The Church, Part II: The Church’s Mission in the World

pentecost01In Part 1 of this article, I mentioned how my brother, as a child, would often forget what he was supposed to do in the washroom before he went to bed and would frequently ask our parents, “What am I supposed to be doing?” I suggested that this is a valuable question for the church to ask. We established that the church’s mission, what it is supposed to be doing, is to participate in God’s mission to restore the goodness of his whole creation. In this second part to the article, we will discuss the implications of this for the church.

Since the church is the community of believers that formed around the mission Jesus gave to his disciples, participating in God’s mission is not optional for the church. As Leslie Newbigin says, “A church that is not ‘the church in mission’ is no church at all.”[1]

True belief always results in action. Stanley Hauerwas points out that “Christianity is not beliefs about God plus behavior. We are not Christians because of what we believe, but because we have been called to be disciples of Jesus. To become a disciple is not a matter of a new or changed self-understanding, but rather to become part of a different community with a different set of practices.”[2] Just as the church is a community of people participating in God’s mission, a Christian is an individual who, as a result of her faith in Jesus, is participating in God’s mission.

God’s mission, as we have seen, is to accomplish the total redemption of his creation, not simply to save the souls of his creatures, though that is certainly a part of his concern. This means that the church must have three primary areas of focus: spiritual, social-political, and environmental. Even a strong focus on one or two of these areas will fail to reflect the all-encompassing nature of God’s mission.

To begin with, churches cannot neglect the spiritual aspects of the mission. Intimacy with God is central to God’s intentions for his creation. There is no salvation apart from it. The very notion of participation in God’s mission implies intimacy with God, because even if one could do all the non-spiritual things that are a part of God’s mission, it would only be a partial mimicking of God, not participating with him. The church needs to be focused on nurturing and developing the person as a whole during all stages of their relationship with God.

Social-political aspects of God’s mission must not be neglected by the church nor separated from the spiritual dimension of the church’s mission. Newbigin again says, “Social justice has been largely divorced from the church, impoverishing both. The social justice movements lack connection with God and the Christian community while the Christian community lacks appropriate focus on social justice.”[3] Social and political realities have a significant affect on God’s creation. They affect how people are treated by institutions, those in power, and each other. An oppressive political regime, a company that exploits its workers, or an exclusive clique perpetuate the brokenness rampant in God’s creation as much as widespread secularization. Just as God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt was political and social as well as spiritual, so must the church’s focus in its cities and nations be.

Environmental care must not be left out of the church’s practices either. Five times during the creation story in Genesis before God created humans, God noticed the goodness of his creation. Humans are the pinnacle of creation, but that does not mean that God does not value the rest of his creation. Christopher Wright elaborates on humanity’s role in caring for creation: “To love God… means to value what God values. Conversely, therefore, to contribute to or collude in the abuse, pollution and destruction of the natural order is to trample on the goodness of God reflected in creation… it is to devalue what God values, to mute God’s praise and to diminish God’s glory.”[4] We must love and care for all of creation just as God does.

A final implication must be drawn from the fact that the church’s mission is God’s mission. The church does not own the mission. The church does not possess the salvation or truth or any other means by which to redeem God’s creation. The church is simply visible evidence to the world that creation is being redeemed. We are examples of, witnesses to, and participants in what God is doing. Whenever we do participate in God’s mission, the real power in our actions is the Holy Spirit. This is not to say that our part is not significant. Christ genuinely commissioned his Church with his mission. But if we, God’s images, do not have his Spirit dwelling within us, we will be deaf, blind, and stiff necked statues of what we were meant to be and will be able to accomplish none of the tasks assigned to us.

All of this means that significant change, both internal and external, is in order for most churches. Internally, churches need to become places that reflect God’s priorities. Church structure and service format have never been central to God’s mission; loving relationships are. The New Testament is far more interested in Christians’ love for God and people than with how they organize themselves. Our primary focus within the church, then, should be on loving relationships with God and each other, not organizational structures.

