The Mission of the Church: Centripetal to Centrifugal, and Why It Matters

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If you’re a regular reader of mine, you may be scratching your head over the amount of words I’ve devoted in response to current critique of the missional church movement and whether or not we should see the church as an instrument of God’s mission. Perhaps you wonder: What’s the big deal?  

The truth is your view of the church will lead to a particular understanding of how you expect Christians to live in the world. This question—“is the church an organization that serves an instrumental purpose for something larger, or an organism that expresses something for which the rest of the world was made?”—has ramifications for how we see ourselves and our mission. The reason we hear so much talk these days about “identity” and “purpose” (whether as individuals or organizations) is because we instinctively realize that who we are is connected to what we do.

In his series “The Elusive Presence,” Mark Galli claims that the outward-focused, missional orientation of the people of God that so many theologians see in the biblical text is overstated. He believes missiologists read too much into some of the examples, especially from the Old Testament. He may be right in a few of these cases, but are these scholars wrong about the overall trajectory of the Bible’s grand narrative?

Centripetal or Centrifugal 

When we look at the whole Bible, we find both similarity and difference. A popular way of showing how the emphases differ, depending on whether we are discussing the people of God in the Old Testament or New, is the centripetal / centrifugal distinction.

For example, in the Old Testament, we see the mission of God at work through the people of Israel. Michael Goheen, in his book Introducing Christian Mission Today describes God’s mission through Israel in three terms: universal, centripetal, and eschatological.

  • Universal: “Even though Israel is chosen to be God’s covenant people, the whole earth and all nations are clearly in view.”
  • Centripetal: “Israel’s role is to be a light to the nations, to live their lives in such a way that the nations see the true and living God and are attracted to their lives and their God.”
  • Eschatological: The ultimate goal—the Lord being recognized by all the nations in the life of Israel—hasn’t yet happened, and therefore looks to the future for its fullest achievement.

New Testament Difference 

The New Testament maintains these notes, but they’re transposed into a different key. There’s still the universal element, but now the church transcends the particularity of a single nation. There’s still the eschatological element: we see the extending kingdom of God that is already here, while still pray for the fullness of the kingdom to come “on earth as it is in heaven.”

The biggest change is in the “centripetal” element. After the cross and resurrection of Christ, and after Pentecost, the “centripetal” force whereby outsiders were to be drawn to God by the salvation they saw on display in Israel gets reversed. The centripetal becomes centrifugal. Goheen shows how this is part of the narrative structure of Acts:

Luke tells his story showing that this [centripetal element] is fulfilled in the community at Jerusalem (Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-35) and now in Antioch (Acts 11:21-23). However, with Antioch the mission of God through his people takes a centrifugal direction: the people of God go out to the nations. It is in this going that there lies ‘the distinctive turning-point, the great change of direction of the gospel.’ Yet both dimensions of mission remain important: the centrifugal serves the centripetal. Some, like Paul and Barnabas, are sent out to establish witnessing communities. These communities in turn witness in their lives, words, and deeds in their local setting to the transforming power of God.

Goheen is right to point out the centrifugal—sending out—dimension of the mission we see in the New Testament, and he’s also right to note that this centrifugal force doesn’t do away with the centripetal idea from the Old Testament. The mission includes both a going out and also a drawing in.

Vanguard of a New Humanity

In similar terms, Michael Bird describes the church in this way:

The church is the new community called out from the world into what is the beginning of the new age. The resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit mean that God’s new world has begun, the future has partially invaded the present, the seeds of the new creation have already begun budding in the old garden, and God’s victory on the cross is now beginning to claim back territory in a world enslaved by sin. The first Christians saw themselves as the vanguard of a new redeemed humanity that God was creating in Jesus Christ.

Do you see the centrifugal dynamic here? The victory of the cross leads to the claiming back of territory; the people of God are the “vanguard” of a new redeemed humanity. Our identity as the people of God is inextricably tied to our purpose in being sent out.

Here’s why this matters. If you see the mission as primarily centripetal, you’ll see your purpose primarily as bringing others in to your services. If you see the mission as primarily centrifugal, you’ll see your purpose primarily in going out to others. Both matter, but the New Testament stresses the latter more than the former.

Activist Temptation

Mark Galli is certainly right that our missionary efforts, when made primary, can lead to loss in the spirituality of our individual and corporate life. We should always be on guard on what I’ve described as “the activist gospel,” where a cause (even a good one) can replace the cross at the center of our church’s identity and purpose. But the solution to the activist gospel is to heed the warnings, not push back against the centrifugal nature of the church and throw out the missional understanding of the church altogether.

Later this week, I plan to wrap up this series with one more column, in which I try to tie all of this together and explain why Galli’s prescription won’t solve the problem of our evangelical malaise.

This is the sixth column in a series. See the follow-up post below.

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