On Tuesday I read Zach Nielsen’s comments on the Ryan Kelly-Greg Gilbert-Kevin DeYoung TGC roundtable on the mission of the church. Zach offered several gracious critiques. The same morning I got a long email from an Acts 29 church planter concerned about the same panel discussion. In both cases these brothers were trying to politely and thoughtfully disagree with me. And in both cases, after reading both Zach’s blog and this unsolicited email, I thought “I don’t disagree with you!” I may have wanted to ask one or two questions but overwhelmingly my internal response was: “I really think we are on the same page.”

Whenever this happens I figure one of three things is going on: 1) I’m not being understood correctly. 2) I’m not communicating clearly. 3) Some combination of 1 and 2. In this case, I’m sure there is some of 2 so let me try to clarify.

Here’s what I said about “missional” at last week’s Desiring God National Conference.

Let me say something at this point about the relatively new term “missional.” I do not have a problem with people putting “al” at the end of “mission.” More and more the word simply means “being involved in mission.” Or it is shorthand for “get out of your holy huddle and go engage your community with the gospel.” And I’m all for that. Every Christian should be. So I am not on a crusade to make people stop using the word missional, nor do I want you to be suspicious of everyone who does.

Nevertheless, I have a few concerns with what I sometimes see in the missional mood. And let me just make clear: these are concerns I see in some of the missional advocates, certainly not all. In fact, I would guess, though I don’t want to speak for anyone else, that Mark Driscoll, Darrin Patrick, Tim Keller and their networks would share many of these same concerns [note: in my talk I think I said "most or all" but "many" is probably safer]. And I know for a fact that these men give priority to discipleship and evangelism.

(1) I am concerned that good behaviors are sometimes commended using the wrong categories. For example, many good deeds are promoted under the term “social justice” when I think “love your neighbor” is often a better category. Or, folks will talk about transforming the world, when I think being “a faithful presence in the world” is a better way to describe what we are trying to do and actually can do. Or, sometimes well meaning Christians talk about “building the kingdom” when actually the verbs associated with the kingdom are almost always passive (enter, receive, inherit). We’d do better to speak of living as citizens of the kingdom, rather than telling our people they build the kingdom.

(2) I am concerned that in our new found missional zeal we sometimes put hard “oughts” on Christians where there should be inviting “cans.” You ought to do something about human trafficking. You ought to do something about AIDS. You ought to do something about lack of good public education. When you say “ought” you imply that if the church does not tackle these problems we are being disobedient. It would be better to invite individual Christians in keeping with their gifts and calling to try to solve these problems rather than indicting the church for “not caring.”

(3) I am concerned that in all our passion for renewing the city or tackling social problems we run the risk of marginalizing the one thing that makes Christian mission Christian: namely, making disciples of Jesus Christ.

Now, having raised those concerns, I need to make sure you know what I am not saying. I do not want:

  • Christians to be indifferent toward the suffering around them and around the world.
  • Christians to think evangelism is the only thing in life that really counts or that helping the poor really only matters if it results in conversions.
  • Christians to stop dreaming of creative, courageous ways to love their neighbors and impact their cities.

But here’s some of what I do want:

  • I want the gospel—the good news of Christ’s death for sin and subsequent resurrection—to be of first importance in our churches.
  • I want Christians freed from false guilt, freed from thinking the church is either responsible for most of problems in the world or responsible to fix all of these problems.
  • I want the utterly unique task of the church—making disciples of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit to the glory of God the Father—put front and center, not lost in a flurry of humanitarian good deeds or environmental concerns.

Let me add a few other clarifying comments.

I affirm that faith without works is dead. I agree that the gospel should be adorned with good works. I agree that those saved by the gospel will live lives of compassion, justice, and love. I applaud and pray for more churches that do orphan care, address hunger issues, and tackle community problems with the aim of meeting human need and “putting in a good word for Jesus.”

I should also add that the book Greg Gilbert and I are writing is not really about “missional.” It’s about the mission of the church, a broader discussion that is not aimed at the missional movement per se, even less with the expressions of it in the Reformed community.

So what then is my point in arguing, as I did last Friday, that the mission of the church is the Great Commission? This is what I said in conclusion to my talk.

So what is 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 and obey Jesus Christ now and in eternity to the glory of God the Father. In other words, the mission of the church is not equal to everything God is doing in the world, nor is it everything we do in obedience to Christ. The mission of the church is the Great Commission. As Kostenberger says, “the church ought to be focused in the understanding of its mission. Its activities should be constrained by what helps others to come to believe that the Messiah, the Son of God, is Jesus.”

