The ultimate purpose of the church – as individual members and as a corporate body – is to glorify God (1 Cor 10:31, Eph 1:6, 12, 14; Col 3:17). The recipe for achieving that goal includes four major prescriptions: (1) Bible teaching, (2) fellowship, (3) praise and edification, and (4) outreach.
Christ established four roles in the church, designed for the building up of His body: (1) apostles, (2) prophets, (3) evangelists, and (4) pastors and teachers (Eph 4:11-13). Apostles and prophets are foundational (Eph 2:20), evangelists focus on outreach, and pastors and teachers shepherd by teaching so that believers will be equipped for the work of service.
Individual believers are to assemble in order to encourage, providing the basic element of fellowship. Fellowship is not simply the gathering of believers in a social sense, but also includes the elements of considering how to stimulate each other to love and good deeds, and to encourage (Heb 10:23-25). Also, individual believers are told to let the word of Christ dwell richly in them (a direct outcome of Bible teaching and study), and are told to teach and admonish each other with song, and to sing with thanksgiving to God (Col 3:16). On the one hand believers are edifying each other in teaching, admonishing and song, and on the other hand they are singing to God. In the elements of Bible study, fellowship, and edification/praise, believers are focused on the Lord and on each other.
These three functions are critical for the health and growth of believers. But there is another necessary piece. Without an appropriate emphasis on outreach, the church can become too inwardly focused and disconnected from the societies in which God has placed those members. While there is clear priority of believers doing good to one another first before reaching outside the church, there is a definite responsibility to reach out (Gal 6:10). Believers cannot cloister themselves in isolation from the world if they expect to fulfill the functions of the church (1 Cor 5:9-13). Outreach is vital.
There are four basic components of outreach: (1) together, reaching out to believers, (2) individually reaching out to believers, (3) individually reaching out to unbelievers, and (4) together, reaching out to unbelievers. The first two are closely related to fellowship and edification, as believers, both corporately and individually reach out within the body (local or not) to do good to believers as there is opportunity and need. The second two would include meeting spiritual needs (evangelism) and physical needs of unbelievers as there is opportunity and need. Individually, believers are to be always ready to give an account for the hope within them (1 Pet 3:15). This is the “apologetic” mandate – to be ready to respond as there is opportunity to share the hope that believers have in Christ.
Further, believers should meet the physical needs of unbelievers as opportunity and need intersect. Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:30-37), along with James’ exhortations (Jam 1:27, 2:5-16), demonstrates that outreach is not limited to a spiritual focus, but should also consider physical need as appropriate.
Reflecting corporate responsibility, the Philippians provide an excellent example of corporate outreach, as they were partakers in Paul’s proclaiming of the gospel (Php 1:7). They illustrate how evangelism is not simply an individual enterprise. Wherever possible, believers are to be at peace with all men (Rom 12:18, Heb 12:14), and should not be offensive, but should seek for the profit of others, for their salvation (1 Cor 10:32-33).
There are many obstacles and distractions that would keep the church from focusing on its primary goal and the functions that lead to fulfilling that goal. A local church’s health with respect to that goal cannot be measured in financial numbers or attendance. Obviously, financial stagnancy and low attendance can be symptomatic of an unhealthy church, but they are certainly not the telltale signs. In fact, looking to numbers as the primary sign of success is one of the most common distractions the church faces. Rather than repeating the mistakes of using faulty measurement tools, let’s focus on the Biblical standards revealed for the church. When assessing the health of the local church, let’s ask the right questions.
- Are we teaching the word of God effectively so that people are maturing, walking more closely with the Lord, and able to teach others?
- When we gather together are we effective at encouraging each other and looking toward each other’s growth?
- Are our songs edifying each other and appropriately thanking and praising God?
- Does our outreach reflect Biblical priorities and methodology?
If we can answer each of these questions in the affirmative, then we have gone a long way down the path of a healthy church. Yet if we are failing in even a single area, then the resulting imbalance will threaten the church’s health in every other area.
Once again, we must depend upon His wisdom and His design. After all, He builds the church (Mt 16:18) and not us. It is our place to focus on faithfulness and not outcomes. If He builds the house it will get built. If not, then our labor is in vain (Ps 127:1-2), but because He is building this particular house, we can “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that our toil is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor 15:58).