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“Making disciples who grow disciples” — this is what the leadership of the Reformed Church in America (RCA), the denomination to which I belong, claims is the primary purpose of the RCA.

I disagree. I addressed this in an earlier post: “Is ‘Discipleship’ Really The Thing?

But this is not a narrow, denominational disagreement. I suggest it has implications for other churches represented by Reformed Journal readership.

In that earlier post I suggested that “discipleship” is not the important paradigm in scripture that Protestants have taken it to be. I noted that no form of the word “disciple” appears in all the epistles of Paul, Hebrews, James, Peter, John, Jude, and the Revelation. 

A not unnatural response to that post has been, “Well, if not ‘disciple,’ then what would you replace it with?” Fair enough.

I wouldn’t replace it. I would take a whole different angle. I would say that the primary purpose of the church is worship. Yes, the worship of the living God. Full stop (for a moment).

Okay, how about, the worship of the living God — and all that comes with that?

Okay, to flesh it out a bit further, for the RCA, how about something like this:

“In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the purpose of the Reformed Church in America is to sanctify the Name of God in worship, to witness to the Power of the Resurrection, to explore the Kingdom of God, and to share the Life in Jesus’ Name for God’s mission in the world.”

That is a first draft. You’ve already got a better one. But it isn’t ill-considered. 

You might notice that the phrase “sanctify the name” is sourced in the Old Testament, while “the power of the resurrection” is from Paul, the “Kingdom of God” is from the Synoptic Gospels, and “life in his name” is from John. In the latter three phrases are the interplay of baptism, the Word, and communion, all broadly understood. God is up to something, and the church participates in that through worship and all that comes with it.

By contrast the purpose statement, “making disciples who grow disciples,” has no God in it, no miracle, no church, no world, and nothing distinctly Christian that I can make out. And it misses the chief life-giving thing that Christians do every week.

Muscat, Oman

I am writing this from the city of Muscat in the Sultanate of Oman. I’m doing four weeks of pulpit supply at the Protestant Church of Oman. It is inescapable that the purpose of this remarkable church is to worship God, and to provide the worship for all the Christian expats who are working in this Muslim country. Any other church activities pale in contrast to the mission of worshiping the living God in the Name of the Holy Trinity.

At this moment, as I write this, the fourth call to prayer is echoing from the minarets of the mosques in town. The sound of many voices is magnificent. Allahu akbar. The baker next door will be unfolding his mat and saying his prayer. It’s beautiful. The whole city is being called to worship. (I too answer the first call in the morning when I get up and pray the Daily Office in the name of the Holy Trinity.) Worship literally sets the tone for Muslim city life.

Syrian Orthodox worship

In a Muslim nation, it is no little thing that Christian worship is allowed. The Protestant Church in Oman is recognized and even protected by the Omani government (in the interests of both real hospitality and shrewd economics). My time here gives me new sympathy with the ancient Syrian, Assyrian, and Arabic Orthodox churches within the Muslim world. They have steadfastly endured (and continued to bear witness and share life in Jesus’ name) just by persevering in worship.

In North America, our churches enjoy the secular remnants of Christendom, with so much freedom (if not from our idolatries). We can witness and evangelize at will. But I don’t think that changes our main purpose. It is our worship that most powerfully forms us. It is worship that most powerfully forms our congregations.

J.J. von Allmen once wrote that the church is like a whale. In worship we breathe the air and loll on the surface. The rest of the week we enter the water and live—we feed and breed and move. Our bodies are designed for the water, but we can’t breathe there. We get our life from the air.

I would not say that everything is worship, because if everything is worship, then nothing is. I understand Christian worship to be a business meeting with a divine and covenantal agenda (can we talk?) to convert us again, every week, to be the Body of Christ. But even if it’s not everything, it’s the main thing. It’s what makes us human beings, and it’s the most important thing the church does—both for what we owe God and what we can share for the life of the world.

