So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Eph. 4:11-13 NIV)
Nearly every American with a TV or radio who was born before 1980 remembers the 1970s era McDonald’s Big Mac jingle. “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun.” Would it surprise you to learn that this particular Big Mac ad campaign lasted only 1 ½ years but was on the minds of many McDonald’s patrons well into the 1980s.
The Big Mac advertising campaigns of the 70s and 80s reinforced an idea embedded in the McDonald’s restaurant culture – McDonald’s food, specifically the Big Mac, really satisfies.
We in America live in a McCulture today that has given rise to the McChurch culture. Christians, church attendees, want quick bites that taste good and fill them up for the moment. They want prepackaged, instant Christianity that can be assimilated quickly and at our convenience, that makes them feel good. One must question whether a steady diet of such things is truly spiritually healthy. The McChurch mentality should cause us to question whether we who know Christ and are committed to being part of His Body really know what the Church is here for.
Too often, church attendees complicate the Church by making it about personal preferences, enjoyment, or even fulfillment. Attendees go where they like what is sung, what the preacher says, and how they feel when they leave. The Church, by and large, lacks clarity on its existence. The Church doesn’t exist meet our needs or give us a weekly warm fuzzy.
The Church exists to equip believers to live on mission.
If the local church is going to be a healthy, thriving, God-glorifying part of the Church, then it’s imperative that church leaders, pastors, and congregants understand why the Church exists.
What is the mission and purpose of the Church? It may seem like this question has been asked and answered so many times that it has become trite. Yet, there is a surge within evangelical Christianity to redefine the mission and purpose of the church around something Scripture does not delineate.
Let us then return to the question at hand. What is the mission and purpose of the Church? In order to answer this question in the positive, one must first look at what the Church’s purpose and mission is not.
The Church Is Not a Cultural Change Agent
There are 2 things the Church cannot and should not be about that are popular in American Christianity today. Firstly, the Church does not exist to affect social justice. Social justice is a very fluid concept. Its definition really depends on who is speaking; making it very hard to pin down. That said, the current American Christian perspective that seems to be pervading the Church is that it is the Church’s responsibility, even mandated mission, to stand for and defend societal equity for all people; to champion basic human rights and equalities for all people. This theology can be seen in a plethora of places and a variety of expressions. The problem with an emphasis on social justice as the Church’s mission and purpose comes to light when a social mandate is compared to Scripture. Then it becomes clear that social justice is a theological mismatch with Scriptural truth.
Some might object citing Jesus in defense of a social justice mission or purpose for the Church. However, Jesus’ mission was never to institute a cultural revolution of social justice. Jesus was born into the poor, working class of 1st century Judaism. Yet, a thorough examination of Jesus’ teachings will not support His making statements or taking steps to correct or repair the unjust social inequities of His day. There are those who would reference Jesus’ reading of Isaiah 61:1-2 while at the synagogue in Nazareth (Lk 4:18-19). It is true that Jesus read from Isaiah 61:1-2 and that the passage is a prophecy of what the Messianic kingdom would be. However, it is worth noting that Jesus stops short of reading the second half of verse 2, let alone the rest of the context in verses 3-11. It is verses 2b-11 that helped to lead the Jews of Jesus’ day to expect the Messiah to bring salvation for all of Israel (1-2a) and execute judgment against the social inequities perpetrated against Israel. What Israel failed to perceived that so many within the Church miss is that Jesus’ messianic work is a 2-act drama. His first advent was about the securing of salvation for sinners (cf. Jn 3:16-17; Lk 19:10), while His second advent and establishment of His full kingdom will see the implementation of absolute social justice (cf. Matt 5:1-19). It is further interesting to note that after reading verses 1-2a, Jesus sat down and told them “Today this Scripture is being fulfilled in your hearing (Lk 4:21).
Not only did Jesus never claim His mission to be anything akin to social justice, but His actual ministry was also never to rectify social injustices. Those who disagree at this juncture often cite Jesus’ feeding 4,000 and 5,000 (Matt 14:14-21; 15:32-38), His healing the sick, lame, deaf, mute, blind, etc. (Matt 15:30-31; Lk 6:18-19), and His other works which seem to be socially oriented. What too often gets forgotten is the purpose behind Jesus’ miraculous works. Jesus’ miraculous works such as these were intentional. They validated His claims to be the true Messiah and engendered genuine faith in those who saw them (Isa 35:5-6). They were never intended as expressions of a social justice agenda. If Jesus’ works modeled a social justice mission and purpose for His followers then either Jesus was a dismal failure or social justice was not His mission in the first place. That sounds harsh, but the truth is when Jesus finished His earthly ministry and ascended to heaven, nothing had changed societally from His being here. The poor were still poor, the sick and disabled still suffered, and the social inequities of His day still raged on.
