What are your Expectations of Jesus’ Local Church?
The Nature of the Local Church | by Pastor Adam Sinnett
Note: This post is the first in a series (2, 3) on the nature of the local church. The intent of this series is loving clarity, amidst cultural confusion. I write with gospel-forged hope, deep love for our church, co-mingled with genuine pastoral concern. This series is intended to give us a healthy set of shared understandings about the nature of the local church by which we carry out the many important conversations of this tumultuous season. We’re in this together.
One thing this season has made clear is that there are widespread misunderstandings about what Jesus’ local church is meant to be and do—even among followers of Jesus.
Over the last six months the elders of DCC have received numerous questions, recommendations, and criticisms in relation to what we should be doing as a church in regards to: our pandemic response, the relationship between church and state, timing and content of communication, growing unemployment, the homelessness crisis, political partisanship, systemic injustice, police brutality, social protests, and more.
We welcome questions, suggestions, and critique. My intent here is not to silence nor chastise. Rather, my purpose is to make an observation. I have noticed that under many of these inquiries are vastly different expectations of what Jesus’ local church is.
What are your expectations of Jesus’ church? Where do they come from? That’s what this post is about.
Expectations are powerful, but often hidden
Expectations are everything in relationships, whether with people or organizations. Expectations are powerful beliefs about what should happen, or what we expect, within a particular relationship. These beliefs often lurk behind the scenes based on our understanding of what that relationship does and does not entail. Since they are largely assumed, we typically don’t question them and we can forget how much shaping influence they have in our relationships.
We understand this innately. We expect hospitals to care for the sick. We expect universities to educate. We expect governments to govern. We expect libraries to lend books. We expect museums to showcase historical artifacts. We expect Seattle to vote Democratic. Why? That is what those groups do.
However, we don’t expect our doctor to deliver our dinner. We don’t expect our local elementary school to respond to a 911 call. We don’t expect libraries to rotate our tires. We don’t expect our Uber drive to raise our kids. Why not? That is not what those groups do. If we have those expectations, we will find ourselves disappointed, at best, or disillusioned, at worst.
In other words, when our expectations are not met, some degree of conflict is inevitable. But, that conflict can have one of two sources. It may be due to one party not living up to the shared expectations of their relationship, such as a cheating spouse. Or, one party may have wrong expectations of a relationship. If you go to Trader Joe’s to renew your license tabs you will be forever disappointed and disgruntled, though it is no fault of Trader Joe’s.
Both result in conflict, but the source of the conflict is different; the former is rooted in shared expectations and the latter in wrong ones. All of this has bearing on our current cultural moment.
What are your expectations of Jesus’ local church?
What do you expect Jesus’ local church to be and do? Have you thought about that? Our expectations are often formed through a mixture of biblical understanding, personal preference, past experience, varying emotions, influential teachers, and life circumstances.
So, what should we expect from the local church? Here are some things that may come to mind:
teach the Bible, spread the gospel, defend the faith, evangelize, make disciples, baptize, celebrate the Lord’s supper, teach classes and catechize, perform weddings and funerals, practice church discipline, counsel the hurting, run after the wandering, visit the sick, help the widow, cast vision and create strategic plans, missionally innovate, plant churches, send missionaries, create programs (kids, youth, college, singles, empty nesters), lead mission trips, entertain, manage (finances, property and staff), develop a social media presence, and address social issues (homelessness, addiction, immigration, human trafficking, politics, foster care, racism, abortion, youth incarceration, food security, water access, etc).
That’s quite a list. Must a healthy, Jesus-loving local church do all these?
The chasm between “could” and “must”
There is a huge chasm between “could” and “must”; between “can” and “ought.” One is an option, while the other is a divine mandate. We should be careful of placing “oughts” where a particular issue is a “can.” Such as, you ought to do something about homelessness. You ought to say something about a particular news event. You ought to do something about police brutality. The word ought implies a church is disobedient if it doesn’t. But, is it?
What ought Jesus’ local church do? What is the church? Why does it exist? You can see why this is important. If we’re not clear on what the church is and why it exists, we may end up expecting things of the church that God does not—and, as a result, find ourselves disappointed and disgruntled because of those errant expectations, though it is no fault of the church.
So, it is helpful to ask ourselves, “Do my expectations for Jesus’ church align with Jesus’ expectations of it?”
What is God’s purpose for Jesus’ local church?
