What is the Mission of the Church? (A Review)

I don’t like writing book reviews. The main reason is, I’m a quick reader but not a detailed reader. I assume that for a book review to be decent, some attention has to be paid to the details, and I don’t particularly want to do that.

However, as someone who is one of the first in my circles to have gotten hold of this book (via Kindle) and read it, I thought it would be worth putting some thoughts down on a page somewhere. There will no doubt be better reviews than this one, and when they turn up, I’ll link them to this article.

I picked up this book because of its premise and its recommendations. Its premise is to “make sense of social justice, shalom and the Great Commission”. The first two items: social justice and shalom, have been the flavour of a new generation of young evangelicals who have been exposed to writers such as N.T. Wright and Christopher J.H. Wright (among others – those are the two who have influenced me). The recommendations of this book come from such respected luminaries as Mark Dever, D.A. Carson, Michael S. Horton, Thomas Shreiner, and P.T. O’Brien. When they write in such glowing terms, you gotta take notice.

Having read the book in nearly one sitting (I spent a lot of time on the train yesterday), I can say that it’s been ultra-helpful for me personally as I’ve been wrestling theologically with some of these issues for awhile now, ever since I picked up Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright. I can say now that it’s probably one of the top three books I’ve read this year and I hope its influence will spread and its central thesis carefully chewed over, examined and appraised by my generation of socially active younger evangelicals.

Rather than going through a chapter-by-chapter analysis, here are my highlights from the book.

1. Attention to exegesis. The authors don’t allow us to be swept into convincing rhetoric that stays at the big picture level without dealing with specific texts.They do this so deftly, since this is not intended to be a scholarly work. Don’t be fooled though! Though they write as pastors, the exegetical work no doubt lies in the background and surfaces just enough to make their case very convincing.

2. Clarifying important concepts and ideas. The book rightly identifies that there is a lot of murkiness and slipperiness in a lot of recent talk about this issue. Much of the recent literature is very enthusiastic about concepts such ‘mission’, ‘social justice’, ‘shalom’ and ‘kingdom’ but never spend time to defend it exegetically or even clarify what is meant by these terms. They very helpfully ask (and deal with) important questions such as: Is there a difference between God’s mission and the church’s mission? Is the gospel primarily about cosmic renewal or forgiveness of sins? Is it biblical to speak about Christians ‘building the Kingdom’ through social or other means? What do we mean by ‘social justice’? Is ‘incarnational’ ministry a valid way of speaking about what Christians are called to do? What is biblical shalom and how does it come about? Will the new creation be continuous or discontinuous with this old one? Those are exactly the kinds of questions discerning young evangelicals should be asking in the midst of current enthusiasm for social concerns.

3. Recovering the centrality of the gospel. The best thing for me is that DeYoung and Gilbert show that the ‘old stuff’ that we young evangelicals have been taught isn’t that wrong: the mission of the church is essentially the Great Commission. Our mission is primarily that of bearing witness to, proclaiming and preaching a good news of forgiveness and reconciliation achieved by the work of Christ and calling people to repentance and faith in him. Our mission is to make disciples of all nations. That’s it. To summarise their central thesis:

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. (p. 62)

4. Locating our social and mercy ministries under the category of ‘love’ rather than ‘social justice’. The authors are very clear that what they do not want to do is to discourage or deflate a concern for the poor, socially disadvantaged or enslaved peoples of the world. However, they want this concern to be Biblical both in its source and in its demonstration. Rather than locating it under the blurry term of ‘social justice’, they see that Christ’s command to ‘love our neighbours’ is sufficiently important as a motivator to get moving to care about those around us in holistic ways.

The Christian will be generous and compassionate toward the suffering and the disadvantaged, realizing that all we have is a gift from God and that we share God’s image with the poor. But in the constrained vision, this care is a matter of love and compassion, not automatically a matter of justice. (p. 182)

5. A call to Biblical realism.  Some of the calls for Christians to social action is enjoined with a grand vision of ‘participating in Kingdom building’ on earth as it is in heaven. It is the classic liberal vision of bringing God’s Kingdom here on earth through radical transformation of social structures. A lot of this talk neglects to take into account the ‘not yet’ aspect of eschatology, as well as (most importantly I think), the way in which the Bible speaks about God’s Kingdom. God’s Kingdom is God’s work, God’s mission, God’s accomplishment through Christ, not ours. We receive the Kingdom, enter the Kingdom, but are never told to ‘build the Kingdom’. In their words:

God certainly uses means and employs us in his work. But we are not makers or bringers of the kingdom. The kingdom can be received by more and more people but this does not entail growth of the kingdom. We herald the kingdom and live according to its rules. But we do not build it or cause it to grow because it already is and already has come. (p. 134)

There is a tendency towards a sort of triumphalism when we think of being able to ‘transform cities’ and ‘build God’s Kingdom’ in the here-and-now before Jesus returns. That’s a great vision but has always made me a little uncomfortable, as I don’t see that in the mission of the disciples in Acts or in the pages of the New Testament. The authors argue that Jeremiah 29 is a better way of understanding God’s call to his people while we live in the tension of the ‘now and not yet’. We’re to seek the welfare of the cities we are in, love people around us, do as much good as we can, but our hope is in God’s new city coming from heaven to earth, not in our ability to transform our cities to be the New Jerusalem before Jesus returns.

