The Church in Post-Christendom (Part 3): Recovering the Mission of the ChurchWednesday, September 21, 2011
If the ecclesiocentric view of the church’s mission tends to focus on the building and maintenance of the institutional church (a place of like-minded believers), then a proper theocentric view will focus the organic church (a people who believe and obey) on the mission of God or missio Dei.
For the church to be a relevant instrument and faithful witness of the gospel, especially in the wake of Christendom’s collapse, we must recover this God-centered understanding of the church’s mission. The “mission” of the church is not reducible to member recruitment into the institutional church; neither is it a collateral program of the church, and it is most certainly not an activity that only occurs on foreign fields. The church is a body of people who are called together and sent by God into the world to represent his rule and reign, as a sign and foretaste of the kingdom that will one day will be fully realized on earth. Therefore, the church exists for the mission of God — not for itself!
My good friend and pastor of City Church in Corpus Christi, Texas, Dave Lescalleet describes the in-breaking reign of God well when he says:
There is a great conversation in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy where Samwise is talking to Gandalf and he asks Gandalf a great question: “Will everything sad come untrue?” The Kingdom message is that Christ (because of his death and resurrection) is setting things right again — making everything sad come untrue.
The church is to live in such a way that it offers evidence of the in-breaking reign of God and serves as the practical instrument by which God is making everything sad come untrue. There is an optimism that should naturally follow from the perspective that “our God reigns” (see Isaiah 52:7). Sadly, this optimism is, in my estimation, largely missing from the evangelical church in America. Many Christians seem to live and think as if Christ has been overcome by the world rather than vice versa (see John 16:33), or that the gates of hell do indeed prevail against the church. Perhaps by recovering the biblical mission of the church as participation in God’s unrelenting reign, we can once again be a people who live as more than those who are barely surviving!
So, understanding the church is not the kingdom of God but rather its ambassador, how does the church represent the mission of God in the world? The biblical narrative seems to outline a threefold approach. One, the church demonstrates what life looks like under the reign of God within a distinct community; two, the church serves the world by making disciples, doing justice, and meeting human needs through compassion and mercy, thereby setting right what sin has set wrong. Finally, the church proclaims the message of the risen Christ as the only means by which one may enter the kingdom of God.
Given that “service” and “proclamation” are fairly self-explanatory, I want to focus on what I believe is both the church’s greatest weakness and her greatest challenge: demonstrating the reign of God within a distinct community. Because as George Hunsberger, professor of missiology and director of the Doctor of Ministry program at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, puts it, “Before the church is called to do or say anything, it is called and sent to be a unique community of those who live under the reign of God” (Missional Church, Darrell L. Guder, Ed. [Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, MI], 1998). In a radically individualistic culture, reinforced by a privatized notion of the gospel, this may be the contemporary American church’s greatest obstacle to the missio Dei.
Jesus’ invitation is to enter the kingdom of God. Practically, this means we are saved out of our alienation from God and others and into the community of God’s people. Recall that the Great Commission given by Jesus was to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit …” (Matt. 28:19 ESV). Jesus is stressing the conversion of individuals through relationships (i.e., make disciples), followed by their being joined to the body of Christ through baptism. There is a profoundly corporate sense to the gospel of the kingdom.
For example, in Ephesians 2:12–16 (ESV) Paul stresses that the Gentiles who were once alienated from “the commonwealth of Israel” (God’s covenant people) have been brought near “by the blood of Christ” that “he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross” (emphasis mine). Again you see the corporate nature of God’s redemptive plan that carries forward from national Israel to form a new covenant people (the church) out of both the Jew and Gentile into the new Israel or children of God.
At the conclusion of chapter 2 (vv. 20–22 ESV) Paul writes, “Built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (emphasis mine). Again, the emphasis is on the corporate nature of God’s redemptive purposes.
One commentator writes: “The last verse … reminds the readers of the enormous privilege that they are part of this whole construction. They are incorporated in the building, the one universal church, which God makes his dwelling by the Spirit. And they are incorporated in it precisely by union with Christ, in whom all things are being brought into the cosmic harmony and peace enabled by reconciliation inaugurated at the cross” (Missional Church).
This community is not merely the social gathering of a people with common beliefs and values, but rather a people who display proof of God’s redemptive work in the world through obedience to Christ’s commands. This proof flows forth from converted individuals whose transformation is authenticated through their interaction with each other. This community, the church, is intended to bear testimony to the restoration of fellowship with God and each other — a community of self-sacrificing love and support that stands in stark contrast to the fallen world. Jesus himself established this as the authenticating fact of our faith when he said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35 ESV). Was this not the preeminent testimony of the first-century church in which “they had all things in common”?
As Americans, we enter the church with nearly overpowering individualistic inclinations. We come with and cling to expectations and demands that are centered on ourselves. We want people to talk to us but we are unwilling to talk to strangers. We have a myriad of personal preferences that we impose on the church about worship styles, music, and the like. We grade the pastor on whether or not he has met our needs through his sermon. And we certainly aren’t interested in anyone getting in our business! We don’t humbly submit to one another. We argue and divide over inconsequential issues. We attack those outside our theological framework and we rarely listen to those with whom we disagree. Often our attitudes and actions toward each other are shameful and bring disgrace on the name of Christ.
We simply do not fulfill this essential part of God’s mission because we fail to demonstrate the reign of God within this authenticating community. If we don’t get this right, our service will remain indistinguishable from any other and our proclamation of the risen Christ will appear shallow and without basis. If we want to be faithful witnesses to the King who has come and is coming again, we must repent of our self-centered individualism that thwarts the authenticating community of God’s people and humbly submit to one another.
© 2011 by S. Michael Craven. Permission granted for non-commercial use.
Comment on this article here.
Subscribe to Michael's free weekly commentary here.
Subscribe to Michael's free podcast here.