By Mark Dever
In addition to looking up to God through worship, the church exists in order to look across. Put another way, the church’s vertical purpose to worship God mandates its horizontal purpose: working to evangelize the lost and edify the church.
The church itself is a means of grace not because it grants salvation apart from faith but because it is the God-ordained means his Spirit uses to proclaim the saving gospel, to illustrate the gospel, and to confirm the gospel. The church is the conduit through which the benefits of Christ’s death normally come.
Edification: Individual Discipleship and Growth
The purpose of the church, in part, is to encourage individual Christians in their faith and relationship with Christ. With this goal in mind, Paul prayed that the Ephesian congregation “will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” When the author of Hebrews exhorted his readers to assemble regularly, he pointed to the purpose of giving mutual encouragement: “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another.”
Edification: Constructing Community
The whole congregation’s life together should aim at corporate edification, an idea that has its roots in the Old Testament people of God. God created a people in the Old Testament to be specially blessed by his presence, promises, and power. His goal was for them to display his faithfulness to his promises, his character by following his laws, and his lordship by looking forward to the promised day of his coming. The nation was to be a people marked by holiness.
In the New Testament the people of God are the church. In a local congregation the fellowship as a whole is to display the holiness of God through its holiness. God’s love is to be reflected in the love they show one another. The unity of God is to be reflected in their own unity. The fellowship of believers in a congregation should be a partnership in laboring for mutual edification and for faithfulness in evangelism.
Another purpose of the local congregation is to bring God’s Word to those outside the church. Jesus commanded the disciples to “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.” He also told them that the forgiveness of sins would be preached in his name “beginning at Jerusalem.” “You will be my witnesses,” Jesus said to them, “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Opportunities for ministry to others naturally arise in the neighborhood and city where a congregation lives. The good news spreads most naturally not only where the congregation holds its assembly but where its scattered members live out their weekdays. Their lives should be known by non-Christian friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Their witness should be improved as all these outsiders constantly observe their conduct.
The outward purpose of the church is not limited to evangelizing a congregation’s own city. A congregation’s prayers and plans should stretch beyond the narrow horizons of familiarity. Jesus’ command to go “to the ends of the earth” reminds believers that Christ is Lord over all, that he loves all, and that he will call all to account on the great day. Therefore, Christians today have a responsibility to take the gospel around the world. That responsibility lies not just with individual Christians but with congregations. Christians together can pool wisdom, experience, financial support, prayers, and callings and direct them all to the common purpose of making God’s name great among the nations.
In many urban churches today, this outward purpose might require restructuring life so that members of the congregation naturally intersect with unbelieving populations in the metropolitan areas. In all churches this outward purpose means praying and planning to send resources and people to those people groups who have not yet heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. Witnessing the glory of God proclaimed around the globe in the hearts of all his people should be an end and purpose for every local church.