that you might do them in the land that you are going over to possess.  (Deut 4:9-14)

I’m too old to become a Bible translator, but there are times when I’m tempted! I know our translators do a wonderful and difficult job, but as a preacher who wants to preach the word accurately, I do sometimes wish they would translate the words that are there rather than trying to simplify it and make it easier for us. In this case, the word ‘earth’ in verse 10 is not the word ‘earth’, but the word ‘land’. When we read ‘earth’, we tend to think of ‘globe’ or ‘world’. But when we read ‘the land’, we understand what Moses is saying to them as they sit in the plains of Moab waiting to enter the Promised Land. He is urging them to obey God’s laws, so that they will remain long in the land they are about to go over and possess.

But take note of the purpose for which God gathered the people in verse 10: “on the day that you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, the Lord said to me, ‘Gather the people to me that I may let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live [in the land], and that they may teach their children so”. So the purpose of the gathering of God’s saved people was to hear God’s covenant word. But it has an ongoing purpose: so that they may go on hearing, and keeping listening and hearing, and staying in the land—not only them, but future generations as well.

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In the light of that, I’d like to put up a slightly changed hypothesis of what the Christian gathering is. It’s the gathering of the saved—those who repent and trust God—to hear the word of God. Now there is an instrumental purpose in hearing the word of God: that you may live long in salvation and your children may live long. It’s for the children, for the next generation, that they might hear the word of God, and keep obeying the word of God, and live in fear of the Lord in your new saved place.

The reference to the “day of the assembly” in Deuteronomy 18 also tells us something significant:

The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen—just as you desired of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’ And the Lord said to me, ‘They are right in what they have spoken. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.

Now again, the key element of the gathering at Horeb was the hearing of God’s word. However, even though they gathered to hear the word of God, what was the one thing they did? They said “Don’t tell us! Shut up! Don’t let us hear!” They blocked their ears, and didn’t listen to the word—which somewhat undercuts the reason for them being there. The word of God—being the word of God—calls for a response. It demands that its hearers listen to, heed, and receive the word; that they respond to what their Redeemer says to them, with obedience and trust. Already, at Sinai, we see hints of Israel’s historical unwillingness to do just that.

However, God is going to raise up another prophet for them. This prophet will speak the word to them, and they mustn’t turn their ears from hearing him.

Now come with me to Hebrews 12, where the people are living in a very painful world that is in opposition to them, and the persecution is great upon them. But they’ve got to see and understand that this is also the discipline of the Lord, the father who loves them, and they mustn’t turn away from God under the stress and persecutions of the ungodly world:

Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up. (Heb 12:12-15)

And then down in verse 25, he says:

See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven.

So, they’re going through really hard times of persecution and difficulty, and the hand of God’s discipline is upon them. And they are being encouraged not to turn away, not to fall back, not to have a root of bitterness, but to continue in holiness and righteousness, because they mustn’t refuse the one who is now speaking to them. Then into that comes this passage on church. Verse 18:

For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.”

There’s no doubt what we’re talking about here: it is referring to the great gathering of God with his people at Mount Sinai, at Horeb. But “you have not come to that” he says.

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly [there’s our church] of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

We’ve come to another mountain and another gathering: not Sinai, but Zion—and not the one at Jerusalem in Palestine, but heavenly Zion. We’ve come with a gathering of all the saved to the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the very centre of this new salvation. When we come to this Jesus, we come to the mediator of a new covenant that speaks a better word than the word of Abel. It’s like that wonderful verse from the old hymn:

Abel’s blood for vengeance
Pleaded to the skies;
But the blood of Jesus
For our pardon cries.

Now we’re hearing a better voice: the voice of Jesus’ blood, which speaks to us of mercy and pardon and forgiveness. That is the voice we’ve come to, the gospel voice of salvation through Jesus Christ. So when we gather as the saved, to hear the word of God, the word of God that we hear is the word of our salvation, the gospel word that brought us into our salvation. This is the word we are warned to listen to and not reject; the word we are to respond to with trust and repentance and obedience.

So the distinctively Christian gathering or assembly, that historically has come to be called ‘church’, is made up of those whom God has saved and redeemed in Christ, and who now in repentance and trust gather around him to listen to his word, so that they may persevere and grow in holiness and righteousness.

