Friday, February 24, 2006

What On Earth Are We Here For?

I have for a long time believed that the primary goal of the church on earth is evangelism, the recruitment of worshippers of God, converting them from narcissistic idolaters to spirit and truth worshippers of the living God. No doubt this offends the sensibilities of some of my friends (both of you), and the three others that read my blog. Trust me, I am all about the doxological philosophy of life … that all of life is to be worship of the true God in spirit and truth. And I know there is always a risk when someone talks about “primary” purposes, but don’t throw tomatoes until you have thought about it some. So think with me …

Were God’s primary purpose for believers the purest worship of his name, why would he not simply take us to heaven? There won’t be any worship wars there. No one will debate the legitimacy of the style of music used in heaven. No one will be feeding their flesh, no matter what music is used. We will worship free from the distraction of sin and the pressures of life. We won’t notice the lady’s hairdo in front of us, the cologne of the dude beside us, or the screaming child that should be taken out. It will finally be truly all about God.

Were God’s primary purpose for believers pure fellowship, why would he not take us to heaven? There won’t be anyone who lets his accountability partner down. There won’t be any who fails to give biblical and righteousness encouragement. There won’t be any there who fail to direct our thoughts and attentions to God. Our conversation will not slip into the mundane. We will not be tempted to build on the foundation of self-esteem. The “day approaching” in light of which we are to provoke one another to love and good deeds will have already come. We will not fear gossip, nor the condemnatory response when we admit our failures.

Were God’s primary purpose learning, why would he not take us to heaven? Surely, at the feet of the master Teacher, with minds unfettered by sin, life, and pressure, we could learn much better. All talk of theological systems will be put to rest. We will no longer debate how God’s sovereignty works in salvation, and whether or not Christ will return before the Tribulation or after it.

Why does God leave us here? To use Paul’s words from 2 Timothy 2, it seems that he has left us here for the sake of his elect, so that they might obtain salvation and with it eternal glory. God, in his eternal and unchanging wisdom, has chosen to use the saved to preach the gospel to the unsaved so that they might respond in saving faith. That is the only thing that we can do better on earth than we can do in heaven.

I thought I was alone in this. Then today, I came across this statement from John MacArthur in his commentary on 1 Timothy.
If the primary aim of the church were fellowship, knowledge of the Word, or holiness of the saints, all those goals could be accomplished perfectly by taking us to heaven. The central function of the church on earth is to reach the lost.
That resonates with me, not because I am good at reaching the lost. It resonates with me because I am bad at it. The one thing that the church is supposed to do that cannot be done in heaven is reach the unbeliever and turn them into a follower of Christ. And the one thing we seem to do the very worst is reach the unbeliever.

It seems the church is so easily sidetracked. We discuss church polity, theological systems, styles of worship, whether or not we should be culturally relevant, whether we should have families together or families separate, whether or not we should go to Christian schools and colleges or not, whether or not we should drink wine, and the like. And all of these things are good, important, and necessary things. But it seems that somewhere we have lost sight of the only thing that we can do better on earth than in heaven.

Does your church have an evangelistic strategy? I mean something besides “Let’s go get ‘em”? Has your church actually thought about what the church can do to reach unbelievers? Pastors, just because you mention it from the pulpit and teach a few times about “How to Share the Gospel with Your Unsaved Friends in Five Easy Steps” does not mean that you have an evangelistic strategy. (There are no five easy steps, and talking about it will not get it done.)

I think churches need to develop a conscious strategy for evangelism. Notice, I did not say "church members" need to develop a conscious strategy. I think churches need the strategy, something besides half-way through the message seeing someone you don't know and wedging the Romans Road in between your last point and "Just As I Am." There are a variety of opportunities and strategies we could use.

