During the peak of the Covid-19 epidemic, many schools and businesses had to shut down, Classes started being taught by Zoom and many workers were able to do much of their work from home via the computer and the amazing capabilities of the Internet. The majority of churches also closed their doors and those with the capabilities, started having their services online. Now that things have returned to “somewhat normal,” not everyone went back to their workplace but continued to do much of their business from home. There are also those who found “attending church ” from the comfort of their home to be attractive and continue to do so, and have not resumed going to the services of their local church. There are also those who have had bad experiences in a local church so quit attending altogether.
This brings up the question of “Why do we go to church?” What is the purpose of the local church and is it really important for believers to attend one? Can’t we just study on our own, maybe attend a home Bible study group, and watch an online service of our choice. There are so many to choose from–some with good, solid Bible teaching, and some which are more of a “show” don’t really practice sound doctrinal teaching.
The word for church (ekklesia) means “called out ones.” It has the idea of a group that has been called out for a purpose. In general use, it simply means “assembly.” Ekklesia is used more than 100 times in the New Testament, primarily in reference to local churches, but also as a designation for all true believers in Christ, which we refer to as the “universal church” and includes all who have trusted Christ since the day of Pentecost and are thus baptized into the body of Christ (the church) by the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5; 2:1-4; I Cor. 12:12,13).The church, therefore, is distinct from the nation of Israel in God’s plans and purposes. The Apostle Paul made it clear that the church was a “mystery,” hidden and not revealed until the time of Christ and the apostles (Mt. 16:18; Eph. 3:1-10). It will continue on earth until the Lord Jesus comes “in the air” and raptures it out of the world (I Thes. 4:13-18; II Thes. 2:1).
The focus of ekklesia in the New Testament is not on the universal aspect of the church, but on the church as it existed in local areas, like Philippi, Rome, Corinth, Jerusalem, Ephesus, etc. The New Testament letters were written to these local assemblies of believers. Once a person came to faith in Christ and became a member of the universal church, he united with a local group of believers. There seemed to be no question of whether or not they needed to be part of a local church. They sensed their need for fellowship and for commitment to other Christians.
So what is the biblical purpose for the local church? From the New Testament we find three basic purposes indicated. The first is evangelism. The church is to be God’s lighthouse in a world darkened by sin and satanic blindness (Mt. 5:13-16; II Cor. 4:3,4). The church’s external ministry is to take God’s good news (the Gospel...Ro. 1:16; I Cor. 15:1-4) to those who do not know Christ (Mt. 28:19,20; Acts 1:8; II Cor. 5:18-20). The gospel may be presented within the walls of a church building, but the primary place for evangelism is the “marketplace” (where you live, work, socialize, and recreate).
The second purpose of the church is edification–to build up and strengthen believers, equipping them for ministry (Eph. 4:7-16; Acts 2:42-47). When the local church gathers, it does so primarily to build up believers, not to evangelize. When evangelism is the emphasis of the local gathering, it is a detriment to the edifying of its own people. While it is appropriate to give any unsaved who may be in attendance an opportunity to trust Christ for eternal life, that should not be the primary focus of the church services. The focus should be on equipping the saints so that they become effective in lifestyle evangelism outside the local assembly.
Certain elements are fundamental to carrying out edification: teaching the Scriptures, worship, prayer and fellowship (Acts 2:42-47). Clear, systematic teaching of the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27; II Tim. 2:1,2; 3:16,17) is essential for a believer’s spiritual growth and is foundational to a healthy, maturing church. Worship, another vital element, is the heart response to the Lord for who He is and what He Has done. Without real and vibrant worship, the church becomes man-centered and self-centered. Just because a church has a “worship service” does not mean that worship actually takes place. Every local church needs to analyze its services to determine if true praise and worship are going on or if the services are characterized by empty ritual. God desires the worship of His people, but detests formalism (Mt. 23:23-28; Jn. 4:23,24; Psa. 145-150). A third necessary element is public prayer. The church should provide times for thanksgiving, confession, and requests (Acts 2:42). Fellowship is a fourth necessary ingredient. It is not merely potluck dinners or shaking hands after the Sunday service. Fellowship is sharing about the Christian life, both successes and failures, with other believers. It is sharing one’s life and resources. It is encouraging, supporting and even confronting other believers. For many churches today, this is a missing element. Even small churches become impersonal when biblical fellowship is missing.
Along with evangelism and edification, a third major purpose for the local church is purification. The church is to be characterized by purity and holiness because that is the nature of the One it serves and worships (I Pet. 1:16). Though sanctified positionally, the Christian still has to deal with the world system, Satan and the sin nature in his own life. Because the word of God taught and applied will have a cleansing effect, the church has an important role in teaching all of God’s Word and encouraging members of the assembly to apply it to their own lives in order to grow in Christlikeness (I Jn. 3:1-3). Being part of a local church provides us with an accountability group.
As believers we are members of the “universal church,” the “bride of Christ,” and will one day soon be removed from the earth (by death or the rapture) to forever be with the Lord, but meanwhile we are to be part of a local assembly of believers where we can worship corporately, and be built up in our faith and be equipped to effectively serve the body of Christ and to be a witness to those around us outside of the assembly. The author of Hebrews writes: “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering…and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking the assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near” (Heb. 10:23-25). When we are “born again,” the Holy Spirit equips us with special abilities to serve and help build up the body of Christ (Ro. 12:3-8; I Cor. 12; Eph. 4:7-16). These are not for our personal benefit so much as “for the common good” (I Cor. 12:7), meaning that they are to be primarily exercised to help build up a local assembly of believers. None of us has all the spiritual gifts but each of us has some of the gifts, so the church needs us and we need the church! So, don’t leave the church in the lurch! Be part of a local assembly and use your gifts to help that church grow and be a lighthouse in your community. It’s good for your soul!