Sunday, September 7, 2008

Purpose of The Local Church

Great post by Tony Payne!

Is church for evangelism?
Apologies for posing what, at first glance, may seem an obvious and even silly question, but it's one I've pondering lately: is evangelism a key purpose of Christian assemblies (or ‘churches’)?
Now, at the very least, we would have to say, “Yes, evangelism should and will happen in Christian assemblies, because of their very nature as places where the word of God is prayerfully proclaimed”. In any true Christian gathering, the gospel will be taught and heard, and since outsiders or non-Christians will often be present (by invitation or otherwise), evangelism, by definition, will take place.

There's another sense in which the answer is yes: the Christian assembly functions as a testimony to Christ by its very existence. This is Paul's point in Ephesians 3. In the assembly, God's manifold wisdom is on display as he brings together Jew and Gentile in one new humanity. Mind you, in Ephesians 3, it's the powers in the heavenly places who receive this testimony, so maybe it doesn't really qualify as ‘evangelism’ in the normal sense.

However, even if we acknowledge that there will be ‘gospel’ things happening all over the place in church, it is also important to say that evangelism is not the purpose of Christian assemblies. It is certainly not their focus. In the New Testament, churches are characteristically the fruit of evangelism, not its agent. Evangelism usually takes place outside the assembly—in the marketplace, the synagogue, the prison, and in daily gospel conversation.

More to the point, theologically, the Christian assembly is a fellowship of the redeemed. It is a manifestation, as well as an anticipation or foretaste, of the great assembly that Christ is building—the assembly of the firstborn in heaven that will be revealed on the last Day (Heb 12:22-24). The purpose of our earthly assemblies, therefore, is to fellowship together in what we already share—our union with Christ—as we listen to and respond to him together, and build his assembly by the words we speak.

This runs counter to the common (although often unspoken) assumption that one of the main aims of a church gathering is to be attractive to non-Christians—to draw them in, to intrigue them, and to evangelize them. Perhaps it's a legacy of the parish model, where those attending the Sunday assembly were often not Christians at all, and evangelism consisted of preaching the gospel to them. Or perhaps it is the influence of the seeker-service model, where the main aim is to attract and win over unchurched Harry. Or maybe it's a bit of both.

There is an important difference, it seems to me, between running a Christian gathering whose focus is on evangelizing the outsider, and running a Christian gathering that is welcoming and intelligible for the outsider, but where the focus is on fellowship with Christ, in speaking, hearing and responding to his word.

1. When we talk about ‘Christian assembly’, are we talking about any assembly of Christian for Christian purposes (such as a big evangelistic assembly in the town hall)? Or about the local, regular assembly of the believers to whom Paul addresses his letters. Both are assemblies of course (by definition!), and we see both of different kinds in the NT, but I was talking mainly about the latter in my post.

2. I’ve come to think that the local, regular assembly of the believers is not the primary focus for evangelism—that is, for breaking new ground and preaching the gospel to unbelievers. (And see all the caveats in my post re: 1 Cor 14 and the rest.)

3. What’s the cash value of all this? We need to focus on getting our regular assemblies to meet their fundamental purposes, and if we do so in a way that is culturally accessible and intelligible to the believers, it will be likewise to the visitors or unbeleivers present. The only strange or offensive thing should be the Word of God.

I fear that by thinking of our regular Sunday assemblies as a (or the) primary theatre for evangelism/outreach, we fail on both counts—the assemblies fall short of their purposes for the believers, but also aren’t really that compelling for the unbelievers.

I think some confusion exists because of the misunderstanding of the role of the Evangelist...he is primarily an equipper of the church, by precept and example of course. But it is the believer, going about his everyday life that is to do the bulk of evangelism. The reason we have "seeker" churches and "mission" churches to begin with, is that the church has failed to equip the believer in evangelism.

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