The church in the western world is losing numbers and influence. Should we christians be worried?
Is church as we know it important? And if so, why?
Is the church about worship?
Perhaps the main purpose of the church is to worship God? But this view doesn’t seem to follow what the New Testament has to say:
- The word ‘worship’ is not used in the New Testament in the sense we use it today – to describe singing and praying when we meet together. The only thing that comes close is Acts 13:2: ‘While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them’, and there the worship was very action-oriented.
- Several Greek words are translated as “worship” in the New Testament, but they all mean serving and submitting to God in everything we do – Romans 12:1-2 and Matthew 14:33 are examples. Thus christians worship God in all of our lives, and we don’t need to go to church to do it. Certainly singing and praying can be worship, but worship doesn’t seem to be the main reason the first christians gathered together.
- In several places where the word ‘worship’ appears in our English text – e.g. 1 Corinthians 14:1, 26 – it has been added even though it is not there in the Greek.
- The New Testament suggests that the purpose of church is to encourage each other to grow to maturity in Jesus (Hebrews 10:25) and to equip each other for the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:11-12).
- Jesus (Matthew 21:28-31) and the New Testament (James 1:22-25) make it clear that words without deeds are not pleasing to God. Unless our worship leads on to action, it is not serving God’s purposes.
So if meeting together to sing, hear a sermon or pray results in us being more obedient to Jesus (John 14:23), then the church has value. Otherwise it may be little more than a lot of noise (1 Corinthians 13:1).
So what does Jesus call us to do?
Obviously Jesus gave us many commands about how we should behave and what he wants us to do, but how to sum them up? Most christians agree that one of Jesus’ most important commands to us, which gives the church its purpose, is the so-called ‘Great Commission’, as expressed by Jesus in Matthew 28:19-20:
“go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you”
Two aspects stand out to me here:
- We are not called to passive worship of God, to get people to come to church, or even to make converts, but to ‘make disciples‘ – that is, people who are actively following their master, as we should be.
- In calling us to obey everything he commanded, Jesus is calling us to carry on his mission to establish the kingdom of God.
Jesus, the kingdom and us
Jesus was very clear that his mission was announcing and establishing God’s kingdom on earth (Mark 1:14-15). And Luke 4:16-27 shows he saw himself as carrying out the ministry prophesied by Isaiah, specifically:
he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
I can only conclude that Jesus’ purpose for the church is for us proclaim God’s favour via freeing and healing people, and to assist people to follow him as their leader. Successful church services, beautiful worship or erudite sermons may help us to achieve that, but the evidence is that they are not very effective right now. Something’s got to change.
Could it be that many of us “go to church” out of comfortable habit, even though it isn’t doing much to carry out the task we have been given?