What is the nature and purpose of the Church?

Language is great. It’s powerful. It’s how we communicate to one another. But language, at times, is also confusing. In English, the word “church” can be misunderstood. When talking about the church, exactly to what is one referring? The building? The activities? The people? Something bigger?

Church has commonly been defined in two ways, distinguished by using capitalization. There’s a big “C” Church and a little “c” church. In most conversations, when people talk about church they are referring to a place or a particular congregation. They say, “Let’s go to church” or “I am part of such-in-such Baptist church.” I would give both of those a lower case “c”. They are used in reference to the places and people that you can actually visit in your hometown. But capital “C” Church is something bigger.

At its core, the Church is the world-wide, history-spanning, denominationally-friendly group of people that all confess “Jesus is Lord.” They are bonded together in love through the Holy Spirit and committed to a shared mission. The Church is a people, not a place. We are an entity that cannot be cornered and cannot be seen because we are dispersed across the globe. To some, the Church may look like it has become an institution, but at its root it is a spiritual organism.

Jesus founded the Church. We are a fellowship – a movement – that began when Jesus first called those who heard his message to be his disciples. We read in the Old Testament how God called the nation Israel into a special relationship with himself, and then when Jesus came to earth, he formed a community for the glory of God that no longer was bound by ethnicity but was extended to all who desire to live in a covenantal relationship with God.

The Church consists of all people in all places who share this fundamental faith commitment. We submit to Jesus as Lord. This submission entails a devotion not only to God but also to one another and to the world. Each member senses a responsibility to nurture the confession of Christ in others. The bond between us is great. The Holy Spirit brings us to knowledge of Jesus’ lordship and is the bond which links us to be a unified people.

We have a special consciousness of our fellow Church members around the world; we know they are there and we pray for them. The most concrete expression of the Church is seen in the “local church” – the fellowship of believers gathered in a specific location. This is little “c” church – because it is not the entire Church – but it should still be understood in terms of people and not in terms of a building. The people who attend the services in your church building may or may not be a part of the big “C” Church – because they may still be seeking God and have yet to trust Jesus as Lord. Our local churches tend to be groups of people who have gathered together out of personal preferences and desires – perhaps they all like worshipping God through hymns instead of contemporary music, or they believe prayer and silence need to be elevated over evangelism. Local churches are as diverse as people are diverse. And if we look at our history, we will see many examples of times that our differences have brought out the worst in us – instances where we hurt each other, slandered each other, and brought down the name of Christ. It is a shameful past. Even today, people in the Church are doing many shameful things to those inside and outside of it. Perhaps you have witnessed or been a victim of hatred or distrust or intolerance or worse. If so, I am truly sorry that you have experienced that.

This leads us to another important aspect of the nature of the Church: it is made up of sinful humans. While it is true that those humans have been saved from the punishment of their sins and, with the Spirit’s help, have committed to being a holy people after God’s heart, it is also true that they are all going to mess up and sometimes act out of their selfish, sinful selves. They are being conformed into Christ’s likeness, but they are not there yet. It is confounding that God trusts his message and mission to all these broken people. But we are also a redeemed people, and in spite of all the flaws, God’s Church has continued through the centuries. Instead of dwelling on our problems, let us look at God’s purposes for the Church. Boiling it down, God has given us three main tasks: worship God, love one another, and minister to others.

Our first task is to worship God. It is God’s will that we “might live for the praise of his glory.” The motivation behind all of our planning, goals, and actions center on our desire to glorify God. Our weekly meetings are called “worship services.” We offer praise to God – for who God is, for creating us, and for saving us. Each of us can individually worship God through our hearts and actions all day long, but God desires for us to come together regularly to offer corporate worship and mutual encouragement. Paul wrote in Hebrews 10:25 that we are not to neglect meeting together.

Another purpose of the Church is to love one another. Jesus prayed that we would all be one. Our love for each other is a reflection of what God is like, and this glorifies him. We are to care for one another and build each other up so all believers might become spiritually mature. Sympathy, compassion, harmony, support, mutual intercession, accountability, and ministry: these are the things that we are to do and have for each other. We need one another. A Christian is not complete without the Church. The presence of other Christians can be difficult, but it is a source of incomparable joy and strength. We are not meant to live alone. The theologian Augustine even went to the extent of saying, “He cannot have God as a Father who will not have the Church for his mother.”

Finally, we minister to others. Jesus gave us a common mission: we are to make disciples. We have the awesome privilege and tremendous responsibility to bring the good news of Jesus to all people. The Church cares for its own members, but it is ultimately outward-focused, reflecting the heart of God which desires all people to experience eternal life. We go about this “ministry of reconciliation,” serving as Christ’s ambassadors and entreating others to be reconciled to God, predominantly through proclamation and service. As we evangelize, we verbalize the story and we perform sacrificial ministry to people in need. The two cannot be separated. And as people are drawn in by the love they are shown and by the story of God’s salvation, we are to call them to participate in the community of God, the Church. “Jesus’ evangelization was kingdom evangelization.” It is through Christians’ testimonies and service that the Church has continued through the ages. “Bearing fruit” like this glorifies the Father.

The Body of Christ, the Nation of God, the Temple of the Spirit – these are all word-pictures for the Church. Though it has great potential to hurt us, none of us would know God if it wasn’t for the Church. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas put it like this: “Saints cannot exist without a community, as they require, like all of us, nurturance by a people who, while often unfaithful, preserve the habits necessary to learn the story of God.” 

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