Discovering the Purpose of Church Meetings
By Brian Anderson
Have you ever stopped to ask yourself why the church of Jesus Christ assembles together? More importantly, have you ever searched the New Testament to seek the answer to that question? Many Christians reveal cloudy thinking when they state that the purpose of the meetings of the church is to worship, evangelize, or listen to a sermon. These may be the p rimary reasons for most church "services" today, but are they the purposes given in Scripture? Let's examine each of these commonly held ideas in turn.
The Church Does Not Meet Primarily To Worship
Most Christians assume that the purpose of church meetings is to worship God. That assumption is understandable when we consider that most churches refer to their meetings as "worship services." It is important to note, however, that the New Testament never speaks of a worship service, although it does mention a "service of worship": "I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship" (Rom.12:1). When Paul urged the Roman believers to present to God their service of worship he was not instructing them to meet together to sing hymns and songs of praise to God. On the contrary, he was urging them to continually offer to God their bodies as living sacrifices. That was to be their service of worship - the daily and continual dedication and surrender of their lives to God.
Many Christians believe that worship is the primary purpose for the church's assembling together because the Old Testament saints met for that very purpose. It is true that God required the Jews to assemble before Him at the temple in Jerusalem three times a year to offer sacrifices and worship before Him (Ex.23:14-17). We must keep in mind, though, that Jewish worship was confined to particular places and times (Deut.12:5-6, 11-14). Many continue to believe that Christians under the New Covenant are to follow suit with their Old Covenant brethren, and worship at a particular place (the church building) at a particular time (11:00 a.m. on Sunday morning). The New Testament, however, does not prescribe any particular place or time for worship. Jesus emphatically denied that New Covenant worship was a matter of a particular place when He told the Samaritan woman, "Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, shall you worship the Father. You worship that which you do not know; we worship that which we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth" (John 4:21-24). When Christ inaugurated the New Covenant in His blood, the Old Covenant mode of worship became obsolete and was soon to disappear (Heb.8:13). Under the New Covenant there are no holy places or holy times for worship. God commands His people to worship all day, every day, in every place, by willing surrender and obedience to His will (Rom.12:1).
Please do not misunderstand me to be affirming, however, that the church should not worship God through song when it assembles. The Scriptures declare that one important aspect of our gatherings should be "speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with our hearts to the Lord" (Eph.5:19; Col.3:16). However, the New Testament never identifies the main goal of the gatherings of believers as worship. Consequently, neither should we.
Steve Atkerson has written perceptively,
As long as we label our church meetings "worship services," people will tacitly assume that worship is the chief reason for the meeting. If edification or mutual encouragement does occur, it will be incidental or at best haphazard. It is an axiom that institutions drift away from their original purpose for existence. Could it be that such is the case with our church meetings? (Steve Atkerson, New Testament Restoration Newsletter, "What Is A Worship Service?" Vol. 1, No. 5, p.4.)
The Church Does Not Meet Primarily To Evangelize
Others believe that the purpose of church meetings is to evangelize the lost. Those who hold this view believe the pastor should preach evangelistic sermons and give altar calls at the climax of every Sunday service. In these churches the number of people crowding the altar to "give their hearts to Jesus" becomes the litmus test of the success of the service. Aside from the fact that the New Testament never commands or even models the modern "altar call" (the Scriptures teach that new believers are to publicly confess their faith through water baptism, not walking to an "altar"), this form of church meeting completely misses the fact that church meetings in the New Testament exist primarily for the benefit of believers, not the evangelism of unbelievers.
Recently, more and more churches have adopted the philosophy that their Sunday morning meetings are for the purpose of providing a non-threatening environment where "seekers" can hear the gospel as the pastor preaches sermons addressing their "felt needs." While I applaud the zeal for evangelism manifest in such churches, it still remains that this approach misses the mark in several respects. The Bible declares that "no man seeks for God" (Rom.3:11). Further, since when was the gospel supposed to be presented in a non-threatening environment? The call to follow Christ will be a threatening experience, because in it the sinner is summoned to forsake everything that would stand between him and full allegiance to Christ, deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Him (Luke 14:25-33). If that does not threaten a sinner, I do not know what will! Furthermore, although the sinner's greatest need is to be saved from the wrath of God, this is probably not one of his "felt needs." Finally, a sinner who "gives his heart to Jesus" in response to promises of having his needs met is very likely to fall away when he discovers the trials and hardships of the Christian life.
The Scriptures do present the possibility that on occasion an unbeliever may attend a church meeting, be convicted of his sins as the brethren minister to one another through their spiritual gifts, and be converted (1Cor.14:24-25). However, throughout the book of Acts, evangelism took place, not in the gatherings of believers, but where unbelievers naturally congregated, including:
- city streets (Acts 2:12-40)
- the temple grounds (Acts 3:1-26)
- a desert road (Acts 8:26-40)
- the synagogues of non-Christian Jews (Acts 9:20-22; 13:5; 13:14-41, 44-49; 14:1-3; 17:1-4; 17:10-12; 18:19; and 19:8)
- the home of an unbeliever (Acts 10:34-43)
- a riverside (Acts 16:13-15)
- prisons (Acts 16:30-31; 26:1-29; 28:23-31)
- the market place (Acts 17:17)
- a hill dedicated to a pagan god (Acts 17:19)
- military barracks (Acts 21:34-22:21)
- the governor's official residence (Acts 23:35; 24:24-25)
When evangelism did take place in their meetings it was the exception rather than the rule.
