Benjamin Franklin said, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” Executives plan to make profits, athletes plan to achieve victories, builders plan to build buildings, farmers plan to grow crops. It goes without saying, success demands planning.
Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise us that God has outlined a plan for the church. In fact, God has given us a master plan for the church. In saying it’s a master plan, I mean it’s a comprehensive plan. It’s a sweeping plan that speaks to the purpose, mission, and vision of the church.
I’m sure you realize the American church is struggling. Most statistics suggest that two-thirds of American churches have plateaued or are in decline. Is it possible that the American church is struggling because she has failed to follow God’s master plan?
What happens when a builder deviates from the architect’s plan? What was insignificant at the start becomes momentous at the end. In the same way, when the church, particularly her leaders, deviate from the Architect’s plan, the church becomes an edifice that cannot stand. Therefore, if the edifice—the church—is going to endure, then it must follow God’s master plan for the church.
God’s master plan for the church is found in Ephesians 4:12–16.
"to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love."
1. Why does the church exist?
Narrowing in on verse 15, we discover the purpose of the church. Paul writes, “we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” This answers the question, “Why does the church exist?” The church exists for this purpose: to grow Christians into Christlikeness. The church is the means that God uses to make us more like our Savior.
Maybe you’re thinking, “I thought the church exists to glorify God? Isn’t our purpose to glorify God?” 1 Corinthians 10:31 says, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” And, the Psalmist writes, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Ps 19:1). These verses confirm that our purpose and the purpose of creation itself is to declare the glory of God.
Of course, I believe that we exist and that the creation itself exists to bring glory to God. However, I believe Paul is suggesting a dual purpose for the church.
I would put it this way: the purpose of the church is the glorification of God and the transformation of man.
One place to demonstrate this is from 2 Corinthians 3:16–18. Paul writes, “But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” I believe these verses suggest there is a connection between glorifying God and being transformed by God. John Piper is getting at this idea when he says, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” More to my point, I would say, “God is most glorified in us when we are transformed by Him.”
Therefore, the church exists to transform or grow people into the image or example of Christ. The church exists in order that you and I might think more and more like Jesus thought—in order that you and I might speak more and more like Jesus spoke—in order that you and I might serve more and more like Jesus served—in order that you and I might suffer more and more like Jesus suffered—in order that you and I might grow to become more and more like Jesus.
2. What is the church supposed to be doing?
How does growth happen? What is the church supposed to be doing? Or, we might ask the question this way: Of all the things we could be doing, what should we be doing? The answer to this question gives us the mission of the church.
The mission of the church is found in Ephesians 5:12, “…to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” This mission statement parallels the Great Commission found in Matthew 28:19, “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, [and] teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…”
“To equip” is to “make disciples.” It’s to “outfit” or “prepare” someone. To equip them to do the work of the ministry. That is, the mission of the church is to prepare or equip the saints to do the work of the ministry.
Who is it that bears the primary responsibility of this equipping? Paul gives us the answer in Ephesians 5:11. It’s the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers (or pastor-teachers). Therefore, the primary agenda of church leadership is to equip the saints to do the work of the ministry. How are the leaders to equip the saints? I believe Acts 6:4 provides a good model.
As the church was growing in Jerusalem, the apostles weren’t able to care for all the physical needs of the church. Not having the manpower to provide the care themselves, they commissioned seven men to help. Having appointed them to the task it says, “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). With this verse in mind, leaders are to primarily equip through the ministry of the Word and prayer.
Thus, the master plan that Paul present involves gifted leaders instructing from the Word and preparing the saints to use their gifts in the ministry of the church.
Therefore, our mission is to make disciples, or as Paul writes, to equip the saints to do ministry. And the leaders—apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers—are to equip the saints through the ministry of the Word and prayer.
So, the church has its purpose and mission. But, what about vision? A master plan needs purpose, mission, and vision. You need to know why and how, and you need a picture of what things will look like in the future. When you think of the church of the future, what does it look like?
3. What kind of church does God envision?
Ephesians 5:13 gives us a picture of the church God envisions: “…until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” The opening phrase, “until we attain,” gives the sense that we are arriving at a destination after a long trip. Paul is placing out in front of us a snapshot of something wonderful. It’s a photograph of God’s finished work. God’s preferred future. This preferred future has three equal parts.
- Until we attain the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son.
What kind of unity does God envision? God envisions a unity in the content of our faith. The unity of the faith is the realization that we all have one faith in one person, Jesus Christ. God’s vision comes into focus when we all see Jesus in the same way. As our collective understandings of Jesus coalesce, God’s preferred future begins to emerge.
- Until we attain mature manhood.
God envisions a church united in the knowledge of the Son and grown into maturity. Literally, Paul’s says that God envisions the church as a “perfect man.” The focus of this vision is not on the individual, but on the body of believers. The church—collective—is to attain perfect manhood (cf. Col 1:28). Of course, this goal is daunting in light of our current sinful condition. We know this kind of transformation is not fully possible until Christ returns, yet we’re called to pursue the goal of perfection relentlessly. Hebrews 12:4 comes to mind, “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.”
- Until we attain the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.
God envisions a church united in the knowledge of the Son, grown to perfection, and full of Christlikeness. God’s preferred future involves you and me measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ. When you repot a plant, the size of the pot will determine the grow of that plant. If you choose a small pot, the plant will stay small; a large pot, the plant will grow large. Likewise, Paul is helping us understand what kind of pot you and I are supposed to grow into. We are to attain to perfectly reflect his likeness. We are to grow into the “size” or “standard” of Christ.
What kind of church does God envision? What is God’s preferred future for the church? If God were to bless our churches beyond all we could every think or imagine, what would things look like? Paul has given us an answer in Ephesians 4:13.
Paul has given us God’s master plan for the church.
Our purpose: to grow up in every way. Our mission: to equip the saints. Our vision: to attain unity, knowledge of the Son, perfection, and Christlikeness.
We have a great promise in Matthew 16:18 that “the gates of hell shall not prevail” against the church. We know that Christ’s church will win. However, this is not a promise that my church, or your church, or the American church will prevail. The promise of victory must not become an excuse for complacency. In our current condition, the church needs the purpose, mission, and vision of Ephesians 4:12-16 like never before.