The Mission of the Church: Alternative Popular Approaches, Part 1

Eucharist-Mission1Thompson begins his book by summarizing several possible views on the mission of the church.

Political Action Committee

Thompson explains,

While liberals and conservatives choose different issues, they agree that the task of the church is to mobilize and influence public opinion in a democracy. Liberals have addressed the most contentious issues of the day: wars in Vietnam and Iraq, the rights of the marginalized, and the evils of corporate capitalism. Conservatives have mobilized to shape public policy on sexual mores, abortion, and the maintenance of a “Christian America.” Despite their differing priorities, both hope to inject Christian values into the larger society, and both exist in continuity with the Constantinian relationship between church and society.

Thompson, James W. The Church according to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ (p. 9). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Thompson doesn’t unpack his conclusions in any detail, but there’s a lot of truth here to think about. For example, both Republican and Democratic Parties have libertarian strands. The Republicans want the government out of the way of business and education, but they want government to criminalize gay sex and to encourage family values, prayer in the schools, and such like. The Democrats want the government out of our sex lives — even to the extent of paying for abortions — but they want the government to compel businesses and individuals to respect the sexual freedoms of others by banning LGBT discrimination. And they love the idea of government strictly regulating business and education.

In short, neither is really for less government or for more government. Rather, they want the government to provide them whatever is important to them — unrestrained sexual choices without consequences or unrestrained capitalism without consequences — and to ban what they don’t like — the things the other party likes. And both see the solution as the government.

Hence, when the church sees its primary mission being to lobby Congress or to otherwise push for societal change by modifying the U.S. Code and the Supreme Court, we assume that getting people to follow Jesus and live according to his wishes is the job of the government — making the church’s work so very much easier. We just need to sign petitions and post political articles on Facebook.

But did Jesus really die so that we’d push the government in Jesus’ direction?

The Church as Corporation

In 1989 Donald McGavran articulated a vision of church growth based on social science models. According to McGavran, “The chief and irreplaceable purpose of mission is church growth.” Assuming an ecclesiology that places numerical growth at the center, McGavran proposes a basic strategy based on the building of homogeneous churches.

Thompson, James W.. The Church according to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ (pp. 9-10). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Evangelism and church growth are not the same thing. If all we’re doing is stealing sheep from other congregations because we have a better song leader or teen program, we’ve not built the Kingdom any larger. In fact, we just might have inculcated a consumer mentality among our members, telling them that our church is better because it meets their felt needs — rather than giving them a better place to serve.

With a heavy reliance on marketing practices, advocates argue that one can predict the results by applying principles that work in the marketplace. … The inevitable result of this market-driven approach to the church is the competition among the churches.

Thompson, James W.. The Church according to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ (p. 10). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Corporations exist to compete. The consumers vote with their dollars, and the businesses that survive are those that do the best job of anticipating and meeting self-centered needs.

Churches should compete, too — with Satan — not with each other. It’s sinful to even think in competitive terms. It’s divisive and it turns co-laborers into the enemy — meaning we turn our guns on each other rather than Satan. It’s suicide.

The Church as Theater

The church is primarily evangelistic, encouraging individuals to increase the size of the church. … The seeker-sensitive church seeks continuity between the church at worship and its attractiveness to the seeker; thus it focuses on entertainment. Megachurches require a more theatrical style than the traditional church, with an emphasis on the performance of professionals rather than the participation of the congregation. Traditional Christian symbols, including the pulpit and the table, no longer have the central place they once had. 

Thompson, James W.. The Church according to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ (p. 11). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Now, the conservative Churches of Christ delight in condemning all non-traditional worship as “entertainment,” and their overbroad condemnation is just as wrong as the practices they condemn. It’s possible to do a better job with the assembly without being guilty of the error Thompson rightfully points out.

But it is true that some (not all) contemporary worship is not nearly as participative as it ought to be. Overly loud music and a refusal to allow amateurs to lead prayers or otherwise participate as leaders takes away the communal nature of the assembly. The service is all about how the audience reacts to those on stage. There is no mutual encouragement.

But some very traditional churches are just as wrong when they refuse to allow the members to talk to each other before services — assuming that a loud auditorium is an irreverent auditorium — thereby making the assembly entirely vertical in its effect. Just so, traditional churches that don’t encourage the members to mingle and talk before and after church push the assembly away from mutual encouragement.

That is, I find that many traditional services are just as entertainment oriented as the newer contemporary forms. In both cases, it’s about what happens on stage — not what happens among the members.

It’s no wonder so many of our children no longer attend church. They really can get better preaching and music on the Internet. By emphasizing the vertical to the near destruction of the horizontal, there’s really no reason to be together to engage in worship.

The Church as Association

Thompson points out that, for many, church is just another social club.

Because the association is bound together by individuals who share a common interest, people join and leave the group based on its capacity to meet their needs. It belongs to the members and is responsible to them. The association belongs to one segment of the member’s life but does not make claims on the member’s marriage, vocation, or leisure time.

Thompson, James W.. The Church according to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ (pp. 11-12). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

In fact, when I post articles about how our Christianity impacts our decisions to marry and to whom we marry, readers get angry. I’m advised in no uncertain terms that they didn’t sign up to be told how to live their lives! And yet they did. They seem to have confused church with the Rotary Club or country club. Jesus claims kingship over every inch of the planet and every life decision we make.

So when the elders spend their time trying to make members happy … well, if they have mature members who are unhappy because the church isn’t on mission or is otherwise not the church God wants, that’s okay. Right? But when the members are whining about the arrangement of the chairs or the use of candles or having too much time in prayer, well, it’s time to do some teaching from the Gospels about cross carrying.

Profile photo of Jay Guin

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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3 Responses to The Mission of the Church: Alternative Popular Approaches, Part 1

  1. “It’s no wonder so many of our children no longer attend church. They really can get better preaching and music on the Internet.”

    Amen. This is a 5-minute exercise I do in college-age Bible class. I have the class find sermons and songs and inspirational videos and art on the Internet. It is easy to do.

    “So, why are we here?” I ask in conclusion.

    There are many things to learn via this exercise. One is that we have to do something besides singing and preaching when we gather.

  2. eddodds says:

    John Wimberly
    Congregational Consultant and Author
    Spiritual Formation as the Future of the Church

  3. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:


    Thanks for the link.

    In one of those delicious ironies we experience from time to time, life is forcing us as leaders of congregations to do one of the things we can do best. We are being asked to help people connect with God and their neighbor. Ancient rituals such as daily prayer, lighting candles, meditating, walking in labyrinths, chanting, and being silent to listen for God are being resurrected to fill our contemporary time with a peace the world cannot give us.

    In the mainline denominations, I sense both fear of making spiritual development a priority and, simultaneously, excitement over the prospect. I hear people saying, “We don’t know how to do this but we must.” “I don’t want to be known as some kind of religious fanatic but I want more depth to my spiritual life than doing church work.” We lack confidence in our ability, as congregations, to feed our members the Bread of Life. And yet, at the same time, we instinctively know such feeding is one of the main reasons we are still alive as an institution.

    A large part of this nation’s largest generation (millennials) identifies as “spiritual but not religious.” That is an opening for congregations as wide as the Grand Canyon. Can we not help this amazing generation, as well as all the others, plumb the depths of the word “spiritual” in a way that leads, ultimately, to the conclusion that religion is part of the solution, not just a problem (and a problem religion can be)? Can we not help them understand the profound connection between their personal spirituality and being-in-community with other people seeking the presence of God? More important than my opinion, congregations are answering those questions with a growing chorus of “Yes!”

    Very encouraging read.

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