What is the Mission of the Church?

[Editor’s note: I originally wrote this in 2012. Based on many current discussions, I decided it would be good to revisit it.]

What is the mission of the church? What is shalom? What is the church’s role in the pursuit of social justice? Pastors Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert address these and other related questions in their book, What is the Mission of the Church: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission.

There have been many books and articles written and many sermons given on the topics of mission, social justice, shalom, flourishing, and the great commission. Some say that the mission of the church is to continue the work of reconciliation that Jesus started, especially in the realm of unjust social structures. Others say that the mission of the church is to proclaim the good news that Jesus has saved us from our sins. Some say that the gospel message isn’t complete unless the church is pursuing the peace and prosperity of the city. Others say that the gospel message is simply that Jesus died for our sins and was raised for our justification.

Given the diversity of opinions on these issues, it isn’t surprising that Pastors DeYoung and Gilbert felt called to write a book that addresses the topic of mission from a solidly Reformed perspective. The book is not a heavy theological treatise. Rather, it is aimed for the average person or pastor who is interested in understanding the current discussion on mission. The biblical exegesis is clear and easy to follow.

Early in the book, the authors explain that the book was written to answer the question: What is the mission of the church? Particularly, they write that part of their purpose is to correct “an overexpansive definition that understands mission to be just about every good thing Christians could do as a partner with God in his mission to redeem the whole world” (20). Their concern is that this “overexpansive definition” runs the risk of marginalizing the mission of making disciples, which they argue is what “makes Christian mission Christian mission” (22) and also places considerable guilt on Christians who feel “the church is either responsible for most problems in the world or responsible to fix these problems” (23). The authors are careful, though, to point out that their book is not a critique of their brothers in Christ in the Acts 29 and Redeemer networks (20).

So what is the mission of the church? According to DeYoung and Gilbert it is:

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 the Lord and obey his commands now and in eternity to the glory of God the Father. (62)

Seems pretty simple, but very profound.

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Forgiveness is Not a One-Way Street

Pastor Kevin DeYoung had a great post recently about the biblical concept of forgiveness. He points out that, despite current pop psychology, forgiveness can only happen AFTER repentance. We should not be bitter or hold resentment in our hearts, but, as Christians, we must recognize that real, biblical forgiveness isn’t a one-way street:

Many Christians, influences by Lewis Smedes and a lot of pop psychology, have a therapeutic understanding of forgiveness. They think of forgiveness as a unilateral, internal effort to get our emotions under control. But if we start with a biblical notion of God’s forgiveness, we see that such a view falls short.

The offer of forgiveness is unconditional (for God, and it should be for us), but forgiveness itself is conditioned upon repentance. We must always be open–and even, in God’s grace, become eager–to extend forgiveness, but we (like God) can only forgive the truly penitent. No bitterness either way. No revenge. But forgiveness, and the reconciliation that should follow, is a commitment to those who repent.

You can read the rest of Pastor DeYoung’s excellent post here.

Sometimes You Have to Choose a Side

Whether it’s political disputes or theological issues, it’s not uncommon to hear someone claim to represent a middle ground, a third way, that seeks to harmonize the discord between the two sides. In a world that hates absolutes, the middle ground is often seen as the moral high ground. But is it really always a good thing not to pick a side? Kevin DeYoung had this to say over at his blog:

I’m not saying their positions are always wrong, but their position on their positions makes me nervous. I’m talking about those pastors, politicians, pundits, and publications which, at the first sign of firefight, always scramble for the cleanest spot above the fray.

The ones that always claim to transcend old polarities. The ones that always claim to be above all the silly nonsense that used to drag us down. The ones that keep their noses clean by putting them high into air. The ones that are never dirty enough for the trenches.

Why not get shot at with the rest of us? Are there not right sides to be on in some battles? Or do you not want us to see that you are at war as much as everyone else?

I get nervous when the middle ground is always the safe spot. I wonder if the two sides are being described fairly. Or if there are really twenty sides instead of two. I wonder if the sane voice of civility crying in the uncouth wilderness has something it doesn’t want me to hear. I wonder if instead of getting an intellectual argument for the truth I’m getting an emotional appeal to feel superior than the lowbrow rabble-rousers. I am skeptical of those whose first instinct in the midst of theological, political, or cultural controversy is to plead with everyone that there doesn’t have to be a controversy.

I have no desire to turn every skirmish into a war. There is more to life than belligerence. But there is also more to life than boasting of civility when battles need to be won. When the Bible tells us to seek the things that are above, it doesn’t always mean the fray.

The “New” Gospel: Is It the Same as the Old?

