The Missing Purpose of Church


Empty pewsThe lament we hear from many sectors in American Christendom is over the increasing number of people who shun church.

While the numbers seem to bolster this observation, no one can agree as to why the exodus is happening. Some say those who have gone missing have left the Faith entirely. Others point to a form of Christianity that has simply decided it doesn’t need the institutional aspect of “churchianity” to be vital.

I think part of the source of the problem is that the American Church can’t define what its purpose is. Many people are showing up on Sunday and asking themselves why they are sitting in that pew acting like nothing more than a flesh seat cushion, and the Church isn’t answering their question. After a while, with the point gone missing, people decide they could spend their time more effectively doing something else.

Turning church into another form of entertainment created some of this malaise. I think another piece comes from the American Church’s inability to answer in a practical way the tougher questions and needs of people today.

It’s not that the answers don’t exist. I believe only Christianity has those answers. But the Church here seems stuck on its image and not on its mission. It keeps trying to be hip and can’t seem to be relevant, no matter how much it claims it be (or is trying to be). And in those rare cases when it is relevant, it’s only so for the individual and not for something bigger. No matter what anyone contends, people really do need to be part of something larger than themselves.

People are not seeing the purpose. And until they do, the hemorrhaging of people from our churches will continue.

I think every church needs to have its leaders stand up each quarter of the year and reiterate the mission of that church, exactly how they are working to meet that mission, and exactly what they expect of everyone sitting in the pews to make that mission a success. You can talk about being missional all you want, but unless it is understood and owned, missional remains a buzzword only.

I also think church leaders need to get off their mania with programming fads and get back to something they stopped doing a long time ago: identifying the personal spiritual gifts of the people in their charge and helping those people put those gifts into play. I know too many gifted people who left a church because they had a gift to bring and that gift went unwanted.

Here’s a tip for church leaders: The gifts God has given the people in your church are a clue to what your mission needs to be. If you’re not aware of your people’s giftings, then you won’t see what your mission is. And if you don’t work to enable the fullest use of those people’s gifts, then your church will never be successful in anything it does.

There is purpose. Each church should know its purpose. Each person in that church should know his or her purpose. If that’s not happening, then it’s no wonder people question why they are sitting in that pew one Sunday after another.

20 thoughts on “The Missing Purpose of Church

  1. A lot of people don’t really know what the purpose of the church is, why we are supposed to gather together and what role leaders play. We keep tinkering around with the formula without even realizing that we are completely missing the point.

  2. Mr. Poet

    The other day, at a church service no less, I considered the most used passage on church attendance: “And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24-25 KJV).

    While most preachers seem to place the emphasis on “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together” (which, let’s face it, is the most powerful proof text to badger people into continued attendance), it occurred to me that we must be provoked to love and to good works. Left to ourselves and our own devices, we will neither love nor do good works, or if we do, we will love and do good works rarely, few and far between. It reminds me of the joke I told to poke fun at a friend who moved to the country and almost immediately found fault with three of his neighbors. (Why did he not complain about the neighbor across the road? I asked myself. Well, he did. It just took a little extra time.) I would joke with him that his idea of loving his neighbor is not to have any.

    Now consider the further context of the proof text:

    “Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; and having an high priest over the house of God; let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised;) and let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching” (Hebrews 10:19-25 KJV).

    While most attendees of evangelical, Pentecostal, charismatic, and even many mainline churches may know that the blood of Jesus made the new and living way through the veil of His flesh into the holiest, and that He is our High priest…have we learned boldness? Do we place Jesus as the high priest of our church, and not the leaders of our church? Do we have a true heart in the full assurance of faith? Do we have a pure conscience and, uh, washed bodies? (I still do not understand that last one.) Do we not waver in the profession of our faith? Without these preceding, well, I am not surprised so many people leave church.

    • Poet,

      Plenty of good thoughts there. Your highlights of the verse in context were especially thought provoking.

      I would view the “washed bodies” idea as water baptism.

    • I’d love to see our church do a series going through Hebrews. It’s handy to prooftext, like you show and we all know the “Hall of Fame of Faith” but how often do we really dig in and study the majesty and sufficiency of Christ and what that means for our religion?

  3. Eli

    I haven’t attended an official ‘church’ regularly for 7 or 12 years depending on how church is defined.
    I do visit a church a few times each year and have met with other believers to intentially pray, exhort etc from time to time over the years… sometimes regularly.
    There is no single reason why I unplugged for the most part. A big factor would be I just generally find that church people don’t openly think for themselves when they get around each other… its painful when so much conversation is shutdown/avoided and pastor/denomination is idolized. Also so much energy seems to be exhausted on questionable programs, events and teaching.
    Now I do think the more institutional model works for many believers, but there are others like myself they aren’t suitable.
    Even the most impressive pastor still strikes me as getting in between god and man. I have also grown tired of focus in many streams on leadership.

    So no i don’t think ‘christianity’ has the answers we need. jesus does, but christ can be found in unlikely places. The attitude that we have the truth just because we identify as christians is another major turnoff. Christians can be extremely uninformed, majoring on minors.

    As to ‘purpose’ once again that speaks to me of group think and conformist organisational principles. the purposes of god are very very broad and likewise his means. Certainly more broad than can be carried by one leader or some sort of limited organisational ideology.
    Even much ‘missional’ language has dilluted the full scope of the gospel message… as if the only thing jesus said was the great commission.

    There is money, status and power in continuing this current situation.

    • Eli,

      This topic of “Church without a church” comes up here now and then, and I may write on it again soon, but here are my thoughts:

      Jesus was forced to deal with difficult people. In our churches today, when we have to deal with difficult people, we leave and go to another church. Or we quit church altogether.

