The Real Purpose of the Church Is…? (Part I)
Note: This is the second of seven articles on becoming a sending church that started with “Cancel the Missions Program”.
At the core of this discussion is the doctrine of ecclesiology. Since that is a huge topic, it is the intent of this article to address only the issue of the purpose of the church. This article will use “purpose” and “mission” as synonyms. At the outset, it may seem like a simple thing to identify THE purpose of a church, but there is an amazing array of opinions on the topic. These may or may not be formally articulated but you can be sure they exist in people’s minds.
Here are some of the more popular ideas of why a church exists:
All these are part of a biblical ecclesiology, but they don’t give a singular answer to the question of why God established the concept of a local church. These are all things that a church “does” but they do not answer the question “why” the church exists. A mission statement needs to identify the reason for existence and the primary outcome of activity. The mission of the local church is the foundation on which everything else is built.
Some might consider Acts 2:42 the purpose statement for the church: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” According to this verse, the activities of the church should be 1) teaching biblical doctrine, 2) providing a place of fellowship for believers, 3) observing the Lord’s supper, and 4) praying. But… these are all activities of the church… not the purpose.
Think of this in military terms. The commander says “Here is your mission… go capture that hill.” The term “mission” answers the question why this platoon exists but goes beyond that to identify the primary objective from the commander and chief. In similar fashion we should ask: what is the hill that the church is supposed to capture? What then is the specific task the church is sent into the world to do?
When we talk about mission we are not talking about everything that the church does but rather the main thing that the church should do. Stephen Neill put it this way: “If everything is mission, nothing is mission.” There are many things a church does, but they should be done only because they help to accomplish a singular mission. There must be a purpose for any activity.
Expand the military analogy a little further. When the troops have a mission to “capture that hill,” then everything they do should contribute to the accomplishment of that goal. They don’t waste time training for other things. They don’t accumulate guns and equipment that doesn’t contribute to the completion of the mission. Their conversations are dominated by what it will take to conquer the hill. They eat, breath, sleep “hill conquering.” Imagine the potential of a church that was so singularly focused.
I was standing in line at the parts department of a car dealer totally frustrated. No one was waiting on us. A long line of us were there with money in our pockets, willing to make a purchase but it seemed no one was interested. The parts manager was busy on his computer. Sales people were waiting for people to buy cars, not parts. The mechanics were fixing cars and others were scurrying around but no one was there to take our money. As the frustration built, I began looking around and was interested to see on the wall behind us a huge sign with 6 inch letters the “mission statement” of this car dealership. It said something like this: “we exist to make customers happy.” There was obviously a big disconnect between what was on the wall and what was happening on the ground.
This is typical of many churches and organizations. Leaders take a lot of time to carefully craft a mission statement which ends up being ignored in a filing cabinet. Sometimes mission statements hang on the wall but it doesn’t seem to translate into action down the hall.
One of the challenges in any church is to stay aligned with the mission statement. It is debatable whether many people in a church could articulate the purpose of their church. It would be an interesting exercise to ask everyone next Sunday morning to write on a blank piece of paper what they thought was the mission of your church. It is highly likely there will be multiple opinions or blank pages.
This would not be an important issue if this were merely a business but this is the church of God. The purpose of the church is something that God has articulated and He expects compliance from His followers. This all about God and His truth. It is a matter of living in harmony with God’s intentions for us. This concept of the mission is a really big deal since it emanates from the Father.