Have you ever wondered what the purpose of the church is?
The great temptation for Christians is to think that church is all about an experience—the service, music, and preaching—whose purpose is to do something for me; boost me up for the week; help me have a better marriage; teach me strategies on how to do this or that better. This turns the role of the church into something that is all about me. If you think about it, this concept is quite pagan, actually.
So what is the church about then? In trying to answer this question, it’s helpful to look at the example of the New Testament. This is very broad, but there are two primary characteristics that we find that the early believers lived out:
1. They had a special message
What was the message of the early believers? It was very simple: Jesus is Lord. He is God. This is what they went about preaching and teaching for the rest of their lives after the resurrection. This was their central refrain.
The truth is that such a message, by itself, would not have gotten very far. A spoken word never does. After all, they were saying something that would have been completely foreign to the Jews around them, but also to the broader culture. Note this lesson: The proclaimed message of the Gospel always comes across as a foreign language. People can’t understand it. Lesslie Newbigin says: “I have come to feel that the primary reality of which we have to take account in seeking for a Christian impact on public life is the Christian congregation. How is it possible that the gospel should be credible, that people should come to believe that the power which has the last word in human affairs is represented by a man hanging on a cross?”
A message of a man on a cross, Newbigin is saying, just doesn’t hold much credibility. Why? Because it doesn’t make sense. It’s a foreign language, which must be interpreted. This bring us to our next point.
2. They had a special method
I feel uncomfortable calling it a method, because it wasn’t really one, but there was a certain way that the believers lived—they lived out what Scripture was calling them to do. Here are some examples from Scripture:
Isaiah 1:17—“Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of the orphans. Fight for the rights of widows.”
Matthew 5:16—”Let your light so shine, that they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven.”
1 Peter 2:12—“Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors. Then, even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will give honor to God when he judges the world.” (NLT)
Alan Kreider, in his book The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom, gives us a little more insight into what their lives looked like:
“Why should a well-off pagan woman join a voluntary community about whose members’ welfare she is passionately interested? Why should she go into the hovels of the poor? Why should she enter prison to visit the martyrs or kiss their chains–or worse kiss one of the brethren? Why should she invite a visiting “brother” to stay in their home? Or share her food and drink with other church members? All these things were disturbing for the non-Christian husband…” (p. 13).
And yet, he notes that “Men, like women, according to Tertullian, became Christians because the Christians, marginal though they were, were intriguingly attractive.”
So let’s review what we have so far. The Christians had a special message—that Jesus is Lord—but they also lived life in such a counter-cultural way that it proved irresistibly attractive.
Check out this complete quote from Lesslie Newbigin:
“I have come to feel that the primary reality of which we have to take account in seeking for a Christian impact on public life is the Christian congregation. How is it possible that the gospel should be credible, that people should come to believe that the power which has the last word in human affairs is represented by a man hanging on a cross?
I am suggesting that the only answer, the only hermeneutic of the gospel, is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it. I am, of course, not denying the importance of the many activities by which we seek to challenge public life with the gospel– evangelistic campaigns, distribution of Bibles and Christian literature, conferences, and even books such as this one.
But I am saying that these are all secondary, and that they have power to accomplish their purpose only as they are rooted in and lead back to a believing community.” —The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society, 127.
Did you catch what he says regarding the role of the church? Newbigin says that the church is a “hermeneutic” of the Gospel. A hermeneutic, of course, is a method of interpretation. In other words, people can only come to understand what the gospel means—this message of the gospel and of a man on the cross—when a community of believers actually lives out the message. When a community of believers heals, serves, and ministers in the name of Jesus (method), it translates the gospel and helps people understand what it means when the believers say that “God is love” (the message).
Jeff Vanderstelt has said: “Live in such a way that your life demands an explanation of the gospel.” I love that.
Here’s two more quick quotes along this theme:
It is only by an unselfish interest in those in need of help that we can give a practical demonstration of the truths of the gospel.” —Welfare Ministry, Ellen White.
The Saviour gave the disciples practical lessons, teaching them how to work in such a way as to make souls glad in the truth. He sympathized with the weary, the heavy laden, the oppressed. He fed the hungry and healed the sick. Constantly He went about doing good. By the good He accomplished, by His loving words and kindly deeds, He interpreted the gospel to men. -Welfare Ministry, Ellen White.
Again, did you catch the theme? She notes that when we serve people and live out the message of Jesus, it gives a practical demonstration of what the gospel means. The second quote is even clearer. According to White, “living” the words of Jesus by doing good helps to “interpret” the gospel. Remember, the story of the gospel really is a foreign language that culture doesn’t understand. But when we serve in the name of Jesus, it helps people to understand what it means that God is love, because they can see you living it out.
Sadly, many churches only live out the first component, that of the message. They think church is all about the preaching and the weekend worship service. That’s why Christianity seems like such an insular and unexciting prospect to most unchurches people. David Kinnaman delineates this concept well in his book UnChristian.
So what do you think? What would it look like if you and your church actually began living this out? To leave a comment click here.
[image by keeva999]