Churches in the culturally shifting West are struggling to find and hold a stable identity and purpose. Oftentimes they seem to be wandering in the dark, searching for relevance and significance in a world of darkness that opposes the Founder of the church who is the light of the world (John 8:12). Cultural issues such as abortion, so-called “gay marriage,” and the lasting effects of postmodernism have caused many churches to flee to moral compromise and cowardly silence. As a result, if you polled ten professing Christians at random, they would more than likely give ten different answers to the question “What is the purpose of the church?” This is a problem across the landscape of Christendom and many evangelical churches are searching for an identity that is favorable to the world. The litmus test in the coming years for the evangelical church in America will be the question: “Are we willing to lose cultural acceptance for the sake of Christ?”
The reason for this is that countless pastors and Christians desire large numbers, full baptisteries, and big budgets to support big programs and big worship services. They also desire favor with the world around them. And so countless churches and Christians are seeking identity in all the wrong places. The toxic desire for cultural relevance causes these churches to reconsider what their DNA will be. However, when churches abandon the biblical witness to the nature of the church of Jesus Christ, the purpose for which the church exists is lost.
So, this begs the question, “What is the nature of the 21st century church to be?” In other words, what are local bodies of believers to do in order to function as a church? We are given an answer to this in Acts 2:42-47 as Luke gives us an overview glimpse of the early church. What they did should inform us on what we should do in the heated and controversial cultural in which we find ourselves.
The Purpose of the Church
Before looking at the text itself, we must observe the purpose of the church as depicted by Luke. Luke records for us in Acts 2 the event of Pentecost—a day on which the Holy Spirit was poured out in the hearts of those who by faith had received Christ and a day on which the gospel was proclaimed with power and three thousand souls obeyed Peter’s command to “Repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:38, 41). This gathering, this corporate body of converts who had been saved by the grace of God through faith in the one who had just died for them, sought to maximize the glory of God among themselves and among all peoples.
What brought these people together was the message of the gospel, which Peter said is for the forgiveness of sins (v. 38). These forgiven believers who were called by God had received the gift of the Holy Spirit. This gracious calling of God to salvation in Christ is the basis for the existence of the church. From this basis, the church sought to maximize the glory of God inwardly and outwardly. And this should be our purpose—to glorify God among ourselves and among all peoples. I believe this purpose can be succinctly stated: The purpose of the church is to glorify God by delighting in him in the community of believers and in the surrounding culture. What we find and what we need in this purpose is unity in the gospel. And this special unity is exactly what remarkably marked the early church.
The all-important question that results from this postulation is one of practicality. In other words, how can the church practically carry out this purpose? Luke includes four things that the early church did to carry out this purpose and it is these four things that should mark churches in the 21st century. The early church was a learning church, a loving church, a worshiping church, and a sharing church.
1. A Learning Church (Acts 2:42)
The teaching ministry in the church is vital for the health and spiritual growth of the church. Just as a class of students grows in proportion to the teaching of its teacher, a congregation of believers only grows when the teaching ministry is taken seriously. In our churches, the first thing we can do to glorify God by delighting in him is through teaching and being taught the Word of God. Like the early church, we must devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching.
2. A Loving Church (Acts 2:42, 44-46)
Not only is teaching a vital mark of the early church and the 21st century church, but loving is crucial to the identity of the church and to its fulfillment of its purpose to glorify God in their delight of him. The faith they shared in Christ led to a love that resembles the self-sacrifice of the Savior who died to make their community and love possible. The early church was a loving community that understood that it was God who held ultimate ownership of all they had. When we grasp this same understanding, we can flee the temptation of materialism with the love of God for our brothers and sisters in Christ. When believers understand that God owns them and their possessions, the way we use them will be impacted and the identity of the church will be found in loving those whom, like us, God has called to himself.
3. A Worshiping Church (Acts 2:42-43, 46-47)
We see in these verses the elements of corporate worship in the early church. Luke writes that the early church gathered regularly for teaching and preaching, communion, and prayers. There was likely singing as well (“praising God”). The 21st century church regardless of preference or style must remain committed to the elements of worship outlined in Scripture and in the example of the early church. If the church is to carry out its intended purpose to fill the earth with the glory of God, believers must never abandon teaching, preaching, communion, prayer, the Lord’s command (and the early church’s practice) of baptism.
4. A Sharing Church (Acts 2:47)
The final mark of the early church that informs us of our identity as churches today is the fervor of early believers for evangelism. While we have a tendency to boast in church growth at the expense of church health, Luke shows us how out-of-order this is. In summarizing the condition of the early church, Luke emphasizes church health before mentioning the rapid and daily growth of the church. Growth without health is detrimental, so much so that the result may be a false “church.” However, when health precedes growth, that growth will most likely be genuine and joyous. There is great joy to be had when a healthy church blossoms. And by all accounts, the only kind of growth that matters is the growth of a healthy church. When healthy churches grow, God is glorified as his name is rightly praised among his people and propagated in all nations.
It is also vital for us to see that church growth is the result of church health. Unbelievers come to Christ when they see a church devoted to the teaching of Christ, the worship of Christ, and the love of Christ. When Christ is made visible in the local church, those whom God is calling through Christ will flock. The church of Christ is like a human body. Bodily growth follows healthy lifestyles. And bodily growth results from healthy lifestyles. A growing body is a healthy body. And so it is with the local church. The church will grow when the church is healthy. We should actively be involved in proclaiming the gospel of Jesus to our neighbors and into the nations; to be the means that God calls sinners to himself and adds to our number.
The early church got it right. May we follow in their footsteps as we seek to be churches who submit to the Word of God, love the people of God, worship our Trinitarian God, and reach out to a lost world with the saving message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The God who called us is still calling his people home from every tribe and tongue. May we actively be the church and find our identity in glorifying God through delighting in him together for all to see.
Mathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies, Dec. ’14). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife Erica and their dog, Simba.