The new heavens and new earth are not something that we build for ourselves out of the ruins of our fallen world. They are a gift from God to his redeemed people. Christians do not build the holy city, New Jerusalem, from the ground up; it doesn’t rise from the ashes of Babylon (Revelation 18–19). Rather, it comes down from heaven (Rev. 21:2), a gift of God to his people. It is “the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). (p. 206)

There’s a lot more I could write about, but I won’t given the length of this post already. If I have one criticism of this book it would be that I wish they would engage more openly with Tim Keller as they do with Chris Wright when it comes to these issues. They do quote Keller, but only in positive and supporting terms. I wonder however, if there are aspects of Keller’s vision for Redeemer and cultural / city transformation that should stand up to more direct scrutiny. I would also want to read Chris Wright’s Mission of God in more detail so I can see if all their critiques are fair, but I can’t help but feel that he is their main target in terms of evangelical scholarship on this topic.

And before I sign off, I reckon their last chapter, written as a sort of imagined dialogue between a young fiery new pastor and a seasoned evangelical pastor ought to be required reading for every young man wanting to head into the pastorate. I just wish I had read it when I finished Bible College 7 years ago.

Now read a “proper” book review by John Starke from the Gospel Coalition here.


About Pete

I am a child of God, a husband, a father of four children, a pastor, and a church planter. I live in Sydney Australia and live to see Jesus made famous in this city and be the only God people worship.

Posted on September 16, 2011, in Books, Church, The city, Theology. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Hi, Pete,

    I haven’t read the book, so this is a question rather than a statement. (It’s partly tied to my reading of Why we love the church, which answered a different set of pastoral concerns from the ones we have in our context, but was championed by a number of people here who seemed to want to protect the status quo.)

    Do you think this book can be used as an excuse not to change? That is, I don’t feel like in our subculture we’re in immediate danger of losing sight of proclamation or evangelism as we start to pursue love for marginalized people. I feel like the greater danger is that we continue to do very little in loving marginalized people. This danger seems to increase each time we say, “Loving marginalized people is not the mission of the church. Of course, it’s important (but not important enough for us to write a book about). The main thing is evangelism.”

    I’d be sad if this renewed interest in loving the poor, the blind, the crippled, the lame, and the single dad were quashed by too-careful exegesis and too-careless theology (i.e. an obsession with finding the “most important thing” — e.g. evangelism — and doing it to the exclusion of other necessary things — e.g. love). The Great Commission isn’t just, “Proclaim the gospel,” but involves “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded.”

    I know that our denominations have in many cases set up separate organizations which help marginalized people in a range of ways, but this is a kind of ‘love by proxy’ — very little of the actual love is done by local churches. This limits the ways in which we can love: that is, it allows us to care for people in institutional ways (e.g. food, accommodation, health, literacy, etc.) but not to love them in the manifold ways that we love — and are loved by — our friends.

    This muti-faceted, reciprocal friendship-love is a hard thing to do, not least because there aren’t many models for us to follow and we don’t have the know-how. (We’re trying, somewhat ineffectively, to piece something together in our church context by volunteering at a restaurant for marginalized people, and starting to chat to some of the people who eat there.) This kind of love seems to have been assumed in a certain generation, but forgotten by the next.

    • Hi Stuart, I think you hit the nail on the head re: what some of my concerns are with a sort of ‘recovery’ of the old perspective. These concerns are certainly on the authors’ minds too. Maybe these quotes will help:

      “We do not want: Christians to be indifferent toward the suffering around them and around the world Christians to think evangelism is the only thing in life that really counts Christians who risk their lives and sacrifice for the poor and disadvantaged to think their work is in any way suspect or is praiseworthy only if it results in conversions Christians to retreat into holy huddles or be blissfully unconcerned to work hard and make an impact in whatever field or career to which the Lord calls them Christians to stop dreaming of creative, courageous ways to love their neighbors and impact their cities…”

      “Having said all that, however, here’s some of what we do want: We want to make sure the gospel—the good news of Christ’s death for sin and subsequent resurrection—is of first importance in our churches. We want Christians freed from false guilt—from thinking the church is either responsible for most problems in the world or responsible to fix these problems. We want the crystal-clear and utterly unique task of the church—making disciples of Jesus Christ to the glory of God the Father—put front and center, not lost in a flurry of commendable concerns. We want Christians to understand the story line of the Bible and think more critically about specific texts within this story. We want the church to remember that there is something worse than death and something better than human flourishing. If we hope only for renewed cities and restored bodies in this life, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

      At the end of the day, if we’re committed to right action coming via right theology then the converse is true too. No matter how a generation might be roused to right action, if it’s not based on right theology, it’s not going to result in the best kinds of ‘right action’.

