The Mission of the Church: Thompson Returns Serve (Evangelism)

Eucharist-Mission1Christopher Wright’s outline of mission is very sensible, and there’s much to support it in scripture. But there are problems, too. Thompson points out some difficult truths that force us to add a layer of nuance. And we American Christians don’t do nuance well — not at all.

Evangelism

Let’s talk about the Great Commission. Thompson focuses on Paul’s writings, and so he doesn’t say much about the Great Commission. Nonetheless, it’s a great place from which to make Thompson’s point.

(Matt. 28:18-20 ESV)  18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” 

First, most preachers and teachers skip v. 18. The fact that Jesus has “all authority” is the predicate for his command, and we skip it. Too easy. Too obvious. But Jesus is announcing that he has been enthroned as King of the Universe. He has defeated or will defeat all opposing powers. There will be some resistance to be battled, but the victory of Jesus is assured. Therefore, we should take great comfort that the most powerful being in the Universe is with us — always — until he returns.

Jesus is referring to this passage from Daniel —

(Dan. 7:13-14 ESV)  13 “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.  14 And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.”

But he is also referring to —

(Dan. 7:18 ESV)  18 ”’But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, forever and ever.'”

(Dan. 7:27 ESV)  27 And the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; his kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him.’ 

When the Son of Man is given all authority, the kingdom is also given to his holy ones — the saints. The greatness of all the kingdoms in the world will be given to the saints.

Jesus is announcing that this prophecy is coming true. The Kingdom is coming, and it will never end or be destroyed. To be with Jesus is to be on the winning side of a war against all the earthly and spiritual powers that oppose him, and he will win — together with us.

The greatest human civilizations cannot solve the deepest human problems. God’s mission of blessing the nations has to be a radical new start. It requires a break, a radical departure from the story so far, not merely an evolutionary development from it. So Abraham is commanded to get up and leave.

God’s mission required leaving and going. And of course, it still does.

Now at one level, we can see this as an obvious parallel to the opening of the so-called Great Commission, “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19)—though it needs to be pointed out that the first word is not a command in itself, but a participle—“As you go.…” Nevertheless, it is clear that if the nations were to be discipled, the disciples had to go to them. So we can certainly detect in God’s first command to Abraham an anticipation of the dynamic that would eventually explode in centrifugal missional “going” to the ends of the earth. And that would be an appropriate connection to make.

But at another level, such “leaving and going” need not necessarily mean actual travel from one geographical place to another. Christians who commit themselves to the mission of God in the world have to start with a certain going out from the world. For we still live in the land of Babel and Sodom. We need to recognize the idolatrous nature of the world and all its claims and ideologies. This is not so that we become “other-worldly”, … our mission must also take place in the public arena of the place where God has put us. Nevertheless, there is a form of leaving and going that is spiritual, mental and attitudinal—even when it is not physical.

Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission, Biblical Theology for Life, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 78.

True enough, I’m sure, but why doesn’t Paul ever repeat this command in his letters? Was Jesus speaking mainly to the apostles? Matthew was written after Paul’s letters. Paul’s readers did not have the Great Commission, at least not in written form. Paul frequently wrote about how to live as a Christian, and yet he never once urges or commands his readers to invite their neighbors to church, he never urges personal evangelism, he doesn’t even encourage his readers to become missionaries like him. He doesn’t even set up a greeters ministry.

And how can we all go? Doesn’t someone have to stay behind, earn a secular living, and pay for the support of those who really do go? What would happen if we all packed up and became missionaries? Who would pay our way?

And yet, in the early church, we see churches commissioning missionaries and spreading the gospel across the Empire, but we don’t read sermons pounding on people to evangelize or to volunteer for missions. They did evangelize and volunteer, but they weren’t told to do so. Not that appears in Paul’s letters. Why not?

While Paul does not directly command his communities to evangelize, he assumes that the power of the gospel will change the lives of the converts and attract outsiders into the faith. He draws sharp boundaries between the church and the world in order that the church may, by its moral life, make an impact on the world. He insists that the Thessalonians, for example, live the ethical life not only because it is the will of God (1 Thess. 4: 3) but also so that outsiders may witness their proper behavior (4: 12). As believers love each other more and more (4: 10), mind their own affairs, and work with their own hands (4: 11), they will make a positive impact on unbelievers.

Thompson, James W.. The Church according to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ (p. 170). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Now, attend a staff meeting of any church of any denomination and suggest that our excellent moral example will bring the lost to Jesus without personal evangelism — and they’ll not only not believe you, they’ll get angry. After they laugh at you. They’ll take offense at such a notion. And yet Paul knows nothing of modern evangelistic methods. He seems to think that merely living like Jesus and being the church Jesus calls us to be should be enough.

But the staff members will correctly point out that we’ve been a Christian church a very long time and have converted hardly anyone by just being good people. In fact, our denomination is in numerical decline.

While his churches have no planned evangelistic programs, Paul assumes that they will grow as husbands and wives convert their spouses, parents introduce children into the faith, and members introduce relatives and friends to the assembly. The openness of the assembly to outsiders provided an opportunity for evangelism, and the moral conduct of the believers attracted outsiders to accept the gospel.

Thompson, James W.. The Church according to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ (p. 170). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

In fact, if you ask your members how they came to Jesus, they will nearly all mention family or friend as the original point of contact — not a gospel meeting, not a tract slipped under their door, not a visit from strangers, and not a community service project. On the other hand, if you ask why they decided to consider becoming a follower of Jesus, they’ll likely mention the friendliness of the members, the good works of the members, the peace or joy they saw in the members, the generosity of a particular Christian. That is, personal relationships introduced them to the church, and the church introduced them to Jesus.