Might the reason for our lack of evangelism in our churches be this very problem? We have devoted all our time to things that can be better done in heaven while devoting precious little time to the only thing that can be better done on earth. Pastors spend 30 hours or more a week preparing messages in hopes of wowing the mature Christians with some new theological truth, a catch outline, and a cool illustration. We spend far less time preparing to speak to the lost, who don't agree with us. And thus, when we stumble on the opportunity to speak to the lost, we trip over ourselves because they don't understand and buy our pat church phrases that elicit hearty amens from the faithful. They just don't get it, and so we quote a few verses, promise to pray for them, and invite them to church where they will hear a message that took thirty hours to prepare for an entirely different group of people. I am not suggesting we give up on the things better done in heaven. But perhaps some thought is in order about why we are so ineffective in communicating the gospel to those for whom we are here.

More on this later so I don't wear out my welcome in your browser.

18 comments:

Dave Vawter said...

Good thoughts Larry,
Would you consider the purpose of the church gatherings to be evangelism, by that I mean really only the one Biblical gathering, the Sunday Worship Service.

I am willing to wait for more to come, but I am interested in what the "strategy" of the church should be regarding evangelism. Is it program, or organization oriented? Or is it really more an educational and motivational program for the membership?

Evangelism as a primary goal has been a dangerous path for some churches.

Scott Aniol said...

Hey, Larry. I think I know you well enough from what I've read and your education to know that you wouldn't follow the "dangerous path" Dave mentioned or become seeker-sensitive. However, I'm curious for a Scriptural basis for your conclusions. You mentioned 2 Tim 2; anything else? Do you see any examples in Acts, for instance, of churches as a body evangelizing? Do you see any commands or principles that warrant your conclusions that the primary purpose of the church as a body is to evangelize.

Also, I was just looking at MacArthur's chapter on Praise Music today in Fool's Gold, and I could swear that he said that evangelism was not the church's primary purpose. I could be wrong, but I'll try to look it up and post it here when I get home this afternoon; unless you have the book.

Scott Aniol said...

I couldn't find the quote to which I referred. Maybe I dreamed it up...

Larry said...

Dave,

I think that one of the purposes of corporate gatherings is evangelism. I don't agree that the "one Biblical gathering" is the Sunday worship service. The Bible tells us that the church met daily. Most modern churches are pretty willing to be "unbiblical" in that.

Consider fundamental churches. We typically meet four times a week, and do essentially the same thing at every service (teach Christians). Why? Why not devote one of those services to evangelism? Or make evangelism a major part of one of them? Wasn't the Sunday evening service originally an evangelistic service?

Here at Grace, I try to devote Sunday mornings to the "unconvinced and the uncommitted." It means I preach to both believers and unbelievers, but I try to keep it pretty basic. It is expository typically, heavy on Jesus and the gospel, and its affects in our lives. I am not trying to wow the old timers with profundity. I am trying to think about people who don't have the first clue what a church is and who God is. Sunday nights and Wednesdays are geared more to mature believers. I will comment more on this later.

It can be a dangerous path, but any more dangerous than any other way? No. I don't think so.

Scott,

Good questions. I have no explicit passages (which will probably bother the RP guys). The 1 Tim 2 passage is about corporate prayer for evangelism.

However, I am not convinced that the NT prescribes or patterns everything the church must do as a body. I don't think our methods are limited to merely what we find there. Most RPs don't either. The NT prescribes purposes for the church. I see five (I had them before I read Warren): worship, evangelism, teaching/learning, fellowship, and service. I have debated adding a sixth one, of prayer. THe NT does not prescribe how we go about these purposes. It describes for us how the early church did some things, but not all.

It seems that me that the book of Acts present Paul evangelizing in many contexts, including church body gatherings. It is not explicit that they evangelized in them, but it isn't explicit exactly what they said or talked about. 1 Cor 14 does indicate that unbelievers were in the body. The significance of that is debated among some, but the presence cannot be debated.

Secondly, I would emphasize our "primary purpose on earth." That is slightly different, to my way of thinking, then "primary purpose." My thoughts were to address, Why are we on earth instead of heaven? What, in the purposes of the church, is unique to us remaining on earth. My conclusion is evangelism. We might throw service in there.

