The Distracted Church
Ask any Christian in any church what is to be the purpose of the church in the world today, and one will receive as many answers as there are churches! Clearly, one of the greatest enemies of the church today can be summed up in the words distraction or diversion. Why is distraction or diversion such a problem—such an enemy of the church today? It is because when one is distracted or diverted, it keeps him or her from fulfilling the task needed to be accomplished!
Many professing Christians do not understand what they are to be doing as Christians; therefore, they get caught up focusing on everything but what they should be doing! They have become distracted and diverted away from fulfilling the very calling God has given to the church.
Why do Christians meet together on the Lord’s Day and at other times throughout the week? What are Christians to do when they leave the confines of the church building and live life at home, at school, or at the office throughout the rest of the week?
One of the greatest problems permeating the church today is a failure to understand its purpose. As a result of this misunderstanding, churches are riddled with Christians who possess a shallow understanding of Scripture and a lack of purpose. This often leads believers to get off track and meander aimlessly through life and even become “tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine” that comes along (Eph. 4:14). Obviously, this cannot be God’s will for the lives of His children.
The local church plays a vital role in equipping believers to avoid such aimlessness and instability. Yet in order for Christians to fulfill God’s will of glorifying Him and shining as lights and testimonies to the world, the leadership of the local church must clearly understand God’s will and His directives for the local church body and then communicate this to God’s flock.
Several misconceptions exist as to the purpose of the local church in the world today:
1. Some believe that the purpose of the local church is to meet the perceived needs of those in the community. The contemporary trend in planting new churches is to survey the community and discover what the citizens of the community feel they need. Then, the church leaders pattern the new church after the perceived needs of these unbelievers.
2. Some believe that the purpose of the local church is to “save souls” or to “win people to Christ.” The major focus of such a church is to pattern the church service to seek and welcome those who are unsaved. Consequently, the majority of the sermons are evangelistic, and the leaders of the church are continually seeking to find new ways or programs to fill the pews with those who do not know Christ.
3. Some believe that the purpose of the local church is to rally for cultural and political reform or renewal. Leaders in these churches focus the energies of the congregation on changing or “Christianizing” the unregenerate culture by stressing the need to boycott, picket, and vote according to a particular platform. These churches are often “issue-oriented,” and most sermons center around the need to “take back” America or renew culture.
4. Some believe that the purpose of the church is to work for the eradication of poverty and implementation of social justice. They view the church as a social reformation institution that should focus all its energies on the poor, helpless, and needy. They will often use either Matthew 25:31ff. (when, in reality, this is the judgment of the nations—not the church—following the tribulation and return of Christ to earth) or James 1:26-27 (where James is addressing the outwork of true faith) to “proof text” their belief concerning the purpose of the church. Dr. John Whitcomb has said concerning the focus of the church in this age:
We will never Christianize the world.… When we become sidetracked, preoccupied with lesser things than the true gospel, the Great Commission suffers a staggering loss. We can’t do everything. God never told us to do everything. Jesus never tried to improve the Roman Empire. Neither did the apostle Paul or any of the apostles. Their priority was to do what Jesus told them to do: make disciples, baptize them, and teach them to observe all things whatsoever He taught them.… The main goal … is to obey the Great Commission of Jesus (“The Greatness of the Kingdom,” Christian Workman School of Theology, Lecture 8).
Of course, other churches have even different ideas than the aforementioned concerning the purpose of the local church, but what does God’s Word teach concerning the purpose—and thus the focus—of the local church?
Biblical Examples of Distraction and Diversion
This particular enemy of the church is not well represented in the Scriptures. In the early church, those who came to know Jesus Christ as Savior were, for the most part, knowledgeable as to their purpose and faithful to their calling. It seems as though time has enhanced this particular enemy of the church today. As time has progressed, Christians have become misled and confused concerning their purpose and calling as Christ’s body. They have fallen prey to the voices of religious leaders who have extolled social programs or traditions of men above the clear teaching of Scripture. Yet God’s Word does provide a few examples of those who were distracted from their purpose and became diverted away from faithfully fulfilling the will of God for His own.
Demas (2 Timothy 4:10)—Demas had been a companion of the apostle Paul on his missionary journey, but he deserted Paul because he “loved this present world.” Clearly, Demas became distracted from the work God had called him to do. Rather than focusing on his goal of glorifying God through faithfulness in ministry, he became caught up in the here-and-now. As a result, God could no longer use him.
The Churches in Asia Minor—The believers in the church at Ephesus (Rev. 2:1-7) apparently became so caught up in “doing” that they became distracted from “being” who they needed to be. God wanted their love and fellowship, but they had “left [their] first love.” God commended all their “good works” and their exposure of false teachers and false teaching, yet these good deeds actually diverted their attention from communion with the Savior (comparable to the account of Mary and Martha in Luke 10). Jesus addressed the fact that other churches in Asia Minor were distracted as well. For example, the saints in Pergamos (Rev. 2:12-17) and Thyatira (Rev. 2:18-29) became distracted as they tolerated those in their midst who embraced false doctrine. The Christians in Sardis (Rev. 3:1-6) were “dead” in God’s eyes even though they were popular in the eyes of the world. Their popularity distracted them from the godly ministry to which Jesus called them.