But to say disciple-making is the “central” aim or our “priority,” or our “focus” is not to say that everything else is suspect. Galatians 6:10 says, “Do good to all people, especially to the household of faith.” I should also add that the language of “priority” does not mean evangelism or discipleship must happen temporally prior to any other kind of ministry. “Priority” doesn’t mean you do items 1-10 on your list and then you can tackle 11-15.

It does mean, however, that priorities ought to take, well, priority. We live in a world of finite time, finite people, and finite resources. Therefore, the church cannot do everything noble there is to do. If our mission is discipleship this will mean something for the church’s allocation of time, talents, and treasure. What that something looks like depends on the wisdom of the leadership of the local church. I don’t have a formula for what keeps disciple-making properly in the focus. Except to say this: if the church as a body tackles few community problems, but it is making disciples, and those disciples are individually living as disciples, the church is being faithful. Conversely, if we do everything else—serve, bless, renew the city, create culture, transform our schools—but do not make disciples, we are failing in our mission.

Are we on the same page? I hope so.

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64 thoughts on “My Missional Misfire?”

  1. Brandon Morgan says:

    Right on with this post. I thought you were very clear. Most of the objections seem to stem from not-so-careful listening. Without carefully listening to an argument, I will always see an ugly straw man that is in need of bludgeoning.

    Two analogies that I hope can add clarity:

    1. If someone objects to the preached Word being primary, they should also object to the fuel primer on their gas mower.

    2. The mission of the army is to defend a nation. Necessary and consistent with that mission is training up disciplined troops. Training up disciplined troops is NOT the mission of the army, yet any “missional” army will be filled with disciplined troops.

    Also, the starving child in India was brought up to make the point that meeting physical needs can trump proclamation because “It’s hard to proclaim the Gospel to a dead body.” That’s perfectly true, and no one is saying anything to discredit or diminish the Biblical demand for loving one’s neighbor in that way. Unfortunately, some have made the mistake that this radical love is an act of “redeeming.” To say that, cheapens the actual meaning of redemption. Luke records that Jesus healed ten lepers on the way to Jerusalem. Should that healing be referred to as “redeeming.” The reason I want to make the distinction clear is because nine of those lepers walked away just as dead and a little more condemned. Did Christ redeem all ten, or just the one who had faith.

    Faith comes by hearing….How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?

    It is a category mistake to place that demand for justice in the realm of church mission. To illustrate this: Israel was given very strict commands regarding social justice, as well as demands of holiness and worship. Her mission was to worship God; she was rescued from Egypt for that purpose. Our mission as the church is the same today; with the addition that we are now to go out from Israel/church and bring people into our number. The point I am making is that the demand for social justice existed in the church long before the command to evangelize.

  2. Michael Bentley says:

    Absolutely – wonderful clarification.

  3. William Lynch says:

    Cultural transformation is the final goal/objective because that how the story ends, and Christ proclamation is the means to that end, because that the story’s hero.

  4. Bob Peterson says:

    One additional thought on this whole subject keeps surfacing in my mind. If the church, you and I, accepts the responsibility to feed, cloth, educate, and provide medical care to the world, are we really equipped to do that? We have learned, I hope, how to proclaim the gospel, but we do not have a long history of caring for the physical needs of the world. Are we willing to spend the time, do the research, and develop the knowledge which will be required to accomplish this task? For example, if we feed the hungry in one area of the world, we may very well bankrupt the farmers who normally provide the population with its food. If we design a welfare system, we may wind up, as the US did, discouraging the development of healthy families. Why do we think that we have the expertise and wisdom that will be needed to address many, many problems in the widely divergent fields of economics, medicine, technology, etc. Perhaps we need to do some thinking before seizing responsibilities for which we are not adequately prepared?

  5. gus says:

    Re Kevin’s statement: “I applaud and pray for more churches that do orphan care, address hunger issues, and tackle community problems with the aim of meeting human need and “putting in a good word for Jesus.” —

    This seems to imply that churches’ faithfulness is dependent upon how they care for the temporal needs of the unbelievers around. Is that true, Kevin?

    What if a local church did absolutely NOTHING for the temporal needs of the unbelieving world around, yet cared well for the temporal needs of christians (esp those in their church) and evangelized the world around them? Would such a local church be unfaithful?

    I am struggling to understand, Kevin, how this statement of your’s coheres with your remarks on ought vs. can?

  6. Joey Allen says:

    Will you weigh in on the historic Lausanne Conference beginning in a few days in Cape Town, South Africa?

