Over the last few decades, I believe that many of us have lost sight of what church is about and are instead gripped and obsessed with modern evangelism techniques in all their shapes and sizes. From seeker sensitivity to the construction of endless cafes, churches up and down the land have neglected the lives of the congregation. This is not healthy.

I should start with the point that I fully believe in mission, reaching people with the gospel, and being the light in our communities. We are called by Christ to ‘go and make disciples of all nations’; so we have a duty to live as ambassadors for the gospel.

‘Therefore 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. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’

Matthew 28:19-20 NIV

You will not find me disputing this, it is paramount to our daily walk.

In this article, you may find yourself disagreeing with the arguments I lay out. I accept that, but I hope it can get us discussing the purpose of church and its gatherings.  My hope and prayer is that the church in our land truly reforms and becomes the salt and light it is meant to be.  In the following paragraphs I will argue that mission is not to become the church’s unhealthy obsession, because when it does we often neglect so much, instead it is to be a place where God is glorified through the meeting of His people.  

The church is not just a mission station

When we examine Paul’s letters we find that his focus is on church life. Often worried about false teaching, Paul urges the churches to be steadfast in their love for Christ and for one another. The church is defined in scripture as a family, brothers and sisters in a body which works for the glory of God. This means that the church should look to the needs of one another as Paul continually notes throughout the letters; it means we must first build each other up, warn one another of failing away, fight the sin and love the church family. We must remember that the church in and of itself is not meant to be solely a mission station, it’s a place where we meet with the Lord, glorify His Name and fellowship together; and this is the differentiation which has been lost in the last few decades.

Acts provides us with the perfect example of this, but we can also find it throughout the letters.

‘All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.’

Acts 4:32-34

‘Now about your love for one another we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. And in fact, you do love all of God’s family throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.’

1 Thessalonians 4:9-12

‘You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.’

Galatians 5:13–15

Paul’s concern for the churches was, on the whole, about the teaching they were receiving and the lives they were living. Yet, today our emphasis is away from these; our theological schools are becoming ever weaker and more liberal, and we wonder why the church is in the state it is? Maybe we have lost something, panicked at our small numbers, and become so fearful that we have forgotten what church actually is. It looks like we have forgotten what Calvin once noted, ‘[The] excellence of the Church does not consist in multitude but in purity.’

What does this mean practically?

Now, I cannot answer this issue in one blog post, but I can start a conversation. In my view, it means that the church service should not be evangelistic as its priority. This has been a problem for many years now; and is now an even bigger concern with the removal of evening services. Believers are no longer being fed with core truths, and are unprepared for the battles ahead. Our services should be shaped by scripture and as noted by Terry L. Johnson in his book Worshipping with Calvin, the Reformers would be horrified by how we have twisted services to either be seeker sensitive, or shaped in a way that meets our individualistic preferences. The latter point cannot be discussed now, but by moving our services to focus on the seeker, we neglect the lives of our brethren, their struggles and worries of life. We forget to lift each other before the throne room, we forget to sing to one another and we fail to get built up in truth. The big irony is that a service that is shaped by scripture and truth will be in its very essence evangelistic as God is glorified and honoured.

It means our songs should not be ‘mission focused’. I have had many conversations over the years regarding music in church where the argument eventually becomes, “well people like it.” Any analysis and reading of Isaiah or Jeremiah or Corinthians tell us this fails at the first hurdle. Our songs, as the Psalms and Paul demonstrate, should teach, instruct, rebuke, whilst giving glory to the Lord.

‘Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.’

Colossians 3:16

When we look at the purpose of singing, it becomes a micro-study of what church really is all about: glorifying God and helping each other run the race. If this truly becomes our priority, it gives glory to God, and in doing so it reaches unbelievers. People sometimes say “well yes, but in the Psalms, it always calls the nations to “glorify the Lord”, and I would agree, but on close inspection, we find that this comes as a result of the truth of the character of God and His relationship with Israel.