Whale photo by Todd Cravens on Unsplash

Daniel Meeter

Daniel Meeter is Pastor Emeritus of the Old First Reformed Dutch Church of Brooklyn New York. He feeds the finches and drives uber for his grandchildren in New Paltz, in the Hudson Valley.

23 Comments

  • Nathan DeWard says:

    Daniel, thanks for writing this follow up piece for your readers, if not for you. I think the image of a whale coming up for air is quite beautiful and appropriate. Peace to you.

  • Rich Scheenstra says:

    I remember hearing Ernie Campbell, pastor of Riverside Church, say that some people think discipleship went out with the cross. The book of Acts clearly suggests otherwise. Luke uses the word 25 times in this short history of the early church until Paul’s imprisonment. Whether or not Luke is accurately reflecting the language early Christians used to describe themselves, Luke himself obviously believes the word disciple is still an important and helpful way for followers of Jesus to think of themselves, and is clearly recommending it for his readers late in the first century. I can think of several practical and theological reasons why disciple wouldn’t have been the primary way other New Testament writers used to describe believers. But I think Luke and the other gospel writers may very well be promoting this new/old way of thinking about the Christian life to their readers.

    The word Christian is rarely used in the New Testament, but I don’t hear anyone saying that we shouldn’t use it today. I believe the Lord’s Supper is only referred to once outside the Gospels and the book of Acts, but I don’t hear anyone suggesting that it shouldn’t be a part of our regular worship life. The gospel writer John rarely refers to the kingdom of God but uses “eternal life” or “life of the age [to come]” instead. He’s not saying the kingdom of God isn’t important, but chooses different language for his particular audience.

    So the question for me isn’t whether or not the word disciple is still a legitimate word to describe the life of the believer, but whether we should use it, and whether it is a helpful word for this moment in the journey of our denomination. I think it can be helpful, if properly understood. What I like about it, especially in light of the theological and culture wars that have divided our denomination and are making us odious to the world, is its emphasis on the fact that we still have a lot to learn – about how to love each other, how to love God, and how to love the world. A denominational motto isn’t supposed to provide a comprehensive definition of the church, but rather something about the church that needs to be emphasized for this particular moment. I entirely agree with Dan that the motto that’s been suggested by the Restructuring Team leaves out key words. In a letter to the team I’ve suggested the following description of our denomination: The Reformed Church in America is a communion of congregations seeking to be and make disciples of Jesus Christ: learning to more fully love God, each other and an ever-changing world – the world God loves.

    I think most of us would agree that we still have a lot to learn about how to love one another within our denomination. Learning how to love and worship God within and outside Sunday mornings is also part of our discipleship (we’re called to be a royal priesthood, after all), as well as learning to navigate what it means to love an ever-changing world with its ethical challenges and injustices. For all these things we need the humility that the word disciple offers. We also have to be disciples before we can make disciples.

  • Gloria J McCanna says:

    The weekly gathering for worship is the highlight of our congregations. When worship isn’t central to being the church, we spend our time and energy jumping from one “goal” to the next. Why not pour our resources into that hour, and trust that from that sweet communion will flow the ministry of the chosen people, the royal priesthood, a nation, declaring praise to God?

  • Christopher Poest says:

    Thank you for this, Daniel. A very helpful follow-up. Blessings on your time in Oman!

  • Sue Poll says:

    For me, this is spot on. Thank you!

  • Joy De Boer Anema says:

    Thank you for this reflection. I wish you God’s blessings in Oman and I hope you meet Jeff and Melissa Bos while you are there.

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      My teacher! Yes, we see them almost every day! And I found a book in the library here given by Barbara Wymore!

  • Kathryn Davelaar VanRees says:

    I just love you, Dan!

  • Nancy Meyer says:

    Thanks Dan! I found your post very helpful. I can’t help thinking that if we would put a heavier focus on worship and it’s central importance in our denominations, we could be less focused on who is and who isn’t welcome, who has their theology just right, and who doesn’t, etc. I also loved the reference to the whale! BTW, Joy was my teacher too!

