Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us~ 1st Peter 2:12 NIV
Over the course of the last month, I have heard the same quote repeated three times, by three different speakers in three entirely unconnected settings. It did not take me long to discover that the quote in question came from the book Christianity and The Social Order, written by William Temple (1880-1944), it reads:
“The Church is the only organization that does not exist for itself, but for those who live outside of it.”
It’s important to note that every speaker citing this quote used it to make a case for the belief that the only real mission of the church is to evangelize the lost. Each one stated (in slightly different ways) that the church exists to reach those outside the church and every activity the church engages in ought to be focused entirely on reaching people who do not yet have a relationship with Jesus.
This is a bit off-topic, and I’m more than a little reluctant to bring it up at all. Mainly because I know that pointing out the following pesky little detail makes me sound like a smarty-pants-know-it-all jerk-face.
In context the quote had nothing at all to do with with evangelism, reaching the lost, missions, or becoming a mission minded church. In his book Mr. Temple was attempting to make a case for his view that churches and ministers ought to support the implementation of state-sponsored welfare systems. Whatever you believe about state-sponsored social welfare, it is far from an evangelistic enterprise.
Now back to the actual point I was attempting to make here.
Long before I knew anything at all about Mr. Temple’s beliefs or motivations, the quote did not sit well with me (which is super weird because I’m typically all about reaching the lost). Admittedly, I had a hard time putting my finger on why I was struggling to agree with the statement. I agree that the church is not to exist for it’s own selfish gain nor is it to devolve into a spiritual “Club Med” for the redeemed. The New Testament is painfully clear that Christians and the churches they belong to are to be other-focused (Romans 12:5, 1st Corinthians 9:19, Galatians 6:10, Philippians 2:4).
But does that mean evangelism is the churches only purpose?
I think not.
Contrary to popular belief, the church does not have a single purpose or mission. Rather, it has several. Some of those purposes are spiritual in nature (evangelizing the lost, worshiping God, proclaiming Jesus until He returns). Others are more down-to-earth (teaching believers, providing for the poor, widows and orphans, spreading peace, bringing justice to unjust situations). Essentially, every purpose of the Church will fit fairly neatly into one of three categories:
1. Glorify Jesus (make Him look good)- Romans 15:6, Romans 15:9, 1st Peter 2:12
2. Encourage the spiritual growth of Christians- Ephesians 4:11-14, Colossians 1:9-11, 1st Peter 2:2, 2nd Peter 3:18
3. Reach the un-churched with the gospel- Matthew 28:18-20, 2nd Timothy 4:1-3, Romans 10:13-15
Our inclination to rank the significance of tasks or purposes is a big part of what’s killing the church. Anytime we begin ordering the significance of a set of tasks or purposes, a priority list is formed in our own mind and something always gets pushed to the bottom of the list.
In the case of the 21st century church, the priorities of glorifying Jesus and developing spiritually mature believers have taken a backseat to reaching the lost. Somewhere along the line we got it in our heads that teaching a saved person what the Bible says about how to live a holy life is somehow less vital than getting that person saved in the first place. The sad result of our prioritization of the purposes of the church is that fewer people are getting saved, and the ones who do are more likely to fall away.
I do not believe that any one of the above listed purposes of the church are any more or less important than any of the others. However, I did list them in a particular order because I believe we never effectively evangelize the lost if we are not equipping Christians for works of service (Ephesians 4:10-12) and glorifying Jesus by living holy, God honoring lives.