A church—any church, one would assume, should be consistently identified in every region and culture. If you saw a sign or heard the name “church” used, you would immediately know what was meant. But such an assumption surely disappoints! Aside from the use of church in any language (German Kirche, Dutch kerk, Spanish iglesia; Portuguese igreja, French église, Swahili kanisa, Turkish kilise) as some generic Christian reference to either an assembly of people or place of assembly, church can mean most anything! It may or may not have anything to do with the gospel or biblical doctrine or covenant relationships or kingdom ethics or Great Commission work or the exercise of Christian community.
The classic example of how far that goes is the proposal by British professor Pete Ward for his “Liquid Church.” It has no membership, no set gatherings, no agreed upon doctrine, and no purpose other than “the communication of Christ through informal relationships.” It’s more about chance meetings, not intentional relationships centered in the gospel, honed by the regular submission to the preached Word, shaped by accountability to one another, served by the exercise of each ones gifts, and refined by the ongoing discipline of shepherding by church appointed elders.
I do not know anyone that advocates for the Liquid Church but I have noticed some churches that are not any better off despite a full slate of “Christianized” events and images. These churches maintain their existence by plenty of energy and peppy activities (and some are good activities) but bear no resemblance to the congregations that we read about in the New Testament.
So that begs the question: When is a church really a church? Such a response has nothing to do with buildings or liturgy or a slate of activities. It has to do with being and purpose—or what the so-called church is and what it does.
By being, the New Testament insists on any local church to refer to a group of people brought into relationship with one another through their relationship to Jesus Christ by the gospel. They are sanctified in Christ, called saints, called unto fellowship with Jesus (1 Cor 1:2, 9); redeemed and forgiven through the bloody death of Christ (Eph. 1:7); united as fellow citizens and members of God’s household, corporately indwelled by the Holy Spirit (Eph 2:19, 22); counted as fellow heirs, fellow members of Christ’s body, and fellow partakers of the gospel promises in Christ (Eph 3:6). More can be noted but I think the idea of being is clear. Baptists have simplified what being means by summarizing it in the doctrine of regeneration. A church has legitimacy in the New Testament sense only when it takes seriously its being through regenerate church membership.
But what does a church do? What is its purpose? No doubt we could spend time investigating the many exhortations to congregational life and action found in the New Testament! So we could address worship, fellowship, prayer, service, witness, mission, hospitality, exercising gifts, preaching, teaching, burden bearing, exhortation, and so forth. All of these things and more entail what the church is involved in doing. Yet how do we get our minds around what the church does without just saying, “Read the twenty-seven books of the New Testament”?
One helpful means has been through developing a church purpose statement. In succinct fashion, the purpose statement helps to narrow its focus, energy, resources, and aim. Does that suggest excluding some of the New Testament exhortations for the church? Certainly not, but while incorporating these broad aims, the purpose statement gives the church its marching orders at a glance. The church understands that it is on track with the New Testament teaching when it follows clearly its purpose statement.
Paul and those associated with him had a purpose statement. He wrapped together in simple language the enormous life and mission of the church by stating, “We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ” (Col 1:28). Could he have said more by amplification? Certainly, and he often did but that purpose statement sticks in the mind with a clear roadmap for the journey.
At South Woods Baptist Church in Memphis, we spent much time refining our purpose statement. We want to be clear on what we are about as a congregation of regenerate, baptized followers of Jesus Christ who have entered into covenant with one another. We can become enamored with many things, even good things, yet miss our purpose as a church. We can waste a lot of energy, personnel, and resources on chasing after the latest trend in the church world. Our leaders and teachers can become distracted by interesting and even important “hobby horses,” while missing out on our Christ-ordained purpose as a congregation. So we put our purpose statement on paper and agreed to it, as follows:
We purpose to make disciples
who joyfully serve Christ together
in ministry and missions.
What do we imply in this purpose statement? Matt Sliger and Chris Wilbanks will join me in the next few posts in explaining our purpose statement. As a church, we want to be clear about what we are doing and where we are heading. As someone who may be looking in on us, we want to be transparent enough through our purpose statement that when you see our church name mentioned, you will understand what we are about as a church.