  7. Hi David,

    I’m just a little stay-at-home mom from Mississippi, so pardon my lack of sophistication, but thanks so much for being a great example of self-righteousness for me, because sometimes it’s hard to believe that people like you actually exist. While you were reprimanding Bob for being “sarcastic” and “rude,” you, my dear, were horribly sarcastic and rude. And your fluffy list of good deeds reminded me so much of the Pharisee who thanked God he wasn’t like all those yucky people who weren’t as spectacular as he. You’re really something else, giving us your good-deed resume and asking if we can compete. You succeeded in judging and condemning real Christians all over the world because they don’t perform the way you’ve imagined they should. You have absolutely no idea what the Lord is requiring of each one of us in our own corners of the world. Shall we run our resumes by you to see if we measure up? Because that’s basically what you’re saying, David. You feel that unless I’m feeding and clothing the poor and helping to eradicate AIDS, I’m a selfish, lazy, rich piece of American trash. You know, David, it’s actually God who’s sovereign, not you, and he actually knows ALL of the issues that plague mankind – chief among them being sin – and He knows how to rally the troops to whichever battlefield he deems necessary. Your short-list of pressing issues is really not even a drop in the bucket to the One who sees everything.

    Without even going into the “can” vs. “should” argument, I can tell you you’re really lacking love when you can stick your bony finger in another Christian’s face and judge his heart like you’ve done. And please quit accusing people of taking your ugly remarks personally, when it would take an idiot not to. Speaking of ugly remarks, I’m sure Principal David will take me to task for my little temper tantrum here, but I’ll just take a chance and call it righteous indignation.

  8. David says:

    Jennifer,

    I will not dignify your rant with a response to your personal attacks. But since you threw out the “P” word (Pharisee), I will respond to that. And all I will say is that you might want to do a study of the Pharisees in the Bible and why Jesus was constantly at odds with them. It is on many levels. And far too often we like to stick with just one or two pet Pharisee areas to throw out and accuse folks of instead of taking a little more sophisticated look at the issue.

    One quick point on that: Jesus was not necessarily saying that what the Pharisees were teaching was wrong (at least not everything). He was saying that they were not putting into practice those teachings. So, they were being hypocritical. See Matthew 23:1…

    23:1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, 3 so practice and observe whatever they tell you—but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, [1] and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.

    We would be wise to think about not just what we proclaim but how that is lived out in practice in everyday life. We are all – including you – much more like the Pharisee than we would ever imagine, and perhaps in ways that we would never have imagined. The issue Jesus had with them and may have with you and me and others is that while you can “tell” people what the Bible says, for example, about the poor and widows (see James 1:27), you go out of your way (“strain a gnat”) to somehow not make that really all that important. You don’t DO it. But James seems to think it is very important. How do you get around this? (By the way, we shouldn’t miss James 1:26 too, which is a good reminder even on blog posts).

    It is so easy to justify our comfortable existence here in American and abdicate all responsibility for any suffering in the world (or next door for that matter). It is so engrained in us it is scary…if folks will stop being so defensive about it and serch their hearts. (Folks like Francis Chan are even being called “weird” because he is actually seeking to do what the Bible says on the issue of our money and stuff – see related article: http://www.christianpost.com/article/20101011/francis-chan-to-critics-how-is-my-life-weird/).

    In the issue that has been discussed in this post, I am making the point that it is not enough to simply have right Bible knowledge and to proclaim the Gospel message while simultaneously ignoring the very real suffering that is all around us (and I fully realize there is more than I or anyone could ever exhaustively list). THAT is hypocritical. THAT is one (of many) element of the Pharisees that Jesus condemned. Again, followers of Christ should/ought (not just “can”) to “do justice,” not just tell folks what to believe. I cited some verses (could cite many more), but one that makes this point most crystal clear is James 2:15-17.

    Those who have criticized my criticism on this post seem to be more in line with the Pharisees than I am (and, by the way, the only reason I even mentioned any of the steps I have taken personally is because others sarcastically asked me specific questions. I did not do so without first being solicited in that manner. And even then I did so not because I believe that makes me a “super Christian,” which I wrote in one of my responses, nor because it makes me more acceptable with Christ. Rather, it makes me obedient to the commands of Christ and not indifferent to the suffering in the world.)

    “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! – Matthew 23:23-24

    My point is that it is not either/or – either focus on proclaiming the Gospel or focus on serving the suffering. It is both/and. Period. If that stance gets me bashed on this blog or anywhere else, I will still say it again and again and again. And I think Kevin’s post went to too much extreme to get Christians in the richest country in the world (America) off the hook for feeling any responsibility to “do justice.”

    And, of course, the criticism of the Pharisees cuts both ways, and I readily accept that:

    “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. – Matthew 23:27-28

    Someone could be serving the suffering in outwards acts and still be totally oblivious to the Gospel. True.

    So, let’s put it all together and be Gospel-proclaiming, brokenhearted servants to the least, the last, and the lost – kind of like JESUS. Remember him?

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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