You may be surprised to know that this is a hotly debated subject in Christian circles. One would assume that church leaders would be more united in answering this vital question. Why does the church exist? What is our main goal? There are a wide variety of views out there.
Some would argue that the mission of the church is:
The church, some argue, exists to demonstrate and work towards a more equitable and fair society, so the church should especially be involved in helping the poor, caring for the needy and thinking creatively about how to create jobs for the unemployed.
God has, according to this view, tasked human beings to rule over his world as his vice-regents. The church is to work towards a sustainable and environmentally sound lifestyle, to inform its members of the “biblicalness” of recycling, and stand against the international corporations that exploit the creation.
The church, according to this view, has been mandated to be God’s presence in the world to transform society by “redeeming the culture”. The church should working towards the establishment of a Christian government that will legislate moral laws that in turn will cause more blessing from God. Part of transforming society is helping to build better homes for the poor, better schools for the disadvantaged, and ensure more access to libraries. Some of the proponents of this view will even argue that as we transform society in this way, the kingdom of God grows.
The motto for a church in our area is “Love in Action”. Previous conversations with this church’s leadership have shown us that they are more interested in showing authentic, sacrificial love to the community than speaking the gospel or studying the Bible. All we need is love, says proponents of this view.
“Love your neighbour”
I consider none of the above as the primary mission or mandate given to the church. Of course, all the above concerns are vitally important and deserve our energy and attention as Christians, but they, I believe, should fall into the category of loving our neighbour (i.e. the ethical command placed on each Christian as a follower of Jesus), not in the category of the church’s mission in the world. Let me explain why I say that:
Last words are normally quite significant. Christians have always considered Jesus’ last command as recorded by the gospel writers as important to our understanding of the church’s task in the world. Luke gives us his version of the Great Commission:
Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day,and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. (Luke 24:45-47)
Interesting that Jesus last command was not to build schools, feed the poor, plant vegetable gardens or establish Christian governments, but to preach repentance and forgiveness of sins.
The chief concern of gospel ministry is not social action, political renewal, helping the poor or social transformation, but that people’s sins are forgiven through repentance and faith in Jesus. Our chief problem as human beings is not poverty or political insignificance, but the fact that we are due to face the anger of God for our sin and therefore destined to a Christ-less eternity. The good news of the gospel is that God’s anger “has been turned away” (Isaiah 12:1) through Jesus’ death and now our sins can be forgiven. This was the message Jesus’ mandated his followers to take – starting in Jerusalem – to all nations (cf. Isaiah 12:4).
Why social action is not the mission of the church
We can build better schools, and our children can be better educated. We can feed the hungry, and many more will have full stomachs. We can have a Christian political party running the country and enjoy more biblical laws. We can have all these things, but people will still die and face God’s anger and go to a Christ-less eternity in hell.
Jesus has tasked his church to take the verbal message of repentance and forgiveness of sins (i.e. the gospel) to the nations. Don’t hear me as saying that social concerns are not important – they are extremely important – as they validate our gospel to a dying world, but they are not the primary mission of the church.
In the gospels, Jesus is constantly teaching and preaching about the Kingdom of God. Yes, Jesus does heal and perform exorcisms, and although the healings and exorcisms serve to confirm who Jesus is, they are not Jesus’ priority. On one occasion a massive crowd comes to Jesus to be healed and Jesus leaves them and goes to another town so he can preach there! (Mark 4:35-39)
Example in Acts
The book of Acts in the New Testament tells the story of how unbelievers turned to Jesus and became more like Jesus. They then hugely impacted their society. The interesting thing is that when Paul and the other apostles entered a new city they sought, not to build schools or to create employment or to transform the city, but to teach the gospel and plant churches. Paul was clear on what Jesus had tasked him to do i.e. preach repentance and forgiveness of sins. Of course, the Christians did help the poor and, to a certain extent, did transform society in the years to come, but again that was a by-product of being Christians who are salt and light in a dying and dark world. The constant phrase that is repeated throughout Acts is that the “Word of God spread”, not “the love of God spread”.
Example from the New Testament letters
1 Thessalonians is a typical example of Paul’s ministry of evangelism and planting church. In chapter one Paul describes how the gospel came to these former unbelieving pagans,
“For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.” (v4-5)
The gospel came to them in words, and the Holy Spirit enabled them to understand the those words. What was at the heart of the Paul message?
“…They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.” (v9-10, cf. Isaiah 21:1)
Paul came to Thessalonica and preached repentance and forgiveness of sins (i.e. the gospel). That was his goal and aim and mission.
Paul tells then of how the Thessalonians followed in his example of evangelism:
“And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere. (1 Thessalonians 1:7-8)
The Lord’s message, i.e. the gospel rang out – not from Paul the Apostle, but from the Christians. We as Christians are all called to be involved gospel ministry and word proclamation. Only God can convert and grow, but we are all called to be prayerfully speaking God’s word to others. Telling others the good news that God’s anger has been turned away through Jesus.
Transfer and transform
Paul, summing up his gospel, says in Colossians 1:13-14,
“For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into (transferred us to) the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
God’s purpose, according to the apostle, is to see people transferred – from darkness to the kingdom of the Son. That means that the kingdom of God grows as people submit to the king and come into his kingdom. The Kingdom does not grow by us building RDP houses, feeding the hungry, or establishing a Christian government. These are good things, but are not the primary mission of the church. God’s priority for his church is to see people transferred.
But our mission does not end there. Paul continues in Colossians 1:28-29,
“We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. To this end I labour, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me.”
The apostle also worked hard to present everyone perfect in Christ. In other words, his second goal (integral part f the first) was to see Christians more transformed to be like Jesus.
How are people transferred? By the gospel. How are people transformed? By the gospel. Gospel ministry is therefore primary a ministry of the Word of God.
Direct and indirect
Not all gospel ministry is the direct gospel ministry of prayerfully speaking the Word of God to others. Some gospel ministry may be indirect – in that it creates the structures and framework for direct gospel ministry to take place. For example, we have a “Kitchen and Catering ministry” at our church. That is an indirect gospel ministry. You don’t get a Bible verse with your coffee! But they create a friendly, hospitable atmosphere for direct gospel ministry to take place. But both direct and indirect gospel ministries are vital.
Join the mission
Gospel ministry is not just for your pastor; we are all called to help each other grow to be more like Jesus. And as we become more like Jesus we will be better equipped to be godly businessmen, better trained to be Christian politicians who make courageous decisions, better resourced to love the needy, and better motivated to make a difference in our country and city.