"Today salvation has come to this house ... For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost" (Luke 19:1-10 TNIV).
So what's the purpose of the church? Over the years, we've oscillated back and forth between two different perspectives:
- The church exists to be a fortress for the saved to call each other away from sin and toward God.
- The church exists to be a front porch for the lost to come and meet God and find a home with him.
But which is it? Does the church exist for insiders or outsiders? Or is there some sort of focus that calls us to do both?
We have often side stepped the issue by saying, "The church exists to help make outsiders into insiders and to turn sinners into saints." This sounds very nice, but it often allows us to have all sorts of fusses and fights about what we like as insiders while we forget all the folks on the outside who need Jesus.
When the Titanic sank, many folks perished needlessly. Most of the lifeboats were barely half-full, and at least two of them were not filled at all and were never launched. When the ship went down, most folks who perished didn't drown, but froze to death in the icy waters. This happened largely because only one of the lifeboats tried to rescue folks in the water. The people in the other lifeboats were afraid those in the water would swamp their boats if they tried to rescue them. They stayed away from the drowning people to protect themselves in their grossly under-filled lifeboats!
Now go back and read the previous paragraph and hear it from the perspective of how so many of us approach church and the mission of the church — the insider versus outsider debate. Does it sound as eerily similar to you as it does to me? For those in the lifeboats, comfort and fear were more important than the people who were drowning and dying in the water around them. Coupled with poor preparation and a general lack of urgency, this desire for comfort and this fear of being swamped resulted in hundreds of needless deaths.
Compare our passion for reaching the people around us with Jesus' passion for lost people! He was criticized repeatedly for associating with sinners. He called his followers to reach out to sinners and sent them on missions to do just that. He included all sorts of people from all walks of life among his followers. He emphasized that God's concern, and thus His followers' concern, must be reaching those that are lost and bringing them to salvation.
Read the story of Zacchaeus again and notice the concern that Jesus has for those who are lost (Luke 19:1-10). Notice the party that Matthew gave for his lost friends so they could meet Jesus (Luke 5:27-32). Go over the three parables about the recovery of lost things and notice the statements about what brings God joy — the finding and rescuing of those who are lost (Luke 15:1-32).
But more than just "saving" these folks, Jesus brought them into community. He ate with them. He placed them in the company of others. He gave them a mission to perform. He restored them back to community. Saving meant valuing these people and including them in His mission.
Jesus told the man he healed of leprosy to go show himself to the priests so he could be brought back into the life of spiritual community (Mark 1:35-43). He told the man formerly possession by a "legion" of evil spirits to go tell his family and friends what God had done for him so the man could be received back into the active life of family and fellowship (Mark 5:1-20). Jesus affirmed the faith of the woman healed of her bleeding disorder so she could be brought back into the life of community (Mark 5:24-34). He affirmed the centurion's faith to show he belonged in the community of Israel even though he was a Gentile (Matthew 8:5-13).
Clearly, the early followers of Jesus built a vibrant community and the quality of their character and compassion was crucial to its growth. There was a real concern that "insiders" reflect the teaching of Jesus. At the same time, there was also a passion to share the good news of Jesus with people who did not know Him. Like Jesus, they recognized that they needed to reach outsiders and make them a part of the community of Jesus. (Read through Acts chapters 1-13 and you can't miss these two areas of emphasis.)
Two decades after Jesus' church was born, Paul was still emphasizing the importance of these two concerns when he wrote about the purpose of Christian worship assemblies (1 Corinthians 14:1-40). He emphasized that Christian assemblies should reflect a concern for ...
- insiders (the "church" and "believers" and "brothers and sisters" in Christ - vs. 6, 12, 19, 20, 22, 26, 28, 33, 34, 35)
- outsiders ("unbelievers" and "inquirers" - vs. 16, 22, 23, 24, 35)
So what's the point?
Glad you asked!
Three realities of Jesus and the early church convict me.
First, community was crucial in Jesus' ministry and the life of the early church. Jesus brought people into community and the early church followed His lead. They worked hard to be a community of character and compassion following the lead of the Lord.
Second, Jesus and the early believers went to the places of sinners and outsiders to connect with them and build relationships with them. They didn't expect outsiders to come join up simply because they wanted to become insiders. Instead, they reached out and connected with people in their culture in the name of Jesus.
Third, the early church actively worked at connecting outsiders to Jesus and bringing them into the life of their fellowship. They not only reached out and connected folks, but they also included them in their community. They realized that how they lived and worshiped in community made a difference in the life of those who had yet to surrender to Jesus as Lord.
For discussion questions, reflections, and video related to bringing folks into community, please check out Phil's blog: