From social hub to self-help center, churches are redefining their missions in the hope of gaining new members. But what does the Bible say the Church should be doing?
At the dawn of the 21st century, does the Church still have a purpose? Can you have a part in it?
"Mainstream "Christianity" is in an identity crisis! Many who consider themselves Christians are uncertain about their church's purpose, and about its role in their lives. Some yearn for the comfortable traditions of the past. Others seek a more "authentic" experience. Some just search for healing and comfort. But what is the purpose of the church?
Many people, disillusioned with "organized religion" altogether, are looking elsewhere for answers. For them, religion has become largely irrelevant, because their church has no meaningful identity or role. Researchers James Patterson and Peter Kim concluded that Americans in virtually every region of the nation, "simply do not turn to God or religion to help them decide about the seminal or moral issues of the day" (The Day America Told the Truth, p. 199).
Why are churches in such a confused state? What is the purpose of the church in the first place? And what should your church be doing today?
"When Christ walked the earth, He left no doubt as to what His Church should do and would do. He built it and said it would exist until His return (Matthew 16:18). But what was the role of that Church?
Jesus Himself gave the answer. Notice what He was doing when He began His ministry. "Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel'" (Mark 1:14–15). Jesus was announcing the good news of His kingdom, and was preaching repentance, belief in the gospel, and conversion.
Does your church do what Christ was doing? It should! Does it involve you in the work of preaching the gospel of the Kingdom of God? Are you experiencing true repentance and conversion? If not, why not?
When Christ began to preach the gospel ("good news") of the Kingdom of God, He was foretelling His own literal reign on earth. The saints' reign under the Messiah was understood and foretold by the prophet Daniel (Daniel 2:44; 7:18). Not only did Jesus' listeners accept this as a fact; most of His disciples were so enthused that they believed this Kingdom would be established immediately (Acts 1:6; Luke 19:11). Yet, in our day, this prophesied truth of Christ's millennial reign is unknown to most professing Christians.
It was not always so. Early Christians were very focused on the hope of Christ's return, and were excited about it! But they gradually lost their way, as historian Edward Gibbon explained: "In the primitive church… it was universally believed that the end of the world, and the kingdom of heaven, were at hand.… The doctrine of Christ's reign upon earth was at first treated as a profound allegory, was considered by degrees as a doubtful and useless opinion, and was at length rejected as the absurd invention of heresy and fanaticism" (Christianity and the Decline of Rome by Edward Gibbon, ed. Sloan, pp. 105–106).
As belief in Christ's millennial reign waned over the centuries, many turned instead to the idea that the church itself would transform the world. This led to an emphasis on various kinds of social activism in the hope of bringing about a better world.
We have seen this trend in modern times. After the Second Vatican Council, Roman Catholic theologians in the 1960s developed what came to be called liberation theology, which focused on social transformation rather than personal conversion. Author Robin Keeley notes that in liberation theology, "service to the poor is understood as understanding their plight, defending their rights and organizing them for social activism" (The Quiet Revolution, p. 226).
Christ healed the sick, raised the dead and relieved the oppressed, as we read in the gospels. He taught His disciples to do the same (Luke 10:9). But notice that His mission was not merely to heal; it was to announce the coming Kingdom of God (v. 10–11).
When Jesus read Isaiah's prophecy in the synagogue, He stopped in the middle of the passage. By doing so, He showed that the final fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy would occur in the Millennium, when the Kingdom of God had been established on planet Earth. In that prophecy, Isaiah foretold that the Messiah would proclaim "the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn.… And they shall rebuild the old ruins, they shall raise up the former desolations, and they shall repair the ruined cities, the desolations of many generations" (Isaiah 61:2, 4). Isaiah wrote of Christ's return, and of the rebuilding process that will take place after He has set up His Kingdom on earth!
That time is yet to come! Jesus Christ's millennial reign will usher in an unprecedented degree of prosperity, with comfort and aid for those who have been oppressed and downtrodden. Isaiah foretells a wonderful age of equality and fairness, when he says regarding the coming Messiah: "But with righteousness He shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth" (Isaiah 11:4).
Christ told His disciples to go into all the world to preach the gospel of the Kingdom of God (Mark 16:15). He knew that most would not respond, and would simply receive the message as a witness of what was to come. But He also called His disciples to baptize those who would repent and would heed His message (Matthew 28:19–20).
