The Mission of the Church: Back to Wright

Eucharist-Mission1So I covered Christopher J. H. Wright’s view of the church’s mission a few posts ago. Let’s review.

In a recent lecture, Wright broke mission down into five elements:

  • Evangelism (proclaim the good news of the kingdom)
  • Teaching (teach, baptise and nurture new believers)
  • Compassion (respond to human need by loving service)
  • Justice (transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation)
  • Creation care ( strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth)

All intrinsically flow from the Lordship of Christ

Wright then re-focuses these into three —

  1. Building the church = evangelism and teaching
  2. Serving society = compassion and justice
  3. Caring for the Creation

Obviously enough, I find myself in disagreement but only because Wright omits the ethics/ecclesial elements of mission from his analysis. (In his book, it’s more a question of lack of emphasis.) I think Thompson and Hauerwas are exactly right to declare the church to be the mission. Long before we can get to this other stuff, we need to very intentionally decide that we want to be a Sermon on the Mount church. A Jesus church. A Rom 12-15 church. A church that wants more than anything to be just like its rabbi — both individually and as community.

But the reality is that it’s not step 1, step 2, step 3, etc. There may be an order of importance or what is more fundamental, but there is no time order or even an order for which step causes whichever other step. That is, if you wait until you get your ethical life right before you begin to care for the Creation, you’ll never get to the Creation — and you just might become a self-involved, navel-gazing, stick in the mud in the process of waiting.

I’d far rather see you picking up litter in the name of Jesus than staring at a Bible and waiting the Holy Spirit to speak to you through lectio divina or meandering through a prayer maze. I believe in an active, powerful Spirit. I don’t believe in magic. The Spirit is far more likely to speak to you while you’re feeding the hungry or working in a prison ministry than through some Medieval mystical, highly individualized exercise that doesn’t involve service, submission, sacrifice, or suffering. Walk in Jesus’ sandals, and Jesus will speak to you well enough.

We grow in our ethical life — in our Sermon on the Mount life — by doing this other stuff. It’s synergistic. Helping others makes us better people — although and because we really have to be better people to help others. Teaching others forces us to learn it better — and to live it better — which makes us better teachers — which helps us to live it better … (you get the idea). Physicists might call the process mutually reinforcing.

It’s also true that any of these missional activities can push us to be full of ourselves and self-involved. If I do evangelism to earn points with God or to show my immense persuasive talents, then evangelism becomes about me rather than the Lordship of Jesus. Therefore, the ethical side can never be neglected. Remember: the ethics of Jesus are founded in service, submission, sacrifice, and suffering — not pride. And that’s one more reason we so need our brothers and sisters — to knock us off our high horses when necessary.

On Meddling as One of the Greatest Acts of Love

And that’s one reason I picked the parables I did. It’s rarely about knowing what’s right. Far more often the challenge is in being willing to risk a friendship or even your place in your local congregation to do what’s right. Being a Jesus person can sometimes get you hung on a cross — and if you’re not willing to go there, you’re not yet a disciple.

We Christians, especially here in the South, confuse non-confrontation with being “Christian.” And yet Jesus was never afraid to confront those on the wrong path. And confrontation doesn’t have to be mean-spirited or hateful. It can be done in love. And without loving confrontation, church problems and sin never get dealt with — and bad things happen.

It’s an art knowing how to rebuke a friend. But the best rebukes comes from friends. And a real friend will do it — even at the risk of the friendship. Those who refuse to confront you when you are in the wrong don’t love you. They love themselves.

And, of course, that means those of us who sometimes mess up and say or do bad things need to give permission to the others to gently and lovingly rebuke us. In fact, it might be good to dedicate a service at church, once a year or so, to the formal giving of permission to mess in our lives. We need to say the words giving our friends permission to meddle.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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10 Responses to The Mission of the Church: Back to Wright

  1. John F. says:

    So when Jesus asked, Matt 20:22 “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said, “We are able.”.

    So we have crafted (no alcohol) our own (cup) drink.
    3 cups Service
    1 cup Submission
    1/2 cup Sacrifice
    1/8 cup Suffering (more or less to taste)

    And there you have it, a very (self) pleasing, palatable, punch we can serve at any potluck.

