What is the purpose of the church? We have already discussed two of its three main purposes. First, the church is made up of people who freely worship God through their corporate expression of appreciation and praise for His provision of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. This is the ministry of worship. Second, the church is made up of people who are in the process of creating an environment where people can be encouraged and built up in their faith. This is the ministry of nurture.Lastly, the church is made up of people who have been sent out into the world to be a savoury influence in the lives of people through meeting their spiritual and physical needs. This is the ministry of mercy and outreach. The spiritual needs of people are met through evangelism and outreach while the physical needs are met through the exercise of mercy, compassion and care.
Over the past two centuries a crisis arose over whether the spiritual care or the physical care of people was more essential for the church. In the late 1800s as the church encountered mounting pressure to recant its adherence to the miraculous and extravagant supernatural claims of the Bible, the church began to waffle in its convictions toward meeting the spiritual needs of people.
“Modern science” had thrown out anything that smacked of the supernatural and mystic, claiming that all events should be able to be explained by way of the natural laws that seem to pervasively govern our existence.
The essence of the struggle suggested that since the so-called supernatural and spiritual realm of our existence could not be tested nor submitted to the scientific method of investigation, then therefore perhaps the supernatural and spiritual world didn’t really exist. And if that is the case, man’s biggest problem wasn’t spiritual as the church had asserted for almost two millennia, but rather man’s only problem was that of overcoming his physical needs.
Because of this the church began to lose its role in helping people spiritually. The only thing left to do was for it to turn to the physical ministries of care and compassion.
It is at the turn of the 19th century into the 20th that we see this huge shift in mission for the church. All of this had already begun in the mid-1800s in Europe and came to full fruition in the late 1800s in the United States. Over a short time a whole host of parachurch organisations popped up to help meet the many physical needs of the masses from a Christian perspective, including the likes of the Salvation Army, the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), gospel missions and soup kitchens.
These organisations along with their parent churches began focusing on ministry to the social outcasts of European and American society. The church began to turn towards helping those who were in great need by ministering to alcoholics, drug addicts, prostitutes and the homeless.
The essential gospel message of saving faith in Jesus Christ was still there but it just was not the urgent focus of the church in general. Thus the “social gospel” was born and with it a general liberalism within the church emerged. Its focus was characterised the most by American minister Charles Sheldon’s question, “What would Jesus do?”
In the United States, universities such as Princeton, Yale and Harvard, which were all founded originally as seminaries to train clergy for the new colonies, also succumbed to the advent of liberal theology. Previously God was the centre of all the educational disciplines. But slowly God was relegated to the department of theology. Of course even now the department of theology has been even further relegated into the department of comparative religion.
Backlash in US society
It was at this point that a backlash against the liberalisation of theology occurred in American society. There were Christian fundamentalists who were insistent that the essence of the gospel and the purpose of the church were to save souls, not just physically but spiritually. To overcome the liberal educational system in the US the advent of the Christian college and Bible institute began in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Westminster Theological Seminary was founded as a direct response against the liberal theology of Princeton. Moody Bible Institute, Wheaton College, Taylor University, Gordon College, Columbia Bible College and the Grand Rapids School of Bible and Music all began during this time. Later, other parachurch organisations were also established to save souls, such as Youth for Christ and Young Life.
So what is the purpose of the church? Is it just supposed to save souls spiritually or is it just supposed to help people who have physical needs? In his classic 1947 book The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, Carl F.H. Henry, the father of modern evangelicalism, challenged the fundamentalists at their core with the reality of Jesus’ twofold ministry to the spiritual and physical needs of His followers.
Jesus not only forgave and restored people spiritually but He healed the blind, lame and deaf physically. He fed the 5,000, He calmed the sea and He raised the dead. Jesus is the one who can not only restore us spiritually but He is the one who can restore us physically too.
Jesus made it very clear that the essence of His ministry and for the church was not just to make disciples who make disciples but to feed the hungry, quench the thirsty, clothe the naked, invite the stranger in and visit the imprisoned. Jesus said: “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of the least of these, you did it unto Me.”
The church is called to touch hearts and lives spiritually with the good news of the life-saving message of forgiveness and reconciliation that is found through faith in the sacrificial work of Jesus Christ on the cross on our behalf.
And the church is also called to touch the hearts and lives of people physically through purposefully extending compassion and care for those who are in need physically.
Both ministries are essential within the Gospel and both ministries should be essential in every church. If your church leans more on one or the other of these ministries, which most churches tend to do, you can be the one who can help bring about the ministry balance that is at the core of the beauty and the wonder of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Share Christ with others as you offer a cup of coffee. Share Christ with others as you feed and clothe the hungry and naked.
The apostle Paul summed things up this way: “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offence either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God; just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit but the profit of the many, so that they may be saved.”
– Reverend Bradley S. Belcher is the senior pastor with the International Baptist Church of Budapest, www.ibcbudapest.org. Should you have a question or comment regarding this column, email firstname.lastname@example.org.