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What Is the Church For?
Millions of hurt, frustrated people are walking out the door of the Church, unable to understand her real purpose.
The purpose of a thing is not always obvious.
I see this clearly in the 1980 movie, The Gods Must be Crazy. The movie revolves around a most common and obvious item—a glass Coca-Cola bottle. The bottle is tossed out of an airplane by a pilot, falling unbroken to the ground, landing in the middle of a tribe living in the Kalahari Desert. The tribe assumes the bottle, like all creation around them, has been fallen into their life as a gift from their gods. The people of the village invent many purposes for it and put it to several creative uses. But because there is just one bottle, it stokes covetous conflict within the tribe. In order to bring the community back to peace and harmony, one of the village farmers determines to find the edge of the world and there to dispose of the divisive bottle.
Just like the villagers questioned the purpose of the bottle, people have questioned the Church. The Church dropped into human experience 2,000 years ago. It too has been viewed from every angle: religious, social, economic, and political. Religious and governmental leaders alike have sought to use the Church for their own selfish purposes. In our day, millions of people are walking out the door of the Church, hurt by her or frustrated with her, unable to determine what good the Church is for.
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Launching Pads for the Kingdom of God
First and foremost, churches are communities of, and launching pads of, the Kingdom—the active, present rule and reign of God. Their primary work is, through evangelism and spiritual transformation, to make apprentices of Jesus who, through wise and grace-based use of spiritual disciplines, become like Jesus in seeking redemptive and healing justice by being missionally or otherly inclined.
Dallas Willard used to say, “The Church is for discipleship and disciples are for the world.” It is the world to which the Church is sent. The Church lives in the world. The Church exists for God’s purposes in the world. Christopher Wright describes the prime ethic of the Church as “recognizing God’s mission and responding to it in ways that express and facilitate it, rather than deny or hinder it.” Charles Van Engen, a well-known missiologist, suggests that the imagination of the Church should be as “God’s missionary people in a local context.” In the Catholic context, Vatican II asserted that “the nature of the Church is missionary since according to the plan of the Father, it has its origin in the mission of the Son and the Holy Spirit. This plan flows from fountain-like love, the love of God the Father.”
As the Church—as God’s sent, missionary people—we inhabit the world as ambassadors of the kingdom.
These diverse thinkers help us understand the cohesive nature and purpose of the Church. They give the Church an integrated vision and an actionable imagination for itself, one that can be unpacked and lived in any ministry context.
As the Church—as God’s sent, missionary people—we inhabit the world as ambassadors of the kingdom. All we need to do is step out into the freedom of the kingdom of God, and we will find spaciousness and generosity for our minds and fresh air for our creative souls. We will discover a childlike liberty in which we discern what it means in our various contexts to love God, our neighbor, and our enemy. Stepping into life in the kingdom is what Jesus meant by come follow me.
What if these two things are true of the whole Church and not just persons?
Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Mt. 10:39)
Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)
Designing Church From the Missional Field, Back
Here is a faithful and elegant way of being God’s sent people:
We engineer church practices from the mission field back.
My thinking and practices on this topic have been shaped by Anglican missiologist Roland Allen. His two books Missionary Methods: Saint Paul’s or Ours? and The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church have been seminal for me. So is the work of renowned missiologist and theologian Bishop Lesslie Newbigin. Lesslie asserted:
We do not do mission best by trying to hold back the revolution of our time, but by bearing witness within that revolution of its true meaning.
For Lesslie’s day, that meant primarily dealing with both communism and massive secularization in the West. In our day, it includes being present to issues like human sexuality and gender, growing civil hostility, globalism, immigration, epistemology, and technology. Within those challenges, we are not trying to gain adherence to an ecclesial tradition.
David Bosch says:
“Mission involves, from the beginning and as a matter of course, making new believers sensitive to the needs of others, opening their eyes and hearts to recognize injustice, suffering, oppression, and the plight of those who have fallen by the wayside…to become a disciple means a decisive and irrevocable turning both to God and neighbor.”
The following statement will keep us clearly focused: We are evangelizing for followers of Jesus, not for our denomination and much less a certain wing within a denomination.
We must care about the other at least as much as we care about the public expression of our church tradition.
While missiologists have helped me greatly, at my core I am animated by Jesus, especially the way he modeled what I am proposing. In conversations with others, Jesus always started where people were, not where he wished they were. He spoke to them on their terms, building on obvious connections between their needs and worldview and his.
To do this, we must care about the other at least as much as we care about the public expression of our church tradition. If not, we will become Pharisees, heaping heavy religious loads on people rather than being kingdom agents of healing and deliverance.
Between Pentecost and the second coming, the Church is meant to embody the Jesus Movement in the totality of her life. The Church is meant to be an ever-emerging reality within the context of God’s world—which he loves so much he sent his Son, and us as kingdom apprentices of the Son. The Church is rightly anchored to this history, but always simultaneously oriented to an ever-changing world. And we do this in peace; peace born from confidence in Jesus, in the kingdom movement he is shepherding.
Chosen to Be Kingdom Agents
Newbigin’s ideas around the doctrine of election also shape our ideas about Church life, about what the Church is for. Followers of Jesus are elected not to special privilege, something that we fight for in a misguided zero-sum cultural game, but to special responsibility. The election of the people of God, according to Newbigin, involves these core ideas:
· The Church is incorporated into the mission of God.
· The one (or few) is chosen for the sake of the many.
· The particular is chosen for the sake of the universal.
· All for the sake of being bearers of Divine blessing.
When my days are given to being a part of what God is doing, to bearing Divine blessing to others, I rightly interpret the “Coke bottle.” My life becomes a container for God, poured out for others. This is the invitation for the whole Church: as a people we are specially elected to be kingdom agents of salvation, healing, and justice.