The Purpose of the Church: Form and Function
Fellowship’s Philosophy of Ministry, or the system of principles that guide the way we do ministry here at Fellowship, is built on the premise that everything in creation has a purpose, and that this purpose or function determines that something’s ultimate design or form, and that just this universal truth applies to everything in life it also applies to God design for the body of Christ, the church.
A coffee cup was designed to hold a few ounces of a hot liquid. It does not function very well as a human bathtub. It’s too small. But while the coffee cup is too small for a human to bath in, note the similarity of both the coffee cup and the bathtub’s purpose—both were designed to hold a hot liquid. And yet, though their purposes—holding hot liquids are similar, they are not the same purpose.
Can you imagine pouring your coffee into the bathtub and attempting to slurp it out? What a laugh! Or trying to take a bath in a cup of coffee? Both would be ridiculous! Though similar in function, each form was uniquely created for an even more specific purpose: one to bath in; one to drink from. So in other words, their very specific forms followed, as opposed to preceded, their very specific functions. It is a universal principle of life: Forms Follow Function, and not vice versa!
And while this simple, yet universal truth may sound obvious and simple, most of us fail to observe it in many of our everyday forms of living, and so much so, that we often find ourselves enduring or attempting to maintain failing forms, including many churches, schools, businesses and cultural traditions. Why? because we have forgotten or abandoned the function that gave rise to the original form in the first place, thus maintaining an outdated form becomes for many the fatiguing/discouraging objective. In other words, form has become function—maintaining a dying church, a worn out building or an inefficient approach to business, life, marriage, parenting, work, eating, medicine, home-building, clothes-washing, cooking, keeping records, paying bills, traveling across country, hunting, fishing, farming, manufacturing, communicating, etc. Are you starting to get the picture?
What was the original purpose? What were we trying to do or accomplish when we first came up with the form? Is that form still getting the job done? Is there a better form to get the job done? What is more important, the function or the form that accomplishes the function? Because the function may never change, but the form that accomplishes that function most assuredly will change, be it a diaper, a camera, a drill, a car, computer, phone, television, mail, a hammer, a shoe, etc.
Thus as it is true in life, it should be in the church. While a church’s function remains constant, it’s forms will change from generation to generation, from culture to culture, and that is okay, as long as, its original purpose or function is still being fulfilled—and fulfilled in a meaningful and relevant manner.
For example, while great cathedrals, with their artistically painted ceilings, once had their practical value in a movement that sought to inspire within the individual worshiper his Creator’s transcendent awe, beauty and majesty, for the most part, these great cathedrals now lie empty, merely serving as tourist attractions and monuments to another era.
In their place, new worshiping forms have arisen. Ones which are financially more feasible to construct, more practical in nature—forms that emphasize both the worshiping and teaching nature of the church, and which inspire worshipers through new types of music, as well as, uniquely designed sound, lighting, staging and techniques. Add to this what television, and both large and small group events have contributed to the mix. In other words, Forms Follow Function.
So what was the church’s original purpose? Let’s take a closer look.
Eph. 4:11-16 and discern what the church’s purpose is. For the answer to this crucial question we must examine Eph. 4:11-16 in context for within this passage are the biblical clues of the church’s real purpose.
Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians (the church at Ephesus)
You are about to travel back in time to a portion of an ancient biblical letter that a once former religiously legalistic law-abiding Jew and zealous persecutor of the early church, but who was literally captured by the glory of the resurrected Jesus Christ and who went on to became the church’s greatest advocate, as well as, the founder and establisher of the church to which this letter is addressed, the great Apostle, Paul.
While not spoken directly of, many believe that some of the clues as to the church’s purpose seem to be contained within the pages of this letter.
First of all, Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church is about unity — unity between believing Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews) within the same congregation. Eph. 2:14ff reads:
14 “For he himself (Jesus) is our peace, who has made the two (Jew and Gentile) one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, (How?) 15 by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations.”
His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.
17 “He came and preached peace to you (Gentiles) who were far away and peace to those who were near (Jews).
18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
19 Consequently, you (believing Gentiles) are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people (believing Jews) and members of God’s household,
20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.