Many Christians today, when looking at the biblical descriptions of the Millennium, conclude that it is their responsibility to become not just socially active, but also politically active, so they can advance the moral and societal issues they believe would help bring millennial conditions on Earth. But did Jesus Christ actually desire that His people would try to "fix" this world? Or was His priority to proclaim and prepare for the next age, through propagating the good news of His Kingdom (Matthew 24:14)? Jesus said that His kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36), and the Apostle Paul described himself as an "ambassador for Christ" for that coming Kingdom (2 Corinthians 5:20). Indeed, God's true Church will not be entangled with the politics of this present evil world, but rather will be busy proclaiming the coming one!
Yes, there will always be people who strive to influence kings and nations in the name of their religion. Bible prophecy even reveals that a great false church will entangle itself with an anti-God political entity and bring all humanity to the brink of extinction! "Come, I will show you the judgment of the great harlot who sits on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth committed fornication…" (Revelation 17:1–2). This "harlot"—or false church—will be part of a system that makes "war with the Lamb, and the Lamb will overcome them, for He is Lord of lords and King of kings; and those who are with Him are called, chosen, and faithful" (Revelation 17:14). This conflict will bring about a horrific time of war the Bible calls the "Day of the Lord," which will come very close to extinguishing all life on Earth. However, Jesus Christ will return before all mankind is destroyed (Matthew 24:21–22).
Christ certainly wants us to love our neighbors (Matthew 19:19), and to do good to all people as we are able and have opportunity (Galatians 6:10). But the mission of the Church is to do the Work of God, not to transform this world now. The Church Jesus Christ founded will follow His example by proclaiming the true gospel to the world. It will not be distracted by a false gospel of political or social activism, because it will be busy proclaiming the good news of His coming Kingdom!
An additional reason why most churches today do not understand Christ's coming Kingdom is that they have forsaken the biblical Holy Days, which Jesus Christ and His apostles kept. Because those Holy Days picture God's plan for humanity—including Christ's return to rule His Kingdom—only the Church that observes and understands those Holy Days can truly understand the full meaning of Christ's coming. His Church observes the Feast of Trumpets, which foreshadows His triumphant return at the last trumpet (1 Thessalonians 4:16). Even in the end-time, God's Church will be keeping not only those "annual Sabbaths," but also the seventh-day Sabbath, which foreshadows the millennial Sabbath in the 7,000-year plan of God (Hebrews 4:8–10). Most today who call themselves Christians believe that these Sabbaths were somehow "done away"—though neither Christ nor His apostles did away with them. In fact, Scripture shows that after Christ's return, the whole world will be keeping the Feast of Tabernacles (Zechariah 14:16).
Christ not only preached the coming Kingdom of God, He also urged His listeners to "repent, and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:14–15). His message of repentance had been foreshadowed by John the Baptist's (Matthew 3:2). The Apostle Peter's sermon on the Day of Pentecost also emphasized the importance of repentance from sin (Acts 2:38).
Even so, many churches today have become disoriented on the issues of sin, repentance, and faith. Writer Mike Regele explains that in the 1980s, Christianity in America underwent a significant shift away from morality and the acknowledgement of sin, and toward a false gospel of "personal growth." "[In the 1980s], the awakening was over, and the inner-directed age of therapy was center stage. Sermons on the depth of one's moral and spiritual depravity simply did not feel very good. In inner-directed eras, people want to feel good about themselves" (Death of the Church, p. 39).
That false "feel-good" message is not from Jesus Christ! He did not bring "smooth" words when He came to Earth (Isaiah 30:10). He brought a strong message, designed to convict His listeners of sin and motivate them to change!
Read carefully what Christ told His listeners in Matthew 5, in what is often called the "Sermon on the Mount." People sometimes mistake His words for some kind of sentiment that weakens or does away with the need to repent and to obey God's law, but the truth is quite the opposite. Christ said that He came not to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it (v. 17). He said that not one part of the Law would fail (v. 18). He condemned those who would break even the least of the commandments (v. 19). He cautioned His followers that their righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees, but without the Pharisees' hypocrisy (v. 20). He taught not only that murder is wrong, but also that the spirit of murder is worthy of the death penalty (v. 22). And He taught not only that adultery is wrong, but also that even the thought to commit adultery merits the penalty of death (v. 28).