Much of our external change relates to our view of society. Several decades ago  Christianity was the primary reference point by which people located themselves ideologically. Today this is not the case. There are many other religions competing to define the ideological landscape. Christendom is gone. The church needs to admit it and adapt. We must seek to build communities that feel a responsibility towards the world rather than seek safety from it. The West, the former stronghold of Christendom, is today’s greatest mission field. We must tell those around us the story of God and his mission, show them a picture of a new kind of life in our churches, and invite them to choose this new way of life. But we must be clear that there is a cost. It will involve giving up old ways and vices that they have grown to love, not just the ones they have grown to hate.

Our engagement with society must be with systems as well as individuals. We must combat the various idols that lead people away from God. Love of war and violence, love of money, the tyranny of erotic love, love of creation over the Creator, and greed must all be fought against. We, as Christians, must exemplify healthy uses of these things when appropriate and work against the social structures that perpetuate their abuse.

Finally, we must participate in his redemption of creation. Exploiting the environment is certainly easier and ceasing to do so will involve personal cost, but it must be done if we are to truly reflect God’s mission. We must exemplify God’s love and care for creation in our personal choices, in how we run our businesses, in what companies we support with our purchases, and in how we vote. God’s mission must set our priorities in all areas of our lives.

The reason my brother could rarely remember what he was supposed to do in the washroom before bed was that he was so caught up in his own ideas and agenda that the mission was pushed out of his mind. When he realized that this had happened, he would wisely ask my parents to remind him what he was supposed to be doing. The church also has a tendency to become distracted by its own thoughts and priorities. It is vital that we keep ourselves aligned with God and his mission by asking frequently, “What are we supposed to be doing?” God’s mission is our mission and has been since Abraham. God is concerned with redeeming his whole creation and making it once again worthy of declaring “very good.” We must participate in this mission with him, sacrificing our desires and priorities when they do not match his. Only in doing so may we truly call ourselves “the church.”

[1] Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 2.

[2] Stanley Hauerwas, After Christendom: How the Church Is to Behave If Freedom, Justice, and a Christian Nation Are Bad Ideas (Nashville: Abingdon, 1991), 107.

[3] Newbigin, Open, 11.

[4] Christopher Wright, Unlocking the Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006), 403.

The Church, Part I: God’s Mission for the Church

apostles_at_tableWhen my brothers and I were young, my parents had established a nightly routine for us. We would brush our teeth, read a Bible story together, get a drink, use the toilet, and then we would go to bed. Though this routine was as consistent as the rising and the setting of the sun, my brother would frequently end up in the bathroom after Bible story and call to my parents, “What am I supposed to be doing?” This caused ample exasperation and amusement for my parents. The Church can learn a valuable lesson from my brother.

Like my brother, it is important for the Church to occasionally stop and ask itself “What am I supposed to be doing?” It is easy to get comfortable with the routine and to let that become our purpose. But Christ did not establish the Church for it simply to maintain itself. He established it for a reason. He gave it a mission: to participate in God’s mission of restoring all creation to the fullness of existence for which he intended it. This means that the practices of the Church must reflect the thoroughgoing nature of that mission.

I will look at the mission of the Church in two parts. Here, in part 1, I will look at the roots of the Church in order to understand God’s mission for Church. In part 2, I will draw out some implications for how the Church should fulfill its mission in the world.

To begin with, we must remember that Christ created the church out of his disciples after his resurrection and before his ascension into heaven. He also commissioned them with a mission. In Matt 28:19-20 Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always even to the end of the age.” The disciples were to continue what Jesus had done to them and with them. They were to teach what he had taught and to make disciples for him. They were to tell the story of what they had seen and heard. As it says in Acts 1:8, “you shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.”