  • Paul Janssen says:

    At one of the recent presentations of the state of the discussion re: RCA restructure, I asked one of the members of the restructure team whether “discipleship” was chosen as the Lowest Common Denominator; i.e., something that the greatest amount of people could agree on. The response, “well, yes, I suppose so.” And I get that. We want to be united and not squabble. It’s just such a pity that (as we’ve learned year after agonizing year at large group meetings) we don’t seem to be able to agree on what constitutes worship. I’m not convinced that God cares all that much whether we’re singing long meter chorales or praise choruses. Or whether worship ought principally be a gathering for adoration, or for hectoring the faithful. But we certainly consume one another over such things. I hope that some day we can work our way to the Greatest Common Factor – offering to God what is due (in the ancient sense of “liturgy”). Until we draw nearer, perhaps discipleship is as close as we’re going to come? And, if discipleship offers a way to concord, it will at least be better than a principle that polarizes? Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • Joel Slenk says:

    You have struck a chord. Your thoughts run parallel to the themes set in the best seller “Holy Envy”, by Barbara Brown Taylor, my favorite spiritual contrarian.

  • Thanks Daniel – this is helpful. Discipleship is important, of course, but it’s not descriptive of the fullness of what we’re called to do and be as God’s people. I like your definition…

    “In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the purpose of the Reformed Church in America is to sanctify the Name of God in worship, to witness to the Power of the Resurrection, to explore the Kingdom of God, and to share the Life in Jesus’ Name for God’s mission in the world.”

    …and would change just one word: from ‘explore’ the Kingdom of God to ‘embody’ the Kingdom of God. If you go right through the scriptural narrative, OT & NT, embodying God’s Kingdom and character is formative in Israel’s call (eg. Gen 12, Ex 19ff), central to Israel’s mission, it’s what Kings and rulers refused to uphold, it’s what the prophets called them back to, it was Jesus ministry manifesto and m.o., it’s what we see in Acts, and it permeates Paul’s letters.

    Embodying the Kingdom as new community in Jesus is how we worship the Lord who has saved us through his Son.

    Just a thought…

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      I like embodiment, but all the language of embodiment I don’t see connected to the Kingdom within the terminology of the NT.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    “The primary purpose of the church is worship.” It is impossible to overstate the significance of this. In our American culture, the leading idea of people is that the church is there to meet their needs. Church needs to be interesting, entertaining, “inspiring.” If it is not people simply say, “That’s not my thing.” But what one gets out of worship is not the point. The point is exalt God – to “ascribe worth” to our Triune God. We go to church to honor God. We go in response to God’s calling to worship. We are responding to God’s command! “Worship the Lord!” If only this as understood, it would make a huge difference in decisions people make on Sunday mornings. Where to start? Reminding us – congregation (pastors?) why we are there and what we are doing. The PRIMARY purpose of the church is worship.

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      I think there’s a couple of real.problems with the Westminster Standards, but on the other hand the first answer in the Shorter Catechism is truly liberating from all kinds of denominational and evangelical programming: The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr says:

    Worship yes, but we gather together to scatter ourselves in the world. I like the combination of things your statement calls us to do: to sanctify… to witness… to explore… to share… All of these are equally important for me to do. I think they all go together and work together. We can specialize in one or two but need them all.

  • Roger B says:

    This is a good follow-up to the previous blog and I thank you for it. I agree with you that worship and bringing glory to God is the purpose of the church, and see making disciples as an important, and obedient, means of that coming from every ethne. Eph. 1:12 and 14.

  • Jan Hoffman says:

    As always, thank you, Daniel. It’s taken me awhile to get to this, on Friday before Palm Sunday, when worship takes on new meaning, or it doesn’t, and I find myself frustrated at “my” church, the UCC lack of worship order, it’s too wordy, hymn texts are changed, paraments are in white w Alleluia because we celebrate communion, etc., etc. I continue to re-examine what constitutes worship, why one way resonates and another doesn’t, let alone how this way brings or gives glory to God and another doesn’t . . .
    Come visit, we’ll figure it out. Love to Oman. ❤️

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