Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Purpose of the Church?

In most Evangelical circles, I suspect the initial answer to the question in the title would be “preach the Gospel.” After that though, we might hear someone offer the alternative of “relieve suffering.” While I suspect that the real answer is somewhere in the middle where both the spreading (not necessarily preaching as we understand it) of the Gospel, and relief of suffering together make up the mission – or the purpose of the church.

It is true that the disciples were told to preach the Gospel, and Paul was specifically selected as the Apostle to the Gentiles. Paul, and either congregations or other Apostles sent other men to preach and establish the church throughout the known world. Preaching then is clearly a part of the church’s purpose.

Preaching though is only a part, and cannot be said to be the primary purpose of the church. When Jesus told us what his mission was, he said it was to “proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God, preaching relief to people.” After convincing a new group of people of Jesus’ Messiahship, he then moved to teaching and urging transformation. Was this transformation the production of more preachers or was it something else? It was clearly something different than equipping preachers. Paul’s teaching of transformation contained two aspects. The first is a complete submission to God, and the second grew out of that submission. This second was the development of God character and the practice of blessing those who were on the fringes of society.

We are challenged in fact in at least one place where we are told that it isn’t sufficient to say “go and be filled.” No, that simply won’t do. We must feed those with whom we come in contact. James tells us that pure religion isn’t preaching, but caring for widows and orphans. Good thoughts toward those less fortunate than ourselves isn’t proof of faith, but meeting with them, touching them, feeding them. These are proof of faith. The fruit of the Spirit do not include oratory skills, debate techniques, or even book knowledge, but love, kindness, and compassion. This has always been so. Micah tells us what God wants from his people: mercy, justice, and humility. Israel wasn’t castigated because she lacked preachers, but because she lacked leaders who trained her people in the finer arts of giving of self to others.

How then is it that we pay more attention to developing and sending preachers rather than helping others in need? Why do we build edifices to showcase oratory and allow us to practice worship, and yet short change the care of the less fortunate? Worship, according to God, is not what we call corporate worship but rather lives given in service to others. Somebody has said that this is our spiritual act of worship. This serving of others is, after all the core meaning of ministry.

We are told that we need worship edifices to draw people to God, but God seems to think that his people, shining light in a dark and broken world by giving to others will draw people to him. In fact, our own studies validate this truth. Why do people come to God, and why do they stay with a group of people? Because they see Jesus, and they connect with others who reflect him.

Can people be brought to God through debate? Absolutely. Paul used that art to good advantage to make an opening. Then he instructed his churches to love people in the midst of this dirty world. Oddly enough, Jesus did the same. He would skirmish with the Pharisees, but revert to actions that cared for people. Jesus tells us that we can tell he is Messiah because of the works he does. This has less to do with the flash-bang aspects of his works than it does the healing and compassion demonstrated in them.

What will it take to get God’s people out of our comfortable buildings with multiple staff that command the vast majority of our wealth, and instead put that same wealth directly into helping others who are less fortunate than ourselves? When will we learn that participation in ministry isn’t about Christmas programs but about the actual serving of others? Church work is fun – and clean and safe. It is also done for those who are themselves clean and safe. Are we growing Christians who expect professionally done “worship” services, or are we growing Christians who worship God through their lives, through getting dirty with people in the messy parts of this world?

This ministry to others is important in good times, but becomes even more critical in economic down times. Should we be investing in worship facilities and staff for our comfort, should we be creating more preachers, or should we be directing more and more of our wealth to those who have none? When it comes to being God’s people in our community and the world, which of these activities should take priority? Which of these would Jesus urge us to do more and more?

I support more ministry to people who are in need rather than more ministry to us. Organizations such as World Concern which is primarily a relief organization, but whose work results directly and intentionally in more followers of the Christian God. These people, and others like them in other relief organizations put their transformed lives to work with the poorest of the world’s poor and oppressed. In our own backyard, we might select the Albuquerque Christian Children’s Home or the Rescue Mission. Both of these intentionally and directly provide relief to people on the fringe of our society, daily directly affecting the welfare of children and homeless people, pointing them to that same Christian God through compassionate and faithful modeling of Spirit-filled lives.

Let’s help them continue to impact the world and our community for God.

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