All Posts /

Church & Mission: Two Words You Thought You Knew

Church & Mission: Two Words You Thought You Knew

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

So it goes with the church and its mission. Evangelicals especially use the word “church” with great frequency, yet exhibit very little critical reflection on what this word means. For quite some time it has been said that evangelicalism has had no ecclesiology (doctrine of the church), with Stanley Grenz concluding over a decade ago that “evangelicals have never developed or worked from a thoroughgoing ecclesiology.” This lack of developed ecclesiology largely springs from evangelicals’ participation in a wider movement—of the Holy Spirit, of people, of denominations, organizations, and churches, etc.—where in fact many ecclesiologies have been represented. None were industrial strength, developed as robustly as they might have been, and yet this may have been because any stronger representative ecclesiologies might have actually threatened the unity and momentum of the evangelical movement and its wider ministries.

This leads to the second word, “mission.” Amid efforts to sustain the momentum of the evangelical movement, whether as a whole or in its various parts, somewhere along the way mission became fuzzy. Local organizations emerged together with national and global ones displaying ecclesial hybridity whilst focusing on carrying out the mission of the church in its various forms and varieties. This included strong activities such as evangelism, preaching, pastoral care, justice ministry, and others. Somewhere amid this vibrant activity—funded in large part by the postwar moment of American affluence and evangelical expansion—churches began to farm out their work to other groups and gurus, making way for all sorts of innovative churches and Christian activity.

Currently among evangelicals, there is disagreement over whether mission is an expansive thing or a reduced thing. Here are the views on the mission of the church, presented in Four Views on the Church’s Mission.

  1. Soteriological Mission. Represented by Jonathan Leeman from 9Marks, Leeman brings layers of nuance to what he calls (although disputed) the fundamentalist perspective. Focusing largely on the mission of individual, personal conversion and redemption, he frames the discussion by highlighting what he deems a “broad mission” to be disciples or citizens of Christ’s inaugurated kingdom, which is then distinct from the “narrow mission” to make disciples or citizens of that same inaugurated kingdom. This all relates to church authority, including how and where the church’s mission of verbally proclaiming the gospel is carried out, and focuses its concerns on spiritual salvation and disciple-making as being of utmost importance and thus the church’s primary task in the world today.
  2. Participatory Mission. This second view is presented by Christopher J. H. Wright. This rather comprehensive view presents the church’s mission as rooted in God’s mission, unfolding in the pages of Scripture, in the history of Israel, and in the life of the church. The church’s missional activities today, then, are participatory acts within God’s great work for his own great purpose. This view renders specific acts of verbal gospel proclamation as ultimate insofar as they are participatory, but this also includes things like creation care and love for people and God’s world, all of which amounts to participating in God’s mission to heal and reconcile his whole creation.
  3. Contextual Mission. The next view is represented by the lead coordinator of the Gospel and Our Culture Network, John R. Franke, who places an enormous amount of focus upon the particular contextual character of Christian witness. Grounded also in the dynamic Trinitarian life, this ecumenical vision of interdependence and contextual awareness means that particular forms of faithful witness and mission will look different in different places. Diverse contexts require this contextual approach wherein God’s Spirit enables the church with power and discernment to adapt its mission to address local needs and concerns of the people where it ministers; the church in turn is shaped by these concerns. Centered upon the person and work of Christ, culturally diverse witnessing communities serve as signs, firstfruits, and instruments of God’s reign now breaking into the world and bringing healing in very specific ways.
  4. Sacramental Mission. The last view is given by Peter Leithart of the Theopolis Institute. This view of an ecumenical-political mission is shaped by the Christian act of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, entailing a baptized believer’s sacramental life that flows into world activities as an important feature of the church’s cultural mission. The world needed fixing from its problem with the fall, which brought a strong division between garden and world, occasioning the split between communion with God and dominion on this earth as the original human mission. This sacramental life experienced by the believer and the church—this sacramental missiology—denotes an ongoing, visible, public, and political presence of the church as part of Jesus’s social agenda of restoring the broken harmony of both liturgy and life together.

We are only learning about these movements of the Spirit to create the church in ways similar to the first-century situation, which Lesslie Newbigin says “began as the radioactive fallout from an explosion of joy,” where mission’s deepest secret is that it is acted out in doxology for the purpose that God may be glorified.

Four Views on the Church’s Mission provides a deeply meaningful conversation that goes a good distance in excavating some of the big ideas present within evangelicalism that depict the range of views about not only what the church is, but also what it is to be and do in the world—its mission.

— Jason S. Sexton, Four Views on the Church’s Mission

How to Use This Book

Which of the views above is closest to your own view of the mission of the church? Have you considered the alternatives? More importantly, have you asked yourself:

  • Is mission simply verbal proclamation of the gospel?
  • How is social justice involved in the mission of the church?
  • How is the Kingdom of God related to mission?
  • Does your view of mission answer the question, “What is the gospel?”

This book will help you navigate these important questions and more.

Four Views on the Church’s Mission will be useful to the church, and especially to students and interested laypeople, as well as to mature pastors and scholars eager to get beyond the cognitive dissonance and back onto the task Jesus called his people to—to be his witnesses and to make disciples until he comes. Get your copy today.