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.