Is the local church really that important?
P.J. Tibayan | MARCH 4, 2019 | 4 MIN READ
Christians and leaders seek to be “driven by and for the local church.” The problem is that we don't always clearly and enthusiastically see how this passion for God's glory connects to the local church.
So the question is raised: Why are we driven by the local church? Aren't we driven by Christ, his word, and his Spirit? Why are we driven for the local church? Are we not driven for God's glory in the conversion and maturity of Christians? Are we merely calling the local church a core value because we vaguely think it's the right thing to do?
We do seem to believe that the church is important, even using inspiring slogans: "The church is central." "The church is indispensable." The church is the “apple of God's eye.”
These are cute jingles. They're even true, in a significant sense. But Satan loves sloganeering and mere lip service because it helps people marginalize vital truths and channels of grace. If he can confuse us with enough slogans so that we don't think carefully about the church, then we will remain indifferent to the local church.
But God's Word teaches us about the church's importance so that we would know and value the local church as the primary strategy for glorifying him. The local church is the center of God’s activity where he displays his wisdom (Eph 3:10). It is the center of his presence on earth today the way it was in Jerusalem when Solomon dedicated the temple (1 Cor 3:16-17). The church is the center of God’s truth displayed and upheld (1 Tim 3:15). The local church is the group of Christians exercising collective and personal responsibility for each other’s discipleship (Matt 18:15-20, Eph 4:7-16).
So Christians should realize and cultivate a peculiar and biblical sense that the local church is central to God’s activity in the world today. Therefore we must understand the place of the church as central in (1) the Christian’s communal life, (2) evangelism, (3) the broader Christian community, and (4) how it serves the goal of missions.
1. The church is the communal center of the Christian’s life
Our families are not the center of our communal lives. (Mark 3:31-35; 10:29-30). Nor are our marriages. Instead, the church family is the center of sharing life and sharing Jesus.
Of course, being a good member of our households trains and equips us to better serve the church family. As leadership is frequently tested and shaped in the home, it must be exercised for the church and through the church into the neighborhood (1 John 3:11-18, Ephesians 6:4; 1 Timothy 3:12).
It’s not an issue of choosing between the home and church, but it is understanding God’s distinct and overlapping purposes for the institution of the family and the institution of the local church. The church's body communal life builds and matures the church as a whole and shapes the Christian most deeply (Ephesians 4:12-16). The church is the central vehicle for Christian growth.
2. The church family is at the center of the gospel meeting the unbelieving world
The neighborhood is best served by hearing the infinitely good news of Jesus Christ incarnate, crucified, and risen. The Christian who evangelizes or gospelizes must effectively get this message to his or her neighbors' ears (Romans 10:17).
We must also understand that we are to tangibly love our neighbors to commend the Gospel word (Matthew 5:3-16). We do not do this simply through our own personal lives, but together through glimpses of the church family's shared life (John 13:34-35, 17:21). We invite them to our homes and church events, and we connect them to friendships with our church family. Our distinct and heavenly love displayed to one another within the church is crucial to the spread of the gospel in his community.
3. The local church is the center of affecting the broader Christian culture
As Christians, we may be shaped by the broader Christians culture and community beyond our local churches. But we are most deeply shaped by our church family, for good or for ill (1 Corinthians 15:33).
Ideally, our churches train members and equip them and serve the local church. But it goes further than that. As members mature, they inevitably influence the broader Christian culture beyond local congregations. So, we should realize that the best way to shape other Christians, who in turn shape broader Christian culture, is to move our own churches and our fellow members toward greater health and maturity.
Therefore, the local church is more important than websites, podcasts, denominations, and networks. If we want to best serve the broader church and Christians everywhere, we need to train and equip our local church members.
4. The local church is central to missions
The church’s mission is to disciple all nations (Matthew 28.19-20). All ethnic people groups need the gospel or they will perish (Romans 1:18-3:20). They need churches that are missions-minded, praying, sending, supporting, and cooperating with other churches to get the gospel to every tribe and language.
The goal of crossing a cultural and geographical barrier is to start a healthy church that will continue to grow on its own. The missionaries that the church sends will disciple people and start a church largely influenced from their church life back home. This means the state of our churches locally is crucial to supporting the missionaries on the frontier. One missionary said that the health of churches in the United States is vital for world missions because we hold the rope for our missionaries to go down into the dangerous and isolated areas of the missionary frontier.
The SOLA Network’s states one of its four values this way:
“We are driven by the Local Church and for the Local Church. Our desire is to see an emerging generation embrace and flourish in the Local Church as members of the body and bride of Christ.”
I pray that these words will not just be platitudes, but a deeply held conviction and a life-giving truth that we strive for, as we remember that the church is the center of God’s world today.
P.J. Tibayan is a pastor-theologian of Bethany Baptist Church in Bellflower, CA, where he lives with his God-fearing and beautiful wife and their five children. He writes at gospelize.me and helps lead The Gospel Coalition LA Regional Chapter and the Shepherd LA Conference (for pastors). He is currently a doctoral student (DMin) in Biblical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary working on the book of Revelation.