What is the Church for?

Most of us think we know, which is fine, and we think it’s obvious, which could be fine, and we think that everyone else agrees with us because it’s obvious. Which is not true.

You ask the average conservative evangelical and you will probably get an answer along the lines of “the Great Commission,” meaning Matthew 28’s instruction to ‘make disciples from all the nations.’ What they understand this to mean is ‘make more Christians.’

You ask someone from a more magisterial Protestant background (especially if they’ve been drinking from a Theopolitan fire hose) and they might well agree that we should ‘make disciples of the nations,’ pointing out that while it’s often quoted otherwise that’s the Greek of Matthew 28. What they mean is that we should be turning nations into disciples, which means ‘make more Christendom.’

The first one will sound familiar, and it’s true as far as it goes, though to make disciples isn’t just to make ‘more Christians’ it includes teaching the Christians we have to follow God.

The second one may sound mad to many British Christians, but I think it’s a reasonable inference from the text, but not to the exclusion of the first understanding.

However, neither is, as I understand it, what the church is primarily for. Both are some of the ways that the church completes her mission, but not ultimately the point.

The church exists to worship God. That’s what she’s for.

Our worship includes the expansion of worship in both the micro scale (households, and even down to individuals) and the macro scale (communities or nations) as the church lives her prophetic calling to advise the Kings how to rule in accordance with the law of God. It’s not less than the Great Commission, but it is a lot more.

A grand story

How do we know this is the Church’s mission? Let’s think of the story.

We start in a Garden that is depicted as a Temple. Genesis 2 is replete with ancient near eastern temple imagery, but we don’t need that clue as the Bible tells us the same. Instead, we could look at the way that the tabernacle and the Temple are patterned after the Garden. We see this in their structure, built in concentric areas with the holiest place in the middle, which is to say they’re chiastic. We see this in their decoration, look at the fruit and the trees, and the sea placed at the outside edge, and where the cherubim sit. We also see this narratively, noting the pattern where encounters with God typically happen on mountains by trees or bushes: in places that look like the Garden of Eden.

Which is because the Garden in the middle of the land of Eden is itself an image of the heavenly Temple where Yahweh dwells above the gods.

That may be enough for us to think of Adam as a Priest, but we could also look at the vestments that God dresses him and Eve in, or the way Adamic language is picked up for subsequent priests from Noah onwards.

For the sake of a blog post length, suffice to say that we start with people placed in a Temple where they are supposed to worship God.

Let’s spin to the other end and read from the end. Why? Because that’s how the Bible wants to be read, it even tells you so on lots of occasions, but that’s a story for another day.

At the end of the Bible, in John’s Revelation, we have a picture of the new creation now consummated in the new heavens and the new earth. Heaven has married earth, Christ has married the church, and the people of God do what? They worship God in a city without a Temple because they are the Temple (compare Revelation 21-22 with 1 Peter 1-2).

Even earlier in Revelation when it’s less clear that we’re talking about the future, we find the church in worship (Revelation 7) before the throne of God. We join with the angelic choirs to sing to one another (Isaiah 6, Ephesians 5) of the excellencies of Jesus.

Then, let’s look at the middle, not the literal middle but the narrative one: the crucifixion and resurrection of the Lord. We see the Temple curtain torn from top to bottom, and the truth of this declared by Peter on Pentecost, as Joel prophesied now everyone can enter the presence of the Lord and prophesy.

We see the Resurrection in a Garden just like the one at the beginning, so that we meet the risen Christ in a Temple, ready to be worshipped.

The Church exists to worship

This should affect how we think about our Sunday meetings. Who are they primarily for? Certainly not outsiders or enquirers or sceptics; they are for God, and secondarily for us as we learn to follow him by worshipping.

Our attitude should be affected by this, which while I’m not offended by informality or jokes, the lack of seriousness which dominates most British life may well not be the most appropriate for the worship of God. That doesn’t mean we have to can the jokes, God loves a good joke, have you read the Bible? It does mean that we should take it seriously. It is no light thing we do week by week.

Even if we call one bit of our meeting ‘the worship,’ we should still approach the other things that we do together as though they were worshipping God. Because they are. This doesn’t mean that we need to talk in quiet breathy voices or have very wide eyes to create an atmosphere of mock reverence, but if you believe that God is present and is the person that our meetings are directed towards it will change how we plan and conduct them.

It will shift our standards of ‘excellence’ as well as our pragmaticism. What does good look like? Well, was God worshipped? That’s a pretty good start.

There’s more to say here, this is the first step of my eucharismatic manifesto. The next flips this because we find that when we approach the Lord to worship he first comes to us to meet with us. It’s not wrong to think that we receive from God on a Sunday, quite the opposite, but the dynamic happens because we approach him to worship him; and this not because he can do us good, but because he is worthy.

He is worthy, so crown him with praise.

Photo by Daniel Tseng on Unsplash

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