What an impertinent question! Why would you even ask such a thing? The church is the body of Jesus Christ. Jesus gathers and builds the church, and it belongs to him!
When asked to wrestle with the probing title question, our initial reaction was the same. Yet the question gives us each an opportunity to respond with our understanding about what the church means to us. And it’s one that many people in our post-Christian and increasingly unchurched culture are asking. It’s important for us to have ready and appropriate responses.
So please think about it with us, and join our conversation as we share some of our reflections.
Allen: Jul, this question provoked some of my strong convictions about the church. As one who values good biblical theology (with a Reformed accent), I’m inclined to respond with fundamental biblical teachings to the opening sentences above. The church is the creation of the Holy Spirit. The church is the people of God who are called out to be God’s family, the bride of Jesus Christ. But we know each other well and can assume these common understandings.
My view of the church has been shaped by my long ministry journey as a church planter and later work with church planters. That journey began with the call I received in Dr. Robert Recker’s mission class at Calvin Seminary to be a “missionary pastor.” That’s where I first heard the concept of missio Dei (mission of God). I can recall vividly how with passion and tears in his eyes, Dr. Recker shared about God’s love for the world—a missionary God who sent his Son, the Holy Spirit, and the church into the world to fulfill his reconciling mission of love. I’ve never been the same since.
I was convicted by Jesus’ invitation, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21). From then on I believed what Dietrich Bonhoeffer said so profoundly, “The church is only the church when it exists for others.”
I’m concerned about the lack of support for the above in the way churches practice ministry. Obviously no one would openly deny Jesus’ call and challenge, “So I send you.” But saying that the church is a missionary church and working out the implications of that tends to encounter resistance. Too many congregational meetings betray a “church for us” rather than a “church for others” belief. It has taken us a long time to see North America as a mission field. We still tend to think of the church as doing mission (or missions) rather than understanding mission as an essential part of its nature. Or, as the Reformed missiologist Craig Van Gelder says, “God’s mission has a church.”
So, Jul, what do you think? Does your church have a right to exist?
Jul: In a culture that’s increasingly unchurched, people see the church as increasingly irrelevant. Allen, you laid out well some of the biblical, historical answers to the original question, but I think the question has changed for most people. I think today’s culture is asking, “Why does your church exist?” and even, “What is a church?”
If the local church gives the impression that they exist for themselves as some type of “holier than thou” gathering, then the heart of the church will not connect with the mission field that begins just outside the doorways of the church building.
But when the church is engaged with the community and the needs of that community, it is being “salt and light” (Matt. 5:13-16). When we let that light shine, so that the world may see our good deeds, they will praise our Father in heaven. Worship is an outgrowth of mission.
Every church probably would say that we exist for others, not for ourselves—but are we willing to submit our programs and ministries to a “mission” test? The world is looking for people who live out their faith convictions.
One of our Reformed accents is the understanding that Word and deed ministry is a balanced presentation of the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. I’m extremely encouraged by newer church plants that come alongside and serve within their communities. The “Communities First” initiative, by the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, has helped shaped the next wave of church planters.
I would challenge a church wrestling with the question of their “right” to exist to create an inventory of where and how they can make points of Kingdom contact with the local community. I come to this question as a founding pastor of a church that had to “prove” to the community that we were there for them and not for ourselves. Our witness of the Kingdom was made brighter by such ministries as Divorce Care, Celebrate Recovery, and Cadet and GEMS boys’ and girls’ programs that were always “making room for one more.”
I suggest that we’re entering an era in which the local church is always on the edge of being alienated from the world to which it was sent to by Jesus. A local church that is alienated from that world may follow a strategy of separation from the world, but there is another more biblical directive—to transform the world by sharing the good news of Jesus Christ.
One of the bright lights in the Christian Reformed Church shines in our discussions on what biblical church health looks like and on our understanding that the church is about “transforming lives and communities worldwide.” A local church that is not involved in trans-forming lives and the local community is not fully developing as a church. It is in danger of becoming merely a social club and “playing” church rather than being the church. Such a church gives up its rootedness in Christ and as such gives up its “right” to exist.
As a former lawyer, I would argue that with rights there are also responsibilities. For a local church to have the “right” to exist, the church must be aware of their responsibilities as well.
Allen, what do you think are some of the responsibilities of the local church?
