I really like the word purpose. According to Merriam-Webster’s (11th ed.) purpose is “something set up as an object or end to be attained.” That is pretty easy to grasp. Every business and organization has a purpose, whether it is well articulated or not. In other words, as the church, what is our target? And maybe a better question is this: How do we know if we are hitting it or not?
The purpose of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. This is the “something” that is our “object.” Notice that there are many things that are not the purpose of the church. The purpose of our church is not simply to get bigger. Our purpose is not to minister to all needy people in the community. Our purpose is not to worship. Now, understand all these and much more are important activities in the overall life of the church, but none are the purpose. It’s important that we always make sure the purpose drives the activity in a focused way because it’s easy to slip into the mentality that the activity is the purpose. Before you know it, the proverbial tail is wagging the dog!
The problem with getting our eyes fixated on particular activities is that we all like different things. One person may like benevolent work, another may like in-depth Bible study, another may like exciting worship, another may like choir and special music programs, another may be passionate about missions, and so forth. That’s not bad; it’s actually good. We are attracted to different aspects of ministry because God gifts us with different interests and abilities. But we are often tempted to define the church’s purpose in accordance with our giftedness. This can be subtle, but it’s significant! Even the preacher can fall into this spiritual narcissism in which he thinks his preaching is the most important and defining activity of the church. Although the proclamation of the Word is vital and it needs to be done well, it's still not the purpose of the church even if it plays a role in fulfilling it.
The purpose of the church doesn’t change, just as the gospel doesn’t change and God doesn’t change. Jesus told us to “Go and make disicples…teaching them to observe all that I commanded.” Our purpose is to invite, lead, and instruct people on how to be disciples of Jesus. So, how do we know if we are successfully doing this? We must ask another question: What does a growing, true disciple of Jesus look like?
A genuine disciple of Jesus is one who is learning to love God, love people, and give of himself or herself to serve God and others. This is where the activity comes into play. Every specific activity we have from worship, to Sunday school and small groups, to missions works is a part of being disciples and making disciples. Over the years, culture, methods, and styles change, but the purpose of the church remains firmly tethered to the Great Commission.
Disciple making is two-fold. First, every Christian is in the process of becoming a disciple. I recall when Ignatius was being led to Rome to be executed for his faith in Christ that he wrote in one of his letters that he was just beginning to learn to be Jesus' disciple. What! He's giving his life as a martyr and he says that he's just beginning to learn? What an incredible statement. It's important that we understand that we are all in the process of being disciples - a process of growth that doesn't end. We ourselves must be growing to know and love God more as time goes on and to love others better.
Second, as we ourselves should be in a pattern of growth as a disciple, we are helping others in their growth as disciples. This includes our participation in evangelism, worship, instruction, mentoring, nurturing, or simply lending a hand where it's needed. We are called to be a disciple, and we are commanded to help make disciples. And even as we put ourselves out there to help others through purposeful disciple making, we ourselves are growing as a disciple. True disciples participate in helping to make other disciples!
What are the implications of all this? I think that it is vital that pastors and lay leaders work diligently together to make sure that the purpose of disciple making is always the point. Every church has to decide what activities it will attempt to provide. I mean, you have to do something. But that something should be purposeful. You should be able to explain clearly why you do what you do, and that explanation should have something to do with making disciples. If we do this, it will most certainly mean that we may have to stop doing some things merely out of tradition or simply because that's just the way we've always done it. If the activity doesn't have a view toward making disciples, then it's just a distraction and a waste of time and resources. If it doesn't serve the purpose, then it ought to go and make room for better-focused activity.
I think that I'm learning that one of the most important aspects of my leadership is helping all of us keep our attention on the purpose of the church. I'm also finding that this takes time, especially in a long-established church with strong tradition. However, if you keep chipping away over time, more and more folks will start to get it. As a pastor, make sure you can clearly articulate purpose to the people. And then bit by bit begin to implement,eliminate, or modify activities to be focused on the purpose. Be patient. Don't throw people off the boat by trying to turn it too quickly! And lastly, get used to repeating yourself - let purpose become your spiritual stump speech.