There is much debate in the modern church about what exactly is her mission. Often the answer that is given is not so much wrong as lop-sided, and exaggerated implications and conclusions are drawn from that. There are probably three main views: the Church exists to glorify God; the Church exists to build up the saints; and the Church exists for mission, to evangelise the world. These three views should not be played off against one another, and a grasp of each one will prevent us from misinterpreting any one of them.
The Church’s first task, surely, is to glorify God. Paul says that ‘whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God’ (1 Cor.10:31). Earlier in 1 Corinthians, Paul had said, in the context of sexual ethics, that we are to glorify God in our bodies (1 Cor.6:20). The unbeliever is meant to see the good deeds of the Christian and go on to glorify God (1 Pet.2:12). The Psalmist tells us of God’s attributes and character in such a way that we are meant to glorify and worship our creator and Lord: ‘Your righteousness, O God, reaches the high heavens. You who have done great things, O God, who is like You?’ (Ps.71:19)
In fact, ‘Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, and His greatness is unsearchable’ (Psalm 145:3). This is to be reflected in our meetings together. They are not just to be where we are encouraged or learn something that is handy for daily living. The priority is not that we ‘get something’ out of the service. Rather, it is that God is glorified with true adoration and praise. Paul holds out the hope that an unbeliever or outsider might enter the meeting, and be convicted and called to account. The secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that He is present (1 Cor.14:24-25). Fellowship is to be found amongst Christians, yes, but also with the Father and the Son, Jesus Christ (1 John 1:3). This takes us out of ourselves when we pray, we hear the Word of God, and we sing His praises. We are meant to be glorifying God more than satisfying our needs. There is an ever-present danger that expedience or the desire to be relevant may entice us to follow Nadab and Abihu in offering up profane fire to the Lord (see Lev.10:1-3). The Psalmist’s perspective must be a constant corrective: ‘Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to Your name give glory, for the sake of Your steadfast love and Your faithfulness’ (Ps.115:1).
The Church’s second task is to edify the saints. Dietrich Bonhoeffer declared that ‘The essence of the church is not to practise theology but to believe and obey the word of God.’ Christopher Ash interprets Bonhoeffer to mean that the Church’s task is to build itself up by the Word of God. In Ash’s words: ‘We reach the world by preaching to the church.’ Certainly, the New Testament places much emphasis on the spiritual growth of those who are Christians. For example, in the epistles at least, Paul prays more frequently for the sanctification of those who are professing Christians than he does for the conversion of those who are not (e.g. Eph.1:15-23; 3:14-21; Phil.1:3-11; Col.1:9-12; 2 Thess.1:3). In keeping with this approach, Paul was concerned that all Christians would see the progress in Timothy (1 Tim.4:15).
In Jeremiah’s day, God promised a repentant people: ‘I will give you shepherds after My own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding’ (Jer.3:15). Jesus told a restored Peter that his task was to feed the sheep (John 21:15-17). Part of meeting together is to stir up one another to love and good works (Heb.10:24-25). Christ gives gifts to His people in order ‘to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ’ (Eph.4:12).
The third task is to evangelise the world. In 1839 Alexander Duff preached at the ordination service of Thomas Smith, who was leaving for work in India, from where Duff had just come and to where he was just returning. The sermon was published with the title ‘Missions the Chief End of the Christian Church’. It was based on Psalm 67:1-2 (which the published edition mistakenly identified as Psalm 47:1-2): ‘God be merciful unto us, and bless us; and cause his face to shine upon us. That thy way may be known upon earth, thy saving health among all nations.’ Duff’s opening sentence was: ‘The Royal Psalmist, in the spirit of inspiration, personating the Church of the redeemed in every age, and more especially under its last and most perfect dispensation, here offers up a sublime prayer for its inward prosperity, and outward universal extension.’
God gives us some flexibility in doing this, in that we are to become all things to all people that we might save some (1 Cor.9:22). Some, however, have combined this with the evangelistic commission to the point where the unbelieving world almost dictates what takes place in the church buildings on Sunday. A better and more biblical approach would seem to be that the Church as it meets ought to desire three things: to glorify God, to build up Christians, and to evangelise unbelievers. These three aims need to be kept together. As Scripture says in another context, a threefold cord is not quickly broken (Eccles.4:12).