Allen: As I pondered your question about responsibilities, my thoughts turned to Matthew 9. As Jesus was deeply engaged in his teaching and healing ministry, his eyes embraced and his heart was broken for the lonely, shepherdless “sheep.” The church cannot be the church for others and step into its missionary calling apart from a deep, intimate relationship with Jesus. Only then, with Jesus’ eyes and heart of compassion, will we be motivated to reach out with the whole gospel to the whole person and the whole community (including its institutions and social fabric). So at the center of the church’s responsibility is inviting Christ followers into an ever-deeper relationship with Jesus. As Leighton Ford once said so succinctly, “We need to lead more like Jesus to lead more to Jesus.”
This responsibility involves following Jesus’ model of the incarnation. We are sent as Jesus was sent. John 1:14 tells of Jesus’ total entrance into the life and world of those he came to love and save. We can do no less. A missionary church has the responsibility to “dwell among” the people of the community it is called to serve. Jesus demonstrated the intimate relationships required as he practiced eating and spending time with “sinners” (Luke 15:1).
Like you, my experience with living this out happened
primarily in church plants. We intentionally inventoried the places in our lives where we regularly saw the same people. We sought to match our gifts with opportunities to be involved in community organizations. These “spheres of influence” are the locations of mission for the followers of Christ. The responsibility of the church is to help Christ followers to be “salt and light” in these places.
When we discover and live out our missionary roles, we grow and thrive spiritually. Congregations likewise grow and thrive.
In answering your question, Jul, I’d summarize my response this way: the responsibility of the church is to be an incarnational church. Be the heart and hands of Jesus and practice the incarnational behaviors of Jesus. Discover ways to “serve” the community as Christ followers, to “be all things” to them in the way Paul expresses (1 Cor. 9:19ff).
I’m curious Jul, as the church planting and development team Leader for our denomination, how does this impact the strategy of church planting? And how does planting churches influence or help other churches to be engaged in Christ’s mission?
Jul: In my early years as a church planter, I was asked a number of times, “So, when are you building the church?” Those folks meant, as I’m sure you guessed, the actual brick and mortar of a church building. It wasn’t long before we began giving this answer: “We are building the church now, one life at a time.”
Building a community is a whole-heart endeavor where a planter needs to reflect the passion that Paul identifies: “Because we loved you so much, we delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well” (1 Thess. 2:8, TNIV).
A recent gathering of urban church planters illustrated the mosaic of ways they are connecting and serving in their communities. I have one image in mind of Pastor John Hoekwater of Chicago walking outside the “Common Cup” coffee shop set up by the church and managed by John’s wife, Ruth. They minister on the street, in the coffee shop, and in a cooperative space-sharing ministry with many, many others in the Rogers Park neighborhood. This type of ministry isn’t into quick fixes or “seven steps to a better family,” but focuses on presenting the full gospel of Christ.
I have also seen a developing dialogue between what some would call “established” churches and church plants. We can and should learn from one another. All of us face the same challenge—how to faithfully and fruitfully be witnesses for Jesus Christ in this world. One of the ways I’ve seen this being worked out is through the development of clusters or networks—whether in Seattle, the San Francisco Bay area, or Calgary—where leaders from many churches come together to challenge and learn from one another. Clusters and networks will be one of the key ways that we not only plant churches but also nourish them.
Allen, we started this conversation by noting that the church is the body of Christ. Rather than just recite a definition, we have the opportunity to paint a picture—a picture of the people of God at work in a community, a picture in which the ones who are “sent” also serve.
When we are the body of Christ in this world, we are the hope of the world, and we are the firstfruits of the kingdom of God. We exist because Jesus Christ is formed in us and through us. What an adventure! What a calling!
The Church at Work
In their Church Planter Manual, Timothy J. Keller and J. Allen Thompson answer the question What does true community look like? with the following:
We are to be
- an accepting community reflecting the grace we’ve been given from Christ.
- a holy community that urges one another to live God-pleasing lives.
- a truth-telling community that is free to repent and free to allow others to repent, because of the gospel.
- an encouraging community that builds one another up.
- a sacrificially generous community that spends its life
- and wealth on the needs of others.
- What was your reaction to the title of this article?
- One of the authors says, “A local church that is not involved in transforming lives and the local community is not fully developing as a church. It is in danger of becoming merely a social club and ‘playing’ church rather than being the church.” Explain why you agree or disagree.
- Allen says that “the church cannot be the church for others . . . apart from a deep, intimate relationship with Jesus. How do we develop this relationship with Jesus? What stands in the way?
- Give examples of how you church “dwells among the people of the community.”
- What ideas in this article inspire and motivate you? How can you carry these forward and share them with your church?