I would also say, as I indicated to Dave, that how this works out in the body is to a large degree dependent on how a particular church is structured. A friend of mine pastors in the area and has only one Sunday morning service (with Sunday evening small groups, and weeknight Bible studies). He can't devote Sunday AM entirely to evangelism, or even primarily to evangelism. Another friend in the area has two Sunday morning gatherings. The first is for the church body to worship; the second is for evangelism.

To me, the NT is not so much a prescription of structure (how we do things), but a prescription of purpose (What we do). It doesn't define how often we meet, or what a particular meeting is for. It doesn't given an order of service, the topic or target of teaching, etc. I see the NT as giving a broader guideline of purposes which can then be worked out according to a specific culture and context in which the local church operates.

I think our methods are far more flexible than the typical fundamentalism of the past 50 years has been willing to let on. To me, I don't think a church needs to have a weekly evangelistic service. But I think they do need to have an intentional strategy of evangelism that everyone knows about and recognizes as such. I also think it becomes a culture of evangelism, where Jesus can't help but be preached in everything.

More on that later. I am getting long winded and kind of rambling here.

As for MacArthur's quote, I see you couldn't find it. I have the book, but don't recall.

Thanks for reading, guys (and whoever else read).

Ryan Martin said...

Larry, I remember a blogger accusing me of not using a lot of Scripture though I inferred to about 8 or 9 different passages. I'll leave that alone, though.

I am confused, and I do not mean this in a snide way. You say that the primary goal of the church is evangelism. But then you give a final, more ultimate purpose directly following on that when you said, "the recruitment of worshippers of God." In other words, worship is more important than evangelism. If it were all about evangelism, then we would be evangelizing for "the recruitment of evangelists."

And I don't want to make a mountain out of a molehill, but on this last comment you say "To me, I don't think a church needs to have a weekly evangelistic service." If the primary purpose of the church is evangelism, wouldn't this be the mandatory, especially considering what you argued in your post a couple days ago? I do not agree with what you are arguing here, but believe that you appear to be inconsistent within your own "system." (I agree that a result of the worship of God is "evangelism," though not a purpose of worship. As you know, I believe that worship is not penultimate. It is ultimate.)

Larry said...

Thanks for reading Ryan.

Several assumptions went into my post. I assumed that the readers would be in agreement that evangelism was a NT mandate. I assumed that most readers would agree the NT way to build a church is primarily through evangelism, not sheep-trading (or stealing). Therefore, I did not provide biblical support for either proposition.

As I pointed out to Scott, notice I am talking about on earth. Why are we here instead of heaven? If it was all about worship for believers, we could do that better in heaven. But God left us here for a reason, a reason that I believe is mostly overlooked in churches because we don't have an intentional strategy to do what God called us to do.

I am sure you are familiar with Piper's Let the Nations Be Glad, (a great book) where he says that evangelism exists because worship does not. In heaven, there will be no evangelism becuase there will be perfect worship. Here on earth, our lives are about recruiting worshippers which is evangelism.

Notice that I am not saying the other things, such as worship, are unimportant. They are good and necessary things. They are part of the purpose of the church (and I think worship is a part of evangelism). I think we should be passionate worshippers, not staid singers of gospel truth and informational listeners to gospel preaching. It needs to affect us so that we love God more and more. I think worship is a great weakness of fundamental churches, and evangelical churches. But that's not my point. My focus is this: What is the only thing we can do better on earth than we can in heaven? To me, the answer is evangelize.

My statement about not needing to have a weekly evangelistic service is consistent with my position in that, what I said was that a church needs to have an evangelistic strategy. It may include a weekly service. It may not. In the old days, it was door to door. Some churches have a monthly evangelistic type meeting, or a quarterly week of "revival meetings." Some have community outreach events like marriage or family seminars, parenting classes, money classes, "help single ladies with their car" days, and the like. In other words, my point was about an intentional evangelistic strategy. The form it takes is flexible. A weekly evangelistic service could be one of those forms. It does not have to be.