The Remedy for Distraction and Diversion
The remedy for this problem that plagues the church today is simple: One must clearly understand the purpose of the church and what is to be its focus in the world today. Obviously, if a believer grasps the purpose, the focus, and the objectives of the church, then any distractions or diversions from such a purpose and focus can be easily recognized and avoided.
Believers—people—comprise the church. The church is not a building or a program. The church is people. Therefore, the purpose of the church, the body of Christ, is the same purpose as that of every individual believer: to bring glory to God. And, one glorifies God by faithfully obeying His Word.
But on the level of the local church, the question must be asked: What are Christians to do? When believers come together as an organized body, and then when they disperse out into the world, what are they to be doing? What is to be their focus? This is an important question because one’s answer determines one’s actions and focus and priorities in life and ministry.
God’s Word is clear—the purpose of the church is to bring glory to God through the ministry of the Word of God. When believers gather together on the Lord’s Day and at other times throughout the week, the focus of such gatherings must center around the ministry of discipleship. And, when God’s people disperse into the world, they must continue to focus on the work of making disciples. Notice several key texts detailing the purpose and objectives of the church:
Acts 2:42-47—This text contains a picture of life in the early church in Jerusalem. Believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, and to prayer. When they gathered together, they worshipped and praised God through their belief and behavior. This fellowship in the Word led to action—particularly, through their love and selflessness shown toward other believers and their testimony and witness to unbelievers.
Acts 20:27-28—Here, the apostle Paul exhorted the elders of the church at Ephesus to feed God’s flock. Paul was about to leave the area, and he reminded them that he had declared to them “all the counsel of God” and told them to do the same after his departure. Clearly, the exposition of God’s Word was to be the priority of the elders and the focus of the assembly.
Ephesians 4:11-16—Probably the single-most descriptive text relating to the purpose of the local church, these verses describe the focus of all ministry. God gifted the church with leaders “for” (pros—“with a view toward”) the equipping of the believers “for” (eis—“to” or “into,” indicating the point reached) the work of the ministry “for” (eis) the edification of the body of Christ. In other words, church leaders must equip disciples to minister to others. The local church is to be a training ground for God’s people. It is not to be a social club, a gathering place for social programs, or even a venue to attract the unsaved. It is to be a place where Christians are taught God’s Word so they can go into the world and teach others.
1 Peter 5:1-3—The apostle Peter charged the elders of the church to “feed the flock of God.” Of course, the food to be distributed is the Word of God, not the ideas or opinions of the pastor or any other person. Pastors and teachers in the church are responsible to feed, guide, and protect the flock. To feed entails faithful preaching and teaching of Scripture; to guide entails exemplary living and leadership; to protect entails awareness of enemies and exposure of the same.
So, it is obvious from these New Testament texts and many others (note the pastoral epistles of First and Second Timothy and Titus) that the purpose of the church is to glorify God, and this is accomplished in the local congregation through the ministry of the Word as God’s people are equipped to do the work of the ministry. Jesus’ “Great Commission” (Matt. 28:18-20) to “make disciples” through evangelism and training is the way in which the church worships God and brings glory to Him.
It is necessary to understand what God has called His children—His church—to do until He returns. Without a proper understanding of the work of the church in this world, one can expend a great amount of energy in various endeavors that take away from the true focus and ministry of the body of Christ. So, to summarize:
1. Believers must realize that, ultimately, the purpose of the church is to glorify God.
One’s purpose for existence as an individual is to bring glory to God, and because the church is comprised of individuals, the church body as a whole exists to bring glory to Jesus Christ. “Unto Him (Jesus Christ) be glory in the church” (Eph. 3:21). Paul told the believers in the church at Rome to be likeminded so they could “with one mind and one mouth glorify God” (Rom. 15:6). Clearly, everything accomplished by the saints in a local church foremost should bring glory to God.
2. Believers must realize that the focus of the local assembly is to equip God’s people to do the work of the ministry.
Paul told the Ephesian saints that God gifts the local church with pastor-teachers who then equip the saints to do the work of the ministry (Eph. 4:11-12). The local church is to be a training ground for believers. And, of course, the food that is to be fed is the Word of God (2 Tim. 4:2; 1 Pet. 5:2). In fact, the very epistles of the New Testament were letters written to local churches, and these letters were (and are) to be studied, taught, and obeyed by the saints.
3. Believers must realize that the “Great Commission” is a charge to make disciples, not just “get people saved.”
Evangelism is an important part of the Great Commission, but it is only one part (Matt. 28:19-20). God saves, not man. Christians are responsible to be witnesses of the person and work of Jesus Christ, allowing God to work in the hearts and lives of men, women, and children. Yet the responsibility of the church goes beyond evangelism. Discipleship is of paramount importance, and such discipleship takes place within the confines of the local church fellowship (2 Tim. 2:2).
God’s Word is clear—the purpose of the local church is to glorify God by equipping the saints to go out into the world and be the church in the world. When God’s people realize this fact, they will desire to learn more about God, to abide with Him, and to allow Him to produce the fruit of the Spirit in their lives each day.
[Adapted from The Greatest Enemies of the Church by Pastor Matt Costella. This book is available from the FEA and can be ordered from the website.]