The Goal of the Church Is Not the Church

Why did God establish the church? To glorify God and bless the world.

The interesting thing is that the particular individuals who make up the church don’t need to be very good at all at doing that to be part of the church.

First, the church is designed to be a place where anyone, believer or unbeliever, can come, make connections, and learn about God at their own pace (see a fuller explanation of this point here).

Second, anyone who professes faith in Jesus and promises by God’s grace to seek to follow Him is accepted as a brother and sister in Jesus Christ (see “Theses on Church Membership” for more on this here).

This means the door to the church and the kingdom of God is wide open. “Whosoever will may come.”

It is important for us to see, however, that we don’t want to leave people there. We want to help people become what they were made to be. “Therefore, let us make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification” (Rom. 14:19). Edification–we keep building one another up.

Ultimately, our goal is to raise up leaders who will glorify God in the church in the world and bless themselves and others.

This doesn’t mean that everyone has to become a Pastor. We can and should be leaders where we are. This may mean that you seek to become a better parent (Eph. 6:1–4). It may mean that you find those who are in need and make clothes for them like Tabitha (Acts 9:36–39). It may mean that you reach out to someone and encourage them like Barnabas (Acts 9:26–27). It may mean you come alongside someone like Philip (Acts 8:26–40). It may mean you take a step across the aisle to love those you consider to be your enemies (Mt. 5:43–45). It may mean you start a business that will give people employment and honest labor, which in itself is glorifying to God (cf. Col. 3:22–4:1).

When you go to church this Sunday, think: everything we do in here is designed to be taken out there. We build one another up so we are better equipped to live in the world. We worship God together to be reminded that all things are for His glory. We build community in the church to make us better prepared to be a part of the larger world community.

That is the goal of the church, to glorify God and bless the world. Freely you have received. Freely give, not only to those in the church but to all (Gal. 6:9–10).

Living with Diversity

Families are designed to help us learn to live with people who are different than us.

My 3rd child has started going to public school. That means that she is getting up earlier. What does she want to do in the morning? Talk. My wife and I like to quietly read and meditate in the morning, if possible. There’s nothing wrong with either preference. We’re just different.

But how are we going to deal with it? Can we tolerate the differences, live with them, and even thrive with them?

Sadly, many families don’t prepare people well for living with differences. Instead, they do one of three things. They either seek to suppress the differences, continually fight about them, or eventually flee from them.

The church is also designed to be a place where a diversity of people come together. A Christian is someone who believes in Jesus as the one who saves us from our predicament in sin and brings us to forgiveness and new life. Anyone can hear the message about Jesus, accept it, and become a Christian that very moment. Ideally, they also become a part of a particular community (i.e., the church) at that time.

When this happens, you have people who have a lot of different ideas, a lot of different backgrounds, and a lot of different experiences coming together to try and make the community work. Romans 14 describes the situation in the early Christian communities. The Christian teacher named Paul wrote to the Christian community in Rome describing this situation, “One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. . . . One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike” (Rom. 14:2, 5).

So, what are we to do with this diversity? The church has often tried the same things that families try: suppress the differences or continually fight about them. They also do what families sometimes do when these becomes too difficult. The differences are so hard to deal with that they just separate (which leaves them just as ill-equipped to deal with differences as before).

In the same letter, Paul gives some helpful instructions on how to live together in diversity. Here’s what he proposed:

  1. Receive or accept each other. “Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters” (Rom. 14:1). What if our basic stance toward others was to accept and receive them whatever their differences?
  2. Do not have contempt for others. “The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them” (Rom. 14:3).
  3. Continue reading “Living with Diversity”

Thoughts on Church Membership

The title of this post may not elicit the most excitement from my readers, but I think it is an important one. What we say about who gets counted in the church says a lot about what we think about the Gospel and the way that human beings can and should connect with God.

Here are some “theses” or “thoughts” that I wrote in 2012 after some serious prayer and consideration of this issue. My view has not substantially changed.

  1. Church membership must be based on our definition of a Christian, since all Christians are members of the true church invisible and should be members of the visible church.
  2. A Christian is someone who has repented of their sins and believes in Jesus Christ for salvation.
  3. Consequently, the test for church membership should be a credible profession of faith in Christ with a promise of repentance as well as a desire to do this in the context of a particular local church (as the questions for membership indicate in the Presbyterian Church in America’s Book of Church Order).
  4. Continue reading “Thoughts on Church Membership”

Of Course, Church Is Also for Unbelievers

It would seem rather obvious that church is a place for unbelievers as well as believers. After all, where else are people going to learn about who God is and what it means to be a Christian? What better place could there be?

Some argue that church is only or primarily for believers. Church is designed primarily to help believers grow, and then they go out and connect with people in the world. At the least, they might argue, unbelievers should not be a focus of the church as an institution. If they come, that’s fine, but having unbelievers in church is not a goal that the church should pursue, they might say.

