The church has been an integral part of our communities for several centuries. One only needs to look at the skyline of almost any town in America or of any city in Europe to see the towering spirals of steeples and spires indicating the presence of church buildings below.
But the landscape is changing. Now churches meet in former malls and shopping plazas, in rented school buildings, homes, or hotel meeting rooms. Some churches even gather in secret, sometimes virtually underground, hidden from the oppressive view of local authorities.
The creative architecture of church buildings is as varied as the area in which the structure is located. The structure and programming of individual churches are also wide-ranging, probably depending upon the culture in which the church is positioned. The New Testament also chronicles a vast diversity of local churches as God’s missionary endeavors to spread the gospel traveled from Jerusalem to Rome and beyond.
It’s interesting and important to note that “cookie-cutter” churches were never God’s intent. The early church in Jerusalem had qualities and functions (Acts 2:44-47) that were entirely different than other New Testament churches. Even the second church chronologically mentioned in Acts, the church in Antioch (Acts 11:19-26), did things quite differently than the first local church in Jerusalem. By the time of the conclusion of the New Testament (Revelation 2-3), it was obvious that each local church had unique characteristics that were different from the others.
American and global churches today are obviously quite distinct. From mega-churches to house-churches, God’s people gather in a variety of places and settings — and yet they gather for the same grand purpose. The church is God’s idea and is God’s plan (Matthew 16:18), and no matter what the building looks like or how the programs are organized, the church must be absolutely committed to what God wants His church to be.
Opposing Views of the Church
There are two common but seemingly opposing views of the purpose of the church.
1. The local church exists for evangelism. There are some who advocate the idea that churches exist primarily to reach people for Christ. They identify passages like Acts 1:8 to reach the conclusion that the purpose of the church is for evangelism. For example, this was the view espoused by the “seeker-sensitive church” movement a few years ago and the “soul-winning” emphasis a few decades ago.
Reaching the lost for Christ is the purpose that drives everything the church does — from the design of the building to the implementation of programming, to the structure of the meetings and services.
2. The local church exists for discipleship. The contrary perspective is that the church exists predominantly to disciple believers. They look to Matthew 28:19-20 as the mandate to “make disciples.” These churches promote the idea that the church should put all its energy into developing and producing mature followers of Christ. The pastoral teaching ministries of well-known, evangelical voices like John MacArthur and John Piper fit this model of ministry. Building up the body of Christ is the grand mission that drives the church’s function and structure.
A Balanced View of the Church
Perhaps there is a balanced view that offers a true combination of these two perspectives. There is a pivotal text that provides answers to this question that is found in Ephesians 4:11-16. In this passage, church leaders, like “evangelists” and “pastor-teachers” are given the imperative to “equip,” or to complete, or instruct, believers to serve the Lord, which in turn, builds up the entire body of Christ — the church.
This particular passage of Scripture presents a true balance of the two seemingly conflicting viewpoints — and the balance must be a combination of the two. An examination of this text of Scripture reveals that both emphases are absolutely essential for any local church. In other words, the church exists to reach people for Christ and to disciple them to maturity in Christ. Both evangelism and discipleship are crucial, and they must be practiced in unison with each other.
As one reads this passage, the importance of true spiritual growth is obviously the emphasis. Several key phrases reinforce the point the Apostle Paul is trying to make to his readers in Ephesus.
5 Important Statements for the Church
There are five key statements with five corresponding principles in the New King James Version of Ephesians 4:15-16, which will help clarify the balanced purpose for the church. Plus, these statements, when developed and then implemented in concert with each other in a church setting, help explain and demonstrate God’s real purpose for His church.
1. Spiritual maturity
God designed His church to be a catalyst for spiritual growth. The language here uses a familiar visual illustration of a child growing into maturity. This truth, of course, must include the idea that there has been a “new birth-experience” (John 3:7), and so reaching people for Christ is intrinsically involved. Therefore, it is imperative for the church to be about the task of seeing people come to Christ and helping them grow towards maturity in Christ.
The concept of a community of believers is essential to God’s plan for His church. The Bible uses the following words as apt descriptors for the church: people, body, household, and family. It’s obvious from Scripture that God wants His people to grow and mature within a community of unity and togetherness. It was never God’s intent for His followers to practice their faith in a vacuum away from other believers. New converts need the fellowship and community of a body of other believers to truly become all that God has for them to be.
This passage also points out that a tangible commitment to the local church is what the Lord intends from His people. He doesn’t want only a select few of His followers to do their part while the majority of other church attendees sit on the sidelines uninvolved. The church is at its best when every believer is devoted to the mission of His church.
Serving the Lord must be at the center of every local church’s programming and functions. This passage is clear that God wants each believer to actively serve Him by ministering to others in and through their local church. Obviously, salvation, when a person puts their faith and trust in Christ, is when the process of service begins.
Scripture also presents the idea that every believer is the recipient of God-given spiritual gifts, which are God’s enabling ability to effectively serve Him (1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12:3-8). It was never God’s intent for the church to be a “spectator sport” where people show up on Sunday mornings to watch others perform. God expects every Christ-follower to use their natural abilities and spiritual gifts to faithfully serve Him.
The end result of the local church operating as Christ intended is that the church will grow — both spiritually and numerically. Growing churches do not depend upon some man-made plan or program. The Bible is clear that God wants each of His people to intentionally, actively, and faithfully share their faith with others. However, evangelism is to be done through the church where those who come to Christ can grow in Him and also participate in the church’s mission.
What Does This Mean?
It’s obvious that churches vary in size, shape, geography, and function. Some churches emphasize one aspect of the church’s purpose and others focus on the proverbial other side of the coin. But the church exists to reach people for Christ and to disciple them to maturity in Christ. Both of those priorities are absolutely essential and should be practiced in harmony by each local church.
Mel Walker is the president of Vision For Youth, Inc., an international network of youth ministry, and he is currently in the process of raising financial support to serve with VFY on a full-time basis. Mel has been actively involved in various aspects of youth ministry for over 45 years. He is also an author, speaker, and consultant with churches. Mel has written 13 books on various subjects relating to youth ministry. More information about his speaking and writing ministry can be found at www.YouthMinistryQuestions.com. Mel & Peggy Walker are the parents of 3 adult children—all of whom are in vocational ministry. You can follow him on Twitter: @vfyouth.