  2. eddodds says:

    Being a Jesus person can sometimes get you hung on a cross — and if you’re not willing to go there, you’re not yet a disciple.

    We Christians, especially here in the South, confuse non-confrontation with being “Christian.” And yet Jesus was never afraid to confront those on the wrong path.

    # # # #

    To be fair to disciples, Jesus had a better “knowing” that he wasn’t going to be crucified until his ministry was fulfilled than we (mostly). We Church of Christers struggle to get elders to lay their hands on every member and ordain/commission/resource them to their individual ministries — let alone know when we fulfilled it. That produces what in theological terms is called “uncertainty” (read: its scary because you don’t know if God wants you to die today testifying to someone or to live to 100 as caregiver for a spouse with Alzheimers.)

  3. Larry Cheek says:

    It really seems odd to me that men can devise all kinds of plans for how the assembly of Christians should look to those outside the assembly and tell us of a mission which the church (assembly) should be designing and following yet totally missing the messages to the seven churches in Revelation. As we study each of their messages there seems to be none of the ideas in force which are presented as church mission. Which ones of those had failed in being evangelical, which ones had failed as being a close nit community which was attractive to non-Christians, which ones were serving the community outside the assembly of the church, which were doing anything good or bad relating to the care of the earth?
    Which ones were counseled as if the complete assembly would be not blotted from the Book of Life? Notice, there is a very pointed message which explains that some of the members would be given a crown of life, but it did not include all. Weren’t these assemblies closer to the true language of the written word than we could ever be? Weren’t some of these churches (cities) visited by Apostles and men who had been given the Holy Spirit from the laying on of hands from the Apostles?
    Were not these churches (assemblies of believers) subject to the same Word of God or Jesus which we are subject? Something is drastically different in appearance between the message to them and our ideas.

  4. Dwight says:

    Larry, we have modeled our assemblies after what we perceive to be what an assembly should look like in form, not what it should be functionally. The letters never argued for how a church or assembly should look, but how the saints should look.
    In fact we are obsessed with form over function. We must look like a church.
    We will deny money from the collected money to those who might not be saints, but who are in need and put that money into carpet, new grass, etc.
    We are afraid that our looks will turn people away, even though most people are concerned with how the people act towards others and not the looks.

  5. Larry Cheek says:

    Dwight,
    I believe that you are on the right track on this concept, and listening to your comments I think about the adding and subtracting from the Word which so many have worried about. Have we really distorted the image of the original church so much that no early Christian would recognize what we believe to be the church as even close to what was created by Christ?
    I was listening to the radio a few minutes ago and a message from a prominent individual speaking about feeding America, there was no mention of this being a Christian work. I am thinking if the worldly are participating in what we believe is a work that the church should be doing and doing it in a magnitude which the church could not even begin to imagine, it sure looks like Satan is attempting to close the value added status of the church. But, then again we know that God uses many of the world to fulfill his purposes, possibly he is the one closing that door because the church was never given the responsibility to feed the world as they will. Feeding the world is not exactly the same as sending a saving massage to the lost. The church is seeing a work, God is seeing a misplaced project. I am trying to remember did Christ set an example to feed his followers prior to them hearing a message from him. I do remember that he fed those who had digested much of his teaching and desired it more than physical food.

  6. Nick Gill says:

    I’d far rather see you picking up litter in the name of Jesus than staring at a Bible and waiting the Holy Spirit to speak to you through lectio divina or meandering through a prayer maze. I believe in an active, powerful Spirit. I don’t believe in magic. The Spirit is far more likely to speak to you while you’re feeding the hungry or working in a prison ministry than through some Medieval mystical, highly individualized exercise that doesn’t involve service, submission, sacrifice, or suffering. Walk in Jesus’ sandals, and Jesus will speak to you well enough.

    But wasn’t a large portion of Jesus’ own walk spent alone with God? I don’t understand the either/or emphasis here, I guess. Is that part of his walk that was unique for him that isn’t effective for disciples to imitate?

