The Primary Purpose of the Church
The primary purpose of the church is to evangelize the lost. This primary purpose does not minimize or reduce the importance of its other functions, such as the edification of the body or the exaltation of God, but it does hold the preeminence to all other of its functions. Each scripturally mandated function of the church holds importance, but they are not found to be the church’s primary role. Apart from explaining the church body’s primary function, individual Christians as part of the church have this role as their primary directive as well, as it is impossible to separate the individual from the whole.[i] The church’s purpose is to continue to add believers to itself until it is made complete. The entire church’s primary mandate is to preach the gospel of Christ to all people and people groups everywhere.[ii]
The appearance of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost exemplifies this primary purpose, as He arrived in a timely manner when many foreign people were in earshot of His gospel message through the disciples (Acts 2:1-11). His appearance and example set the new church on its path under His influence and power and remains the primary purpose of the church today. The last command that Jesus gave His followers, recorded in Acts 1:8, was to evangelize everywhere from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth and all points in between, so Jesus’ very words give evidence that evangelism is the very reason for a Christian and by extension the church’s being.[iii] Luke began his second letter to Theophilus by first recording Jesus’ command to be His witnesses through the world, followed by the events at Pentecost in Acts 2:1-4 and then later in Acts 2:42-47 setting the example of the church’s operations and internal relationships. Paul included in Romans 10:14-15 that without evangelism, the church would not grow, stating “how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?” implying the priority of evangelism in the church. The book of Matthew also reserved the climax of the book for Jesus’ direct command to go forth and make disciples (Matt 28:19). In the recorded chronology of Jesus’ words, He told the disciples first to go and make disciples, and then to train them, thus indicating the priority of evangelism.
The three E’s (evangelism, exaltation, and edification) are the three primary goals set for the church in scripture.[iv] The church’s work in the edification of the body, or internal and intentional discipleship, is of paramount importance. An argument could be made for the primary function to be edification of the body, using for argument a linear or chronological model from which to base the discussion. This, however, is not taking into consideration that at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit completed the job of speaking through those gathered, thus evidencing the Holy Spirit can bypass any established or required discipleship or training to accomplish His desire and will. Much of Paul’s writing, as well as the author of Peter and Timothy, point to edification of the body as imperative, but these author’s words must be read in the historical and cultural context, in that they were written to specific churches or individuals for specific reasons and answering specific issues (Ephesians 4:15-16, 2 Timothy 3:16-17, 1 Peter 2:1-2). In this vein, however, Jesus’ own words were direct and clear that the primary role of his church was to reach the lost (Mark 16:15). Also, while edification of the body may be argued to be chronologically prior to evangelism, Jesus himself gave greater time, effort and emphasis to His church’s efforts in evangelism.[v] Using Jesus own example, He was constantly on the move during His ministry, repeatedly making himself available to those who had not previously heard the words of the gospel. Jesus did reserve time for training of the disciples and teaching them to pray, but he did this during His evangelistic efforts. As Jesus is the example of the Christian life and by extension the church, the focus of His own ministry yields an example the church must follow. The church’s task is also found in its exalting God, which is also stated clearly in James 1:22 and Psalms 119:11. However, while the first duty of the church is to worship God, the church’s primary purpose is to evangelize those whom the church has access to.[vi] The church has been entrusted with the good news of Christ’s salvation and also is entrusted to convey that to the world.[vii]
With regard to the church’s primary role as evangelism and its correlation to the church’s worship, observations can deduce the church’s adherence to its commitment to spreading the gospel. The church’s worship should embody a desire to reach beyond its walls and out into the world. If its focus is on the style of worship, the appearance of its pastors or members or solidarity with the body-art of leadership, the priority of evangelism is lost and its primary role is placed on the back-burner.[viii] The church, in its primary role, should be about furthering the gospel of Christ and taking the Good News message to any who would accept His free gift of eternal salvation. This should be evident both in worship within the church’s walls and also out in the day-to-day world. The church’s primary function should be clearly communicated and celebrated within its worship. The Gospel message should have center stage as the primary role within the church’s music, giving, and preaching aspects, as well as all forms of a Christian’s private worship (Romans 12:1).[ix] When an individual church loses sight of this, that church ceases to be effective in its purpose and become more of a club or social entity. As the church lessens its focus on evangelism, it tends to replace its Christ-given mandate and become increasingly inwardly obsessive.[x] Evangelism must be evident in every aspect of every ministry within the church for its primary goal to be attained. Jesus’ statement recorded in Mark 10:29-30 clearly shows the relationship between the church and its actions with its commitment to Him, linking evangelism directly with the church’s desire to follow Christ and His example.[xi]
[i] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, ©2013), 960.
[ii] Merrill C. Tenney, The Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible, rev., full-color ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, ©2009), 892.
[iii] Erickson, 972.
[iv] Paul J. Bucknell, 3 x E: Discipling One to One, ed. Hugo Cheng (Pittsburgh, PA: Biblical Foundations for Freedom, n.d.), 2, accessed June 14, 2016, http://www.foundationsforfreedom.net/Topics/Disciple/Basic/3xe_Samples/3xE_Student-Sample.pdf.
[v] Erickson, 974.
[vi] Tenney, 892.
[vii] Erickson, 980.
[viii] Gregory Alan Thornbury, The Doctrine of the Church (Jackson, TN: Union University, 2010), 7, accessed May 13,2016, http://aumedia.andersonuniversity.edu/MoM/CHR504_Class5_Part2.mp4, 3:01.
[ix] Erickson, 980.
[x] Thom S. Rainer, “Seven Reasons Why Evangelism Should Be a Priority of Your Church,” www.thomrainer.com (10/10/2012): 1, accessed June 14, 2016, http://thomrainer.com/2012/10/seven_reasons_why_evangelism_should_be_a_priority_of_your_church/.
[xi] Erickson, 980.