The conversions that happen happened largely by simple obedience to the elementary teachings about how to live as a Christian: the Sermon on the Mount, Rom 12-15, Gal 5, 1 Cor 13, etc.

So if we’re not evangelistically effective, maybe the problem is that we aren’t enough like Jesus — individually or corporately. And so, perhaps “mission” and “ethics” go hand in hand. Maybe the first mission of the church is to be the church, that is, to become transformed into the image of Christ — individually and corporately. If we were more cruciformed — cross-shaped — maybe God would give the increase.

Indeed, I would argue that one reason our older members can be so entitled and so resistant to needed change is that we’ve skipped this step. We’ve tried to evangelize without first incarnating the gospel into our lives.

Therefore, job one of the church’s mission is not evangelism, but transformation. And if that’s all we get done, we may have done enough. But if we skip this step, if we convert someone, we likely convert them to the wrong thing — such as fear of hell, cheap grace/easy believism, or even the joys of a country club with stained glass windows.

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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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11 Responses to The Mission of the Church: Thompson Returns Serve (Evangelism)

  1. Mark says:

    Jesus did things on this earth that pious Jewish men of that era did not do. He also taught the people with compassion. The lessons taught by Jesus and recorded in the Gospels can be applied to life today. However, they don’t work their way into sermons.

  2. John F. says:

    Why is the Gospels occupy about one half the space in our NT, but only a small percentage in our preaching? And maybe there is part of the problem. The transforming power is in the Gospel, not theological discussions of the minutae of the atonement or baptism or Calvinism or transubstantiation. If as Mark says,”The lessons taught by Jesus and recorded in the Gospels can be applied to life today. However, they don’t work their way into sermons” is true, it simply means we have not put enough thought into the sermons we prepare. Christ’s last message was to the 7 churches of Asia: 5 of 7 had major problems — compromising with culture. To refuse to be transformed is the ultimate act of rebellion, leading to condemnation.

  3. Mark says:

    Answers to John F’s question include: the Gospel is elementary, the Gospel is too simple, real men read Paul, the Gospel doesn’t deal with the church, and a Gospel sermon is for children. I have heard all these answers.

    First, Jesus spoke as a Jewish rabbi with a Torah and Prophets background. He was not a Christian preacher.

    Some of the strongest Christian sermons I have heard were one-point, “12-minute homilies” following the reading of the Prophets and the corresponding Gospel which quoted it. This type/style of preaching rarely makes it into the cofC.

  4. Chris says:

    My two cents: I think a lot of people are tired of “Christians” who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. None of us are perfect, but until we live a life of salt and light, should we expect people to be interested and drawn to the Jesus we profess to follow and serve? I’ve found today that people are drawn first to one’s authenticity and genuiness, (maybe because there’s so many frauds on tv and some in the church) and that often opens the door for them to ask about your spiritual beliefs. I’m not saying this is the only method, but relationships are very important. As someone once said, “no one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

  5. Chris says:

    I meant “no one cares.”
    Ha ha Jay, can you add an edit button?

  6. eddodds says:

    David H. Stern’s Jewish New Testament does a good job pointing out authority, binding and loosing, etc. which has so much to do with thoughts regarding disciples to demons — which often get completely skipped (hint: Protestants not so fond these days of Apocrypha, Intertestamental writing, Book of Enoch, etc.)

  7. Larry Cheek says:

    If you really want to find out what the church or body of Christians meeting in your area needs to do just ask some of the non-Christians in the locality what they think about the Christians meeting at so and so place (where you attend). In order to do that effectively they must not suspect that you are one of them, so if you have been living like a Christian should, you may have to enlist someone who the community definitely believes is not a member there to obtain a true picture. Next, you must not become offended at what you discover, God is probably seeing the same thing. Then you may learn how to become (salt and light) to a community.

  8. eddodds says:

    “Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need” meant that they did not take up a collection as part of the memorial meal but they “tended their own nets” ie relational tithing to their own neighbors. Occasionally a delegation might come thru to take an offering to the poor saints of another community (we have Jerusalem mentioned in Paul’s works). We collect weekly now pure and simply to make convenient the payment of real estate mortgages (cathedral) and non-bi-vocational minister salaries; tho we strangely rarely honor teaching elders twice (we don’t honor them even once in most cases). Michael Hudson mentions some previous institutional church rackets in his comments here http://michael-hudson.com/2016/05/marxs-laws-of-motion/

  9. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Ed,

    I just downloaded Stern’s Commentary on the Jewish NT. Can’t wait to dig in …

  10. Nick Gill says:

    Jay,

    Your last paragraph –

    Therefore, job one of the church’s mission is not evangelism, but transformation. And if that’s all we get done, we may have done enough. But if we skip this step, if we convert someone, we likely convert them to the wrong thing — such as fear of hell, cheap grace/easy believism, or even the joys of a country club with stained glass windows.

    seems to mesh exactly with Wright’s last statement from your quote –

    Christians who commit themselves to the mission of God in the world have to start with a certain going out from the world. For we still live in the land of Babel and Sodom. We need to recognize the idolatrous nature of the world and all its claims and ideologies. This is not so that we become “other-worldly”, … our mission must also take place in the public arena of the place where God has put us. Nevertheless, there is a form of leaving and going that is spiritual, mental and attitudinal—even when it is not physical.

    So I’m not really understanding why you see yourself in disagreement with his assertion. What Paul seems to do is to apply the “as you go” of the Great Commission to people who will, as you rightly say, never go anywhere physically.

    The non-physical “leaving and going” that Wright describes as the reality of obedience to the Great Commission seems to be exactly the same as the “transformation” you’ve described as Job 1 for the church.

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