What then is the Church to do? We should turn to the mission Jesus gave the Church; a mission which is not about social justice. Jesus proclaimed His mission as coming to seek for and redeem the lost (Lk 19:10). The mission He gave His disciples was to take the message of redemption (aka the gospel) to the ends of the earth; calling sinners to repentance and faith in Him (Matt 28:19-20; Mk 16:14-18; Lk 24:44-49; Jn 20:19-23; Acts 1:4-8). If fixing the social injustices in our culture was mandated at all, let alone a primary mandate for the disciples, it stands to reason Jesus would have included some aspect of it in the Great Commission.
It further stands true that the apostolic Church, which so literally and ardently embraced the mission Jesus gave them, would have intentionally sought to affect social change. The problem is, the apostolic Church did not embrace a social justice mandate. The early Church faced the same social justice issues facing the Church today: race (1 Cor 7:17-19; 12:13; Gal 3:28; Col 3:11), slavery (1 Cor 7:20-22; Eph 6:5-9), poverty (Rom 15:26; 1 Tim 5:3; Jas 1:27; 2:2-6; 1 Jn 3:17-18), and gender discrimination (Eph 5:21-33; 1 Pet 3:1-9; Rom 16:1-5; 1 Cor 1:11; Col 4:15; Acts 16:14-15, 40). Nowhere do the apostles command believers to engage their culture in an effort to fix these social issues. It would be unfair not to admit that the natural outgrowth of the gospel with is emphases on believers being one body and one family of God inherently improved these issues within the Church, but that does not prove that the Church intentionally engaged their culture or attempted to rectify society in general. Rather than lobby for racial equality outside of the Body of Christ, the apostles declared that race was a non-issue inside the Church. Rather than demand an end to slavery, the apostles entreated Christian slave owners to treat their slaves as their brothers in Christ and slaves to be loyal to their masters; serving them as they would Christ. Yet, no mandate to free slaves is ever given. The Church had no manded financial equity either. Rather, those believers who were rich were to help those who were poor and the poor were to work for what they needed. When it comes to gender equality, no other “religion” on earth has valued women as much as Christianity. Repeatedly, the apostolic writings see women in influential and leadership roles. Rather than treated as property, women were to be treated with honor. All of this is true inside the Church, but one cannot find a mandate for the church to affect social change in general, nor is it part and parcel with the gospel.
The Church is not a political agenda engine
American evangelicalism has spent the last several decades advancing a conservative political agenda. In some quarters and at some churches it seems like the pulpit is a weekly stump speech and the congregation spends more time lobbying for conservative agendas than engaging in their gospel mission. It’s a dangerous trap into which too many churches fall. Scriptural truth ought to drive our thinking and actions on this point.
Jesus never sought to advance any political agenda. The Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day sought a very political Messiah, but Jesus routinely refused to take part in a political debate. Two events in Jesus’ life and ministry illustrate His lack of political interest. In Matthew 22:17-21, the Jews sought to entrap Jesus by asking Him whether it was right for them to pay taxes to Caesar. By way of background, it should be noted that Jewish coinage contained no engraved human likeness for fear of violating the commandment not to worship any idols or engraved images. Rather than fall into their trap, Jesus asked to see a coin. Having ascertained that Caesar’s image was on the coin, Jesus forthrightly supported being submissive to the civil authority God had placed over them; despite the fact that Rome highly over-taxed those under their domination. On another occasion, Jesus is confronted with a woman who has been caught in adultery and asked if she should be stoned. On the surface, this seems like a moral issue, but it is not. Pontius Pilate had previously made it illegal for Jews to exact capital punishment; only Rome could do that. The question posed to Jesus is really whether or not He would rebel against Rome in favor of the Mosaic code. Rather than get caught on the horns of a dilemma, Jesus supported the Roman laws of capital punishment and gently condemned the woman by telling her to stop sinning.
The apostolic era repeatedly witnesses Paul and Peter commanding believers to submit to the civil authorities God has placed over them. They never advocated or encouraged engaging the political system as part of what it means to be a believer. In fact, they both commanded believers to be the best citizens possible by submitting to civil authority (Rom 13:1-14; 1 Pet 2:12-17; 1 Tim 2:1-4).
