What happened on January 2, 1998, altered the course of my (Chase’s) life.
Along with thousands of other college students, I attended the second Passion conference, which was then a new series of gatherings seeking to raise a banner for God’s glory. I heard John Piper preach for the first time, and what he communicated about God’s heart for the nations—specifically the idea that he was gathering for his fame a people from among all peoples—was paradigm-shifting for me.
Afterward I began digging into Piper’s now-classic book on missions, Let the Nations Be Glad (Baker). It opens with groundshaking words:
Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man. When this age is over, and the countless millions of the redeemed fall on their faces before the throne of God, missions will be no more.
This paragraph profoundly changed what I viewed as the goal of missions. Previously I’d assumed the goal of missions is the practice of missions: evangelism, church planting, and so on. But Piper pointed me to something bigger: the goal of missions is nothing less than the worship of God.
Engine of Worship
That worship is the fuel and goal of missions not only informs our theology, but also our practice. If worship is the goal, the local church is the primary instrument. Or, to use a car analogy, if worship is both the destination and the fuel of missions, the local church is the engine. Why? Because the local church is designed to be God’s gathered worshipers on earth—a corporate display of his glory among the nations.
Throughout the apostle Paul’s ministry, he was passionate about establishing the local church as the engine of missions. He submitted himself to local church authority in Jerusalem. He was sent out by a local church in Antioch. He instructed Titus to solidify the fledgling churches in Crete by establishing elders. He had a deep concern for local churches.
There were many exciting things about Paul’s pioneering ministry. He proclaimed the gospel to the masses in Athens, Ephesus, and beyond. He proclaimed Christ to everyone from coworkers to ruling authorities. But what mattered most to Paul was what Christ himself had promised to build: a gospel church.
When the gospel goes out, we should expect new churches to form. The end game is not one believer, or even a few believers with a vague idea that they somehow share Christ. No, the goal the worship of Jesus is accomplished by local churches—gathered bodies of believers, under the authority of elders, who are discipling others, holding fast to sound doctrine, practicing the Lord’s Supper and baptism, and seeking to obey God.
Quit Cutting Corners
Some missions leaders and organizations dispute this point. It’s unreasonable to expect healthy, mature, self-sustaining churches to be formed, they say—that’s a “Western” notion. What matters more is reproducing informal small groups that we’ll call “churches” for the sake of our numbers. This practice is tragic. When we become satisfied with less than the biblical ideal for missions, we manifest a sub-biblical understanding of how God desires to be praised. Of course, there are certain contexts where the forms will look different, but the biblical vision of the local church remains.
When Paul mentioned the church that met in Priscilla and Aquilla’s home (Acts 18:2–3), he wasn’t confused in his use of “church.” The aim was no different from the one Paul spoke of in Ephesians 4. It was the building of the body of Christ. Our aim must be nothing less today.
When building healthy local churches is ignored, pragmatism and impatience take hold. The Lord is not glorified by 10,000 “churches” planted in a compressed amount of time only to fall prey to prosperity theology, syncretism, or other eternally fatal errors.
Signposts to the Kingdom
God expresses his manifold wisdom when local churches meet together across the globe. So as we long for the day when redeemed rebels gather from every tribe, tongue, and nation to worship the Lamb slain, the local church is a microcosm of that great day.
Local churches are signposts pointing the way to Christ’s kingdom—embassies of heaven on earthly soil. As we gather for worship, teaching, and table, and scatter for global witness, let’s remember the goal of missions is the worship of God. And worship necessarily drives us to establish faithful churches of disciple-making disciples among all peoples.