Piel: What is the mission of the Christian church?

Our neighbor George recently commented on the religious Reformation of the 16th century and how it still amazes him how many Biblical and theological changes took place. At the same time, he raised the question that since we live in radically different and changing times can the church and its message still be relevant today?

There is a creed (the United Church of Canada) that goes "we believe in God who has created and is creating." Shouldn't the historical Reformation always be reforming (recreating) to meet the needs of seeking people today? The Word doesn't change — "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever." (Hebrews 13.8). But the world around us does!


It is tragic, he went on, that even though reformation was needed it caused terrible animosity and even division among those on both sides who believed Jesus was central to their faith.

If we are to be relevant we need to look at the real mission of the Christian church. Before we do that let us admit that we have come a long way in healing some of our longstanding separation. Roman Catholics as well as Protestants have shared some of the Reformation statements.

Fr. Michael Scanlan, T.O.R former president of Franciscan University wrote: "I came to see that many areas of Catholic life that the Protestant Reformation challenged were areas that needed change or at least renewal. Catholics need (and still need) a reaffirmation of the importance of preaching the Word of God, of the centrality of God's inspired word in scripture, of the need for personal appropriation of God's saving grace, of the doctrine of justification by faith, of the need for true repentance of sin and not just the sacramental action of absolution."

Times not only have changed but are changing. Who would have thought that Sears would be in financial trouble, or Amazon would buy Whole Foods or more and more people would buy sight unseen online than ever before Halloween or "Black Friday" would be more popular than Thanksgiving Day?

In the 1950s and '60s the slogan was "you build it and they will come!" Today more and more people are saying we "love Jesus" but we don't see the need for membership in the institutional church. According to recent polls it is estimated that membership in several denominations and synagogues has fallen almost 20 percent since the end of World War II. Some denominational congregations are down to half of the membership they used to have and more and more parish churches are closing or merging (consolidating) in some way. Even some of the large independent churches are beginning to see negative changes because people today are finding that culture is more important than worship attendance.

For one local congregation 60 percent of their decreasing budget is spent on building repair and maintenance and almost 40 percent on salary and internal church items. They are spending almost zero on outreach and mission. And that raises the question "what is the mission of the church?" Is the role of the church to simply preserve institutional survival?

For many, the decline in religious institutional commitment is not because they are against the church or against the Judeo-Christian faith, in fact many are very religious or at least they say they believe in God (not sure the two things are the same). Maybe for others "finding God on the run" is more important than "finding God in a church building."

My neighbor George said he has great hope for the future of the church and added if we have to accept the fact that we no longer live in Christendom what are we doing to do about it? Good question!


What is the mission of the Christian church? Is the answer found in this passage: When Jesus was asked "Which is the greatest commandment of them all?" (and there were many) he went back to his own scriptures (Matthew 22.34ff) and responded "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. (Deuteronomy 6.5) This is the greatest and first commandment." And then Jesus added (and some wish he hadn't) "And a second is like it, you shall love your neighbors as yourself. (Leviticus 19.18) On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."

What is the mission of the Christian church? Maybe the answer is found in this passage, "Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations!" (Matthew 28.19). Do we need to pause and answer the question "what is God's purpose for us right now – right here?"

If making disciples is the key then we are making disciples not for self-preservation but rather to change the world. Is the future tied with consolidating churches, or reasserting the fundamentals of Christian orthodoxy or becoming community centers or embracing the social gospel, or rediscovering Jesus?

I admit I have never been a fan of the red-letter editions of the New Testament. Maybe re-reading them would help us rediscover Jesus and his message for today.

Let the dialogue continue. I only ask that you think on these things.

The Rev. Dr. Wm. Louis "Lou" Piel is pastor of Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Finksburg and can be reached at julo1@verizon.net.