More Questions (But Less Nagging!) on the Mission of the Church

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The mission of the church is a hot topic these days, and I am glad to see that pastors and church leaders are sharpening each other’s understanding of how to address this topic biblically and how to lead our churches to respond faithfully.

Last week, I posted five nagging questions I had after reading Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert’s book on the mission of the church. Within a few hours I had an inbox full of messages from people saying that they had read the book and had some of the same questions. By the end of the week, Kevin and Greg had offered some helpful clarifications that move the discussion forward. I’m grateful for their friendship and for the tone of this conversation.

Since last week, Ed Stetzer has written an extensive review of What Is the Mission of the Church? for The Gospel Coalition’s journal Themelios. Ed is an evangelical missiologist who has spent significant time studying this issue and encouraging churches to engage their communities biblically with the gospel. In his review, he expresses his appreciation for Kevin and Greg’s interaction with key passages in Scripture, their insistence on keeping the cross and resurrection at the center of the gospel, and the way they differentiate between the mission of God and the mission of the church. And yet, Ed believes that the way they unpack their definition is too narrow. He writes:

With their definition, they underplay the relationship of secondary ministries to those in the community that are not immediately didactic and explicitly gospel revealing. In arguing that God’s mission for the church does not include caring for the poor or intervening on behalf of those who are oppressed (good, God-honoring, and God-commanded), but making disciples through the proclamation, they overlook the role of work and example in discipleship. Rather, they equate “making disciples” with evangelism. Making disciples includes evangelism, but in “teaching everything Jesus commanded,” love and good deeds are also a part of the disciple-making process.

Ed’s concern is very similar to mine, which is why I would like to revisit my five questions in light of Kevin and Greg’s response from last week.

1. “Can we reduce ‘making disciples’ and ‘teaching Christ’s commands’ to the delivery of information?”

I agree with Greg and Kevin that the gospel is never merely “the delivery of mere information.” It is the explosive message of grace that powerfully secures our salvation. I also agree that verbal proclamation is vitally important. Here’s what Kevin and Greg say:

And yet, in the Great Commission texts the disciple making work is described as teaching, testifying, or bearing witness. And in Acts we see the mission of the church described not as Christians faithfully living out their vocations but as the word being verbally proclaimed. When Jesus sent his disciples into the world, it was to speak.

Agreed. But again, Kevin and Greg are defining words like “teaching,” “testifying,” and “bearing witness” as exclusively verbal events. I agree that these words are primarily about verbal proclamation, and yet there are elements of teaching, testifying, and bearing witness that are caught, not taught. I am not downplaying verbal proclamation but leaving room in our definitions of “teaching all that Christ has commanded us” for modeling and mentoring as well. Mark Horne provides some additional biblical support for the view I’m putting forth.

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?”

To this, Kevin and Greg respond:

We passionately believe that the church should proclaim the gospel with words and promote the gospel with good works. But this is different from suggesting the mission of the church is to rebuild communities or build the kingdom. We hear Trevin asking, “Aren’t good works necessary to corroborate the message we are proclaiming?” Yes and Amen.

I am not denying that Greg and Kevin have a place in their book about obedience and the necessity of good works. My point is that our promotion of the gospel with good works is part of the mission. In other words, I want to include the corroboration of the gospel as part of how we conceive of mission, whereas Kevin and Greg insist on good works, but don’t want to call those good works “mission” because of their desire to keep the priority on evangelism.

3. “Isn’t there a sense in which worship is expressed through our life in the world, not just our corporate worship services?”

To this, Greg and Kevin respond:

We tried as hard as we could in the book to stress that good works and loving others matter, that they are essential, they are not optional, and they glorify God. The confusion may be that Trevin hears us saying worship is the mission of the church and then wonders why we don’t include all-of-life-worship in our definition. But we are careful to say mission is what we are sent into the world to accomplish. Therefore, we speak of worship as the goal of missions. Christian mission aims at making, sustaining, and establishing worshipers (247).

At the risk of talking past one another, I understand that Kevin and Greg have a robust view of our obedience in the world and our worship as consisting of all of life. And yet, I want to include that obedience within the wide-lens definition of “mission,” whereas Kevin and Greg want to make a sharp distinction between the two. Worship is not merely the goal of missions; it’s also the means. Our worship (whether gathered corporately or lived-out individually) is one way that the gospel is promoted and the mission moves forward.

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’?”

I won’t rehash this point because Kevin and Greg agree with the way that I and others use the phrase “work for the kingdom.” We’re on the same page here, although I think we need to be careful to keep our theological discourse from devolving into the tendency to police people’s language. Parsing of words and phrases can be a helpful exercise, but it can also lead to a sort of insider-lingo wherein we recognize who’s “on our team” by the way they use or refrain from certain phrases. I don’t think Kevin and Greg are guilty of this, but some Reformed-types do go overboard in language-policing. (For example, I’ve heard people talk about how misguided the phrase “obey the gospel” or “live the gospel” is, even though Peter and Paul specifically use the first and preachers like Spurgeon were happy to use the second.)

5. “Is our representation of Christ not part of the mission?”

Following up their initial response, Greg and Kevin penned an additional blog post on how good works and the mission relate to one another. Interestingly enough, I agree completely with what they say here, quoting from Eckhard Schnabel:

We like the way Eckhard Schnabel puts it in his massive work Early Christian Mission. Schnabel argues that “expansive proclamation” is “the centrifugal dimension of mission” and “attractive presence” is the “centripetal dimension” (1:11). Our words ring out; our deeds draw people in. So the “elements of mission” include not only the ministry of the word but also “charity” and “ministry of grace.” But this is not the same as saying missions is charity or that a missionary is anyone who serves others in good deeds. According to Schnabel, “missionaries” are “envoys sent by the risen Jesus Christ to proclaim the good news” (1:11-12). Just as important, he clarifies what mission is striving for. “The result of mission is conversion: people accept and adopt the message proclaimed by the missionaries, they are integrated into the new community of faith, and they start to practice a new way of life with new behavioral patterns” (1:12).

I nearly did a double take when reading this paragraph because it struck me as saying exactly what Kevin and Greg do not say in their book: that the mission has two dimensions – “expansive proclamation” and “attractive presence” – both geared toward conversion of the lost. The book narrows “mission” to expansive proclamation only, with good works being a matter of obedience but somewhat disconnected from the mission of the church. I agree with Schnabel that the ultimate goal of mission is conversion, while the means toward that goal can also be included in how we speak of the church’s mission.

Conclusion

Let me end by saying how much I appreciate Kevin and Greg’s critique of what passes for “mission” in many segments of evangelicalism. Simply being a nice person and doing good things in the world are not mission, since there are non-Christians who engage in the same types of work. Verbal proclamation is priority; it’s our ultimate goal and it is vital. When they critique the “social justice” crowd, I “amen” them the whole way.

My big concern is that in their stalwart defense of evangelism as the mission of the church, they have narrowed the idea of “disciple-making” more than Scripture does. Ed Stetzer sums up the basic point of contention here:

Gilbert and DeYoung have a different view than the prevailing approach in evangelical missiology.They believe the missio ecclesia is making disciples (X), with other actions and deeds (Y and Z) remaining distinct from X. Others (including most evangelical missiologists) see the missio ecclesia as YXZ, keeping X at the center but seeing Y and Z as essentially part of the mission. Gilbert and DeYoung, in my estimation, get the center of the mission (X), but have not properly worked out Y and Z’s relationship to the fulfillment of the church’s mission.

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