Now the determinative or definitive new covenant gathering is the heavenly one described in Hebrews 12, and which we also see in the vision of Revelation—where a great multitude from every tribe and nation gathers around the throne of Jesus. This heavenly assembly consists of all those who are in union with Christ, who have died and been raised up with him to sit in the heavenly places (Eph 2:4‑6; Col 3:1-4). And when Christ returns, our hidden life with him and our membership of his gathering will be seen by all.

This is the gathering that Jesus himself has in mind when he famously says in Matthew 16 that “I will build my ekklesia”. By the preaching of the apostolic gospel in the power of the Spirit, Jesus will gather his elect from the four winds, and assemble them around his throne forever.

Our particular gatherings (or ekklesiai) are expressions, or perhaps it is better to say ‘anticipations’, of this heavenly assembly that will be revealed at the end of time. Just as our day-by-day discipleship is based on and proceeds from our new life in Christ, our union with him by the Spirit, so our regular gatherings are based on and proceed from the heavenly gathering we are part of in Christ. We gather here on earth in our small assemblies not in order to find our way to God but because God has found us and gathered us to himself in Christ.

So what is church for?

Perhaps we can begin to see why asking ‘what church is for’ is to ask the wrong question. Jesus’ intention is to build his church, his gathering. And the glorious gathering of Jesus is not an instrument
to achieve something else; it is the goal, or object of Jesus’ work. It is the thing that Jesus is building.

How is he building it?  Through speaking his Word by his people in the power of his Spirit—by the Holy Spirit preaching the apostolic gospel through Christ’s disciples and changing the hearts of those who hear so that they will repent and believe. And this is also how he builds , encourages and exhorts us to remain, growing in godliness, as we endure the trials and difficulties of life in this world before his return.

So a much better question might be: what are we for? And the answer would be something like this: God’s purpose for his people is that we labour as his partners and fellow workers in building the gathering of Christ. In this sense
the ‘church’ doesn’t have a ‘mission’. Rather, as disciples of Jesus we have a mission and a commission and a calling—to build the church, the assembly of Jesus. But the assembly itself is not God’s agency for some further purpose. Its only purpose, if we can put it like that, is to be built.

Jesus is building his church, his gathering, and he is doing it in and through the work of his people—through our prayerful speaking of his word to each other and to those outside. This is why Paul tells us that when we get together all things are to be done for edification, for building (1 Cor 14:26). Unfortunately, we keep attaching the word ‘up’ to the word ‘building’, which is quite unnecessary, and makes it sound like it is only about encouraging Christians. The word just means ‘building’. You can build up, you can build out, you can build in, but everything is done for building. So when an outsider is in our midst, and he hears the word of God intelligibly spoken, and is convicted—he is being built (in this case we might say built ‘in’ to Christ’s gathering rather than ‘up’).

Whatever we bring to the gathering—whether a hymn or a word or a revelation—our aim should be to build, because that is the criteria for whether it should be done in the gathering or not. So if it’s not going to build—speaking in tongues without any translation does not build—then we shouldn’t do it.


This way of thinking about the purpose of church—that it doesn’t really have one—might help us think more clearly about a number of vexed questions that swirl around our local earthly gatherings. Let me briefly mention four.

Is church for evangelism?

Well, no—that’s the wrong way around. It is by evangelizing that we build the church (that is the assembly of Christ in heaven, and on earth). Evangelism will take place out in the world, where the non-Christians are, but it will also happen as we get together as Christians to build the gathering, because the word of Christ will be prayerfully proclaimed there (or should be!). Non-Christians will be built into the heavenly gathering of Christ through responding to the word of Christ by trust and repentance, wherever that happens—whether in a lounge-room, a restaurant, or during a regular Sunday gathering if they happen to be visiting. Wherever and whenever it happens, the result is that the assembly of Christ is built. Building the church is the aim of evangelism (wherever it happens), not the other way around.

It is thus a terrible irony that we neglect evangelism because of our obsession with ‘church’. If we shared Jesus’ obsession—which is to build his gathering—we would be enthusiastically evangelizing anywhere and everywhere (including in our gatherings).

Is church for worship?