      I think that this leaving or quitting misses the point.

      God WANTS us to have to deal with difficult people. Dealing with difficult people is part of our sanctification. The annoying Christian is practically an archetype because God wants us to have our hard edges knocked off by being forced to deal with such annoying (and dare I say it, stupid, idiotic, moronic) people. Period.

      If we short-circuit this by fleeing all the time, the detriment is ours. We lose. We go unbroken. We don’t get the blessing. And the Church continues to fracture.

      You MUST be a part of some kind of Christian community. AND you must find a way to deal with the problems of that Christian community. Leaving is not the answer. Becoming a Lone Ranger Christian is not the answer.

      You’ve just gotta deal. And when you do, you’ll be better for it in the long run.

      • Eli

        I can agree that we ‘should’ be part of christian community, but saying we ‘must’ makes me wonder what sort of community you recognize as valid. I’ve attended church and cell groups regularly… and also spent years living in community with other christians which goes far beyond the demands of most churches. Other times community has been more sporadic and long distance.

        Who is to say which type of community is a ‘must’ have. I think its a very personal and seasonal thing.

        I don’t advocate ‘fleeing’ but i also don’t support staying no matter what and never exploring faith outside our comfort zones.

        I’m not sure what lone ranger christianity looks like… sounds a bit like code for not gathering regularly with other believers in a recognized manner. At least for me personally its a bit of a straw man because even when i havent regularly attended a ‘church’ i haven’t lived alone or avoided all contact with believers or stopped reading and listening to outside input.

        Anyways, for me to quit church i would have to quit christ. I’ll let the bible with gods guidance (as i understand it) define church for me rather than what the ordained leadership declares.
        I agree we each need to deal in the way god is leading us.

  4. This hits on why some people are *leaving*, but it also implies why few people are *coming*. I often struggle with evangelism (in the form of a church invite) because I question what am I actually inviting someone to. If I don’t see the point, how am I supposed to share that with others? On the other hand, it is difficult to focus evangelism solely on the Gospel because here in the US we’ve all heard of Jesus and think we already have it all figured out.

    On your other point, one of my main soapboxes is Ephesians 4- how each of us is given a role, specific spiritual gifts, to be put to use “so that the body of Christ may be built up… as each part does its work.” My answer to why a church isn’t growing is always the same, pointing back to that passage.

    I don’t know if a “mission statement” needs to be read regularly, but I do think purpose and vision need to be communicated frequently and people need to be enabled to use their spiritual gifts to pursue that vision.

    • Frank,

      I am a STRONG believer that Church is for Christians, not for unbelievers. Our church meetings are to strengthen the Body of Christ, not to evangelize. Think of it as the PTA meeting for the parents of kids who go to THAT school, not for those who have no children or who have kids who go to a different school. This is Body work for the Body only.

      I think using Church as a means for evangelism is broken. Especially today. The Church needs to send people out, have those people lead others to Jesus, and THEN those people can bring new converts into the assembled Body of the saints.

      IF we did Body life correctly, gifts ID and empowerment could be focused on, and the problem of struggling with evangelism would be lessened. But because we’re too busy always evangelizing from the pulpit on Sunday and NOT doing any Body strengthening work, we are not prepared to go out and do the work. We just aren’t.

      Our church assemblies are a far cry from what they should be. We’re not doing in them what we should be doing. The meat of ministry is not done and not modeled. Gifts are not utilized nor modeled. Everything becomes broken and the Body that is supposed to be empowered instead leaves with little more than a sentimental message that people can’t remember five hours later.

      We’re doing it all wrong. That’s why you’re having the troubles you are.

      • Oooh, you hit my other soapbox. My experience has been we over-emphasize the first part of the Great Commission “go and make disciples” at the expence of the second part “teaching them everything I’ve commanded you.”

        “The Church needs to send people out, have those people lead others to Jesus, and THEN those people can bring new converts into the assembled Body of the saints.”

        I could not agree with this more.

  5. Excellent thoughts brother! I’m part of a small church plant and we are asking these types of questions as we move forward in reaching our community. The “flavor” of our church body seems to be attracting the spiritually wounded people and the particular gifts that God has given the members of our church is well suited to meet those needs (of course, fueled by the Holy Spirit).

    Yet, we continue to ask “is our mission working” and I think that’s a good, healthy question. Thankfully, I think the majority people attending don’t ask “What am I doing here?” in a “why am I wasting my time way” but rather a challenging way when they catch the mission God is sending them on.

    Thanks Brother…enjoyed the post very much.

  6. Glad I stop at your site, you and those who have replied have given me much to think about. It’s hard to return to the states with our churches in such shambles. The concern on numbers, what bible one is reading, programs and a host of other messages saddens us.

    I love the message in II Cor. 5:14-15 For the love of Christ controls, constrains, motivates (all words from different translations) us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died, He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf. This is what keep me wanting to tell others, be involved with the body of Christ…HE DIED FOR ME. It’s His love for me, not my love for Him that motivates me to do all I can here on this earth to show Him to others. One little illustration: my husband worked for the airlines for years. After they loaded a plane they would throw a huge cargo net over the stuff inside to keep it from bouncing of off the plane walls as it flew. It constrained the cargo. This is what understanding God’s love for us will do…it will constrain us in the rough times, hold us steady when our churches is focus on every thing but Him, help us be bold for we will feel safe…safe in His love for us, nothing can separate us from the love of God.

    More and more I am thinking we close to the last days. The enemy of our soul wants us to think about me, me, me…instead of drawing our strength from HIM< HIM< HIM. Like the way you bring out so much from others. Good writing…

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