I'm passionate about missiology and I am passionate about theology. So, when a discussion emerges at the intersection of those issues, I listen, learn, and occasionally opine.
Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert have recently ignited such a discussion with their new book, What is the Mission of the Church?. I will be sharing my review in a bit, but I thought some of the early reactions would help those unaware of the dialogue.
In short, DeYoung and Gilbert seek to clarify what the mission of the church actually is. "The mission of the church," they conclude, "is to go into the world and make disciples by declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit and gathering these disciples in churches, that they might worship the Lord and obey his commands now and in eternity to the glory of God the Father" (p. 62).
I've reviewed the book and will share that review in my next post. When my review is published, I will link it here. Before that, let me share some of the other reviews that are already out there. Most of the reviews appreciate how they have worked through the biblical text, focused on the gospel, and did not denigrate social justice. Yet, there were several areas of concern. I'll focus on two that seemed to be recurring.
First, the concern is that the book narrows the mission, particularly missing the connection between discipleship and the actions that flow from such. The book is about the nature and extent of "the mission." Thus, many of the disagreements revolve around the question from the book's title. Put simply: is our (the church's) mission to "join Jesus in his mission"?
These two pronouncements put Jesus' action in the story in the framework of the ongoing mission of the disciples after Jesus' departure. The concept of agency, which is prominent in John, is evident here. As the Father sent Jesus as his emissary to the world to reveal himself to it (1:14) and to die for it (1:29; 10:17-18), so Jesus sends his disciples as his and the Father's emissaries to reveal the Father and to die in service to each other in the world.
Michael's puts it eloquently: "John's Gospel has taken the notion of agency, intimated in Matthew and Luke, and made it the very foundation of both christology and ecclesiology" (745).
Jesus' mission from the Father serves as NO mere model for the mission of the church; rather Jesus' mission, as presented in John's Gospel, IS the church's mission.
"As the Father has sent me, I am sending you".
Trevin Wax at Kingdom People wrote one of the best critical (and charitable) reviews of the book. He lists nagging questions that left him wrestling the text, including:
Can we not conceive of the church's mission in wide lens and zoom lens as well? Evangelism is central (zoom lens), and yet evangelism is corroborated by any number of activities (wide lens) that demonstrate the reality of our gospel proclamation...
I wonder if, in addition to the Great Commission passages, we also need to consider the New Testament metaphors for the church as we seek to discern our mission. Images like Christ's bride, Christ's body, and the holy temple and royal priesthood help us understand that being like Jesus is part of what it means to "teach all that He has commanded." Christ-likeness is a part of the mission, and we cannot and should not separate proclamation of Christ from the representation of Christ we offer through our acts of service.
John Starke at the Gospel Coalition shared some of these concerns in defining the mission of the church so narrowly:
Yes, with bold font and yellow highlighter, I agree with DeYoung and Gilbert that central to the church's mission is the Great Commission. And we need to keep the main thing the main thing. But just as the authors argue for a zoom and wide lens understanding of the gospel, can we not do the same thing with the mission of the church? With the proclamation of God's Word the center of the church's mission, can we not say the wide lens mission includes equipping Christians to have wisdom and understanding when laboring for justice?
Patrick Schreiner offered some critique that I think he argued with a unique degree of clarity. He explained:
I felt like they were a little pessimistic about what Christians can do in the world and how much we can and should cooperate as vice regents with our King. There was not much discussion of what it means to be salt and light in the world, and the paragraphs on the cultural mandate seemed to push too far into saying that we are merely here to preserve this fallen world, rather than fill the world with his faithful presence. Both Rodney Stark and Alvin J. Schmidt have interesting books on how Christianity has fueled great advances in society.
Finally, Zach Nielsen at Take Your Vitamin Z raised the question of social justice head-on:
So to answer Kevin's question: Is it our mission to "eradicate social problems"? I would say, in a sense, "no". Our mission is to believe the Gospel and seek to glorify God by collectively making more and more disciples who believe this historical message of good news. But if that is true, then in another indirect sense, the answer has to be "yes". If the church is the gathering of individuals who collectively believe and speak the message of the Gospel and also live in light of it's implications then we'll together have much to say and do to address the social problems that we see around us. How could we not?
Second, the concern seems to be that the book is written to the convinced and does not accurately engage the views of those who differ. Well-known scholar Tim Gombis explained that this is a book written to those who want to affirm what they already believe. I've excerpted a larger portion of his comments. Gombis writes:
It's an insider's book, written from within a self-contained culture to others within that culture. The authors confess openly that they're part of the "Young, Restless, and Reformed" crowd and I think that they live and move and have their being solely within that sub-group of conservative evangelicals.
What can tend to happen in cultures of agreement is that group members don't engage others who disagree in genuine conversation. They tend to demonize or devalue members of other groups, minimizing their viewpoints, rarely coming into genuine contact with them. This book is an example of this sort of phenomenon...
They don't elaborate a mission for the church beyond repeating a few times that the church gathers for worship and making disciples, but isn't responsible for doing good in the world...
Christians called to serve in missional churches may not feel that their philosophies of ministry are represented faithfully by DeYoung and Gilbert.
In fact, I'm not sure that the authors are familiar with the viewpoints of missional Christians. They routinely portray them as Theonomic Postmillennialists, which is simply incredible. They associate calls to do good in the world with the conviction that Christians are responsible to bring in the Kingdom of God by their efforts (p. 129). They equate a missional outlook with the view that Christians are responsible to return creation to its pre-fall, edenic state (p. 75).
This is unfair and simply wrong. I know of no missional Christian who talks or writes this way, and no one even comes close. It seems that they know this, since they don't cite anyone who holds the views they so vigorously and roundly critique...
Think "The Village." This book functions for the YRR crowd much like the fear-mongering that goes on in that film. The village's leaders spread word of monsters in the woods so that no one will venture beyond the borders of the village, discovering that they're walled off from the outside world...
Those expecting a fair engagement with the missional literature and an even-handed treatment of the topics they address will either be mystified or frustrated.
In my opinion, this is extremely disappointing. We have the responsibility and privilege to bless one another and sharpen each others' thinking. That includes treating each other fairly and speaking and writing truthfully about one another.
Now, I should add that I think Gombis is too strident here, though his view is representative of others so I include it here. Gombis suggests that this is written to scare the "Young, Restless, and Reformed" (YRR) away from other missiological approaches, but I think he conceives of the YRR movement too narrowly. There are different approaches to missiology within the YRR camp, which is why this discussion is just getting going. Actually, I've had several conversations with YRR types who share Gombis' concerns about the book.
Now, to be fair, DeYoung and Gilbert have taken on a big task. They've proposed a view that is contrary to what most (but certainly not all) evangelical missiologists think-- and critiqued them in the process. That's a big task and I am sure they expected some push back-- you cannot critique others and not expect to be critiqued. My hope is that the end result will lead to clarity, not more clearly-defined camps.
In conclusion, below you will find various reviews from other well-known scholars and bloggers. Also, you will find interviews and resources from the authors themselves that will hopefully bring even further clarity to the discussion. I trust you will find them helpful as you consider the mission of the church.
I'm glad to see a discussion taking place on these important issues. Feel free to weigh in with your thoughts in the comments.
Resources from DeYoung and Gilbert related to the Mission of the Church
Other reviews of What is the Mission of the Church