March 4, 2021
Recently I was asked to write the lead article for the May-June issue of Discern. As this issue will overlap with the Day of Pentecost, the suggested title was “The Purpose of the Church.” I decided to write from the perspective of the past year, by asking how the Church should look once we are beyond the pandemic. Identifying what the Church should look like when things normalize helps explain the purpose of the Church, which hasn’t changed since it was founded on the Day of Pentecost almost 2,000 years ago.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought out different views about many institutions, including churches. In our technology-driven society, it seems that here in the United States, churches are becoming irrelevant, even to the point of becoming obsolete. Around the world, most church congregations were forced to close their doors to in-person services in March of 2020 and were forced to hold “virtual” services online—if they held services at all. This has deeply affected church attendance. In mid 2020 Barna Group president David Kinnaman predicted that as many as 20 percent of all U.S. churches would close their doors for good within 18 months as a result of pandemic shutdowns (outreachmagazine.com). Barna Group also noted that one out of three people attending a church service prior to the pandemic has stopped attending altogether, including both online and in-person services (barna.com).
Toward the end of His earthly ministry, Jesus Christ announced to His disciples that He would build His Church (Matthew 16:18) and that the gates of the grave would never prevail against it. Matthew 16:18 is the first place in the English Bible that the word church appears. It is translated from the Greek word ekklesia, which means “an assembly of Christians gathered for worship” (Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament). The Church is, by definition, a group of people with a common faith and mission, led by the Spirit of God. It is not a building, nor is it an organization—even though it meets in buildings and is organized. Based on this description and promise, it is obvious that Christ meant for the Church to play an important role in the life of every Christian in the first century as well as the 21st century.
If you exclude the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the most significant event described in the New Testament is arguably the founding of the Church as recorded in Acts 2. As with so many things in history, if we want to understand its purpose, we need to understand how it began. In order to understand the origins of the Church, we look to the writings of Luke, who, with the exception of the apostle Paul, was the most prolific writer in the New Testament. He wrote two of the longer books in the New Testament, the Gospel according to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles.
In the study of the early history of the Church, one word stands out—a word that is used over and over again by Luke to describe the Church. That word is together. The Church is thus defined as a body of people, a body of believers who have a common faith, a common purpose and a common mission and who are together.
Notice how, in Acts 2, Luke describes the members of the Church in those early days:
From Scripture, we learn that the Church was founded as the Body of Christ, to become that group of people identified in Revelation as firstfruits, those who “are called, chosen and faithful” (Revelation 14:4; 17:14). The Church of God is an assembly of people with a common mission who come together (Hebrews 10:25). The Church should be every bit as important in the 21st century as it was in the first century.
With the understanding of the purpose of the Church, we can more fully appreciate the upcoming Passover. While so many who profess Christianity will be caught up in the paganism of Easter, we will, on the evening of the 14th day of the first month of the Hebrew calendar, wash each other’s feet and partake of the bread and the wine. The Passover ceremony was originally introduced on the night before the Israelites left Egypt (Exodus 12), but it was changed profoundly by Jesus Christ when He gathered with His disciples on that same evening many years later. That simple ceremony, introduced by Christ, was followed the next day by His death.
Each year the Passover brings all this together. The meaning of the Church and the observance of the Passover are tied together in a common thread that we often refer to as the plan of salvation. While we reject the use of John 3:16 as an excuse for doing away with God’s law and lowering the bar for God’s expectation of mankind, we do fully embrace the understanding that “God so loved the world.” Passover begins the process of saving mankind from eternal destruction by opening the door to membership in the family of God. That process, that plan, culminates in the fulfillment of the Eighth Day, the Last Great Day, when every human being will finally experience the love of God and will be given the opportunity for eternal life.
I am so excited about this year’s Passover. As you know by now, we are planning for an in-person Passover service, Night to Be Much Observed and Days of Unleavened Bread. There will, no doubt, be some restrictions, but none of these will interfere with our worship and fellowship on these meaningful days. Passover services will be held in all our congregations that are currently holding in-person Sabbath services. We are recommending that the Night to Be Much Observed be kept primarily with family members and in smaller groups, rather than larger groups as was sometimes done in the past. We will remove the leavening from our homes, and for seven days we will eat unleavened bread. This year there will be one service on each of the two holy days.
Since this will be my final member letter prior to the Passover, I want to wish all of you an especially meaningful service this year. Keep in mind where we have come from and why we are here. Last year we had no in-person services in virtually all our congregations. This year we have so many things to celebrate, not the least of which is being together.
Sincerely, your brother in Christ,