You come into a nicely furnished building and are warmly greeted. The service begins with a cordial welcome and announcements about sick members and upcoming service projects. You make a pledge of loyalty to a higher ethic and pay your dues. The service ends with the promise to meet again next week and you leave feeling encouraged and uplifted. Sound familiar? While this may seem like the description of a Sunday worship service, we just described your everyday Lion’s Club meeting.
If we aren’t careful, it’s easy in American society to view the church simply as another social club: we come and enjoy good friendships, share meals together, and “pay our dues.” Yet, the church is far more than a social gathering; it is a community of worship, holiness, hope, and healing, and evangelism. These are keys areas which only the church can fulfill. Its distinctive nature stands out and places it in a category beyond a mere social club. Let’s look at these more closely.
Worship. Jesus informed the Samaritan woman at the well that God was seeking a particular type of people in John 4:23-24:
But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.
What an incredible thought: God is actively seeking people who will worship him with a joyful, loving, and humble heart (in spirit) and in submission to His will and word (in truth). This means that, as God’s redeemed people (the church) when we come together in worship we are satisfying a specific desire of the Triune God which only we can fulfill. When you are worshipping God sincerely, according to the pattern prescribed in the New Testament, it is as if He looks and says, “That’s who I’m looking for!” The world can’t worship God in the way He desires because they haven’t obeyed His gospel and therefore won’t thank Him for His grace (Rom. 1:21), and certainly won’t submit to His truth (1 Cor. 2:14). It is within the church and its worship that we discover the unique practice of “kissing the face of God.”
Holiness. Christians are “called to be saints” (Rom. 1:7). The church is God’s “holy nation” (1 Pet. 2:9) and a “kingdom of priests” (Rev. 1:6). One of the central purposes of the church is to encourage God’s people to live holy and righteous before God. This was why the Hebrews writer censured Christians from habitual absence from the gathered assembly in Hebrews 10:24-25:
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
The purpose of God’s people gathering together in worship is to “stir the pot” of our righteousness. Some congregations will even have a sign as they enter the auditorium which reads “Enter to worship, leave to serve.” Only the church can encourage and equip God’s people to live holy and righteous before Him.
One of the major ways this is accomplished is through the preaching of the word which convinces, rebukes, and exhorts us to live as we should (2 Tim. 4:2; Heb. 4:12). Because of this, a great weight of responsibility is laid on the shoulders of the preacher and elders to make sure that sound, substantive teaching is brought when God’s people are together (Titus 2:1). If the only thing Christians hear on Sunday are stories and simplistic “How to” sermons, then the church is on its way to being another social club. We must be challenged by the deep truths of the text, to “preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23). In this, we conform more to the image of Christ; only the church can produce this result.
Hope. As I write this article, our country is still recovering from another school shooting in Florida. There is a deep sense of despair in the air. Our society is reaping the whirlwind of sin in dramatic fashion. Evil men are doing evil things, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to change. For many, life is a hopeless affair.
But, as one writer said, “New Testament Christianity is a religion of hope, a faith that looks forward. For the Christian, the best is always yet to be.” As Christians we are “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet. 1:3). This hope is only found within the church, the redeemed people of God who “Set [their] hope fully on the grace that will be brought to [them] at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 1:13). Within worship we partake of the Lord’s Supper every week, reminding us of the hope we have through the death of Christ, and the hope we look forward to at His return (1 Cor. 11:26).
Healing. While some like to accuse the church of being a place of judgment, I continue to see the love, grace, and mercy that is experienced among God’s people. What many outside the church don’t realize is that, due to God’s demands for holiness (per our previous point), repentance is required (Luke 13:3, 5). This isn’t simply feeling sorry for sin but allowing that grief to grow into a transformed life (2 Cor. 7:9-10). Just like a broken bone, in order for the soul to heal from the damage of sin, it must be set right before we can put on a splint—and it doesn’t always feel good.
Yet, it is within the church that we discover a place of healing from the ravages of sin. The church, and the church alone, gives the true Biblical call for repentance in order to receive the healing of God’s grace and love through Jesus Christ. Although social clubs bring healing to their community, it is only those who find shelter in the shadow of the cross who can bring fellow sinners under the comforting, forgiving wing of their God.
Evangelism. The church isn’t stagnant, it is a growing and maturing group of people sent on a mission. This mission is given in Matthew 28:19-20:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
The saving message of Jesus Christ, shared with all people of every ethnicity, is the sacred trust that is given to the church. The church has the unique obligation to “declare the manifold wisdom of God” to the “rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10). Only Christians who have experienced the true grace of God will reach out to others and share that saving message. No social club can fulfill this objective.
The point of our post isn’t to criticize social/civic clubs (on the contrary, many of these clubs are often filled with individuals who have Christian values and sometimes by New Testament Christians. Rather, the point is that we will guard ourselves against the mindset which designates the church of Christ as another social gathering. No doubt, the church is God’s gathered people, but a people who have a distinctive purpose that no one else can accomplish.
This also implies that, when we fail to worship God with a sincere, truthful heart; when we fail to live holy and righteous lives before Him; when we fail to place our hope fully on the grace of God; when we fail to preach and practice penitent healing; and when we fail to evangelize, then we have ceased to fulfill our purpose and find it increasingly more difficult to show the distinction between our fellowship and the local rotary club.