What is the church for? The question has been asked over and over again. But we do need to ask ourselves again today. We live in increasingly mobile times, where we’re used to shopping around for new opportunities, new jobs, new relationships. We can easily bring the same attitude when we come into church. Is the church just there to meet our personal, spiritual needs?
In England, we also live in increasingly sceptical times. Newspapers and magazines are full of suspicious headlines and articles toward church. Religious commitment is seen as wrong-headed and dangerous to society and minorities. Instead, there is a glamourisation of short-term, manufactured emotions. People today long for truth and community more than ever but are also more and more wary of the claims made by the church.
A good response to this question about the purpose of the church has been given by the Anglican bishop Lesslie Newbigin. He powerfully glues the church to what Jesus did on the Cross:
“One of the most helpful ways to comprehend what Christ did for us on the cross lies in the knowledge and understanding that He has created a place where sinful men and women, despite their sins, may be accepted by God and enabled to live and rejoice in His presence. The Cross is, if you like, the continuation of the ministry of Jesus who received sinners and ate and drank with them. The church is the place where this still happens.”
The church is God’s community, where you and I are regularly reminded that we don’t belong out of right. Instead, we have been given a place to belong. In Jesus, we belong to a much bigger story than just what is happening to us in our week. Lewis Smedes, an American writer, said that the gospel makes us ‘part of a programme as broad as the universe.’ Church, then, is a place where we are invited to belong to God and to God’s people.
So when Paul says to the Corinthian church – a most unlikely and not always likeable gathering of people – ‘Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?’ (1 Corinthians 3:16), he is saying, ‘You are now where God lives, and where He can found.’ Jesus promises the church that ‘where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with them.’ (Matthew 18:20)
We can still become too glib about this. We must not reduce the gospel to the words of the Depeche Mode song: ‘your own personal Jesus – someone to hear your prayers, someone who cares’. Church is also about waiting and lamenting together. As a church, we believe in Jesus and we trust in Jesus, but in this world still marked by death and sin His absence remains as keenly felt as His presence. Which is why the final cry of the church in the Bible is: ‘Amen, come Lord Jesus’.