Kevin DeYoung wrote an excellent article comparing the “new” gospel message that has become so common in today’s evangelical discussions. He starts the article with four features of the new gospel:

It usually starts with an apology: “I’m sorry for my fellow Christians. I understand why you hate Christianity. It’s like that thing Gandhi said, ‘why can’t the Christians be more like their Christ?’ Christians are hypocritical, judgmental, and self-righteous. I know we screwed up with the Crusades, slavery, and the Witch Trials. All I can say is: I apologize. We’ve not give you a reason to believe.”

Then there is an appeal to God as love: “I know you’ve seen the preachers with the sandwich boards and bullhorns saying ‘Repent or Die.’ But I’m here to tell you God is love. Look at Jesus. He hung out with prostitutes and tax collectors. He loved unconditionally. There is so much brokenness in the world, but the good news of the Bible is that God came to live right in the middle of our brokenness. He’s a messy God and his mission is love. ‘I did not come into the world to condemn the world,’ that’s what Jesus said (John 3:17). He loved everyone, no matter who you were or what you had done. That’s what got him killed.”

The third part of the New Gospel is an invitation to join God on his mission in the world: “It’s a shame that Christians haven’t shown the world this God. But that’s what we are called to do. God’s kingdom is being established on earth. On earth! Not in some distant heaven after we die, but right here, right now. Even though we all mess up, we are God’s agents to show his love and bring this kingdom. And we don’t do that by scaring people with religious language or by forcing them into some religious mold. We do it by love. That’s the way of Jesus. That’s what it means to follow him. We love our neighbor and work for peace and justice. God wants us to become the good news for a troubled planet.”

And finally, there is a studied ambivalence about eternity: “Don’t get me wrong, I still believe in life after death. But our focus should be on what kind of life we can live right now. Will some people go to hell when they die? Who am I to say? Does God really require the right prayer or the right statement of faith to get into heaven? I don’t know, but I guess I can leave that in his hands. My job is not to judge people, but to bless. In the end, God’s amazing grace may surprise us all. That’s certainly what I hope for.”

So what’s wrong with the “new” gospel?

It shouldn’t be hard to see what is missing in the new gospel. What’s missing is the old gospel, the one preached by the Apostles, the one defined in 1 Corinthians 15, the one summarized later in The Apostles’ Creed.

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The Next Big Thing

Carl Trueman has a thoughtful column about the debate over Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert’s book, What is the Mission of the Church? He thinks it’s a premonition of battles to come in the “gospel-centered” movement. Here’s an excerpt from his post:

The gospel-centred world seems divided over whether the gospel is primarily about transforming culture or individual forgiveness for sins. Of course, there is a spectrum of opinion on this matter and not everyone is at one end of it or the other. Yet the passions generated by DeYoung and Gilbert highlight the problem and indicate that it cannot be ignored. Indeed, it seems likely that the gospel-centred world is set to become more, not less, polarized on this issue. After all, how one answers the question of the mission of the church reflects how one understands the gospel and shapes everything that the church does. Thus, for example, some can talk confidently about ‘arts ministries’ while others of us scratch our heads as to why our churches would ever contemplate prioritizing painting or poetry over toilet cleaning and providing after-service coffee and cakes. The latter are surely of more immediate and universal importance to the church but would rarely if ever be dignified with the title of `ministry.’
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More on What is the Mission of the Church?

Last week, I wrote a review of Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert’s book What is the Mission of the Church?. On his blog at The Gospel Coalition today, Pastor DeYoung addresses some of the criticism the book has received. Here is a brief excerpt:

The question we are addressing in the book is whether the mission of the church—the thing it is organized and sent into the world to do—is to do those good deeds to the end of making the world a better place. Is it the church’s mission to do city renewal, to do neighborhood revitalization, to eradicate poverty, to eliminate hunger, to raise the global standard of living? Of course, we all want to see this happen. But should we always expect to see this happen? Is this why God gathers weak and weary sinners into churches? Is the presence of social problems in a community a sign that the church has been unfaithful to its mission? That’s the direction this discussion of mission often runs. We’ve seen well-meaning evangelical Christians explain church planting initiatives with the language of pulling “the whole community together [to] make a measurable difference.” The expressed desire is to be “agents in improving graduation rates, increasing literacy or lowering unemployment.” They ask, “What if together we could provide tutoring in every school, support services for every fire station, or orientation for every immigrant?” (We’re not making up these quotes.) Obviously, these are fine causes, ones Christians may pursue—and some will be called to pursue—out of love for others. But then again, is this the sort of work we see Jesus engaged in during his ministry? Is it the ministry we see pursued in the book of Acts? It sounds good to say mission is “both-and,” that the church should do these things while still making the gospel central. But churches do not have infinite resources, people, or time. The church cannot do every good thing that could be done. There must be priorities. We argue that the church’s priority—and the grid through which mission endeavors should be evaluated—is teaching others about Christ to the end that they may worship him now and forever. Continue reading