What is the church for anyway?

March 14, 2017 | by Brian Thorstad

About 20 years ago I thought we finally had it right. My enlightenment came through Sonlife Ministry’s Dann Spader: “The church is for making disciples out of the raw material of lost people. This involves winning the lost, building up the believer and equipping the worker.” Refreshing. Challenging. Simple. Biblical. Unarguable. Or so I thought.

Confusion about the community

Just when I thought that the evangelical church was going to come to a clear consensus on this vital subject, I began hearing other voices saying that the missionary goal of the church is the transformation of communities. It’s hard to argue with the goal of transformed communities. Who wants to say, “Nah, we’d rather just make a few disciples than to transform a whole community”? 

Obviously, the gospel is working gloriously when a community is transformed by its influence. But is this actually Jesus’ goal for His Church? Did He say this? Did He even imply this? Are we failing if we don’t achieve this result?

I don’t think so. The one passage in which Jesus speaks about influencing the lost world (the salt and light passage from Matthew 5) follows hard on the heels of the Beatitudes, a set of characteristics which are so counter-cultural that they result in the persecution(not the popularity) of the disciple. 

While we positively affect the world as salt and powerfully grab its attention as light, the result is that someindividuals praise our Father in heaven, an activity which, if I understand it right, requires a regenerated heart. Lost people don’t praise their Father in heaven! There are transformed individuals, but there’s no transformed community in Matthew 5.

I can’t find much community transformation in the rest of the New Testament either. We don’t see it modeled in the book of Acts (unless riots are your idea of community transformation) and we don’t find it commanded in the epistles.

Concern for the kingdom

On a positive note, about a decade ago some writers and thinkers began presenting a healthy concern for building the kingdom of God.  Paraphrasing more than one leader, We should be passionate about something bigger than the growth of our congregations; we ought to be dedicated to expanding the kingdom of God which the Church is here to build. Amen and amen.

Confusion about the kingdom

But it seems to me that some of our community and kingdom-minded writers and leaders today are taking us down a slippery slope from community transformation to kingdom thinking to a revived form of the old “social gospel” of the early twentieth century. 

Here’s how it comes across in an otherwise excellent book by Eric Swanson and Rick Rusaw, The Externally Focused Quest.  I’m paraphrasing the authors for the sake of brevity, but I believe I’m doing it fairly:

  1. Our job is to transform our communities.
  2. In transforming communities we are building the kingdom of God.
  3. Even unregenerate people can help build the kingdom by helping to change communities for the better.
  4. We need to impress these people, especially stars like Bono (repeatedly mentioned in the book) and Angelina Jolie, by doing “good works” as defined—not by Scripture—but by non-Christians. In other words, we are asking people who are not “good” or righteous—according to Scripture – to tell us what good works are.

More than likely it is for this reason that with all the concern expressed in the book for social justice, there is no mention of the greatest human rights abuse of our time: elective abortion.

I wish my criticisms were hyperbolic, but I don’t think they are. I’m not accusing the writers of abandoning the gospel; there is plenty of concern about preaching Christ and making disciples in their book. The authors are fine men who have been greatly used by God.

But I’m concerned about the theological thoughtlessness that is reflected in the trends described above, and I’m even more concerned that so few of us seem to be concerned. 

Our mission is to make disciples out of lost people; not to win the favor of lost people. If our work is so effective that our community is transformed: wonderful! But community transformation is a goal that is at odds with Scripture, and sure to take us down an errant path, as it already, clearly is.  

Topics: Church Growth, Commentary, Evangelism & Outreach, Leadership, Vision

Brian Thorstad

Brian Thorstad is a Redevelopment Transitional Pastor. He is the author of Heaven Help Our Church! (A Survival Guide for Christians in Troubled Churches) and Redevelopment: Transitional Pastoring That Transforms Churches.

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