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Is Evangelism the Primary Purpose of the Christian Church?

October 8, 2010 1 comment

A recent blog discussion at Pyromaniacs considered the words of John Piper at the recent Desiring God conference on the topic of evangelism, also with reference to Rick Warren (one of the speakers there).  I didn’t quite understand the point of the author, though it seemed a type of criticism of John Piper for admitting that evangelism is not his first thought when he’s preaching.  As later comments brought out, the Pyro writer gives great emphasis to creeds, specifically citing numbers in the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Confession, and thinks that a pastor’s work is a both/and with reference to shepherding his flock AND high concern for evangelism.

I have limited knowledge concerning the ministries of Piper and Warren, choosing to spend most of my free time in reading the Bible or other Christian writings, so the blog and its comments delved into unfamiliar specifics.  But it seems clear that an underlying issue in the discussion was, what is the focus and purpose of the Christian church, including the pastors and the members of the congregation?  Many believers emphasize the Church’s purpose as evangelism, including intentional evangelism.  Very few pointed out that we need to go beyond evangelism, to focus on the truth of God’s word, and none brought out a point that I find very interesting:  evangelism is not the great work of the Christian church.

In the Divine Purpose series, S. Lewis Johnson addressed this in a message that looked at Ephesians 2.  Ephesians 2:18 shows a trinitarian focus:  “For through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father.”  Here we see Paul’s perspective, that what our Lord wants is to have access to and communion with Him.  Jesus Christ wants to introduce us to the Father.

Johnson expands further on this point:

You know that is really the great end of the trinity.  We sometimes forget that.  We think the great end of the trinity is that we be saved.  It’s amazing to me after nineteen hundred years people still say the great work of the Christian church is evangelism.  That’s not the great work of the Christian church.  It is a great work.  One would not want to downgrade evangelism, but as we see in Colossians and through the New Testament the whole work of salvation is the great work of the church —  evangelism yes, but evangelism with a view to communion, with a view to maturity, with a view to edification.  Never forget that.  Don’t be carried away because some popular person has made a cliché statement like that.  That’s not true.  Stick to the Bible.  Stick to the words of Scripture.  Follow Scripture and you’ll be wise unto full salvation.  That’s what the Lord would like for all of us to have, a closer more intimate relationship to Him in edifying growth and the knowledge of Him.  So through Him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father.

Considering this understanding, and the words of the apostle Paul in Ephesians 2 — and the whole thrust of the book of Acts — like many others, I see nothing wrong with John Piper’s statement:

but mainly I want to feed the sheep in such a way that the sheep love God, are so thrilled with God, they tell other people about him, and they come and worship and they love God so much, they tell other people about him.

That sounds a lot closer to what S. Lewis Johnson said, in Piper’s own style, concerning the primary work of the Christian church: to bring us into a closer, more intimate relationship to God.  Sure, evangelism is an important part of the Christian life, but I don’t see it as of such primary importance, as being in a “both-and” with reference to the work of the pastor and the Christian church.

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