Does the church exist for the sake of the world?

Is the church missional in its purpose?

These are questions raised by Mark Galli’s series “The Elusive Presence,” where he makes the case that evangelicals have become so focused on what we do for God that our relationship with God has been eclipsed. Mark believes both the social gospel and the missional movement share a similar flaw: they conceive of the church’s purpose in a way that makes the church an instrument for something else (like “making the world a better place”). Instead of energizing Christians long-term, both these movements sap Christians of their passion for God.

In my last article, I began to point out some problems in Mark’s conflating of different philosophies under the “missional” definition. I want to step back, however, from any further critique so that we can hear why Mark is questioning the missional understanding of the church and then consider what view of the church he proposes instead.

Designed for Mission?

Mark believes the church was never designed to be “missional.” He’s not saying the church doesn’t have a mission; he wants instead to distinguish between tasks the church is called to do and the essence of the church. He writes:

We need to make a distinction between one task the people of God are called to perform and the very ground of their being, the very purpose of their life together. We are by all means to love the neighbor, which now includes the enemy. One way we love them is through acts of mercy and justice. But this does not mean that the church exists for the sake of the world.

What Is the Church?

Definitions matter here. Is Mark referring to the universal church—all Christians through all the ages in their various ministries and vocations acting individually or as extensions of their local congregations? Or is he referring to the local church—the congregation of believers that gathers together in worship? Mark makes clear that he is referring to the church as a corporate body, gathered in worship.

To be clear, let me say what I mean by “the church.” I understand church in a traditional sense, of a concrete body of believers gathered to worship God in Christ, gathered around the preached and taught Word, sacraments / ordinances like the Lord’s Supper and baptism, living together and growing in love.

The Church Is Not An Instrument

When Mark makes his way through many of the biblical passages that seem to indicate a missional orientation for God’s people (such as the blessing to the nations through Abraham’s seed, or the Great Commission), he does not find an instrumentalist understanding of the church—the idea that the church exists in order to extend the blessing of God to the world.

It does not appear that the church was created for the world, as many assume. If anything, the world was created for the sake of the church. That is, the funnel of history is not that the church pours itself into the world to redeem it, but the world—as least those in the world who trust in Christ—is poured into the church.

Here’s another way of putting it:

The Old and New Testaments, contrary to our usual reading, don’t think of the church as a means to an end (i.e., the church’s purpose is missional, to make the world a better place). . . . Instead, the church’s end is God and our fellowship with one another in God. 

Simply put: Rather than the world being the purpose for the church, the purpose of the world is to become the church.

Again, we can quibble with the reductionist definition Mark gives to the word “missional” (as if the missional movement sees the purpose of the church primarily in terms of “making the world a better place”), but let’s not lose sight of his overall challenge is to the instrumentalist view of the church—the idea that the church exists for the good of something else.

(Mark isn’t always consistent in challenging the instrumentalist view. Take, for example, this statement: “My reading of the sweep of the biblical picture, then, is that the purpose of the church—the family of God—is not to make the world a better place, but to invite the world into the better place, the place called church.” Even here, we find an instrumental—we could say “missional”—view of the church, because Mark describes the purpose of the church as inviting the world into the beloved community. But I’m going to chalk this up to a slip-up on his part, because even if I think he’s right in that statement, it goes against his main point.)

The church’s mission is not to go out and make the world a better place, to be a blessing, to transform culture, to bring justice to the earth, to work for human flourishing. The church’s destiny and purpose are to live together in love in Christ, to the praise of God’s glory. That, in fact, is the destiny of all humankind, no matter what corner of the globe they come from.

On the Ground

What does this shift in the church’s purpose look like practically, on the ground? If the church is not designed to be “missional” or outward-focused at the heart, what will it look like? Here’s the closest we get to a description of Mark’s vision:

What if . . . the church was a sanctuary, a place of rest and healing and life, where the fellowship of believers lived together in love, where we just learn to be holy and blameless in love before God? And what if, having encountered afresh some sort of beatific vision, we go out from church in our vocations and ministries, serving the unchurched neighbor and, by God’s grace, make a difference in their world?

In other words, “making a difference” should be the natural overflow of worship, but worship doesn’t exist for the sake of “making a difference.” I agree with that statement as it stands, but what happens when a church’s worship doesn’t lead to mission? What happens when this church-centered approach that prioritizes the worship of God and our relationship to him leads to an inward-focused congregation?

The church-centered view isn’t new. In the next column, I will set Mark’s series in wider context, showing you how aspects of this debate have been going on for decades.

This is the third column in a series. See the follow-up posts below.