What is the purpose of church?
It’s a question I’ve been reflecting on over the last several months, as “church time,” as my two-year-old calls it, has shifted to a digital experience. As we’ve had our normal rhythms stripped away, it’s given space to reflect once again on the purpose and nature of the gathered life of the church.
This is a question theologians and Christian thought leaders have written shelves-worth of books about, so I in no way presume to explore it fully in this brief blog post. But I do think we can agree that one of the key purposes of the church is to be the embodied presence of Christ in the world. The church is made up of disciples, making disciples, who proclaim the good news of Christ died, Christ risen, Christ coming again, and who model the upside-down, transformative nature of the Kingdom of God.
I once thought of this purpose, or mission you might say, in terms of what transpired within the church building or, in the case of missionaries, in a foreign land. It was as if my job as a faithful Christian, in addition to dedication to my own “quiet time,” was ultimately to get people to church, to get them to “pray the prayer” and thereby convert to Christianity.
But I’ve come to realize the church is so much bigger than what transpires between spired-topped walls of stone and mortar, and her mission is much deeper and farther reaching than converts. It’s about lives of everyday Kingdom faithfulness. It’s about a life of everyday discipleship. It’s about an invitation from Jesus, to each one of us, to “come, follow Me.”
Jesus commissioned his disciples, the fledgling beginning of the church, with these words in Matthew 28:19-20: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Although it’s blurred in our English translations, the central command of this “Great Commission” isn’t to “go”—as in, go to a foreign place, or go out and bring people back to church. Instead, the central command is “make disciples.” A better way to read it would be to say “As you are going, make disciples…”
As you go walking down the road, my disciples, make disciples. As you go, Peter and John, back to your fishing boats, make disciples. As you eat and drink and go to the marketplace, make disciples. As you laugh and play, make disciples. It’s the heart of the church. It’s the seed of the multiplying reach of the Kingdom of God working its way into the world. Disciples, making disciples, on the way.
I am convinced that one of the purposes of the church is to equip and empower her people in such a way that this multiplying, disciple-making life continues. It isn’t a program. It’s her basic mode of operation. It isn’t just for those called to traditional ministry roles—pastors, missionaries, etc.—it’s for all of us.
We carry this mission of discipleship with us as we go…to the next Zoom meeting and as we help our kids with virtual school. We do the work of discipleship at the unemployment office and behind the shield of a mask. We do Kingdom work as we talk with a discouraged friend, as we respond with grace to an exasperated coworker, and as we do good work in the midst of less-than-ideal circumstances.
So as we gather for “church time” (whatever that may look for you these days), we cannot forget this purpose our Savior has called us to. In the body of the church, we are reminded and encouraged in our mission to live as disciple-making, Kingdom-marked followers of Jesus. We gather to remember together the Story we’ve been invited into. We gather to pray, to worship, to be encouraged. But we do all of these things to be equipped, empowered, and encouraged to live as faithful disciples in all the places God has scattered us.
Diana Gruver (MA, Gordon-Conwell) writes about discipleship and spiritual formation in the every day. She is the author of Companions in the Darkness: Seven Saints who Struggled with Depression and Doubt. You can find her online at www.dianagruver.com or on Facebook or Twitter. Diana originally published this work with the Vere Institute (Oct 2014 – May 2021), which was founded to empower Christians to integrate their faith into everyday life. The Vere Institute’s legacy lives on through our Vere Library.