It means that the events of the church should not be primarily mission oriented. I often find when things are organised, it is always about getting people into the church. Now, I cannot fault the motives if the genuine reason is to preach the gospel to the world, these are good intentions. Yet, in doing so, there never seems to be events for the church to gather outside the scheduled meetings. Yes, there may be the odd walk or BBQ for the church family, but they always appear to be a rarity. Surely, as a family we must want to gather regularly for all sorts of reasons. Let us not neglect meeting with one another, twice on Sundays, again for prayer and for meals, walks and talks. Acts provides us with the perfect example!

‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.’

Acts 2:42-47

Ah, I can hear you exclaim, “look! The Lord added to the church”, and praise be to God He has added to the church! However, this verse is a response to how the believers lived, how the church acted. I think it actually provides the perfect example of what we can often miss in our churches: fellowship and living differently from the world. Yes, there are evangelists who go out to preach, as in Acts, but the church lives as a family for the glory of God.

We must build up those with the gift of evangelism, and we must not neglect opportunities to witness. The church in Antioch encouraged Paul and Barnabas and sent them on their way as missionaries.

‘One day as these men were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Appoint Barnabas and Saul for the special work to which I have called them.” So after more fasting and prayer, the men laid their hands on them and sent them on their way.’

Acts 13:2-3

We must pray for and encourage the work of spreading the gospel and for believers to be actively involved in mission at home and abroad. But this is not the sole role of the church; did you notice how the church was worshipping? They were ministering to one another, they were hearing the word proclaimed and they were serving. Churches solely focused on evangelism need to get back to being a church, a family, a fellowship!

True church, true mission

We have gone about things the wrong way, we have come to believe that mission is how we build believers and how we do church, it’s most likely why the majority of our theological seminaries have lost their way, I’m certainly reluctant to ever go to one, and also why many young believers are not theologically equipped to run the race. We send young folk out into the mission field, short term mission trips, evangelising the streets, yet they themselves are not nurtured in their own churches. Let’s be honest, churches trust in and rely upon camps, mission trips and festivals to build up the young.  We’ve got it so twisted and it make me so sad, but, I trust in the Lord and I know that if we truly restore church to what it is meant to be, where believers are equipped and built, nurtured and held accountable; then I think it will only be for the benefit of true Christian mission in our land; because not only will we be better equipped, but also we will shine all the brighter.  

Revivalism

I want to spend the last part of this article reflecting on revivals of the past. I have recently been reading Iain Murray’s work on Revival and Revivalism on the train as I have been going up and down England; and the stories he tells of the Lord’s work are inspiring. Yet, we so often get drawn into these remarkable events, the fiery preaching, the converted souls, but forget the everyday, the mundane, the weeping, comforting, the normal aspects of church life that happened alongside these events. What seems to be left out of so many accounts of the revival period is the everyday work of the church; sometimes you get left with the impression that pastors preached and they prayed and that was it. Yet, we very rarely read about the behind the scenes, what happened afterwards, or the impact it had on the church’s life. Murray even notes that many pastors were caught up in the evangelism and failed to see the genuine from the fake. In doing so, they failed the flocks they were serving, and this is a serious issue. I suspect that in genuine revival, and in a well-shepherded flock, the church is a place where love is displayed amongst the congregation in incredible ways.

We should, of course, be longing for revival in our land. We so desperately need it. But we cannot force it or make it ourselves; and if it does happen in our lives, then what will we do? I hope and pray we would continue to focus on being a church; albeit on fire!

This post cannot do the point justice, but I hope it has gotten us to start thinking. What is church? Maybe you disagree with what I have argued, but I honestly think if we reshape our mindset, reset it to Reformation and Early Church structures, it would be for our good. It would take the pressure away from pastors who we consider to be evangelists. It would change sermons, songs and prayers. It would transform everything we know… What a church should be is a place where we are taught from the scripture, accessible and applicable to our daily lives. That Christ be proclaimed, exalted and glorified. Church should be a place where we share our worries, concerns and tears, our joys and our happiness. Church is a place where we prepare for war, for hardships, for the world. Our very acts of God-honouring worship in individual and congregational settings are themselves missional, let us not demean the Spirit by trying to win souls with our own methods. Let us wake up and do church right.