In short, the church gathered for mutual edification and scattered to evangelize. Again, I do not want to be misunderstood. We must zealously seek the conversion of the lost. Jesus Christ commanded His people to preach the gospel to all creation. Of that there can be no question. But we do need to question the practice of making evangelism the central purpose of our church meetings. Evangelism was never the goal of the gathered church in the New Testament, and therefore, should not be the goal of our gathered churches today.
The Church Does Not Meet Primarily To Listen To Sermons
Another commonly held opinion is that the purpose of the gathered church is to listen to a sermon. Without denying the importance of sound doctrinal instruction when the church gathers (1Tim.4:6,13,16; 5:17; 6:2,17; 2Tim.4:1-4), we must beware of equating that instruction too rigidly with the traditional sermon. In most churches, one man (the pastor) does all the talking, while the congregation does all the listening. Although the traditional sermon may be helpful in instructing and edifying God's people, it does not allow God's people to be involved in teaching, exhorting or admonishing one another, nor does it allow the pastor to be ministered to by the rest of the congregation.
Furthermore, if the church adopts the view that the purpose of meeting as the church is to listen to a sermon, its members will inevitably adopt a passive attitude. They will come, take notes, and fill their minds with wonderful biblical truth, but leave without fulfilling their God-given spiritual responsibilities. Yes, biblical sermons can be a powerful tool in edifying the body, but they should not be allowed to crowd out the ministry of the rest of the church. Again, if the New Testament does not present the preaching of sermons as the purpose for church meetings, then neither should we.
The Church Meets Primarily To Edify One Another
If worship, evangelism, and passive listening are not the primary Biblical purpose of the gathering of God's people, then what is it? In order to find the answer to that question we need to examine 1 Corinthians 11-14, because in these four chapters we have the most lengthy and comprehensive description in all of the New Testament of what should take place when the church gathers (1Cor.11:17,18,20,33; 14:19,23,26).
1 Corinthians 12:7 states, "But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good." We are told in 1 Corinthians 14:4 that the reason believers are to desire especially to prophesy is because when one prophesies he edifies the church. Verse 5 tells us that one who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may receive edifying." Verse 12 urges, "So also you, since you are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek to abound for the edification of the church." In verse 17 Paul instructs the Corinthians that the reason utterances in tongues must be interpreted is because if they are not, the other man is not edified. Finally, in verse 26, Paul sets down the overarching guideline for everything that takes place in the assemblies of the saints, "Let all things be done for edification." Throughout these passages, again and again Paul states that believers must strive for the goal of edifying (building up) the church when they meet.
We are given another description of the assembled church in Hebrews 10:24-25 where we read, ". . . and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near." In this passage the author exhorts the Hebrew Christians to continue assembling together for the purpose of stimulating one another to love and good deeds, and encouraging one another. This passage gives us a description of the gathered church, but there is no mention of worship, evangelism, or sermons. Instead, the spiritual activities emphasized are mutual exhortation and encouragement by all of God's people. According to this passage, the purpose of church meetings is the strengthening of the body through mutual exhortation so that it will be stimulated to love and good deeds.
Can this emphasis on edification be substantiated in any other passages of Scripture? It most definitely can. In Romans 14:19 Paul commands, "So then let us pursue the things which make for peace and the building up [edification] of one another." In Romans 15:2 he exhorts again, "Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to his edification." In 1 Corinthians 10:23-24 Paul warns, "All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify. Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor." In Ephesians 4:11-12 Paul teaches that God has given gifted men to His church to equip the saints for the work of service. This work of service results in the building up (edification) of the body of Christ. Later, in Ephesians 4:16, he informs us that the "proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up [edification] of itself in love." In 1 Thessalonians 5:11 Paul urges, "Therefore encourage one another, and build up [edify] one another, just you are also doing." Although the biblical passages in this paragraph do not specifically mention the church as gathered, first century Christians would have considered their church meetings the most natural context in which to obey these commands to edify one another. This view is strengthened further when we remember that Paul describes edification as the central purpose of the meetings of the church in 1 Corinthians14:26 where he writes, "What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification."
When we at Milpitas Bible Fellowship began to discover that the primary purpose of our meetings was not to evangelize, worship, or listen to sermons, but to contribute to the building up of the whole, it had a marked impact on our gatherings. Whereas we previously had primarily a vertical focus in our gatherings in which worship was our focus, we began to adopt more of a horizontal focus in which the edification of the body became the focus. Various believers began to prepare short teachings or words of exhortation to minister to others. Spontaneous prayer for those suffering in our midst became more and more commonplace. A richer fellowship, openness, and intimacy among God's people developed. We still took great delight in worshipping and praising God, but we began to see it as one of the important activities within our meetings rather than their central purpose.
If it is true, as I have sought to show, that mutual edification is the primary biblical purpose of our church meetings, then we must respond accordingly. Instead of focusing our meetings on evangelizing the lost, we need to utilize them to equip the saints to evangelize the lost all week long in their neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces. Instead of directing all our focus Godward in our meetings in songs of praise and worship, we need to remember that we have gathered with our brothers and sisters to strengthen them in their faith so that they will worship God twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week by their obedient lives. And instead of spending all our time listening to one man preach sermons, we need to make time in our meetings for all of God's people to seek to minister to one another through words of exhortation, encouragement, and instruction.