      Would love to hear your thoughts if you get a chance to read the book. 🙂

  2. looks really useful. thanks for the review.

  3. Hi, Pete,

    I’ll let you know if I read the book 🙂 And yes, those citations are heartening.

    Meanwhile, I don’t want to champion poor theology (and gee, the whole notion of being ‘incarnational’ really bugs me). But I’m just not sure that the NT suggests that orthodoxy is somehow more important than orthopraxy — our theology should lead to love. Indeed, evil behaviour is a feature of false teachers (e.g. 2 Pet 2:1–3; 2 Tim 3:1–8) and right behaviour can be a test of orthodoxy or at least in-Christness (e.g. 1 Cor 4:17; 1 John 2:9–11; 3:10–17; James 2; 2 Tim 3:10).

    Also, the relationship between theology and practice is neither linear nor one-way. It’s very possible to have a ‘cold’ orthodoxy — confessional purity which hides a functional apathy. Similarly, it’s very possible to have a deep love for Jesus, his people, and his world (which expresses itself in concrete love in the details of real life), despite missing more than a few theological i-dots and t-crosses.

    Again, I want good theology and good love to go hand-in-hand. But different groups of Christians will put the emphasis too strongly in one place or the other. And our sinful tendency to avoid self-examination means we’ll seek out support for our error. We’re so afraid of the error far over there that we blind ourselves to the error we’re already sitting in. At least, that’s what I do!

  4. Hi, Pete,

    Well, I finished reading it last week. I was less impressed than you 😛 I really tried to be as open-minded as possible, but I felt there were some lacks. Here’re a few thoughts:

    1. It’s a very different pastoral context from ours. They’re responding to a group of people who seem to have lost sight of gospel proclamation: They ask, “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?” Maybe I’m not in the right circles, but I don’t hear people asking those questions. It’s a corrective, but not to an error we have. The error we have seems to be more ‘proclamation only’. Tim Chester’s Good News to the Poor is a better corrective for that.

    2. Because of this, I kept asking, “What’s your point?” They think that loving our neighbour is necessary, but not our mission. What difference does it make? How do you prioritize between necessary things? How often do we have to choose between ‘verbal proclamation’ and ‘other forms of love’? By and large, these things happen in relationship, so there’s no conflict, here. And if both of these take place in relational contexts, when will we know we’re doing ‘mission’ and when ‘love’? In fact, I think this is where there’s room for a better solution. They’ve noticed a problem (that people are forgetting proclamation and focusing on social transformation), but they’ve just proposed the wrong solution. I think what’s needed here is a better understanding of how creation work and redemption work go together.

    3. There’s not enough ecclesiology: they go to some lengths to define ‘mission’, but not ‘church’. They just assert a difference between church as organism and church as institution. I think what they mean by ‘institution’ is something like centralized leadership, rather than simply the legal entity that holds bank accounts etc. As they put it, “Doesn’t it make more sense to say that the church as an institution is to teach Christians what Jesus commanded, and teach his disciples that they are to obey him in every area of their lives, rather than to say that it must provide an example or model obedience in every particular instance?”

    If this is what church-as-institution is, then they seem to stray a fair way towards indicating that the church is the leaders (or preachers), i.e. mission of church = proclamation, leaders do proclamation, therefore church ≈ leaders.

    Now, perhaps they’d deny this, and say that every Christian is involved in making disciples. But at that point, what’s the distinction between organism and institution? (Perhaps I’m unfairly importing a little bit of the (implied) ecclesiology of Why we love the church: there, church was consistently described as a Sunday worship event.)

    In any case, they have two categories: ‘institutional church’ and ‘individual Christians’. Institutional church does proclamation; individual Christians do various forms of love. I think they need a middle term of ‘corporate Christians’ — a group of Christians committed to loving one another, and to loving unbelievers together. This is what I’d call ‘church’ — a household, a body.

    4. In their desire to make the Great Commission the mission statement of the church, I think they’ve reduced ‘make disciples’ to ‘make converts’. That is, I feel like all the various forms of love that we walk in as Christians would come under the Great Commissions ‘teach them to obey everything’. But they seem to want to draw a sharp distinction between the moment of salvation (conversion) and living a saved life (discipleship). Only the former seems to fit in their reading of the Great Commission.

    5. And colouring points 2–4, I just don’t think the book is embedded enough in real life. The carefully-wrought distinctions seem to collapse as soon as you think, “How do I apply this?” So, on (2), ‘love’ and ‘mission’ both happen through relationships. This blurs the lines on (3). And on (4), ‘teaching to obey’ doesn’t just happen in an institutional setting. It happens in the midst of life. It relies not just on proclamation, but on modelling (and explaining what is modelled). This seems to be one reason behind Paul’s tentmaking among the Thessalonians, for example.

    Any road, I’m still recommending Chester over these guys on the best single book to read on evangelism and other forms of love.

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