When our book What Is the Mission of the Church? came out last fall it generated a fair number of responses, including some heavy (and usually respectful) pushback. We tried to respond to a few of these thoughtful responses. Since then the conversation has quieted down, which is entirely appropriate.
But that doesn’t mean the issue is any less urgent. Few Christians would question that disciplemaking is at the heart of the church’s missionary imperative. No evangelical is against evangelism, reaching unreached peoples, and making disciples. And yet, I believe we are blind to serious dangers if we think we can pay mere lipservice to these things, spotlight everything else, and still expect our missionary heartbeat to keep beating. For many churches and many Christians our mission work and mission aims have become indistinguishable from that of any number of humanitarian organizations.
Last week I was reading through a Christian magazine and saw a page with short blurbs about local church life. The snippets included a story about a church dedicating a wind turbine, a church celebrating clean water for Earth Day, and a worship leader organizing a shoe donation. These were three of the six stories about church life (in fairness, one did mention discipleship).
Similarly, while checking out a church website several months ago I was struck by the goal of their missions program: “to connect people and their resources with opportunities to respond to human need in the name of Jesus.” Of the local missions supported by the church one was a food pantry, another a fair trade coffee shop, and the third an organization that rebuilds homes.
And finally, I noticed recently that a large missions conference, in describing what attendees will experience at the conference, talked about “exposure to global issues and realities” and a special track in “poverty and social justice” but there was no indication in this list that the conference would alert attendees to the plight of the lost or the urgent need to share the gospel and call people to faith and repentance.
In my experience, there is hardly a college Christian in the country who needs to be reminded that God cares about the justice and poverty. Almost every young up-and-comer Christianity Today highlights on their back page is involved in or passionate about some kind of social justice ministry. It’s not like we are sending out a generation of Christians into the world who are so zealous to rescue the eternally perishing that they won’t be bothered to give a cup of cold water or protest injustice. The opposite is much more likely to be true, that scores of mission trips, mission budgets, and missional pursuits are full of good humanitarian deeds with little thought about heaven and hell and the proclamation of the gospel.
I’m not saying that evangelicalism’s better missional thinkers are making this mistake. What I am suggesting is that we are making a mistake if we think no one is.
Consider this sentence:
What would it take to change the world, provide food for the hungry, and water to the thirsty, teach children to read, and keep them healthy, shelter families and train a new generation, give the poor a chance to better themselves, create a worldwide network of peacemakers, and conquer a disease that has killed or crippled millions?
This sentence poses a fine question, one which provokes us to pursue noble goals. It almost sounds like the mission statement for a church, or the introduction to a new conference, or, for some, the summation of the Christian life, but it’s the opening line to the promotional video for Rotary International. I have nothing against Rotarians. Who could? Their motto is “service above self.” That’s a much better way to live—for you and for everyone else—than striving for “self above service.” It is good. It is honorable. It is important. And done with the right motives from the right faith, humanitarian service is profoundly pleasing to God. But is it the mission of the church?
If service broadly defined as bettering nutrition and reducing illiteracy, with or without gospel proclamation and disciplemaking, is Christian mission, then the Rotary Club belongs with Carey, Judson, and Paul in the pantheon of missionary heroes. If not, then we still have some work to do in helping our people see what is the mission of the church. Doing good is great, but only good news saves.