‘Worship’ is a funny English word that confuses us almost as much as ‘church’ does.  In our culture and language, we have come to identify ‘worship’ almost entirely with the singing of praises, which is a misunderstanding both of ‘worship’ and of ‘praise’ in the Bible (and of the function of singing in our gatherings). There is not time or space to examine this further at this point, but we have done so on other occasions in this journal.

The biblical words translated ‘worship’ are response words; they mean to submit, to honour, to bow down, to serve a great one. By definition, then, the gathering or assembly of Christ is a gathering of worshippers—of those who have responded to the gospel by trust and repentance, by turning back from their rebellion to submit to God in Christ, to honour him, to bow before him, to serve him. It’s a gathering of worshippers in the same way that it is a gathering of repenters, a gathering of believers, a gathering of forgiven sinners, a gathering of those who have denied themselves and taken up the cross, and many other similar descriptions.

In this sense, church is not for worship, as if that is its special purpose or rationale—although much of what we do when we gather could be described as ‘worship’ (as submission and service) and will be done in an attitude of ‘worship’ (as honour). For example, obeying Christ’s call to build his assembly is an act of worship.

Is church for edification?

Again, this is the wrong way around. The assembly doesn’t exist to build; we exist in order to be the agents by which Christ builds his assembly (in quantity and quality).

This means that when we gather together, we will basically do two kinds of things. We will prayerfully speak, declare and proclaim the word of God intelligibly to one another—in reading, in sermon, in prophecy, in song, and in conversation. And we will respond together trusting the word that we hear—whether in prayer, in song, or in further mutual encouragement. Everything we do, as Paul instructs us, should have as its object the building of the gathering.

It also means that even when we are not all gathered together, we will be thinking and acting in ways that will build the assembly of Christ, whether by praying for one another, or meeting informally in our families, in pairs or other groups, or in whatever ways we might “exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today’, that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb 3:13).

What about church growth?

Our mission and call as Jesus’ people is to be fellow workers with him in building his assembly, in growing his church, which is eternal and heavenly and eschatological.

Accordingly, we shouldn’t be too concerned about which local or earthly gathering is ‘built’ by our efforts. If I evangelize someone and (by God’s Spirit) he is gathered into Christ’s heavenly assembly, it doesn’t really matter which earthly assembly he ends up in (so long as it is one in which he will continue to be built). Or if I pour time into someone to help them grow and develop and mature, and they take their gifts and do their building work somewhere else (not in my church), what does it matter?

They are all expressions or outposts of the great assembly of Christ that will one day be revealed. Our task under God is to build that assembly—to build people into it, and to build them up as members of it, in godliness and love and perseverance.

13 thoughts on “What is church for?

  1. Thanks for your article Phillip. It was good to collect your thoughts on this topic again at this point in the discussion going on around the place.

    Just a couple of small questions for clarification:

    Firstly, would you say that making disciples (whether focused on Christians or non-Christians) and building the church (whether focused on Christians or non-Christians) were one and the same thing?

    And secondly, if you were addressing a church (as in, a local expression of the heavenly gathering), and you were trying to tell them what their purpose was, would you say that they don’t really have a purpose, except perhaps, to be built? Or, would you tell them that their purpose was to build the church as Christ’s disciples?

    I’m just trying to work out which idea best fits with Eph. 4:16, where Paul seems to be suggesting that the body builds the body (or “itself”) in love.

  2. While I agree that our gatherings are anticipations of the heavenly assembly in some respects, there are important differences which may invalidate the application of truths about one to the other.

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  4. Fab article-thanks,really put a lot of thoughts I had swimming around in my head more clearly into focus. I’d like to highlight one issue though that has become particularly pertinent in my life recently. Jesus is the Word I know,so the line drawn here is a thin one. But, He gathers His church to Himself not just so we can hear His words,but to have those words ultimately reconcile us to Him,for His glory. Ie His purpose is not just that we can learn His words,but so that we can know(not ‘now of/know about’ but intimately ‘really know’) Him and in the knowing we happen to become more like Him. It has been my experience that some can get so caught up in imparting theological wisdom,and conforming to that which they have heard,that they forget the personhood of Jesus. This can result in a well educated but hallow church. To know a lot about Jesus and what He wants you to be like,is different from knowing Him.the tricky part is that often we get to know Him through His word,but I think the difference is where there is a recognition of personhood and a dedication to relationship which results in a dedication to theology,rather than a bypass straight to a dedication to theology. This can result in a church that focuses on preaching,educating and reforming,rather than one that responds to Christ by encouraging,loving,rescuing and reconciling(educating learners vs family growth).

