I’m thankful for pastors like Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert and count them both as friends. I appreciate them for their rigorous thinking imbued with pastoral sensitivity and a desire to be biblically faithful.
Recently, I read their new book, What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission, an ambitious work that seeks to place the church’s mission within the framework of the Bible’s story line and the New Testament gospel. DeYoung and Gilbert focus on the Great Commission texts in order to formulate this definition of the church’s mission:
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. (241)
I am largely in agreement with this definition, but I’m puzzled by the way the book unpacks it. I agree that the mission of the church is to make disciples, but I think I pack more into the definition of “disciple-making” than DeYoung and Gilbert do.
So instead of doing a full review, I thought it might be helpful to put forth five nagging questions I have about their proposal, in hopes that these questions continue the conversation that DeYoung and Gilbert’s book has begun:
1. Can we reduce “making disciples” and “teaching Christ’s commands” to the delivery of information?
It seems to me that DeYoung and Gilbert tend to reduce “disciple-making” to teaching and then reduce “teaching” to the transferring of information. I agree that teaching is a central part of discipleship (which is one reason I am dedicating the next few years to the development of solid biblical curriculum). At the same time, we need to recognize that teaching also takes place in mentoring, in modeling, and in collaboration with others. So wouldn’t good deeds of love and justice fit within the overall definition of “teaching”? Isn’t part of disciple-making expressed in older Christians coming alongside new believers and together doing the good deeds Christ has called us to? If so, then doesn’t the making of disciples inherently include, at least in some measure, our work in the world? At the end of the day, I don’t think we can separate “making disciples” from “loving neighbor” in the way that it seems DeYoung and Gilbert do.
2. If we agree that there is a zoom-lens and wide-lens view of the gospel, can we also agree that there is a zoom-lens and wide-lens view of the mission?
I liked DeYoung and Gilbert’s chapter on the gospel, particularly the way they distinguish between two ways of conceiving the one gospel. In DeYoung and Gilbert’s conception, the gospel of the kingdom is integrally connected to the gospel of the cross. Or put another way, the cross is the fountainhead of the blessings of the kingdom (pg. 108). My question is: Why not use this approach in considering the mission? Can we not conceive of the church’s mission in wide lens and zoom lens as well? Evangelism is central (zoom lens), and yet evangelism is corroborated by any number of activities (wide lens) that demonstrate the reality of our gospel proclamation.
3. Isn’t there a sense in which worship is expressed through our life in the world, not just our corporate worship services?
At the corporate level, it’s clear that worship takes place within the church’s gathering. Yet the biblical story line begins with Adam and Eve worshiping God by obeying His commands in the garden. It was their cultivation of the garden that reflected their love and praise for their Maker. So when DeYoung and Gilbert claim that worship is integral to the mission of the church and yet want to separate worship from our deeds of justice, I worry that we are failing to remember that our good work in the world is part of our obedient worship to God.
4. Even if we recognize that the verbs related to the kingdom are passive (receiving, bearing witness to, etc.), does this necessarily preclude us from speaking of “work for the kingdom”?
When people use terminology like “work for the kingdom” or “build for the kingdom,” they usually mean that their good deeds are done at the bidding of King Jesus. They are doing these things on behalf of the kingdom. DeYoung and Gilbert are hesitant to allow any of our good deeds to be seen as contributing in some way to God’s work in establishing His kingdom. I understand their concern. Yet I think that propping up an unbendable category here might suppress kingdom work rather than inspire it. I think many people in our churches are unaware of how their “labor for the Lord is not in vain.” Connecting our good deeds to the kingdom that only God will establish can be a pastorally helpful and biblically faithful way of showing the relationship between kingdom work and the church’s mission. “Working for the kingdom” does not necessarily lead to burn-out and utopianism. For most of us, it infuses our current work with passion and excitement, knowing that God will take our work and use it for His purposes.
5. Is our representation of Christ not part of the mission?
DeYoung and Gilbert believe we must represent Christ, but it seems like they connect this representation so tightly to verbal proclamation of the gospel that little room is left for representing Christ through love and good deeds. I wonder if, in addition to the Great Commission passages, we also need to consider the New Testament metaphors for the church as we seek to discern our mission. Images like Christ’s bride, Christ’s body, and the holy temple and royal priesthood help us understand that being like Jesus is part of what it means to “teach all that He has commanded.” Christ-likeness is a part of the mission, and we cannot and should not separate proclamation of Christ from the representation of Christ we offer through our acts of service.
Update: Kevin and Greg have offered some clarifying answers to these five questions here. I encourage you to read their response. This is a conversation worth having.