God’s Plan for the Church

by Doug Ponder June 7, 2016

What’s the Point of the Church?

A few years ago, a pastor in my hometown took an online poll of all his friends. He asked, “What is the point of the church?” After a few hours, dozens of people had commented on the post. Answers ranged from personal opinions to Scriptural references to Westminster Catechism quotations.

By far the most interesting comment was not a response to the question, but an observation about the wildly divergent answers. The comment read, “If you ask any of the employees at Chick-Fil-A what the purpose of the company is, they will all say the same thing. Everyone knows it. Yet these posts show that Christians have very different understandings of what the point of the church is. If Jesus died for the church, shouldn’t we know its purpose?”

Our modern confusion stands at odds with the early church’s strong sense of purpose. Jesus’ first followers were constantly involved in spreading the good news about his death and resurrection (Matt. 28:18-20). Then, as these followers joined together in communities where Jesus was treasured and people were cared for (Acts 2:37-47), their long-term strategy for spreading the good news about Jesus was starting more churches. (It is no accident that most of the New Testament is comprised of letters written to what we might call “church plants.”) Finally, these new churches were started as leaders were equipped to share the gospel boldly, to serve God faithfully, and to start even more churches (Acts 14:21-23; 2 Tim. 2:1-2; Titus 1:5-9).

The Place of the Church in the Mission of God

According to the Scriptures, this world is created for, fallen from, and being reconciled to God (Col. 1:15-20; Eph. 1:3-10; John 1:1-18). God’s actions in the midst of this sequence of creation, fall, and redemption are called the “mission of God,” because it describes what God is doing in the world as well as how and why he does so.

Essentially, God is at work to fill the world with people who recognize his surpassing value, goodness, beauty, wisdom, and power. “The whole earth is full of his glory” (Isa. 6:3), but one day “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14)—everything that happens in between those realities is mission. Christians, then, are the people who live in active anticipation of that coming day, and they do so as people who have been rescued by God through the death and resurrection of Jesus to share in God’s new world—a world without pain, frustration, sickness, sin, or death.

Here is where the church specifically fits into God’s mission. Paul explicitly says it’s through the church that the purpose of God is accomplished in Christ (Eph. 3:7-12). God has chosen to use communities of redeemed men and women as flesh-and-blood examples of the transforming power of his glory. After all, Jesus’ work on our behalf completely abolishes every self-righteous reason for separation and alienation so that otherwise diverse and disconnected people might come to share the same Lord, the same Savior, the same hope, and the same passion. More than anything else, God’s glory is displayed in and through Christ-exalting, neighbor-loving, gospel-advancing churches.

What This Means for Us

Jesus died not to redeem random individuals, but to create a new people who treasure his glory above all else (Titus 2:13-14). That is the purpose of his death and resurrection according to the Scriptures. Therefore, participating in the new community that Jesus died to create (the church) is not really optional for those who call themselves followers of Jesus. The church is, in fact, the sole entity that God has entrusted with both the capability and the responsibility of displaying and declaring his glory to the world. There is no ‘plan B,’ in other words. There is no “Church is nice and all, but I’m going to be a Christian on my own.”

The role of the church in the mission of God necessitates that we see our life in Christ as something inseparably connected to the life of the church. Practically, this means we should probably think about our lives in terms of “we” and “us” and not “I” and “me”. It is not overstatement to say our lives were designed to become part of God’s new community, the church, through which the mission of God is carried out. To separate ourselves from that, or even to think of our churches as “just something you’re supposed to do” fails to see the central place that God has given the church in his redemptive plan.

Indeed, a failure to understand all this explains why many do not grasp the central place that the church is supposed to have in our own lives. Instead of orienting our lives around the life and mission of the church, we often busy ourselves with individual interests, giving little (if any) thought to how our choices may affect those in our community. Given the priority of the local church in the plan of God, however, maybe much of what we consider “progress” in our lives might actually movement in the wrong direction! We must be people who are not only in a church but who are fundamentally for the church that God purchased with his own blood (Acts 20:28). This is how the earth comes to full of the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.