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  6. Great article Philip, thanks for this much needed reminder of God’s purpose in building his church. I think many of our churches in the UK need to really consider how effective they are in reaching the lost in their communities. So many are simply maintaining the structures and programmes that feed the machine, rather than asking the hard questions. How radical are we willing to be? Are we prepared for our Pastors to work part-time so they can make community connections? Are we willing to stop some of our mid-week meetings so people have time to invest in the lives of their neighbours? Thankfully many are unsatisified with the status quo and are beginning to ask these questions.

  7. Thank you Phillip for an interesting and thought provoking article. I share many points of agreement, but the underlying thesis troubles me. Perhaps I missed the point (not unusual for me) but are you saying that the Church has no purpose other than to build itself?

    If so, then have you not missed the single great command that Jesus gave to disciples in Matt 28:19-20? This is the purpose of God’s people, to go into the world with the gospel. Church, the gathering of Christians, is for building, training, growing us not for our own purposes but so that the great commission can be accomplished. Church that focusses upon itself is useless.

    The emphasis of the the great commission is GOING. And yet we western Christians wring our hands wondering why people are not COMING to us. We miss the point. Why is the Christian Church dying in the free west and yet growing so profoundly in countries where Christians are persecuted? Because in those countries, believers are in the world, living the Gospel and showing God’s love in the real gritty world. On the other hand, we western Christians have created for ourselves a safe haven sub-culture with Christian schools, Christian radio stations, Christians clubs (singles, surfers, bikies, craft groups, etc etc etc), Christian employers, Christian this, Christian that. We live in a bubble.

    A recent survey sought to discover the chief obstacles to Australians believing in Christianity. Amongst the top ten were “judging others”, and “exclusivity”. In a further survey cited by Peter Jensen, 60% of Australians said that they did not know a Christian. (Information sourced from The North Coast Anglican 06/2011). Shame on us.

    For as long as we sustain the Christian bubble, our Churches will fail. We need to get our shiny pants off the pews and into the dirty world. Where did Jesus do his ministry? In the synagogues or in the streets? He showed unconditional love to undesirables, sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors, adulterers. I think we need to rethink just which of the three people our Church resembles most: the Priest, the Levite or the Samaritan. Sadly, most of what I read in The Briefing makes us look like Levites.

    The Church most certainly does have a purpose – the great commission is the only command given by Jesus to his disiples. Unless and until we re-learn that this is not an option, then our Church, as we know it in the west, will die.

  8. Ron, I think you may have misread the point of Phillip’s article – a possibility you graciously anticipated in your opening comment.

    On the other hand, if I am right in this, I can understand it because his point has some subtlety.

    You are right that Jesus gave his disciples a great command to make disciples of all nations. And of course, Phillip referred to that in this paragraph for example,

    So a much better question might be: what are we for? And the answer would be something like this: God’s purpose for his people is that we labour as his partners and fellow workers in building the gathering of Christ. In this sense the ‘church’ doesn’t have a ‘mission’. Rather, as disciples of Jesus we have a mission and a commission and a calling—to build the church, the assembly of Jesus. But the assembly itself is not God’s agency for some further purpose. Its only purpose, if we can put it like that, is to be built.

    In other words, disciples of Jesus have a mission, disciple-making so that people are built into Christ’s great gathering (the church). But the church (assembling around Christ our head, in his Word) itself is the end, not the means or a tool for something else.

    So ‘churching’ is the goal, not the method for achieving something else (although Phillip also noted that evangelism may, of course, occur in church, since unbelievers will quite often be present)

    And clearly, a fair reading of what Phillip wrote shows he is far from “being a Levite” and is very concerned for evangelism and for Christians to be reaching to lost. Please recall this paragraph early on, and then consider whether you may have mis-read Phillip…

    In fact, this is one of the great problems within church circles where I live: we have moved away from parish ministry into church ministry. We are ceasing to evangelize because we spend all our time in church, with church people, running church, making church work, making church better, and trying to grow our church, because church is so important. Instead of leaving the 99 to go and find the one, we are unwilling to leave the 50 go and reach the 30,000 who live all around us, and who are not hearing the gospel because we’re spending all of our time with the 50 in church.

