Getting the Church on Track

Why do we do church? For some, church is a habit. For others, it makes them feel good. For many, it is a refuge from the world. For still others, the word “church” brings bad memories of hurt.

But what is God’s design? What did He make it for? In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul lays out the basic message of Christianity. Human beings are created by God but forgiven freely by grace through faith. Those who believe are being transformed into the likeness of the truest human, Jesus. The letter to Romans is a marvelous explanation of these truths. Martin Luther said, “It is the chief part of the New Testament and the perfect gospel . . . the absolute epitome of the gospel.” And John Calvin said, “When anyone understands this Epistle, he has a passage opened to him to the understanding of the whole Scripture.”

Near the end of the book of Romans, the Apostle gives two benedictions or declarations of blessing that indicate his desired result in the life of the Roman church. I believe that they encapsulate the purpose of the church. These benedictions are: “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. . . May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:5-6, 13).

In this passage and the surrounding verses, I believe that Paul sets forth four key purposes for the church: to connect people to God, to help them grow in character, to connect people to one another, and to equip people to make an impact in the world.

First, he wants it to be a place that helps people connect with God. This may seem obvious, but it’s probably so obvious we can miss it. Everything the church does exists to make sure that people are living daily and moment by moment in a relationship of faith and love with the Triune God. The call of the church is always, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles; let all the peoples extol him” (Psalm 117:1).

How are we doing on that? Good questions to ask on this goal are: are we helping people who are not connected to God connect with God? Do we see people living more of their lives in the presence of God? Can we and do we share stories of people connecting with God better because of the work of our church?

Second, he wants it to be a place where people are growing in their character. He wants Christians to become more and more a people who are trusting in God and expecting Him to do good things (hope). He wants us to be filled joy and peace. Romans 15:13 describes beautifully what the results of the Gospel should be for human beings: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13).

In a series of talks John Ortberg did with Dallas Willard just before Willard’s death, he recounted a conversation that he had with Dallas about churches.

During one of the first times Dallas and I talked, I asked about the churches. Some churches are great at music and worship. Some churches are effective at evangelism or reaching folks outside of them. Other churches are teaching factories. Others are great at assimilating people. And still others are good at acts of justice and compassion. But, I asked Dallas, where are the churches that are producing abnormally loving and joyful, patient, courageous people in inexplicably high percentages?

It’s a great question. Are we seeing people grow in their character? Are we seeing people develop these virtues? Do we see transformation over time in the people who attend? Can we tell stories about it? This is one of the great purposes of the church, to aid in that process.

Third, Paul wants the church to be a place where people can build relationships that will help them connect with God and grow spiritually. He wants it to be a place where people connect with each other, accept each other, help each other grow, and build community.

One thing about churches is that they are in fact built on community. There are strong relationships, or the church probably wouldn’t exist. But there are a couple of ways we need to challenge the church on this point. How easy is it for newcomers to connect (hint: probably not as easy as you think)? Are people building new relationships and connecting across generations? Are the relationships that are built helping people grow in their character and relationship with God or are they merely social?

Fourth, the goal of the church is to send people out to make an impact in the world. The goal of the church is not the church. It is that the people in the church would take what they receive and bring it into their homes, schools, neighborhoods, and workplace and make an impact that will further God’s purposes in creation and redemption.

So, we should ask, is our church making a difference in the world? Are people interacting differently in their homes, schools, and workplace because of what they are receiving in the church? Can we share stories about what God is doing outside the church as a result of the work in the church?

If we cannot answer a lot of these questions in the affirmative, we need to get the church back on track. And once we get on track, we will need to immediately get it back on track. The law of entropy applies to organizations and individuals just as much as to the physical world. Renewal needs to be a way of life, as the theologian Richard Lovelace put it.

What this means is that we need to not only do the activities of the church. We need to do them with purpose. We need to be deliberately looking for results. Now, these results are only partly the result of our work. God is the one who gives the increase. But that means that we need to pray for these results as well as laboring for them.

Once we start looking for these results, we will realize that they are already happening to some degree. This reminds us that it is first and foremost God who builds the church. He has been working at it a long time, and He invites us to be a part of what He is doing. But we certainly should not rest with what has been done in the past. As the Apostle Paul said elsewhere, I want your love to abound more and more! (1 Thessalonians 4:9-10).

It is a mistake to think that simply because God is the primary builder of His Church that we have no part to play. We are co-workers, workers under Him. We have our part to play, and we have our responsibility. Our part is to discern what God is doing with the church and lean into it. Our part is to align our activities, hearts, and minds with what God is doing. When we do so, we can expect that we will see Him do great things through us and in us. He is the God of hope!

My encouragement to you is to think clearly about what the church is for. Don’t just let it be something that is vague. Think through it clearly and put all your labor and prayers into moving it in His direction. That is how we align ourselves with God and His work. That is how we bring renewal. That is how we get and keep the church on track.


5 Replies to “Getting the Church on Track”

  1. ‘If the gospel is to challenge the public life of our society, if Christians are to occupy the “high ground” which they vacated in the noon time of “modernity,” it will not be by forming a Christian political party, or by aggressive propaganda campaigns…. It will only be by movements that begin with the local congregation in which the reality of the new creation is present, known, and experienced, and from which men and women will go into every sector of public life to claim it for Christ, to unmask the illusions which have remained hidden and to expose all areas of public life to the illumination of the gospel. But that will only happen as and when local congregations renounce an introverted concern for their own life, and recognize that they exist for the sake of those who are not members, as sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s redeeming grace for the whole life of society.’ Leslie Newbigin, “The Gospel in a Pluralist Society”

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