Does that help clarify? Feel free to interact critically with what I said. I am certainly interested in how others pursue evangelism.

What does your church do for intentional evangelism?

Larry said...

BTW, Ryan, I think your comment about evangelism being the result of worship is true. To me, it is a circular kind of deal ... worship fuels evangelism which brings worshippers that fuel evangelism for more worshippers.

But that slightly misses my focus in this post, namely, that churches need to have a primary focus on evangelism and an intentional strategy to carry it out.

Ryan Martin said...

Thanks, Larry. I did not intend to miss your point intentionally. I guess I fell guilty to "blogreading" this one. I assumed you were talking about the gathered community, not the church per se.

I thought of this point. Will be proclaiming the gospel in heaven? Will other people in heaven be responding to that proclamation? Having asked those questions, I line of reasoning here is interesting, though I am not convinced that it makes it a "primary goal" of the church here on earth.

My church goes door to door, believe it or not.

Although I am not a pastor, and have little experience with how to do any of this stuff, I sometimes wonder if we could not cultivate in people a love for the gospel and the Lord which would overflow in natural evangelism, that we cultivate a spirit of evangelism, not necessarily through an evangelistic program (not top-down), but through culture (bottom-up).

Ryan Martin said...

I meant to say "I think the line of reasoning is interesting here."

Larry said...

One of the things I am working through, Ryan, is the gathered community issue and what exactly an evangelistic church looks like. I am not convinced it should be "either/or" but probably "both." It depends on the church structure. Since we meet four times a week (Sun AM, AM, PM, and Wed), I think we have a structure that allows evangelism in the gathered community, without sacrificing worship, or fellowship, or learning. And those "evangelistic times" are very much applicable to believers as well.

I am also intriqued by the idea of evangelistic worship that Keller talks about. I mentioned it in a post last week. I have some further thoughts on that that I haven't posted yet, due either to my ADD or disorganization. I am not sure which of those I should claim publicly.

I am convinced that evangelism becomes cultural in the church, not programmatic. I think programs only serve a culture that already exists as a part of the vision of hte church. They will not create a culture of evangelism. I agree with you that if we cultivate a love for the Jesus and the gospel, evangelism will flow into everything we do, including worship it seems to me.

Another thought that comes to my mind is that perhaps we make too much of a distinction between "gospel for the unbeliever" and "teaching for the believer." The work of hte gospel doesn't cease when someone gets saved. Perhaps if we spent time preaching the gospel to the believer as well, things would change.

Just thinking out loud here ...

Ryan Martin said...

I am inclined to agree with you on these points.

The fact that we still proclaim the gospel to believers (and to ourselves!) is part of the reason why I think we will be "proclaiming the gospel" in heaven. So our services are always evangelistic in a certain sense, but (this is where I may differ with you) never tailored toward the unbeliever, in another sense, since the purpose of the gathered community is worshipping God. Worship is always God-directed. We never worship for our own benefit, though we are benefitted by worship. We never worship for evangelistic purposes, though we will evangelize with our worship. I agree with you that we should be worshipping the best way we know how (which seesm to be an area of concern you mentioned above), but never for sake of the other results we will obtain from our best worship. We worship our best (by grace through faith) because of Whom we are worshipping. Will the gospel be proclaimed in our worship. Absolutely (we should all go reread Revelation 4 now). Paul seems to believe in 1 Cor 14 that believers simply doing what they should be doing (edification, by its very nature a worshipful activity) will result in the evangelism of the unbeliever (at least, more effectively than speaking in tongues would).

I suppose that now I am rambling.

Scott Aniol said...

Larry, I think the thing for me is mentioned in his first post. You said that our purpose is to recruit worshipers. I agree with that in a sense, but the statement itself reveals the actual primary purpose -- worship.

