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The purpose of the church

“The most valuable work a church can perform is to so minister to individual Christian lives that they shall enter into the presence of God for themselves and have a faith that will outlast and outlive all external helps.” --IJ Van Ness

I came across this quote when doing some reading, and I’ve been staring at it off and on for the day. It’s connected to the heart of a frequent discussion these days: What is the purpose of the church?

To some, the church is about providing social services to as many as possible. This isn’t a totally bad work of God’s people, as even James 1:27 reminds us that pure and undefiled religion is looking after widows and orphans. Then there is the need to help find solutions for children in need of adoption and temporary care, families that are facing difficult times, and the ever-present need to feed the hungry.

To others, the church is about education. The church should be teaching children to be moral, wives to be submissive, husbands to be leaders, and teens to be sober and abstinent. When there are needs for education in the community, the church could be there to help with job training or placement.

Still others see in the church the institution of right-thinking government policy. Whether as a haven for immigrants or the bulwark of pure Americana, the supporter of military action or the agitator for peace, there are a dozen other ideas, and they tend to be in conflict. The church shouldn’t support government overreach into people’s lives and yet how can we idly let people face illness without access to medicine? The church enjoys much liberty in America and yet we see the risk of extending that liberty to others, and the conundrums carry on.

A few see the church as the center of revolution in this world. Whether it’s to overthrow rampant capitalism or fight against DC tyranny, the church should grip the Word with one hand and the sword with another! Some would even allow firearms, and suggest the church be the center of the community’s armory.

Yet more see the church as the center of social life. Whatever event goes on, whoever needs people for a party, wedding shower, funeral, or baby shower, the church is there to provide that experience. It’s the place to meet people, have friends and grow.

Of these many suggestions, what should the church focus on? Dr. Van Ness has provided an excellent point about what should be most valued: the church exists to strengthen God’s people to do what they are capable of doing.

I see in Scripture that the Christian faith is a faith of individuals lived out in the midst of people, in the midst of community, and this is what the church helps establish. Why? Is not the church the place for all of these other things?

Actually it’s not. The church is not the place to care for orphans and widows. Your home is. My home is. Likewise with many of the other issues listed. The church, rather, is the place where we gather to be strengthened so that we can do those things. When we try to do all things as “the church” rather than as individuals, it’s too easy to shirk our own responsibility, whether for our growth, our families, or our voting.

The church is the center point for our understanding of what it is to be a follower of Christ, the center point for our encouragement to grow in that following, but should not become the substitute for our own doing and growing.

What do you think?

Generally: what is the purpose of churches?

Personally: Why do you attend, or not attend, a church?

Corrections? Arguments? Disputations? (Not dispensations. That’s a different subject!)

Doug

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