What the Church is All About
As Ryan and I think about planting a church in Missoula, one of the questions we get a lot is "Why do we need more churches anyway?" Even those who like the idea often haven't given much thought to what a church should look like; "What is the church really supposed to be about, anyway?"
When you plant a church from scratch you get to step up to the plate and try to answer that question - it's a tremendous opportunity, but it's also terrifying because there is so much riding on your conclusions. That's part of the reason why God warns us not to take the role of leadership lightly (James 3:1). That's also why we want Scripture to guide and shape our practice.
As we approach church planting, it is critical to identify our core presuppositions up front – how we think about the God, the church, and mission. This is important because our starting points will inevitably shape how we look at everything else – opportunities, dangers, goals, directions, and especially our methodologies.
So why DO we want to plant a church? What DO we think church is all about? How do we delineate our core convictions?
We start by concurring with the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “Man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” In short, we recognize that man exists to worship God (1 Cor 10:31; Rom 11:36). Unfortunately, all us have fallen short of God’s glory – both in Adam, and in our own actions – no one is righteous; there is no one who seeks God, not even one (Rom 3:23, 5:12-14, 3:9-12.).
Given this, we also agree with John Piper, who says that, “Mission is not the ultimate goal of the Church. Worship is. Mission exists because worship doesn’t.” Think about that for a minute. God desires people to worship him in spirit and in truth, and because of our own inability, he himself is seeking true worshipers – not merely to find them, but to actually form them (John 4:23, 6:44). God is creating a people for himself, and this redemptive effort summarizes his work through all of history.
At the heart of our confession, then, lies a central truth: God is a missional God – his work culminates in Christ, Christ’s work culminates in the church, and the church’s work culminates in worship and mission. From this basic recognition, we can make several key observations:
- God, not man, builds his church – Church planting is not simply a matter of human effort or intention – this is something God is doing. It is his work (cf. Acts 13-14, where we repeatedly see God actively intervening to build his church: 13:2, 4, 9, 48, 52; 14:1, 3, 27).
- God has been building it from the beginning – everything God was doing in the OT finds its fulfillment in Jesus. Christ is the crux of the entire biblical story (cf. Gen 3:15, 12:2-3; 2 Sam 7:13; Acts 13:32-33). The heart of the gospel is that Jesus fulfills all of God’s promises.
- God has a passion for the lost – Jesus views his own work in terms of saving the lost and building his church. Thus Christ is a missional Messiah (cf. Luke 19:10; John 4:1-43; Mt 16:18; 1 Pe 2:6-7).
- The church is at the center of God’s redemptive plan – In Eph 3:6-11, Paul tells us that the church is the climax of God’s eternal purpose, created to manifest the mystery of the gospel to the Gentiles. In other words, the church is God’s means for mission. The church exists to model the gospel – in word, deed, worship, and mission – to unbelievers, and so invite them to participate in the kingdom as well.
- First, we want to plant churches that reach the unchurched – We desire this because God has a heart for the lost, he commands us to go, and this is where the harvest is ripe. Our aim is not simply to establish a “reformed church,” or to gather people who are already Christians - neither of these are bad; but they aren't at the heart of what the church is all about, either. We must never lose sight of the fact that our calling is to bring the gospel to people who have rejected God so that the gospel may redeem both us and our culture.
- Second, we want to plant churches that plant more churches – We believe that mission must be part of the fabric of the church; the goal of our church plants is not to become self-sufficient and acquire a building – it is to call people (both unbelievers and believers) to continual faith in Christ, to lead them in true worship of God, to equip them for service in the church and for life in the culture, and to send them missionally back to the unchurched. While every member of the body has different gifts and abilities, we assert that all Christians are called to serve and witness and participate in mission, just as all are called to believe and worship.
These convictions carry dual implications. As God’s church, we are obligated to think missionally (redemptively) about our unbelieving friends, our neighborhoods, our cities, and the larger region in which we live. Ecclesiologically, we are not permitted merely to focus on our own personal or corporate needs and desires. We exist for mission.
As God’s missional agent to the world, however, we must also think missionally (pastorally) about our churches. We must give careful consideration to how we call, train, and equip our flocks, and how we embody the gospel in all aspects of our faith and practice. We are not permitted to view mission simply as propositional proclamation; belief is much more than mere intellectual assent to historical facts. We exist for worship.
Consequently, neither mission nor worship must ever become a subcategory or parenthesis within our ecclesiology – mission and worship are THE primary tasks of the church. Christians within our churches must come to love the things God loves and to redefine their own practices in light of his, and this will only happen as they realize the relevance of the gospel for themselves, as well as for unbelievers. As Martin Luther says, it is not enough for us to know that Jesus is Christ, he must “be Christ for you and me.”
Mission and worship are intimately interconnected; both are funded by the gospel. The churches we plant must manifest this reality. If we are serious about these convictions, it will impact how we plant churches.