21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.
22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”
“A dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” That is what the church is supposed to be. A place of unity, of genuine togetherness, but genuine togetherness that is built upon the cornerstone of Christ Jesus—the Truth–his sin-atoning death and resurrection–and the foundation of his apostles and prophets—his Holy Words—his truth.
In Eph. 4 Paul again brings up this idea of “Spirit-inspired unity.” Eph. 4:1-6 reads:
1 “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.”
2 “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (remember chapter 2, Jew and Gentile, one new man).
4 “There is one body and one Spirit– just as you were called to one hope when you were called– 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
Then in v. 7 in order to develop and maintain this Christ-like unity or togetherness Paul writes just as he does in Rom. 12 and 1 Cor. 12.
7 “But to each one of us grace (God’s favor) has been given as Christ apportioned it” (as a king bestows his favor upon his loyal subjects).
Then once again in v.11ff., Paul brings up the foundation of Christ’s body, the apostles and prophets (which he discussed earlier in chapter 2), along with other gifted or graced individuals. Within this discussion of these gifted individuals helping the church to build this special unity, Paul perhaps alludes to the real purpose of a church. Read Eph. 4:11-16 below and see if you can glean what the real purpose of the church seems to be about.
11 “It was he (CHRIST) who gave some to be apostles,
some to be prophets,
some to be evangelists, and
some to be pastors and teachers,
(Why? For what purpose?)
12 to prepare God’s people for works of service,
(What kinds of acts of service? And Why?)
so that the body of Christ may be built up
(With what goal or result?)
13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
(The result, stated negatively…)
14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.
(The result, stated positively…)
15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”
Q. Even if you are not a biblical scholar, after having read the above passage and ponder it for a moment in its original context, just on the surface, if you had to describe the real purpose of this God-created and Spirit-inspired form, commonly called the body of Christ, or the church, what would you say?
The purpose of the assembly, church, or body of Christ it seems is growth—but not growth as the world often defines it–numerical growth, but a different type of growth—a growth defined by what’s inside a person; a growth that seeks to serve the other guy, or my fellow brother or sister within the body of Christ; growth that is not just about me, but about us; a growth that thinks outside itself; a growth that like our Lord, who was rich in God, gave himself up for others; a growth that grows and never stops growing; a growth seeks the full measure of Christ; a growth inspired by the Holy Spirit of God; a growth that seeks a real change in character–a change in the way a person thinks, feels and acts; a growth the world really has no understanding of; a growth like no other.
Bottom line the purpose of the church, and Fellowship’s purpose as well, seems to be to create a biblical, spiritual environment, which encourages and results in Christ-like spiritual growth and maturity. It is both that simple and that complex. Because as human beings are complex, so are groups, or bodies of human beings, as well. But that is the task before us—the task given to us by the Holy Spirit–to create, develop and maintain upon this earth an environment for spiritual growth.
And while ultimately, no person can make another human being grow, but together we can strive within the best of our God-given, Spirit-inspired abilities and talents (our graces or gifts) to seek to create, and continue to recreate, this biblical environment that creates and nurtures healthy, biblical Christ-like spiritual growth, as each member of the body is trained and equipped to do his/her purpose and function.
In other words, your physical birth and spiritual rebirth are no accidents. According to what the Spirit inspired Paul to write many, many years ago, we were made to be a part of larger work, a larger body, a community of believers, whose spiritual whole is infinitely greater that the sum of our individual spiritual parts.
So welcome to the party, friend or brother. Like us or not, love us or not, just like the individual cells and organs of the human body, an individual’s spiritual growth comes through the body’s many countless interactions between its members, and the body’s overall growth is a result of all the individual members’ spiritual growth. You cannot divorce the two. Their Spirit-inspired births, journeys, growth, sufferings and ultimate maturities are all inseparably intertwined. This is the miracle and mystery of the Holy Spirit—“a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit”—the body of Christ, the church.
All for one, and one for all.
Bottom line, stated simply, Fellowship’s Purpose:
To Create an Environment…
that Encourages Christ-like Spiritual Growth.