What is the Purpose of the Local Church?

This post originally appeared as a contribution to a Round Table discussion at Conciliar Post.

Any full discussion of the church—in either its New Testament or current forms—demands more space than a round table affords. Accordingly, I want to focus on two central characterizations of what the New Testament Church seemed to be and how contemporary local churches might still satisfy those purposes: the Church as expectant and missional.

The New Testament Church lived in the constant hope that Jesus would return soon. As Acts 1:11 records, the Church believed that, “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Paul’s correspondence to the Thessalonians makes clear that many early Jesus followers believed this event to be imminent. However, the great pause between the first and second comings was not to be a period of relaxation and leisure, but rather a time of activity. Those gathered in the name of Jesus were committed to fulfilling the Great Commission and being witnesses for the risen Lord “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The expectation that Christ would return enlivened and empowered the New Testament Church to fulfill its purpose of spreading the Gospel of Christ to all peoples.

The same expectant and missional emphasis should characterize the modern church today. Although increasingly a buzzword, “mission” derives from the Latin missio, meaning “to send.” While this may conjure images of traveling to foreign nations or witnessing on street corners, the truth is that all Christians are, in some capacity, sent to where they currently work, eat, shop, and sleep. Jesus told his disciples that they would first go to Jerusalem—the very city they could see from where they stood. Local churches, too, belong to cities, places where church attenders interact with countless lives on a daily basis. A key characteristic of the local church, then, must be missional interaction with the community in which it resides. In reality, this means training and guiding Christians to love and live like Christ in their daily lives. Christians cannot make church a two-hour block of time on Sunday mornings and then leave the message of the Church behind the rest of the week. We must be constantly working to further the Kingdom.

Likewise, the contemporary church must live out the expectant nature of the New Testament Church. This is easier said than done, of course, for one could contend that the Church has been akin to the boy crying wolf about the return of Christ for nearly 2,000 years now. Unbiblical predictions of the day and hour in which the Lord returns aside, a more consistent theme of the Church has been forging a balance between the hope of the Lord’s return and continuance of daily life (including the continual spread of the Kingdom). As Martin Luther once said, “Even if I knew tomorrow that the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” We must learn and live out the reality that the early Church embodied: expectation does not excuse us from God’s missional work, but must encourage us to press forward, to fight the good fight of faith, and to the finish the race to which God has called us.

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