ACR JournalChurch HistoryEvangelismMinistry

Who is church for?

What is the purpose of church? In one important sense, church is an end in itself: we believe that church is a gathering for the believer to adore God and edify the saints. Throughout the New Testament, the church gathering is not primarily a ‘mission event’. This is a well-established truth that deserves full acceptance.

But it is far from the whole story.

This is true for several reasons. If we only say ‘church is for the believer’, we are missing a critically important opportunity. More importantly, we might even be demonstrating that something is missing in our theological convictions, and we will shape a church culture in unhealthy directions.

Can we just run church for the insider? Is there no place for a mission priority?

There seems to be a couple of options here.

One is the ‘either/or’ answer: church is either for the insider, or it is for the outsider. If we take this path and conclude that insiders are primary, then shaping our gatherings with the outsider in mind will be seen as compromising the biblical priority. This thinking might well see 1 Corinthians 14:24-25 through the lens of something ‘accidental’: church is accidentally useful to outsiders; their participation is peripheral, and their presence at the gathering is something Paul only considers tangentially. Any positive impact is simply the fruit of church doing church for the insider. So, we focus entirely on insiders, and trust that any outsider who happens to wander in will be touched by God in some way.

It is, of course, possible to find enough stories of this happening to reinforce the belief.

But is there another option? Could it be a case not of ‘either/or’, but of ‘both/and’? Is it possible to shape church so that it might be for believers, properly achieving its purpose as an occasion to adore God and edify the saints, while at the same time also achieving wonderful and significant mission outcomes—not just as a happy by-product of something else, but as a central and intentional part of our ministries? As might be obvious, I think the Bible’s answer is yes.  At a very simple level, at least two strands of biblical thought suggest this is possible. The ‘Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs’ we sing (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16) can adore and edify while also advertising. See Psalm 9:11 or Psalm 18:49, etc.16 They can serve a maturity and mission purpose at one and the same time. And consider the word we preach. The word that grows believers is the same word that saves unbelievers (1 Cor 15:1–11; 1 Pet 1:22–2:3). The word we hear preached in church has a maturity purpose and a mission purpose at one and the same time (1 Cor 14:24, 25).

We could add to this a rich history of experience. I dare to suggest I’ve seen the ‘both/and’ principle work to great effect. With care and thought, it is possible to construct a service that not only edifies the saints but is also understandable and compelling to outsiders. It’s possible to construct services such that Christians want their unconverted friends to come so they can taste and see. And we still live at a time where many non-Christians are willing to do just that—to come to church so they can taste and see. Recent NCLS data tells us that fully one third of Australians would come to church if

invited by a friend.17

Importantly, I don’t mean that ‘both/and’ conveys some kind of equivalence between the two—as if they are two equal priorities. The edification of believers is central and foundational to the gathering. But I believe it is possible to achieve the maturity aim and maximise the mission aim, without compromising the core aim of maturity.

If this understanding is correct, two important questions follow.

1. If ‘both/and’ is possible, why wouldn’t we pursue it?

There may be three reasons: it takes more effort, it means we need to change things, and it carries risks. Basically, it’s harder to do.

We only do harder things if we really care about the worth of the harder thing. It’s always easier to go with the easier—by default, if for no other reason. We would therefore only pursue the ‘both/and’ option if we were deeply committed to maximising mission. And so, we come to the second (and perhaps bigger) question.

2. Are we deeply committed to mission?

Choices reveal values. Our conclusions are so often predetermined by the things we bring to the discussion. A passionate mission-minded person will look to maximise mission at every point, while someone less concerned about mission won’t even notice that an opportunity has been missed.

If ‘both/and’ is possible, what would stop us pursuing it? It would no longer be an exegetical or theological issue. It would be a heart issue, revealed in the way we do church. And what we do in church has enormous consequences. Consider the ‘seeker services’ trend that began in the 1980s. This trend had huge consequences for the total culture of church life. Even though many churches took steps to express the maturity priority—such as starting a midweek service—Sunday remained the ‘flagship’ event. It shaped the culture. Seeker services slowly eroded people’s heart for maturity. We see the other side of the coin with churches that focus their gatherings almost entirely on insiders and have no real mission concern. These kinds of services slowly shape the mission heart of every individual. And perhaps they reflect the true heart of the leadership team. A pastor or pastoral team captivated by the importance of seeking and saving the lost will

shape everything they do by this priority. As they shape church towards mission aims, a culture will form—a culture where every individual is also captivated by the importance of seeking and saving. This will become a multiplier that cascades out into the daily lives of every believer, which then feeds back into the gathered life of the church family, which will be even more compelling. And the cycle will continue.

What we do in church matters. This is why the ‘either/or’ or ‘both/and’ discussion is so important. It’s why we must avoid simplistic answers and allow the Bible to stretch us, both in our thinking and in our practice.