Whatever else we may know about Christians, we know this: Christians are supposed to go to church. Every Sunday, Christians gather together to worship God and spend time in fellowship. But do we actually know why we do this? Do we pause to consider the purpose of the local church? In this series of articles we are considering the purpose of many things we may take for granted, and so far we have looked at marriage, sex, and children. Today we are broadening our perspective from family to the church.
It is important to note that our concern here is not the universal church, which is comprised of all Christians of all times and places. Rather, we are answering the question: What is the purpose of the local church? In other words, why do we as Christians gather together in local congregations?
Common Views of The Church
As we consider why we gather week by week, we can quickly identify two common but unbiblical views on the purpose of the local church.
The first is that the local church exists for evangelism. In this view, the primary purpose of the local church is to draw unchurched people to the Christian faith. Church, then, is primarily evangelistic in its purpose. This is the heart of the “seeker-sensitive church” movement that was championed by Bill Hybels and Rick Warren, with Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Church serving as its primary text. Because reaching the lost is the ultimate purpose of the church, everything the church does—from preaching to worship to the design of the building—should be determined by the perceived needs or desires of the unchurched. We must do anything and everything we can to make church a place where they feel welcome and comfortable. Warren says, “Once you know your target [unbelievers], it will determine many of the components of your seeker service: music style, message topics, creative arts, and more.” This view insists that the more we learn to think like unbelievers, the better we will do in drawing them to the church and, from the church, to Jesus Christ. “It is my deep conviction,” says Warren, “that anybody can be won to Christ if you discover the key to his or her heart. … The most likely place to start is with the person’s felt needs.”
A second common view is that the local church exists for discipleship. According to this view, the purpose of the church is to serve the needs of Christians. Many people push back against the seeker-sensitive church movement and declare, “The church exists for discipleship! It exists to serve and strengthen Christians!” They claim that instead of putting all its energy into evangelism, the church should put all its energy into discipleship. Instead of making decisions based on the preferences of unbelievers, the church should make decisions based on the preferences of Christians. In this way, building up the body of Christ becomes the ultimate purpose of the local church.
Exposing the Error
Both of these views are problematic, though for different reasons.
The first view, that the local church exists for seekers, assumes that unbelievers know what they need the most. It assumes that their spiritual desires are genuine and that by following them they will arrive at truth and salvation. And while Jesus did pay attention to the needs of the crowds of unbelievers, he was also sure to point out that they were unable to recognize their greatest need—namely, eternal life in him (John 6:26-27). Their seeking was ultimately self-centered and led only to greater condemnation.
Because this view emphasizes the needs and desires of unbelievers, it inevitably and unsurprisingly causes the church to become like the world. Because the church adapts to the world in order to win the world, it ends up looking like the world. Though Charles Spurgeon pre-dated the church growth movement, he was well aware of the temptation to allow the world to influence the church. He said, “I believe that one reason why the church of God at this present moment has so little influence over the world is because the world has so much influence over the church.” And again, “The very church which the world likes best is sure to be that which God abhors.” The past two decades of church growth have proven this model faulty at its very foundation.
The second view, that the local church exists for the needs of Christians, is closer to the priorities of the Bible, but still misses them in significant ways. In large degree it simply repackages the consumerism of the seeker-sensitive movement with a new target audience, so that the perceived needs of Christians become the ultimate determining factor for all that the church does. Carl Trueman says this: “When church is just one more product to buy or leave on the shelf, then marketing, not theology, become the driving forces in her life.”
An overemphasis on meeting the needs or desires of Christians can lead a church to neglect the Great Commission and sap her of zeal for reaching the lost. Churches that hold this view aim make their focus “faithfulness” or “discipleship,” but often such words simply cover up a lack of evangelistic zeal. J.D. Greear says, “Without the mission, a church is not a church. It’s just a group of disobedient Christians hanging out.” We do not need to look far to find many examples of churches that are full of well-taught Christians who have not seen someone saved in far too long.
What Does the Bible Say About Church?
The Bible does not leave us uninformed when it comes to the purpose and the centrality of the local church. The local church exists for God and for his glory. Charles Bridges says, “The Church is the mirror, that reflects the whole effulgence of the Divine character. It is the grand scene, in which the perfections of Jehovah are displayed to the universe.” When we understand that the local church exists by God and for God, we see that God’s glory, not the needs of saved or unsaved people, is meant to be the ultimate determining factor for all the church does. The church does emphasize reaching the lost and it does emphasize edifying the saved, but it does so in ways that are honoring to God and consistent with his will. It ensures that both the method and the message of the church bring glory to his name.
Within that broad and all-encompassing purpose we can discern several subsequent ones. Mark Dever summarizes them in this way: “The proper ends for a local congregation’s life and actions are the worship of God, the edification of the church, and the evangelization of the world. These three purposes in turn serve the glory of God.” The local church exists to glorify God through worshipping him, edifying his people, and evangelizing the world.
The local church exists to glorify God through worshipping him. We gather together to worship God in the ways he has revealed in the Bible. This distinctly Christian worship is not based on on the whims of believers or unbelievers, but carefully drawn from and centered upon the Bible. The ministry 9Marks is fond of summarizing the basics of Christian worship in the simplest terms: “Read the Bible, preach the Bible, pray the Bible, sing the Bible, and see the Bible.” Our worship services are a means of grace through which God speaks to us and transforms us by his Word.
The local church exists to glorify God by edifying his people. The community of Christians gathers to enjoy true Christian fellowship. This is more than idle chit-chat and shared lunches but crucial one-to-one ministry where we acknowledge we are all ministers of God’s Word who are responsible for the well-being of other people’s souls. “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:15-16). Tim Chester and Steve Timmis write, “It is in the family of God that I am able to care and be cared for; love and be loved; forgive and be forgiven; rebuke and be rebuked; encourage and be encouraged. All of which is essential to the task of being a disciple of the risen Lord Jesus.”
The local church exists to glorify God by evangelizing the world. A healthy church is an evangelizing church. A complete sermon is one that calls upon the lost to turn to Christ and be saved. While church is first a gathering of God’s people, it is also a gathering to which unbelievers are invited so they can hear the gospel and see it lived out by Christians. Churches that become insular rather than evangelistic will ultimately lose their love, their zeal, and their vitality. When it comes to a church’s evangelism, D.A. Carson says, “Evangelize or die.”
The local church was founded by God for the purposes of God and the glory of God. Our task is not to define it according to our own desires or anyone else’s, but to learn how God defines it, then to follow him in obedience. Ultimately, the church exists to bring glory to his name through worship, discipleship, and evangelism. In this way and so many others, the local church is God’s plan. It is the hope of the world.