  7. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Nick,

    Yoder addresses this question in chapter 7 of the Politics of Jesus. We are never taught to emulate Jesus’ prayer life, fasting, itinerant ministry, poverty, or preaching ministry. When Paul argues for Christians to remain single, he does not offer Jesus as an example. Paul and Peter and James all teach prayer, but none hold up Jesus as an example of exemplary prayer. The only times Jesus is held up as an example for Christians are in terms of service, submission, sacrifice, and suffering. That surely matters.

    I would add that I find Dallas Willard’s writings on spiritual disciplines very Gnostic and not at all well rooted in scripture. http://oneinjesus.info/2011/10/community-disciplines-dallas-willard-on-asceticism/ He’s easily shown to have built his teachings more on Neo-platonic thought of Third and Fourth Century Christians than the Bible. He is quite plain in his writings.

    Richard Foster isn’t as bad. He at least attempts to build his case on scripture — but it’s not a disciplined, rigorous approach. I mean, read any book on spiritual disciplines, and the “theology” is proof texting, hopscotching through the Bible in search of what the author wants to prove. It’s not really built on a serious theology of the Spirit, the church, the new covenant, the Kingdom, etc.

    http://www.authenticdiscipleship.org/pdfs/2-spiritual-formation/Spiritual%20Disciplines/SF%201.0%20Introduction%20to%20the%20Spiritual%20Disciplines.pdf is a good summary of what various teachers teach — and they are not the same because it’s so very subjective and not built on a serious theology of how Christians grow in the fruit of the Spirit.

    I see no value in lectio divina. I mean, it’s not taught in the Bible, and I know of no passage that says “staring at scripture will cause the Spirit to talk to you.” It’s a form of magic — an effort to use a formula to force God’s hand. Say the magic words, do the magic things, and God will speak to you! It’s just not true. The Bible isn’t a talisman.

    Same with prayer labyrinths. Not taught in the Bible. Not practiced by the early church. And it’s an effort to control that which cannot be controlled: God’s Holy Spirit. I mean, do we really want to tell our members that the way to hear from God is to walk through a maze?

    It’s not that these practices utterly lack value, but they do not point us in the right direction. The assumption is that God is found inside me — and I need to get all alone, all by myself, and intensely focus inwardly to find God. And yet I think we’re far more likely to find God among the needy —

    (Matt. 25:34-40 ESV) 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

    Not many books on the spiritual disciplines urge us to feed the hungry to find God. Jesus does.

    The goal of theosis (unity with God) is achieved — or approached — by becoming more like Jesus and God. This isn’t a mystical experience in a monastery because that’s not where Jesus and God are most active in this world. Retreating into the woods does not make one more like Jesus. It’s not that it can never help at all, but it’s assumed to be THE path toward God. And it’s not.

    Jesus didn’t retreat into the hills to find God. He retreated because he was so in touch with God that the pain and needs of the people overwhelmed him. And because the people were demanding things of him he could not do. His holiness brought demands from which he needed rest. He did not seek solitude to become holy. He was holy, and that resulted in a life filled with overwhelming demands from which he sometimes needed a break.

    (Jn. 6:15 ESV) 15 Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

    I don’t see where Jesus’ closeness with God or his sinlessness is ever attributed to his meditation or solitude. Rather, because he was already holy, he needed solitude to cope with the world as a holy person sees and deals with the world. I think the discipline teachers confuse cause with effect.

    When the scriptures turn toward how to get close to God, we are routinely pointed toward service toward others —

    (Mic. 6:6-8 ESV) 6 “With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” 8 He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

    (Isa. 1:11-17 ESV) 11 “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. 12 “When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? 13 Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations– I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. 14 Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. 15 When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. 16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17 learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”

    (Jas. 1:27 ESV) 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

    And most importantly to my own thinking —

    (Matt. 5:44-48 ESV) 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

    If you want to become a true disciple — even perfect as God is perfect — love your enemies and bring rain to the just and unjust.

  8. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Nick (part 2),

    I’ve already written too long, but as I’ve been writing, I vaguely remembered my review of NT Wright’s After You Believe on Christian ethics. I remember this being one of my least favorite of his books — too much Aristotle for my taste — but Wright is still Wright.

