GOD’S PLAN FOR THE CHURCH
What’s the Point of the Church?
Ours is a time of deep confusion concerning what God designed the local church to be and why he calls us to participate in one. For some, belonging to a church is something of a routine or ritual: “I’ve always done it this way.” For others, it’s a matter of blind obedience: “It’s just something you’re supposed to do.” Still others would admit they joined a church simply because their friends are there.
The uncertainty about all of this is troubling. Jesus said that he would “build his church” (Matt. 16:19), which, the Scriptures tell us, he accomplishes through his death, his resurrection, and his giving of the Spirit. And since Jesus did all of that for the church, shouldn’t we at least know what its purpose is?
If you were to read the Scriptures closely, you’d find three observations that shed some light on the purpose of the church:
1st Observation: Jesus’ faithful followers were constantly involved in spreading the good news about his vicarious death and victorious resurrection.
2nd Observation: As Christians joined together in communities where Jesus was treasured and people were cared for (see Acts 2:37-47), their long-term strategy for spreading the good news about Jesus was starting other new churches. (It is no accident that a large portion of the New Testament is comprised of letters written to new churches.)
3rd Observation: New churches were started as leaders were equipped to share the gospel boldly, to serve God faithfully, and to start even more churches (Acts 14:21-23; 2 Tim. 2:1-2; Titus 1:5-9).
But why all the emphasis on the church?
The earliest Christians understood what God was doing in the world, and they located the purpose of the church within God’s great plan. In other words, the purpose of the church has always been rooted in the mission of God.
The Place of the Church in the Mission of God
According to the Scriptures, this world is created for, fallen from, and being reconciled to God (Col. 1:15-20; Eph. 1:3-10; John 1:1-18). God’s actions in the midst of this sequence of creation, fall, and redemption are called the “mission of God,” because it describes what God is doing in the world (creating and redeeming) as well as how and why he acts.
Essentially, God is working to bring about a world that is filled with people who recognize his surpassing beauty, value, glory and power. As a result, they live their lives as an act of conscious worship in all that they say and do. Such people have been rescued by God through the death and resurrection of Jesus to share in God’s new world—a world without pain, frustration, sickness, sin, or death. (And if we ask why this world isn’t that way now, we only have to look in the mirror to see why it isn’t.)
The role of the church in the meantime, since we are obviously not yet living in God’s new world, is to put the glory of God on display in the present. In one of the more amazing passages in the New Testament, Paul explicitly says it’s through the church that the eternal purpose of God is accomplished in Christ (Eph. 3:7-12). He means that God has chosen to use communities of redeemed people as flesh-and-blood examples of the transforming power of his glory. Think about it: Jesus’ work on our behalf completely abolishes every self-righteous reason for separation and alienation so that otherwise diverse and disconnected people might come to share the same Lord, the same Savior, the same hope, and the same passion. Thus God’s glory is especially displayed in and through Christ-exalting, neighbor-loving, gospel-advancing churches.
What This Means for Us
Jesus died not to redeem random individuals, but to create a new people who treasure his glory above all else (Titus 2:13-14). That is the purpose of his death and resurrection according to the Scriptures. Therefore, participating in the new community that Jesus died to create (the church) is not really optional for those who call themselves followers of Jesus. The church is, in fact, the sole entity that God has entrusted with both the capability and the responsibility of displaying and declaring his glory to the world. There is no ‘plan B.’ There is no “Church is nice and all, but I’m going to do my own thing.”
The role of the church in the mission of God (to make his goodness, love, grace, and glory known to all the world) necessitates that we see our life in Christ as something inseparably connected to the lives of his people. Practically, this means we should probably think about our lives in terms of “we” and “us” and not “I” and “me”. Our lives were designed to become part of God’s new community, the church, through which the eternal purposes of God are carried out. To separate ourselves from that, or even to think of our churches as “just something you’re supposed to do” fails to see the central place that God has given the church in his great redemptive plan.
Of course, a failure to understand all this explains why most of us do not grasp the central place that the church is supposed to have in our own lives. Instead of orienting our lives around the life and mission of the church, we get busy pursuing our individual interests, giving little (if any) thought to how our choices will affect those in our community. This kind of life is the norm for most of us. We choose colleges based on the merits of the school only, without even looking to see if there is a healthy church in the town nearby. We choose careers based on what will bring us the most money, not based on what jobs might be the most help to those around us. We take promotions to far away places to gain a few more dollars, while sacrificing years of rich relationships we had in our churches back home. Given the priority of the local church in the plan of God, however, maybe much of what we think of as “progress” in our lives is actually movement in the wrong direction.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.