    Clearly he wants us to get out and evangelise. But we do that as disciples of Christ, individually, and sometimes in groups helping each other, not as “The Church” per se. And I certainly don’t think Phillip means to say the Church has nothing to do with disciple-making evangelism (as if for example, we are not equipped for such a task in our gatherings).

    Hope that helps.

    • Hi Sandy,

      Thanks for your reply. I appreciate your efforts to explain. However, you have confirmed my suspicions, that the premise of the article is, to use your words, “…the church (assembling around Christ our head, in his Word) itself is the end, not the means or a tool for something else.”

      I’m afraid that I simply cannot accept this. This is the worst of exclusivity. We Christians have a role which involves rolling up our sleeves and serving God. The gathering of God’s people indeed has a role – to teach, to equip and to encourage – but not for our own gratification. The Church is to equip us to be God’s servants in this sin-sick world. Like most readers of The Briefing, I delight in the Word and delight in knowing more about God, and of God. But none of this is of any use if it is just for my own good. The worship of God does not require a Church gathering. Worship must be part of everything we do – in the world, not in a cloister.

      Just a little further explanation of my Levite reference. The story of the Good Samaritan was in response to a question raised by a person who was expert in the Law. That person would have known that the Levite, in avoiding the Samaritan was entirely correct in what he did. By not touching the man, he obeyed the Law completely and perfectly. And yet, Jesus clearly pointed out that his lack of compassion was wrong. On many occasions, Jesus pointed out that adherence to the Law, if it provides an excuse for now showing love or for helping others, is wrong. The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Sadly, much of what I read in The Briefing (in the articles and in these forums) has an air of self-righteous doctrinal superiority about it. It seems that adherence to doctrine is more important than anything else – not unlike the Levites of old.

      Of course, I will continue to enjoy receiving my copies of The Briefing. I read it from cover to cover. But I am one reader who is prepared to question the great pillars of Matthias Media. Perhaps there are others.

      • * in the second last para, please read “not showing love” rather than “now showing love”.

  9. The way in which God reinforces a point is truly remarkable. Yesterday at Church, the sermon was on Acts 1. The focus was on Jesus words in v8, “I will make you WITNESSES in…”. He did not say that he would make us worshippers, or pray-ers, or Bible students, or doctrinal puritans. All of those are important parts of the Christian experience. But none is an end in itself. They are all intended to contribute to the effectiveness of fulfilling our God-given, Jesus-spoken role as witnesses.

    Acts 1:14 says that they joined constantly in prayer. This was the spiritual preparation for the events of chapter 2 where they went out into the world and became the witnesses that Jesus called them to be. Thankfully, chapter 1 does not end with “And they kept it all to themselves because gathering for prayer and teaching is an end in itself”.

    To quote a great evangelical, C.T.Studd:

    Some want to live
    within the sound
    of church or chapel bell;
    I want to run
    a rescue shop
    within a yard of hell.

  10. Any description of church that fails to mention the fact that it is the ‘body of Christ’ is bound to end up truncated, incomplete and unhelpful. The church is more than ekklesia. The church is more than simply a meeting (gathering) of believers to hear the word of God. The church is also the body of Christ, it is an entity made up of many members, each working together, under the headship of Christ. It is a communion, or community, of saints. It is a shared life together. It is more than just the regular Sunday gathering; it is a whole of life thing. Only when this is explored in depth, can we address the question at hand: does the church have a mission?

    Jensen seems to think that whenever he mentions “us”, “we” or “our” he means something other than “church”. But I can’t see how that is defensible for whenever there are a plurality of Christians, there is the church – “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am amongst them.” Therefore, when Jensen brings his argument home by suggesting that the better question to asked instead of “what’s the church for?” is “what are we for?”, he has just contradicted his argument because “we” are the church.

    The church does indeed have a mission, because Christians have a mission, and Christians are the church. The church is both means and end of this God-ordained and God-empowered mission.

  11. Pingback: Episcopal Church Evangelicals

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