What is the Mission of the Church?

Posted by in Bible & Theology, Church & Missions

DeYoung, Kevin and Greg Gilbert. What is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2011.

Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert’s upcoming release, What is the Mission of the Church?, is a significant, and, in my opinion, helpful contribution to the ongoing discussion of a very relevant and critical issue facing evangelicals today. They present their topic in rather dramatic terms:

“From many conversations in print, online, and in person our sense is that this whole issue of mission (along with related issues like kingdom, social justice, shalom, cultural mandate, and caring for the poor) is the most confusing, most discussed, most energizing, and most potentially divisive issue in the evangelical church today” (25).

In the midst of such controversy, it is worth noting that DeYoung, senior pastor of the University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan, coauthor of a number of bestselling books, including Why We Love the Church, and popular blogger, and Gilbert, senior pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, author of What is the Gospel?, and regular contributor at the 9Marks e-Journal and blog, are working “together for the gospel” in this important transdenominational evangelical effort.

They are careful to clarify their lack of polemical intentions, and, for the most part, follow through with that objective: “We want to be positive in tone. We want to build up rather than tear down” (20); “We really don’t want this to be an us-against-them kind of book” (25). Though they freely admit to having a specific agenda, they make a special point to be balanced in the approach they take: “In correcting certain aspects of some missional thinking, we realize that missional thinking itself is striving to correct abuses of traditional missiology… The truth is that both sides have some important things to say to one another, and we should be careful in our mutual correction to not overcompensate” (23).

DeYoung and Gilbert are especially adamant that, while what they write is meant to correct certain contemporary understandings of what it means to be missional, they are NOT suggesting that we, as Christians, should be indifferent to suffering around us, think evangelism is the only thing that really matters, downplay or disparage the work of those who sacrifice and place themselves at risk to help the poor and disadvantaged, retreat into holy huddles, or quit being creative and courageous in our efforts to love our neighbors and impact our cities.

A lot of the implications of what DeYoung and Gilbert write can be summed up in the choice of language we use to describe our mission as Christians. Instead of “social justice,” they suggest it is better to speak of “loving your neighbor”; instead of “transforming the world,” it is better to speak of “faithful presence”; and instead of “building the kingdom,” it is better to speak of “living as citizens of the kingdom.”

Though the list of authors DeYoung and Gilbert cite as having read in preparation for writing What is the Mission of the Church? reads like a Who’s Who of evangelical theology and missiology, they appear to be responding especially to Christopher J. H. Wright, who, as a key leader in the Lausanne Movement, and close collaborator of the recently deceased John Stott, is one of the most influential figures in evangelical missions today.*

Though Wright is far from alone, either in the defense of his views, or in the crosshairs of DeYoung and Gilbert’s corrective, in much of the structure of the book, as well as in several specific references, What is the Mission of the Church? comes across as the “anti-Wright.” Here are a few choice examples:

Wright: “Everything a Christian and a Christian church is, says, and does should be missional in its conscious participation in the mission of God in God’s world” (The Mission of God’s People, 26).

DeYoung and Gilbert: “Some of what we want to correct is an overexpansive definition that understands mission to be just about every good thing a Christian could do as a partner with God in his mission to redeem the whole world” (20).

Wright: When seeking to understand the mission of God, and consequently that of the church, we must start with the grand narrative of the entire Bible, especially the Old Testament, which sets the backdrop for everything else.

DeYoung and Gilbert: “It makes sense that we would look to the New Testament more than the Old for a theology of mission” (42); “The way to understand the Bible’s story from beginning to end is actually to start at the middle, with the death and resurrection of Jesus” (68).

Wright (in the words of DeYoung and Gilbert): “Our understanding of redemption, of the gospel, and of the mission of the church should be ‘exodus-shaped.’ In other words, because the exodus from Egypt had political, social, and economic components, we must understand the gospel, redemption, and our mission to have political, social, and economic components as well” (79).

DeYoung and Gilbert: “When the New Testament talks about the exodus as a type of salvation, what it focuses on is not at all its political and economic aspects, but rather the picture it provided of the spiritual salvation God was bringing about” (80).

Wright (and Stott): Evangelism and social action are full partners in Christian mission.

