What is the purpose of church meetings?
"As churches have tailored their Sunday meetings to suit the taste of "seekers"..there is less and less emphasis on edifying the saints and more and more stress on entertaining unbelievers." JM
Three points come to mind, when considering the purpose of assembly gatherings:
who is normally present and
what ministry is expected, and
what is conspicuously absent as a point of emphasis (key words - point of emphasis).
Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.
Acts 2 give us the pattern for church gatherings. There is something fourfold that takes place for them that have believed and have been baptized and come together regularly.
Doctrine - truth according the apostolic teachings as recorded in scripture
Fellowship - that which believers have in common, which includes first of all fellowship in Christ Himself; their common times spent together; and even fellowship in the varied ministries they engage in; the context of this blog being in their interaction in the local church meetings.
Breaking of Bread - the highest aspect of gathering, which can include eating meals together, but much moreso is the Lord's Supper, and the remembrance of Him in His person and work.
Prayer - An essential corporate aspect of any local church/assembly.
Now, let us look at what takes place in assembly gathering...edification:
But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the building up of itself in love.
The body meets for the exercise of gifts, edifying itself in love, for "increase". Each saint does his/her part decently and in order. Let us emphasize it again, saints are to "build up each other in love". Doctrine, Fellowship, Remembrance, Prayer...not outreach.
Now, what about unbelievers who are found in church meetings?
1 Corinthians 14:24-26
....But if all prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all: And thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; and so falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth. How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.
In the early church, when revelatory gifts were still in action by those so gifted and by them that were apostles, we see an interesting hint of something NOT considered normal (for lack of a better word) at such meetings...namely the presence of one that is an unbeliever. His presence in a meeting where the Spirit of God was leading the saints, would cause him to fall down and recognize something here that he does not have, that causes him to worship God.
The unlearned believer being present, would also be benefited because of the prophetic utterances of New Testament truth were coming forth. Such a one would hear that which he knows not and it would speak to his heart in power.
The expectation here is that those who are present in the normal scheme of things in church meetings were those belonging to Christ and growing and learning of Him and his truth. The less normal thing is the presence of the unbeliever. We may infer that the meetings were not tailored for the "seeker" or "visitor" but rather for the saints. Believers gather, hopefully according to the NT pattern ...which is itself an important topic worth go into detail elsewhere. But since this blog is about the purpose of church meetings, we shall stay on track.
Now, a question may arise...
What about evangelism?
Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age. Amen.
What this verse tells us, with some look at the Greek, is as follows:
The primary verb is to "make disciples" with three participles
as you are going
The great commission tells us that "going" is the expectation of them that are obedient to the need for evangelism. The making of disciples is done by GOING to them, BAPTIZING them when converted, and TEACHING them. This is related to our daily activities of life, wherever we GO, as we are "going".
The western church has gotten things backwards perhaps starting with the Moody/Sunday/Graham crusades and great gospel meetings of past decades, where people would COME to such meetings. We don't discount public crusade preaching, but seek to explore where such thinking has come to dominate what we believe is the purpose of local church meetings.
In parts of the world, the response to attending crusade preaching is still positive and the gifted evangelist in such places should continue accordingly as God leads. We don't criticize crusades or any proclamation of the gospel for the unsaved, what we criticize is that evangelism has moved from the personal sphere to the mass-production sphere and has invaded the local church as a primary purpose of the meetings. This is not biblically supported.
As a result, individual evangelism has waned, being replaced by the "come" to us, "come to church" mentality. This brings a twofold weakness. The saints no longer may be less inclined to witness individually, and secondly, it is weakening the saints because church gatherings increasingly get tailored to and for the unsaved. Evangelism suffers when we ask them to come and often they do not, and we leave it there thinking "we have done our duty".
On a personal responsibility level, the individual mandate to evangelize the lost is not satisfied by ordering the meetings of the church for evangelism or "outreach", hoping the unsaved will come and being thereby we think ourselves as having been "faithful". The command is to GO.
In summary, the pattern in the Bible is......
Normal & regular Church meetings are geared for the benefit of the saved, and are characterized by doctrine, fellowship, breaking of bread, prayer, and the body building up of itself in love.
We lose much in the seeker-sensitive mindset, when the "main thing" of the local assembly of believers becomes...outreach. It is not the primary purpose of local church gatherings. Reader if you disagree, prove your position from the Word.
Notice... a fruit of good teaching & healthy meetings in local church gatherings will compel the believers that "as they are GOING" in their daily lives & routines, that they are going with the gospel and shewing forth the fragrance of Christ. How? because the local meetings have helped build them up in their most holy faith, and they are ready for the work towards one another and toward the lost...in whatever sphere God has placed them.
Is there no place then, for gospel meetings?
On the contrary, if the culture is responsive to special gospel meetings, they are a valuable and useful ministry. And many avenues of gospel proclamation should be on our radar. But the mandate of the Great Commission is not met by our expectation that unbelievers will "COME to church"; it is met by obedience of believers to the command "as you are GOING."
In summary, to answer the early blog points above, about church meetings:
who is normally present - believers - is the pattern and expectation
what ministry is expected - doctrine, fellowship, remembrance, prayer, all to build believers up in their most holy faith
what is conspicuously absent as a point of emphasis - evangelism - or today's buzzword "outreach". The gospel is always present - mind you, and ever should be....but in the meetings of believers, BUILDING UP THE BODY in love is the emphasis.
Note 1 Invariably there will arise the objection that the church needs to evangelize people, and that it dies if there are no converts. We agree. But we ask the reader to once again consider that the purpose of this blog was to examine...not the need nor methods of evangelism...but to examine the purpose -as ordained by God- of the normal gatherings of the saved. Evangelism is not primarily done within the four walls of a church building or wherever saints meet regularly.
Acts 1:8 But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.
Note 2 It may be brought up that "worship" is a central aspect of gathering together and that it seems missing in the above conversation. We suggest it is not. For in the apostles doctrine, truth about Christ is proclaimed, and this is part of worship. In fellowship, believers have Him in common and therefore one another, and in their breaking of bread together, they remember Him in worship. And in prayer they approach His throne with reverence, and yes boldness. In short, all the activies of assembly gathering can and should and do speak of worship taking place.
I Corinthians 14:26 says: How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. Here we learn the purpose where each aspect of church gatherings in that early day should tend...to edification. Some may give a song to be sung (perhaps they even wrote it, a great ministry), a teaching was given; in the days of multiple dialects present, a tongue was spoken in the language of another by one not knowing that language for the benefit of such; and when there was still new revelatory truth being given, that too was to be with edification in mind-not haphazard nor in confusion. We recognize that the sign gifts and revelatory gifts have ceased, but there are patterns evidenced here of what the end purpose was for the exercise of each gift...unto edification. And for the gifts that remain, the body meetings are for the building up of itself in love, with Christ at the center of all.
Let all be done decently and in order - St. Paul