So, what is God’s purpose for the local church? Well, think about it this way. We can only understand the church’s purpose in light of God’s ultimate purpose. What is that? God’s ultimate purpose is to have his unsearchable riches seen (Mt. 28:18-20; Eph. 3:8-9; Rom. 11:33), savored (1 Pet. 2:3; Ps. 34:8), and shown (1 Cor. 10:31; Eph. 2:10; Jn. 13:35) in the whole-hearted worship of his people from every nation, tribe, people, and language (Rev. 7:9). This is God’s great purpose in the universe.
Ok, so how does God plan to accomplish this purpose? God primarily plans to accomplish this purpose through his local church. Go slow here. We will never fully grasp the significance of Jesus’ local church if we don’t see its connection to God’s purposes in the universe. They are inseparably connected.
Consider what the church is. The church is not your typical non-profit or voluntary association. Jesus’ local church is a radically diverse supernatural creation of God, secured by the Son of God, empowered by the Spirit of God, led by the Word of God, to accomplish the mission of God, for the glory of God and the everlasting joy of the people of God (Jn. 15:11; 16:24; 1 Jn. 1:4). In a word, the local church is a miracle.
The mission of Jesus’ local church—the reason his church exists—is to go into the world, in the power of the Spirit, to make disciples of Jesus through evangelism (corporate and personal proclamation of the gospel) and discipleship (worship-filled, joy-fueled obedience), while seeking to plant healthy churches that do the same everywhere for the glory of God (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8; Col 1:28).
This is our unique and central task—faith-filled proclamation and worship-full disciple-making, together. This work of the church is how God is fulfilling his purposes in the universe to this day. Think about that.
There is nothing else like Jesus’ church
In other words, the purpose of Jesus’ local church is utterly unique. No one else on the planet can do this work. No other organization on the planet can do this work. God has given this unique purpose to his local church. If the local church doesn’t do it, no one else will because no one else can.
Only Jesus’ local church has God’s inerrant inspired Word through which we learn the truth of reality, the truth of who God is, and the truth of what it means to be human.
Only Jesus’ local church has the incomparable gospel, by which we learn how to be reconciled, forgiven, adopted and counted righteous by God, in Christ.
Only Jesus’ local church is considered by God to be the temple of God (1 Cor. 3:16), family of God (Eph. 2:19), body of Christ (Rom. 12:5), embassy of the Kingdom (Phil. 3:20), and the pillar of truth (1 Tim. 3:15).
Only Jesus’ local church has the ordinances of baptism and Lord’s Supper by which his people are identified and set apart as those who belong to him.
Only Jesus’ local church has the responsibility of making and maturing disciples of all nations and spurring one another on as the Day draws near (Heb. 10:25).
Only Jesus’ local church is the salt and light of God, a people of convictional kindness who cultivate a faithful presence in their communities, in Jesus’ name, from the avenues to the alley ways.
Only Jesus’ church has pastors who shepherd, deacons who serve, and members who love another as fellow citizens of the kingdom to come.
In other words, there is nothing like Jesus’ local church. It is utterly unique.
So, while there are many things the church could do, what it must do is faithfully proclaim the gospel and cultivate worship-full disciples as God’s new humanity in Jesus. While the church cares deeply about politics, it is not a partisan organization. While the church cares deeply about justice, it is not a social justice organization. While the church cares deeply about current events, it is not a news organization which offers ongoing cultural commentary. While the church cares deeply about virtue, it is not responsible to signal its virtue to merely appease the culture.
The church is a local expression of God’s new, diverse, redeemed people with a specific purpose: to faithfully proclaim the gospel and cultivate worship-full disciples for God’s glory. While there are many things we could do, this is what we must do. This is the heart beat of every faith-filled, bible-saturated, Spirit-dependent, God-centered, Christ-satisfied local church. This is where our primary energies should be directed. This is what we should expect from a healthy local church, whether gathered or scattered.
Anything else is peripheral to these primary purposes. That is not to say other issues are unimportant. They are often very important. But it is to say they lie outside the primary purpose of Jesus’ local church. Jesus alone is the center and circumference of reality. When we get his purposes for his local church right, it then goes on to shape and inform everything else.
Do your expectations for Jesus’ church align with Jesus’ expectations of it?
In an upcoming post, we will continue to consider what Jesus’ local church is meant to be and do by looking at the differences between the role of the church, as a whole, and the individual Christian.
With you, and for you, in Christ,
To read the next post in this series, click here.