This is some of what I've learned while discussing these issues with Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, authors of What Is the Mission of the Church? It's also what I've seen while serving in churches seeking to do good in their communities. In my experience, churches unclear about their mission from God spend much time talking about everything they should do and exasperate over how little they can actually accomplish.
Even so, healthy churches will disagree about how exactly to serve their different communities, and some may engage in activities that make others uncomfortable. At least within The Gospel Coalition's fellowship of churches, that's a healthy debate we're happy to facilitate. TGC's Theological Vision for Ministry, a consensus document for Council members, explains their unswerving commitment to seek justice while leaving room for diverse applications.
Christian churches must work for justice and peace in their neighborhoods through service even as they call individuals to conversion and the new birth. We must work for the eternal and common good and show our neighbors we love them sacrificially whether they believe as we do or not. Indifference to the poor and disadvantaged means there has not been a true grasp of our salvation by sheer grace.
Though this statement lays out helpful guiding principles, it hardly settles the matter. So as we continue discussing the proper mission of the church, I hope we'll keep focused on two overarching matters: the big problem that prompted DeYoung and Gilbert's book, and the meaningful unity that should underlie any criticism.
If you doubt whether evangelicals need to read What Is the Mission of the Church?, follow me on a tour of one fairly typical evangelical church. The leaders of this church want their community to know the saving love of Jesus Christ. What else would motivate them to plant a church in a small community where long-established churches view them with skepticism and even hostility? They believe the Bible without reservation and eagerly invite their friends, family, and neighbors to join them in church each Sunday morning. During the last decade the church has grown beyond what any other church in this community has ever seen.
These leaders look to large suburban megachurches for advice on how to grow the size of their congregation. You name the program, and they've probably tried it. Alpha and Financial Peace University have been helpful. Lately some leaders have broadened the church's horizons. The church has teamed up with the local Chamber of Commerce to promote local businesses. They've invested serious time and money into a community Easter egg hunt. They've adopted several needy families to provide free home and car repair.
It's never enough, though. Recently some members read a moving book about how Christians have neglected the needs of the poor around the world. Now they're asking everyone in the church to give everything they possibly can to the church, so they can distribute the money to the less fortunate in their city. Every week the congregation hears about how they've failed to live up to their calling as Christians. They must do more. Volunteers are always desperately needed.
Some long-time members have noticed a change in the church's mission over the years. Preaching the Bible is no longer a priority, though the pastor still grounds his exhortations in Scripture passages. Evangelism is no longer an urgent calling, though community service certainly attracts some new members, including a few who previously claimed no church affiliation. Overall, however, church leaders are most excited these days about doing good works that will express the love of Christ and win the community's favor.
Maybe you've attended a church that cares little for the outside community, and this activity excites you, too. Maybe you recall how the early church won many new converts in the Roman Empire after sacrificially serving all who had need. Good! I share this story not to disparage good works, because all Christians bear responsibility to minister in word and deeds. Rather, this example illustrates how a church can lose sight of its unique mission to preach the gospel and make disciples. Several mainline and Roman Catholic churches do good works in this particular community. So do many volunteer organizations. But we're not called to be the Jesus Jaycees. If we don't make a priority of preaching the gospel and teaching Christians to obey everything Jesus commanded, no one will.
Even in churches concerned to keep on mission, you will hear of many believers who staff homeless shelters, run crisis pregnancy centers, and cook Christmas meals for the poor. To be sure, the elders will devote themselves to teaching and prayer, according to the example of Acts 6. But they will also disciple believers to exercise their love for God by serving the community. And the deacons will oversee support for the needy, inside and sometimes outside the church, by distributing funds collected from members. Indeed, DeYoung explains, "We also have a terrific diaconate which responds to physical needs in our congregation and responds with compassion and wisdom to requests that come from outside our congregation."
The apostle Paul issues a helpful guideline in Galatians 6:10: "So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith." DeYoung and Gilbert wisely argue on the basis of this verse for moral proximity. We cannot meet the needs of the whole world. And we should take care of the needy within our church before anyone else. But as we have opportunity, we should do good to outsiders as well. This way we adorn the gospel and fulfill Jesus' commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. Christians rejoice to give sacrificially in such churches, because they appreciate the leaders' priorities and also their generosity.
If you talk with biblically grounded leaders on different sides of this debate over the mission of the church, you'll find more unity than the blogs betray. Yes, we must do good for everyone. And yes, we must guard our priority as leaders in local churches on the ministry of the Word. The elders should not be meeting together to plot economic development plans that will bring shalom to their communities. But they should be delighted that their discipleship might produce Christians who take up the challenge of fighting injustice to the glory of Jesus Christ.
Fabric of Society
I give thanks that so many Christians look at the social decay around them and want to make a difference. We should remember, however, the wisdom of theologians who have gone before us. In particular, Abraham Kuyper's "sphere sovereignty" distinguishes between the responsibility of the state, society, and the church. What we see now in the West is a breakdown of society, which includes families, voluntary organizations, and local communities. The government has overstepped its responsibility by seeking to occupy this sphere. Our financial crisis and political stalemate should disabuse us of any notion that the government is capable of replacing these so-called mediating institutions.
But neither can or should the church bear this burden; otherwise, it will lose sight of the unique mission Jesus gave us. And that would be a critical loss indeed for all who need above anything else to hear and believe his liberating gospel. Perhaps if we trust God to demonstrate the power of this gospel to save, he will rebuild the fabric of our torn society.