Please do not misunderstand. Jesus Christ paid the penalty for our sins (1 Peter 1:18–19; Revelation 12:10–11), and we cannot "earn" salvation—it is a gift from God (Romans 6:23). But why would Jesus preach "repentance" with belief unless turning from sin is compulsory for true Christians today? Will Jesus Christ grant eternal life to anyone who is living in rebellion to Him and His Laws? Christ Himself said that if we want to enter eternal life, we are to "keep the commandments" (Matthew 19:17). Those commandments include keeping the seventh-day Sabbath and the seven annual Holy Days, which most professing Christians today reject.
Even secular observers recognize that a "Christian" message solely about personal growth, without a deep acknowledgement of sin and a turn towards repentance and belief, simply has no spiritual substance. "It is curious that one of the countervailing criticisms of the past twenty years has been the increasing privatization of personal faith.… A near obsession with personal growth within faith traditions is maintained under the banner of 'getting to know God.' We wonder if perhaps it is not just a way to justify another manifestation of self-indulgence, a behavior pattern completely consistent with the 'mood' of the inner-directed era" (Regele, p. 40).
Jesus was concerned about healing and helping those who were broken and hurting. He healed the broken-hearted, and released the oppressed (Luke 4:18). He healed the sick (Luke 7:22). He came to ease the burdens of those under the yoke (Matthew 11:28–29). But He did not bring a gospel of "self-indulgence" or "rebellion against law." He taught true liberty under the "law of liberty" (James 1:25).
Are you truly conforming your life to Christ's message? Are you asking God to lead you to repentance (Romans 2:4; Luke 5:32)? Are you bringing forth "fruits worthy of repentance" in your life (Matthew 3:8)? Preaching repentance and belief is part of the true mission Christ carried out—and that He also entrusted to His Church.
Well into the first decade of the twenty-first century, many churches find themselves scrambling to find meaning and purpose. When churches ask their congregants for feedback on their "church experience," they receive a dizzying array of conflicting responses, as author Brian McLaren observes. "Complaints range from sensible to incoherent to mutually exclusive: It's too boring. It's too entertainment-oriented. It's too shallow. It's too deep. It's too intellectual. It's too emotional. It's too contemporary. It's too traditional. It's too passive. It's too active. It's too demanding. It's too easy" (The Church on the Other Side. p. 43).
"Mega-churches" now cater to those seeking an energetic mixture of fellowship and self-help programs with a casual atmosphere. Yet some are already beginning to see that these institutions may attract numbers—but may not attract true disciples. Columbus, Ohio, radio commentator Bob Burney reflected on this phenomenon in his column at www.townhall.com: "If you simply want a crowd, the 'seeker sensitive' model produces results. If you want solid, sincere, mature followers of Christ, it's a bust" ("A Shocking 'Confession' from Willow Creek Community Church," October 30, 2007).
At the same time, fragmented "mini-churches" are proliferating at an astounding rate. According to researcher Mark J. Penn, there are almost 10,000 unique religions around the globe, with two or three new ones born each day. Most are fringe movements splintering off from larger organizations. "Americans may be witnessing the rise of mega-churches—those sprawling God-o-plexes that offer everything from liturgical enlightenment to teen rafting trips—but worldwide, the opposite is true. What's flourishing is Mini-Churches: small, and seemingly faddish, new groups of intensely devoted followers" (Microtrends, p. 312). As new religious organizations splinter and proliferate, confusion grows about the meaning and purpose of the Church.
Thankfully, you do not need to be confused about the role of God's true Church today. In our time of rapid change, you can be sure that the true Church which Jesus Christ built will faithfully be doing what He did, until His return (Revelation 1:7). It will not be blown off course by social fads and trendy distractions, nor by corrosive heresies. It will be proclaiming to the world the good news of Jesus Christ's coming Kingdom (Matthew 24:14). And it will be blowing a bold "warning trumpet" of repentance and spiritual change. As Isaiah wrote: "Cry aloud, spare not; lift up your voice like a trumpet; tell My people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins" (Isaiah 58:1).
This is what the Church that Christ built will be doing, even in the twenty-first century, just as it did from the beginning. Are you a part of that Church?