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.