There are two ways to think about the Church: all Christians across time and space, or the local assemblies, like the churches we see as we drive down a street.
The universal, “capital-C” Church represents all Christians across time and space–thus it is invisible. It includes every Christian alive on the planet today, as well as residing in Heaven. The local, “lower-case-c” church represents local assemblies, like my church, Quinault Baptist, that gather together regularly for corporate worship and covenant together in membership. The local church is where the invisible becomes visible on earth, where the identity markers of the faith (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) are given, where pastors lead and teach, and where the keys of the kingdom are exercised (Matt 18:15-20).
Now, if you think this is just theological hair-splitting by men who need to get a hobby, consider how this distinction affects our understanding of the mission of the church. Does God expect the mission of the individual Christian and the mission of the gathered church to be one and the same? For example, God commands Christians to care for the poor (Matt 25:35-40), to steward creation (Gen 2:15), and work to oppose injustice (Micah 6:8). Does that then mean that our church should retrofit itself into becoming a soup-kitchen / recycling center / law-firm? Well, only if the mission of the individual Christian is a blueprint for the mission of the gathered church.
As we examine the New Testament, it would appear that the mission of the gathered, local church has a narrower focus than the broad mission of the individual Christian. Jonathan Leeman explains simply that the mission of the individual Christian is to be a disciple, where the mission of the local church is to make disciples. As disciples of Christ, our mission is broad: we are to represent King Jesus wherever we go and in whatever we do. But, as the gathered church, our mission narrows more specifically: we are to focus our efforts on the task of making disciples through the means God has given us. We could examine many examples of this (the book of Acts, especially) but let’s consider two passages, and one word-picture.
First, consider the Great Commission, where the church is given its marching orders: “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,” (Matt 28:19-20). We know this pertains to the gathered church because of the reference to baptism. Baptism only takes place in the context of the local church where we are “baptized into the body of Christ” (1 Cor 12:12-13). So, how are the apostles (and us) to make disciples? Of course, we do this by sharing the gospel with our unbelieving neighbors and children. But once they come to faith we then insert them into the disciple-making mechanism of the local church where they are baptized (and given the Lord’s Supper), and then taught by pastors to obey Christ’s commandments.
Second, we see this laser-focus in Ephesians 4 where Paul lays out God’s program for making disciples: the local church. In verses 11-12, Paul explains that pastors are given to the local church to “equip the saints for the work of the ministry.” We see one example for how this process of “member equipping” plays out just a few verses later when Paul exhorts the Ephesian church members to “speak the truth in love” to one another so that they won’t be misled by false doctrine (vs. 14-15). When we as church members practice these things, we grow as individuals into maturity as disciples of Christ (vs. 13) and the whole body grows together in love (vs. 16). But do you see the logic of the thought? How do Christians grow as disciples? They receive teaching from pastors, and then use that teaching to speak truth to other members in love. And when they do this, those other members are kept from the destruction of false teaching, and grow in Christ. In other words, they insert themselves into the body of Christ, the local church. Christians grow in the garden of the local church.
Lastly, a word picture: think of a forge.
If you’re unfamiliar, a forge is a fire contained within a stone or brick enclosure. With the help of large billows on the side, and the stones or bricks radiating the heat like an oven, the fire can reach temperatures so extreme that when a bar of metal is left in the heat it emerges pliable and purified. The crude metal, now refined, is able to be shaped and crafted (through some heavy hammer blows) into a useful tool, sword, bracket, or anything else the blacksmith desires.
The local church is intended to be like a forge of worship. It is intended to stoke the fires of true worship through the preaching of God’s Word, the sacraments, and the prayers, songs, and fellowship of God’s people. The wind of the Spirit, the living stones of the fellow believers radiating truth back at us, and the lumber of God’s Word create a pocket of blazing worship that burns away the dross of idolatry and makes us pliable to the hammer blows of God so that we may be shaped and fashioned into His likeness, prepared for good works and deeds of mercy.
But a forge is limited in what it does. It creates tools; it is not a tool itself. So too, the purpose of the local church is limited to creating disciples. It is not intended to transform or alleviate all social ills. But, like a forge used to create tools, the church creates disciples who then go out and live like disciples of Christ and work towards justice, mercy, and love of neighbor.
Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert in their book, What Is the Mission of the Church?, give a helpful definition of the mission of the church: “The mission of the church is to go into the world and make disciples by declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit and gathering these disciples into churches, that they might worship the Lord and obey his commands now and in eternity to the glory of God the Father.”