So I’ve been thinking about the mission of the church some lately. I know that’s badly out of fashion. According the authors of evangelical literature, I’m supposed to be thinking about the mission of God — and doing so in Latin: missio Dei.
But I don’t speak or read Latin, nor do many of my readers. So I’m sure why it’s better to say “mission of God” in Latin.
It’s rather like “worldview.” For the longest time, the authors all wanted us to learn to say Weltanschauung, which is German for “worldview.” But how do I become a better writer, teacher, or Christian by preferring the German over the English?
So we need to begin with this caution: theology in America is heavily influenced by fashion. By “fashion” I mean what the academics and professional clergy consider cool — meaning “new.” There’s a distinct tendency to want to say things in a way that makes their D.Min.’s seem worth the money. Hence, we can’t say “stranger.” We must say “the Other” — because this is how some philosophers talk, and it sounds just so much cooler to say “the Other” rather than “someone not like you” or “stranger.”
It’s all just so very pretentious.
Just so, there’s quite a lot of practice that churches adopt solely because it’s in the pop evangelical literature. Rarely do we bother to see whether the practice actually works. I mean, just think of all the masters and doctorate degrees that could be earned by scientifically testing whether a mission and vision statement (and many other such things) actually accomplish something meaningful or measurable. (I think not.)
So I want to consider the church’s mission because, well, God hasn’t asked my opinion of his mission. I have no control over that. But what churches do, well, that’s something I and my readers have considerable influence over. And if God’s mission fits into the church’s mission somehow, well and good. But the question to be asked is not: what is God doing? But: what does God want us to do? After all, while I’m confident the church’s mission and God’s mission are related to each other, they are not the same thing. I mean, the church didn’t die on the cross. God the Son did. The church doesn’t indwell followers of Jesus. God the Spirit does. God the Father has the whole world in his hands. The church does not.
It’s been taught many times that the church should see what God is doing and join in. Maybe. But God through Jesus is holding the world together. I’m not sure the church should attempt the same thing.
Rather, there are some things that God does that we should join with him in. And some things where we should not. And there are likely some things God wants us to do because he has chosen for us to do those things instead of him. God doesn’t take communion. We do. God is in the hospital with the sick, but he not there to hold a hand, say a prayer, or help the patient out of bed. We do that.
And these distinctions are obvious — unless you get caught up in evangelical fashions and just do what the popular authors say to do.
Among young ministers, there’s a trend to despise the “attractional” church. We shouldn’t have walls! We should be in the community! And so many of our ministers detest the very church that pays their salaries. They’d far rather be out among the wretched masses doing good than dealing with the nastiness of the local church — as though our nastiness is too dirty for God while other people’s nastiness is a higher calling than serving God’s own children.
Of course, there are valid points and real value in getting outside of our buildings, and perhaps even opening a coffee shop for Jesus, but we’ll just be chasing the latest church fad unless and until we discover in scripture a better theology of mission. After all, if we leave the church and convert the other people out there, where will they go to church? Surely God created the local church for some good reason! And we may have totally boogered it up, but the apostles were all about planting churches. They weren’t satisfied to merely convert someone to Jesus and give them a great personal relationship with him and a handbook on personal spiritual disciplines. Rather, they combined their converts into congregations. Why?
In Acts 2, after the first converts come to faith in Jesus as Messiah and LORD, they are baptized, receive the Spirit, and begin meeting together. They don’t open coffee shops. They don’t adopt a vision statement. They break bread together. In fact, Luke goes well out of his way to point out that the followers of Jesus did what
(Acts 1:12-14 ESV) 12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. 13 And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. 14 All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.
(Acts 2:1-2 ESV) When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.
(Acts 2:42-47 ESV) 42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
They didn’t head off in 3,120 different directions and talk about Jesus. They came together. And their togetherness told the world about Jesus. Someone surely set up a committee to help the apostles visit all the houses. 3,000 people would have required at least 100 homes to meet in. How do the apostles make sure everyone is well instructed? Every new convert finds a house group to meet with?
The logistics without telephones and email would have been incredibly difficult — consuming the time and energies of countless members that might have been dedicated to personal evangelism or Bible study. And yet they invested the administrative time and energy to do something that even modern churches struggle to manage.
In the NT, the worst thing you could do to a fellow Christian was to expel him from the active fellowship — social community — of the church.
(1 Cor. 5:9-11 ESV) 9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people — 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler — not even to eat with such a one.
(2 Thess. 3:14-15 ESV) 14 If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. 15 Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.
Indeed, to refuse to associate with a segment of the church to please the legalists within the church is so wicked that even Peter stood condemned for when he didn’t actively engage in table fellowship with the Gentiles converts —
(Gal. 2:11-13 ESV) 11 But when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.
I’m sure Peter still has his quiet-time of Bible study and prayer, still preached to the lost, but he stood condemned because he divided the church in order to please those who denied the salvation of the Gentiles.
So we’re missing something when our talk about mission is focused on sloganeering, individualized Christianity (personal relationship with Jesus at the center, solo spiritual disciplines), escaping the local church, and such ilk.
I’m not saying that the Christian community is the sum total of our mission. I’m just saying that it seems to be fundamental to the totality.