Therefore, if the Church’s mission is to continue Jesus’ mission, we must ask what Jesus’ mission was, why he did what he did. There are two answers to this question. The first comes from understanding Jesus as the second member of the Trinity. Jesus was God just as the Father and the Spirit are God. Therefore, what Jesus did on earth was what God wanted done; Jesus’ mission was God’s mission because Jesus is God. The second answer is that Jesus was fulfilling the mission God had given to Israel. As N.T. Wright says, “Jesus was showing Israel how and inviting Israel to be the light to the nations that they were always meant to be.”[1] We see an example of this in Mark 7. Jesus has just rebuked the Pharisees for failing to even be a blessing to other Jews, let alone the nations. He then exemplifies what Israel ought to act like in Tyre where a Syrophoenician woman asks him to heal her daughter. He gives her a typical Jewish response that God’s blessings are for Israel first, but she replies that those blessings should overflow to those outside Israel. Jesus is pleased that she understands how it is to work and fulfills Israel’s mission to bless gentiles by healing her daughter.

Next it is important that we determine what Israel’s mission was and where it came from. Genesis 12:1-3 makes it clear that God chose to bless Abraham in order that his descendants might bless the other nations. In The Mission of God, Christopher Wright argues that, not only is God predicting that Abraham and his descendants will be a blessing, he is actually commanding Abraham to be a blessing. God’s speech is organized under the two imperatives telling Abraham to go and to be a blessing.They were to be a blessing by bringing the knowledge of God to them. In Exodus 19:6 God tells Israel that they will be a kingdom of priests, and as the priests of Israel were to mediate between God and the Israelites, so Israel was to mediate between God and the nations.

This mission was given to Israel by God because this was the purpose toward which God was working in the world. As soon as one opens a Bible, the very first words begin to tell the reader God’s purpose. The Bible opens with God creating the world, and several of God’s intentions can be gleaned from the first two chapters of Genesis. First of all, we see that God wanted his creation to be good, “God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). Secondly, we see that God wanted humans to care for his creation: “Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15). Thirdly, we see that God wanted humans to be in close relationship with each other. He states, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). He then settled on woman, whom he had made from the man’s rib, to be the man’s helper, presumably in tending the garden. The fact that she was made from the man’s rib and not from the ground like all the other animals suggests that God intended there to be a closeness and intimacy between humans. Finally, there is an intimacy intended between God and humanity.

Throughout chapter two, we see God caring for the man. He breathed his own breath into the man to give him life and he grew a garden suited to the man that was both pleasant and would provide for his physical needs. Then God showed an almost motherly concern for the man in realizing that it was not good for him to be alone. Most importantly, unlike the other animals, God made humans in his own image (Gen. 1:27). In the ancient world, there was a strong and intimate connection between a god and its image. It is the god itself that animates the image. This is the sort of connection that Genesis is suggesting was intended and actually existed between God and humans before the fall.[2]

All of this, however, was broken when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate the apple. Sin entered into God’s good creation, corrupting all that made it “very good.” Since then, it has been God’s self-appointed mission to restore the goodness of his creation. He continued his relationship with Adam and his descendants despite their rebelliousness. When they became too sinful, he sought to begin again by wiping out all the evil and starting over with the one righteous man, Noah, and his descendants. Humanity again became evil and God decided, as we have already seen, to seek to accomplish his purposes through a particularly intimate relationship with one man, Abraham, and his descendants.

Through this we can see that there is a clear connection from God’s mission of restoring the goodness of his creation, to Abraham and Israel’s mission, to Jesus’ mission, and finally to the Church’s mission. In fact, there is only one mission: God’s. Abraham’s, Israel’s, Jesus’, and the Church’s missions are simply participation in God’s mission. This means that, when the Church asks, “What am I supposed to be doing?,” the answer is that we are to be participating in God’s mission. We are to be doing what God is and has been doing since the fall, seeking to restore the goodness of his creation.

In part 2, I will look at how the Church participates in God’s mission to restore all of creation to the fullness for which God intended.

[1] Tom Wright, Bringing the Church to the World (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1992), p. 66.

[2] Rikki E. Watts, “What Does It Mean To be Saved?” Evangelical Review Of Theology 28, no. 2 (2004): 159.