    I found this from a review by Scot McKnight of the same book:

    Here Wright manages to tie into the spiritual formation movement in the United States in a way that may surprise Tom but will also surely surprise the likes of Richard Foster and Dallas Willard. His virtuous circle, instead of being the classical spiritual disciplines (fasting, solitude, contemplation, etc), which tend toward the individualistic, includes Scripture reading, stories, examples, community, and then practices. But even the “practices” shift from the dominating paradigm in the United States, forged by a Quaker and a Baptist, neither of whom is as Eucharistic as an erstwhile Anglican Bishop: worship, eucharist, baptism, prayer, giving (yes, giving), and public Scripture reading. I would make this mandatory reading for a seminary administration and faculty, and then I’d want to see how far it could be implemented in the curriculum and among students. Thinking of where we’re headed, letting that eschatology (rulers and priests) shape everything we do now, and learning to strive with every ounce of our being toward that goal, in the energy of God’s grace, could make seminaries a place of formation.

    http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/webexclusives/2010/may/afteryoubelieve.html

    So we seem to have gotten to very similar places — although by very different paths. (My journey is much more influenced by Yoder and Hauerwas than Wright in this area.) I’ve not focused much on inaugurated eschatology as spiritually forming — largely because we in the Churches of Christ know so little eschatology that this wouldn’t be helpful to many of us at all. Nonetheless, it makes sense to live in preparation for the afterlife — even as though it’s already coming true. You might recall my posts on our being kings and queens from a few months ago. I keep telling my Bible class that if they don’t enjoy being with each other and worshiping, they’re going to hate heaven. We’d better figure out how to make church a joy and a delight, because heaven is going to be like church 24/7. Maybe like my time at Lipscomb was. Or summer Bible camp — except with harps instead of crafts. (And no mixed swimming, since the sea will be gone.)

    Solitude doesn’t get us ready for heaven — which I expect to be filled with people. Learning to get along with other people will. Learning how to confess, how to admonish, how to give oneself up in order to build a community will.

  9. dwight says:

    Jesus came to seek and save the lost, but in the process of doing that he had compassion upon those around Him to the extent that he healed and fed many who did not become followers. In fact giving to others was what Jesus did in all ways and did not restrict Himself based on His mission. He arguably says that to deny another is to deny God, since we were made in the image of God.

    In Matthew 6 Jesus talks to the people as in “you/yours”, but when He gets to the Lord’s prayer and interesting shift happens. Jesus shifts to “us and ours”.
    Now it is our personal prayer to God, but we should pray as if we are part of a larger group of those under God’s rule and mercy and because of this we extend this to others.
    While we might be connected to God one-on-one, we are then connected to others saints through Jesus, but also connected to the world because God is the Father of all.
    “Our Father who art in heaven…give us this day our daily bread…forgive us of our sins, etc.”

    Jesus spent alone time with God, which many of us should do, and he spent time with others feeding, healing and teaching and just being a friend, which we should do also.

  10. Nick Gill says:

    Jay, I really appreciate the amount of writing and the thought that went into answering my question. I agree with so much of what you’re working through – the centrality of community to our identity as kingdom citizens, the need for our evangelism to be rooted in the story of God, and the whole direction of your missional thinking.

    Prayer mazes are a mystery to me. I totally get your attitude towards them; they seem very hipster to me. And I think that you’ve put your finger on the reason why my favorite Willard book is The Divine Conspiracy – because it is so focused on learning to live out the Sermon on the Mount.

    The value I find in lectio divina is not in demanding a word from God, but in submitting my heart and mind and imagination to the text before me. It is prayerful listening, for me. I don’t believe the early believers talked to one another during the long readings of Scripture that were part and parcel of their assemblies. They listened – they practiced active listening – letting the text get inside them and do its work from the inside out. They didn’t do it alone, of course – they didn’t own their own copies. But they listened, prayerfully and actively, to the word of God. Lectio, for me, fills the gap left in our community’s praxis.

    On prayer and solitude and imitating Jesus, I’m not sure we can put the Sermon on the Mount at the center of our lives without putting the prayer practice Jesus commends in the center of the SoM at the center of our own practice.

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