I believe that this argument often grows out of frustration with churches that water down the Christian message in order to try and get people to come to church. I have also heard many people who think that if church is also for unbelievers, then it will simply be a church service where a simple Gospel message is presented over and over again with an altar call. Some Christians feel like they never get anything from these services that help them grow. They feel like they have been left behind in the quest for “numbers.”

Whether these sorts of complaints are just or not, I won’t attempt to answer here. It’s sufficient to say that there is no necessary connection between church also being for unbelievers and watering down the message or just focusing only on getting conversions.

In fact, I would suggest that merely repeating the simple Gospel message or watering down the Christian message is not particularly helpful either to believers or unbelievers. While it is true that in order to become a Christian, we only need a little bit of knowledge (i.e., John 3:16), following Christ involves understanding a whole variety of topics explained in the Bible at large.

For those considering whether or not to follow Jesus, it’s good for them to learn about what that means for their families, their work, their emotions, their time, and a host of other things. That’s why being in church where the whole counsel of God is taught is especially helpful for those considering Christianity.

But does the Bible teach that church is also for unbelievers? I believe it does. When God established His worship in the Old Testament, He centered His worship in the temple. According to Isaiah, the design of the Temple was to “for my house [to be] be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Is. 56:7). Continue reading “Of Course, Church Is Also for Unbelievers”

10 Ways the Church Needs to Reform, if the Simple Gospel Is Central

At the heart of the Reformation is justification by faith alone. This means that, though human beings stand guilty and condemned, God offers acceptance as a free gift based on what Jesus has done. Closely related is the fact that God also transforms those who are justified to make them more like Jesus (often called sanctification).

This is the simple Gospel that was emphasized and put back at the center of the church by Martin Luther and the other Reformers.

This is what had first place in the New Testament Church: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance[a]: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3–4).

It’s still easy for us to make other things of secondary, tertiary, or no importance central. I still struggle to keep the simple Gospel central. For a long time in my ministry, I did a terrible job of it. Even when I preached the simple Gospel, my actions often said that other things were just as important or more important.

When I left New Covenant Presbyterian in Spearfish in 2015, I preached from 1 Cor. 15:3–4. I explained ten things that I had tried to do, ten reforms that I had tried to make that were based on making the simple gospel central. I said, whatever else I had done, this was my vision and what I had wanted to do.

A man in the church came over to me afterwards and said, “You need to make that the first sermon you preach at your next church.” I changed what I was preaching on based on his advice.

And this is still my vision. This Sunday, I’m preaching on the Reformation. It’s on justification by faith alone. I’m going to share 10 reforms I think the church needs to make, if the simple gospel is central to her life.

  1. If the simple gospel is central, then it gives us an outward focus. The people outside the church are not that different from us. They are just one act of faith away from being fundamentally where we are.
  2. If the simple gospel is central, then all that is necessary to be a member of the church is to embrace the simple gospel. We can’t make entrance into the church higher than entering into the kingdom of God. This is what captivated me in Presbyterian history. Presbyterians aren’t perfect, but they have historically understood this.
  3. If the simple gospel is central, then we cannot let other preferences or other truths crowd it out. If other doctrines, ethical principles, church principles, or anything else gets talked about more than the simple gospel, people will believe what you talk about is the most central. We should not do that.
  4. If the simple gospel is central, then everything we do must be formatted around it. We cannot say one thing & then show another. We can’t say Christ’s love is free and then not care whether or not people can find our building. We can’t say Christ is hospitable but then be inhospitable.
  5. If the simple gospel is central, there is unity of believers in the local church. We may be at different levels in our spiritual journey or knowledge, but we all sit down around the table and let Jesus wash our feet. That gives us a powerful unity.
  6. If the simple gospel is central, then the church is composed of a variety of people from a variety of different backgrounds at a variety of different levels. Each should be valued as a believer in Christ. Thus, the worship and the sermons should be designed to include everybody and give them all sense of being part of the people of God.
  7. If the simple gospel is central, then we will value children in our church because the simple gospel is simple enough for a child to grasp and embrace.
  8. If the simple gospel is central, there is a unity with all believers. It is no longer just about the believers in our church, it is about believers everywhere because we all believe together that which we value most.
  9. If the simple gospel is central, then we can and should work together with all churches who preach this simple gospel. We share a basic unity that transcends other differences.
  10. If the simple gospel is central, then this is what we need most in order to grow. We must preach the gospel to ourselves when we see our sin, when we need guidance, when we are struggling with our circumstances, and when we are struggling with people. What does Paul write to the churches? The Gospel.

The Reformation was about clarifying the Gospel and bringing it back to the center of the church. This is not a completed act. It is not a pristine period in history. It is a continual call to make Christ and Him crucified the center of our lives, churches, and hearts.