DeYoung and Gilbert: “We are concerned that in all our passion for renewing the city or tackling social problems, we run the risk of marginalizing the one thing that makes Christian mission Christian: namely, making disciples of Jesus Christ” (22); “We want to make sure the gospel … is of first importance in our churches” (22).

Wright: Creation care and the corresponding “cultural mandate” are an essential part of God’s task for all mankind, and particularly for us as Christians.

DeYoung and Gilbert: “When God exiles Adam from Eden, it is not with a commission to continue the work of building the world into a God-glorifying, cultivated paradise” (75); “The story is not about us working with God to make the world right again. It’s about God’s work to make us right so we can live with him again” (89); “Paul does not say individuals will be redeemed as the whole universe is redeemed. He says the opposite… We are not called to bring a broken planet back to its created glory. But we are to call broken people back to their Creator” (248).

The bulk of DeYoung and Gilbert’s text is comprised of careful exegesis of relevant biblical texts. For the most part, their argument is straightforward, well-reasoned, and convincing. They are balanced in their treatment of Scripture, honestly recognizing the tension between differing emphases in different passages.

The most helpful part of all, for me, was the treatment given to our understanding, as evangelicals, of the gospel. As DeYoung and Gilbert insightfully observe, “In many ways evangelicals seem to be talking past one another on this question of what the gospel is” (92). There is good reason for this mutual misunderstanding. A careful and honest examination of Scripture reveals two evident emphases: the wide-lens perspective of the gospel as “the good news that God is going to remake the world, and that Jesus Christ—through his death and resurrection—is the down payment on that transformation and renewal” (i.e. the “gospel of the kingdom”); and the zoom-lens perspective of the gospel as “the good news that God has acted to save sinners through the death of Jesus in their place and his subsequent resurrection” (i.e. the “gospel of the cross”).

The key insight of DeYoung and Gilbert is that it is not a question of “either/or” or “both/and.” Both perspectives are undeniably biblical and, therefore, true. But they are not “equal partners” as Stott, Wright, et al, would have us believe. They are rather two perspectives of the same gospel, with one at the very core, and the other extending further to include the broader implications: “The gospel of the kingdom necessarily includes the gospel of the cross” (107), and, if it doesn’t, it is not truly the gospel; “Perhaps … it would be more accurate … to speak of the gospel of the cross and the gospel of the kingdom through the cross” (108).

When thinking of the kingdom of God, DeYoung and Gilbert are also helpful in reminding us of the hermeneutical grid of an “already, but not yet” eschatology, on which they claim there is practically an evangelical consensus, although it is not always consistently carried through in its implications: “If it is true that the kingdom will be fully established only when Jesus returns, it is equally true that it will be established by his hand alone” (131); “The primary task of Christians in this age, with reference to the kingdom, is not to build it or establish it or even to build for it, but rather to be witnesses to this representing, suffering, forgiving King” (138).

One unfortunate digression is the six pages in the middle of the book given over to a defense of one particular approach to economics (in broad strokes, laissez-faire “trickle-down” capitalism vis-à-vis Keynesianism). While successfully demonstrating that Keynesian economics should not be confused with the gospel, dedicating that amount of space to defend a rival economic theory weakens the overall thesis that the gospel is not about theories of economics, but spiritual salvation and discipleship.

DeYoung and Gilbert confess their better instincts on this: “We realize that few people picked up this book hoping for a primer on economics…” (186); “We may not all agree on what economic policy is best (because these matters require prudential judgments on which Christians can legitimately differ)…”(190). While they may well be right (or wrong) on their personal view of economics, it would have been best to have left economic theories for another book on that particular topic, rather than making this one, which purports to be about mission and the gospel, also about economics. While they successfully (in my opinion) show why liberal politics and economics are not the gospel nor the biblical mission of the church, it would have been more helpful to their overall cause to also point out how conservative politics and economics are not the gospel or mission of the church either. Unfortunately, they chose not to go there.

All in all, however, I am very happy for the publication of this important book. Even if you don’t completely agree with DeYoung and Gilbert’s overall thesis, you will definitely want to read this valuable contribution in order to keep abreast of the ongoing discussion on this vital subject.

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* See Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers  Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2006); The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2010); John Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1975).