What if I told you that the purpose of the church is rooted in one word, what would you say?
I've been thinking about this subject off and on over the last several years, and I am more convinced each passing day the the focal point of what the church should be about is relationship. I recognize by saying this I open myself up to criticism from all kinds of different sources. Yes I do agree that we need to teach sound doctrine and provide meaningful worship experiences while seeking to remain relevant in the emerging culture around us. But I believe we can thrive in these three areas (and more!) when we root ourselves in relationship.
About a year and a half ago my family and I stepped away from the church we had served at for 8+ years. Not knowing where we would be headed next, we were drawn to prayer unlike we had been before at this particular moment in our lives. After several months of uncertainty and impending financial crisis with loss of income headed our way, God illuminated our next step and provided another ministry setting in which He asked us to serve. We found ourselves to be overwhelmed with thankfulness and gratitude, and we were greatly anticipating this next phase of our journey with Christ. It's been over a year since this transition time, and I still feel as energized and excited about serving Christ in our current ministry context as I did back on the first day I entered into this new position. I recently had the chance to share with my uncle about this transition that occurred in our lives. During our conversation my uncle asked a very pointed question which has again brought me back to this theme of relationship in church. I had mentioned that finding a new set of friends has been the most difficult part of the transition to serving in a new church, to which he replied: "but the church should be able to help with that, right?"
The interesting part about this conversation is that to my knowledge, my uncle has not surrendered his life to Christ, but yet he still could see the value of being connected to a group of people that supposedly shared the same set of values and potential priorities as a huge asset in regards to developing a new relational support network. But, in all honesty, is that what we currently find in the church itself? Do we find relationship and friendship in the church, or do we find the emphasis to be on preaching & teaching?
To this day, the teachers that have had the most impact in my life are those that I could identify with relationally. When a teacher would simply attempt to download information into my brain, I found myself to be apathetic in the learning process. However, if the opposite occurred and a teacher demonstrated a vested interest in seeing me be able to grasp a new learning concept, I would have a much easier time and much greater success in the learning experience itself.
I think the question we need to ask ourselves when it comes to this issue of what the purpose of the church is, is what did Jesus tell us we should be about? There are two great statements made by our Lord which are contained in the gospels. We affectionately refer to them as The Great Commandment and The Great Commission. These two statements are foundational pillars for the Christian faith. The first, the great commandment, mentions that we as followers of Christ should devote ourselves to Loving God and Loving Others (Matthew 22:37-39). When you think about love, in what context does it occur? Love cannot exist devoid of relationship. Whether this relational act is one of service, random kindness or some other more intense friendship like marriage, love outside of relationship is not possible. The second statement, which we call the great commission, provides for us the road map of the Christian faith. In this declaration, Jesus empowers us as His followers (the church) to go and make disciples. Typically we as the church have defined a disciple to mean a follower of Jesus. Unfortunately it is how we have defined a follower of Jesus that has clouded our purposed and detracted it from its' original intent.
As the church, we have focused on developing the knowledge base of our components. Our emphasis on teaching should be commended, but remember that teaching devoid of relationship does not have the same lasting impact as that which has occurred within the bonds of friendship. Take Jesus' original 12 disciples, for example. What was the purpose of this team? I truly believe the purpose of the 12 disciples was to experience what true relationship in a human context was all about, so that as they built the church they would be able to offer this same sort of relational connection (discipleship) to others. Jesus made disciples of His disciples by being their friend and teaching them everything God asked Him to (how to have relationship and how to pray). Jesus did not offer Peter any lessons on preaching or dynamic teaching seminars; Andrew wasn't asked to draw up a 12 month strategic process and learning curriculum for the early church; nor was Matthew asked to create a moniker or acronym, mission statement or set of values for this new wave of Christianity. Instead, Jesus asked these 12 men to make relational connections with others by demonstrating what living life to the full is all about.
Now to be fair, all of these things like mission statements, vision documents and other strategic processes are helpful...but devoid of relationship as their foundation, they don't amount to a whole lot.
Looking at the early church from Acts 2 & 4, there is a common theme that is weaved throughout its' dynamic experiences...relationship. Knowing that we as humans have been created for relationship, if we could rediscover how changing the world begins with a firm relational foundation, we may see the sovereignty and grace of God flood the North American church with the rich blessing of more souls being added into His kingdom each day in an unprecedented fashion. What is certain is that followers of Christ are called to demonstrate and proclaim the gospel of Christ within the context of relationship. It is God who is in ultimate control of the universe, but it is us who can control how we represent Him in our world through our relational interactions with our neighbors. Let us never forget that we were made for relationship.