Over the past thirty years we have witnessed a major shift in how Americans articulate their perception of the purposes of the organized church. For an institution that so many millions of Americans have accepted as part of their life for the duration of their life, surprisingly few people have thought much about what they expect the Church to be and to do…either at the local, congregational level or as the Church universal. Most people think simplistically about the idea of “church”, noting that churches provide teaching, religious events, programs, and support services but little beyond that.
An example of the lack of focus directed toward churches comes from a recent Barna Group survey that asked people to identify the most important thing their local church needed to do in order to make a positive contribution to people’s lives and to the life of the community. The most common answer was “I don’t know”, offered by three out of ten respondents. [Barna Group, “OmniPoll 1-11 PH”, national survey among 600 adults eighteen or over, January 2011]. Only five other activities were listed by at least 3% of the public. Those efforts included addressing poverty (mentioned by 29%), cultivating Biblical values (14%), serving families and their children (13%), Providing recovery programs and support for addicts (10%), and helping people to deal with work place and financial issues (7%). [Ibid].
What makes that list so interesting is that it is significantly different in nature from the way the Bible describes the ultimate purposes of the Church…that is, the aggregate body of believers in Jesus Christ, not simply a local gathering that meets in a building for events under the direction of a paid clergyman. The Scriptures seem to suggest that the primary purposes of the Church are to worship God; to guide and prepare people to become vibrant disciples of Christ; to serve people by addressing their needs; to love God and people in consistent and tangible ways, including through sharing the hope of the Gospel; and to obey God’s commands, as conveyed through the Bible. Obedience, in particular, covers a lot of ground, since the Bible contains so many principles and commands relayed by God to His people. Another way of understanding what the Church should look like is to examine the early Church in the first eight chapters in the Book of Acts.
“The Gospel” in the New Testament is not just “trust Jesus and be forgiven of your sins and grow in holiness and go to Heaven”…though that is certainly true, and that is the heart of the Gospel. No, the Gospel is God’s good news about all of life! Jesus said:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” [Matt. 28:19-20]. The phrase “all that I have commanded you” means more than John 3:16. All that Jesus commanded includes everything that He taught as recorded in the four Gospels. But what about the Old Testament? Since Jesus and the apostles repeatedly relied on the Old Testament as the Word of God, we also receive the Old Testament Scriptures on the authority of Jesus and His apostles. Therefore, “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” means that we should faithfully teach the entire Bible to those who become disciples of Jesus. Preaching “the whole Gospel” must also include preaching what the Bible says about civil government. That means that Christians will learn from the Bible how to influence governments for good. Since these things are taught in the Bible, God must count them important for the advance of His kingdom and His purposes on the earth. Does Christian political activism do any spiritual good? If it is part of what God teaches us in Scripture, then of course it does spiritual good, because it is something that pleases God. The two vital ways to protect America’s foundations are to ensure that religion and morality are the true, life-giving foundation of our own personal lives and to elect civil leaders who will “respect and cherish” these twin supports of “religion and morality” as the “great pillars of human happiness”. “…if the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” [Psalm 11:3].
The Church has a major part to play in the condition of our ‘ship of state’ and the course it will need to steer if it is to avoid the ‘shoal waters’ that have destroyed so many other ‘ships of state’. If some combination of these objectives form the ultimate purpose of God’s Church, how is that body of people doing in America in early twenty-first century? Are we letting Christians who come up against the government ‘fend’ for themselves or are we letting Christian based legal firms have to stand in the place of the church? Next week we will start to look at the health of the Church.
– Bob Munsey