What is the mission of the church? I have heard this expressed in single statements, such as
- make disciples
- shepherd the flock of God
- pursue justice
- proclaim the kingdom of God
In the same vein, identifying the mission of the church can breed some opposition against activity that is considered contrary to what the church should be doing. I’m going to suggest that the best way to rob the Church of her mission is to isolate activities and make that about mission. In other words, when we focus on a single aspect of mission we lose focus of the bigger picture that actually includes a conglomeration of activities.
What is the Mission of the Church?
The answer to this question rests on the identity of the church. As the body of Christ, the church has a corporate identity which engages in her purpose tied to the purpose of God for her. Now much ink has been spilled over the question so my goal here is not to elevate one paradigm over the other. But mainly it is to consider the identity of mission in correspondence to the mission of God.
If I were to summarize what God is doing through all 66 books of the Bible, it is this: creation, fall, redemption. God created something good. It was marred by sin. His goal is to redeem that which was lost. What he accomplishes in the Son and his body is instrumental to this redemption.
Now if I were to look at Christ’s instructions to the apostles, he tells them to make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20) and to be his witnesses (Acts 1:8). But their work and word served as a testimony to Christ of what a gathered people should look like. So as they go out, they form clusters of believers in local assemblies. The instruction to go out includes forming an inward body.
Consider Paul’s description of the church in Ephesians 3:8-12
To me, the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches in Christ, and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things; so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose which He carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and confident access through faith in Him.
Basically, Paul is indicating that purpose of God’s gathered people were always to represent his purpose, though the inclusion of Gentiles was hidden prior to the advent of Christ. Regardless, of when you believe the church started (Adam vs. Abraham vs Pentecost), God has always demonstrated his glory and power through a corporate entity.
What this means is a host of activity surrounding this corporate witness. Making disciples is just as much about inward activity as it is outward activity. We can’t expect for the church to focus on one to the exclusion of the other without jeopardizing the mission.
When the inwardly strengthened church goes out, it accomplishes the justice of God. If the gathered people are reflecting the love of God by loving neighbor, that will include touching areas of human suffering. When Jesus told his disciples of the good Samaritan, it wasn’t just a cute story but a pictorial of what it means to love our neighbor – by helping them.
When we isolate activities it robs the church of her mission. I say this because I’m often confronted with statements that criticize the church for not doing something with respect to mission. I hear criticisms of inward focus and polemics against church buildings. For instance, I know some would object to this statement.
The Lord’s Day is for gathering with the Lord’s people to hear the Lord’s word and proclaim our Lord’s death and resurrection.
— Kevin DeYoung (@RevKevDeYoung) April 21, 2013
But opposing corporate gatherings in a building negates what the church is supposed to be. And to be clear, it’s not about the building but about the gathering together. Without the inward gathering, it robs the church of her mission to gather together as a corporate entity for the sake of equipping the saints – sitting under the apostles teaching breaking bread, prayer and fellowship (Acts 2:42). How can she effectively represent the head if she is disjointed, anemic or ignorant of what she has been called to be? That is discipleship.
Nor can we neglect the impact of the church on the world. If we just huddle together for the sake of worship and equipping without actually going out and making disciples, then we’ve defeated the church’s purpose of going out to the world. We’ve failed to proclaim the kingdom of God to those who don’t know him. And that doesn’t matter whether it’s a big, fancy infrastructure or a small storefront.
If we fail to consider love through justice and concerns of the oppressed, then we’ve negated the God’s demonstration of power and glory in the redemptive process of creation. It’s not just that we gather to be equipped, or make disciples, but also demonstrate love of neighbor through addressing concerns. But if we focus exclusively on that to the neglect of the purpose of the church and proclamation of Christ, then we’ve short circuited the mission of the church because it has been reduced to corrective action of injustice.
The reality is that the church accomplishing her mission involves the interweaving of all these activities. It is a kingdom proclamation that exalts Christ, builds his body in love and maturity and engages in the task of ambassadorship in the world. I often wonder too, if we shouldn’t look at the activities of the church in toto. Meaning, if the church is accomplishing her mission across the board, even if individual congregations focus on one thing over the other. It’s just a thought.
You may have inspired my next blog post :).
I know (having sat in class with you) that you appreciate and understand the complexity of defining the church, and you’ve demonstrated that understanding here. In my musings, I’ve come to the conclusion that a good ecclesiology has to include an understanding of the “body of Christ” metaphor and its implications for the church. Good job surfacing some of the issues.
Thanks Garland. I look forward to that post!
I am yet to read something from you that I disagree with…and I’m not even Reformed! It’s been almost two years…I guess I’ll have to be patient 🙂