American Christians too often get it in reverse. They believe political involvement is their Christian responsibility, but that is just not true. Political involvement is not the believer’s responsibility. Right now, this world is Satan’s kingdom, not ours. Our supreme citizenship and first loyalty is to Christ’s kingdom and Him as our King (Col 1:13; Eph 2:19). At best, every American’s political involvement in this life is a civic duty irrespective of his spiritual standing. The gospel and gospel mission transcend political boundaries and are the Church’s only God-given mission and priority.
If the Church is neither a social change agent nor a political agenda engine, then what is her mission and purpose?
The Church is a Basic Training Arena
Every believer has an oikocentric mission given by God. This terminology may seem foreign, but it’s very biblical. The Greek term οἶκός (oikos) means “household.” Very regularly, the term was used to refer to a person’s extended household – spouse, children, parents, grandparents, household servants, et. al. (e.g. Jn 4:53; Acts 11:14; 16:15; 18:8; 1 Cor 1:11; Phil 4:22; 2 Tim 4:19). On average, each one of us has been supernaturally and strategically surrounded with 8-15 people with whom we “do life” on a regular basis. These individuals comprise our “extended household” or oikos. These are those for whom we are directly responsible in fulfilling the Great Commission given to each of us (Matt 28:18-20; 2 Cor 5:18-19). Thus, our focusing immediately on those 8-15 individuals within our oikos as the target of our God-given mission makes our mission oikocentric.
Because the Church is comprised of individual believers who have been given a common, shared missio dei (God-given mission), the Church as a whole can be said to share that same common mission. Reaching the lost with the good news of salvation in Jesus and seeing those converts become fully mature, reproducing followers of Jesus Christ is the Church’s sole God-given mission. This means that everything the Church is and does should be evaluated in light of that mission.
It is with this God-given mission in mind that Paul refers to those gifted individuals the Lord gave to the Church in Ephesians 4:11-13. These gifted individuals were given to the larger Body of Christ to equip the Body to live on mission (v. 12). The idea of equipping refers to “a process of adjustment that results in a complete preparedness so that a task can adequately be undertaken.” These gifted individuals exist to help believers grow in their personal fidelity to Christ and identify, develop and employ their various gifts, talents and abilities for the benefit of the rest of the Body. They also lead and oversee the Church in the accomplishment of her mission and purpose. These gifted individuals lead the rest of the Body to perform “works of service,” or as other translations put it “do the work of the ministry.” In other words, the Church, her leaders, ministries and programs exist to prepare individual believers to live on mission outside of the confines of the Church – among their respective oikos.
Therefore, the Church’s purpose is never to support activity for activity’s sake or maintain tradition for tradition’s sake but to be missionally intentional in all it is and does. This means that the Church’s ministry focus should be external rather than internal. The ministries the Body engages in should ultimately have an external, intentionally missional purpose and outcomes. If a local church loses its externally minded, intentionally missional, preparative focus, it is in poor health to say the least. Any local church that becomes more focused on the wants and preferences of its attendees than in reaching and assimilating those outside its ranks through gospel intentionality is already dying. It may be a slow, drawn-out death, but it is dying, nonetheless. Healthy churches intentionally seek to reach outside of their comfort zones to see the lost become believers who are being prepared to impact their respective oikos for Christ.
In America, we have several branches of military service. Each has its own unique tasks that tailor them to fulfill their mission. While they are each unique, there is one overarching thing that unites them, their oath of enlistment for military service.
Whether you are a soldier, airman, marine, or sailor, the oath of enlistment for military service is the same. It reads like this,
I, (NAME), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.
In a nutshell, that is the general mission of every branch of U.S. Military service. But, not one branch of our military puts a new recruit into the field until first that recruit has successfully completed basic training. Even after basic training has been completed our military personnel undergo continued training so that they will always be prepared to fulfill their mission.
In a way, the Church is like basic training. Believers in Jesus Christ have been tasked with an all-important mission, the Great Commission. God, in His wisdom and grace, put something in place to prepare each of us to live on mission – that thing is the Church.
The Church exists to equip believers to live on mission.
The Church does not exist to fix the social injustices of our world, nor does it exist to advance any one political agenda. When that becomes the Church’s focus then the Church is unhealthy and off-mission. The Church is here to help prepare believers to live on mission successfully.