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.

Comments

  1. I think that Oliver Bullough of the NY Times, based in London, put it most succinctly recently when he wrote “Political Christianity has been largely a 2000 year quest to circumvent the divine instruction to love your neighbor as yourself.”