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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.
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.
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.