I think I agree with more of what you are saying than I disagree. I just disagree with how you are saying it and your focus. I agree that our churches have not been evangelistically focussed enough. I even agree that churches should dedicate specific times for active purposeful evangelism. But I also believe that we should dedicate specific times for corporate worship, and that this is actually primary. If the purpose of our evangelism is to fill those corporate worship gatherings (i.e. recruit worshipers), then both are important.

Scott Aniol said...

I meant to say, "Ryan mentioned in his first post..."

Ryan Martin said...

Bingo, Scott.

sally apokedak said...

This is a little off-topic, but you've asked several times what else we can do better here than we can do in heaven.

I think we can serve Jesus, specifically Jesus, here in a way that may not be better, but is unique here.

Jesus so identifies with his hurting brothers that he tells us that if we feed them and clothe them we are feeding and clothing him. So we have opportunity here to serve Christ by serving the least of his brethren. Do we see Christ in our brothers? If Christ were here and ill would I grumble about taking him meals the way I grumble in my heart about taking them to the woman in church who just had surgery?

In heaven I will lose this opportunity to serve Christ. There will be no naked, hungry brothers, there.

I think we should be about evangelizing but how will the world know that God has sent Christ? By our unity John 17:23. And what is arguably the most effective way to witness to the resurrection? In the midst of a people who sacrificially love one another as if they were really one big happy family. (Acts 4:32-35.)

It makes sense. What proves that Jesus lives? Our love. It is totally contrary to the natural state of man which is to be self-serving.

I wonder if we really were willing to give our lives for our friends what kind of impact we would have on the world. We can preach doctrinally perfect sermons all day long and never convert a soul but if we love, then we preach with power.

Dave Vawter said...

[b]"the recruitment of worshippers of God."[/b]


If you Read the book Scott mentioned, "Let the Nations be Glad" by Piper, he does essentially make this the goal of missions, to bring the worship of the true God to places and people who have not practiced it before. I agree that this is the goal of our churches as well, to recruit new worshippers of God.

I like Scott, have had enough discussion with you Larry to know that you are not pragmatic, and that you wouldn't abandon your other principles for the sake of evangelism, but that is what we see in the broader scope of evangelicalism, hence my caution.

My question was not fully fleshed out, my real issue is more what the strategy is, not whether it should be a strategy. I absolutely agree that evangelism is a primary goal, but should the programs of the church be the primary means of evangelism, or the preparation of the body for evangelism...

Larry said...

I don’t think worship can be the primary purpose of the church on earth, per se, because without evangelism, there is no one to worship. We may say that worship is the ultimate purpose, and perhaps it is (though it is so closely tied to other purposes so as not to be separable). But look at the current state of churches. If we continue at the current rate of evangelism, how long will worship continue? Not very long because we are not recruiting new worshippers through evangelism.

Examine your churches, comparing the evangelism rate to the death rate or the “leaving” rate, and then look at the demographics of the congregation and ask, “How long can we continue?” In many churches, we look at a congregation of middle aged Christians (who grew up in 50s era churches) and know that our church is secure for the next 20-30 years at least. So we pursue a 50s era church to keep them happy and comfortable. But what about after that? If we do not make evangelism a primary focus of our church, we will not have a church. And if we do not reflect more closely on culture and related issues, I fear we will maintain 50s era churches in the 21st century (but that’s another can of worms).

I also don’t know on what biblical basis we can say that the “purpose of the gathered community is to worship God.” It is a commonly repeated position, one that I have challenged before. That seems to me to be something that we have superimposed on what Scripture actually says (and there I go beating that drum again). I am trying to call to mind a place where Scripture makes such a point, but can’t seem to come up with one. Feel free to help me.

Larry said...

Dave,

I was the one who mentioned Piper's book. I had some thoughts about it in my original draft and deleted them for the sake of length.

I will talk more about what strategies we might consider, and why I think the idea of a distinction between "the programs of the church be[ing] the primary means of evangelism, or the preparation of the body for evangelism" is invalid.

Hopefully in the next day or so I will have that article up.