The Mission of the Church: Wright’s Outline

Eucharist-Mission1We’ll return to Thompson’s book shortly. I want to digress just a hair to cover Wright’s understanding of mission so we can then reflect on the two differing perspectives.

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

Now, I don’t see much to criticize here. This is certainly a more thoroughly worked out mission than most of what we read in church mission or vision statements. 

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

Wright argues that some argue for a “holistic” mission, meaning everything but evangelism. After all, evangelism runs entirely contrary to the spirit of the age. In an age that worships at the altar of diversity, telling people they can only enjoy a blessed afterlife if they submit to Jesus of Nazareth is considered offensive. It makes people uncomfortable. It’s even been called “hate speech.” And so some seek for a different mission, one that’s not quite so embarrassing. But the claim of Jesus to be our exclusive Savior remains true.

Hence, some ministers want to paint houses and dig wells, but have no interest in teaching people about Jesus. Thus, they define “Kingdom” in terms of doing good and noble deeds without the unpleasantness of having to do these things in the name of Jesus. But the biblical mission is always in the name of Jesus. The mission is either all about Jesus or we’re no different from the world. After all, you don’t have to be saved to run a 5K for a good cause. The difference between the world and the church is — first and foremost — that the church believes Jesus to rule the universe and we submit to him as King. Now, that fact changes a lot about how we do good works. But the distinction starts with whom we worship, serve, and honor as King.

I’d add that teaching is also falling out of evangelical fashion. More and more churches are dropping Bible classes in preference to small groups. I’m a big, big advocate for small groups, but I don’t see them replacing classes, because most churches don’t have enough teachers to fill the small groups with excellence in education. Besides, having to teach while also dealing with baby sitting challenges, cooking a meal, etc. makes the small group program carry quite a load. Some churches can pull it off, but it’s tough.

The REVEAL study conducted by Willow Creek a few years ago revealed that they were doing a very poor job of continuing to disciple their mature members — who were dropping out. The small group lessons and sermons were too elementary. After you’ve been a Christian for 20 or 30 years, you really won’t be satisfied with material targeted at the unchurched or novice member. They responded by teaching classes on how more mature students could self-teach and continue their studies on their own.

Really. And yet this is the very opposite of why we’re called together in assembly: to edify or build up each other. Teaching our members to study on their own is not wrong — but it pushes toward the increasing tendency in all churches for older, more mature members to drop out, because the church is so targeted toward evangelism and new members that the more mature members feel out of place and unneeded. So they go volunteer at the YMCA or Boy Scouts and sleep in on Sundays. And listen to podcasts of the great preachers and mp3s of the great musicians in today’s church. After all, they get more out of an Andy Stanley sermon or Chris Tomlin hymn than what their church provides.

So I’m opposed to the Simple Church theory that in today’s busy world we no longer have time or need for Bible classes. Rather, I’d urge our members to be less busy on other stuff. I mean, the Great Commission says to make “disciples,” the most literal definition being “student.”

And you have to wonder about a church that finds itself with no need for mature Christians — just staff members and novices. It’s not just classes that are missing. It’s also the mistake of defining “mission” as only evangelism and teaching Membership 101. And this comes from seeing “vision” as only “go to heaven when I die.” There’s nothing left for the new convert to do once he’s been taught to attend, volunteer in the nursery, give a tithe, and invite his friends to the assembly.

Fortunately, Wright sees the need to also serve society through works of compassion and pleas for justice.

To the objection that “Is this really part of the Great Commission?” [Wright] argued how each is naturally linked to the Lordship of Christ. Jesus commands and actions to show compassion on the poor only echoes texts like Deut.10.12-19 and God’s desire for compassion and justice. When God is “godding’ – he is by default with the weak poor and needy. This is who God is and what he does. Likewise, Jesus’ in Matthew describes what true obedience to God looks like – and it is not to neglect the weighty matters of the Torah – issues like justice (see Micah 6.8). His disciples are to be “the light of the world” – meaning people whose attractive deeds shine with goodness and mercy. Like in Isaiah 58:7-8 where light is good deeds done in the name of the Lord. Just as Israel was to be a nation of light and justice, so Jesus’ new community of the kingdom is to be a renewed community of the King – the light of the world.

Such integration of discipleship and acts of compassion and justice are woven though Acts – there was no needy person among them (Acts 4:32-38)

Chris [Wright] made the often overlooked point here that Paul & Barnabas’s first missionary journey was, contrary to popular assumptions, actually the famine relief visit to Judea as told in Acts 11. Perhaps overlooked because it did not ‘fit’ the popular understanding of ‘mission’ as overseas evangelistic work.

And in a very strong echo of what Bruce Longenecker has exhaustively researched and I posted about here, Chris argued that the ‘remember the poor’ of Galatians 2 is no side issue within Paul’s theology and life. Actually, it is talked about more by Paul than justification by faith. Economic concern for those in need is an integral part of his mission and therefore the Great Commission.

Now take a step back and re-read this in light of the big picture. Notice how every single example of “serve society” given by Wright is really “serve the church-universal.” Paul raised money for the church in Jerusalem, not Jerusalem in general. When Paul speaks of remembering the poor in Gal 2, most commentators believe it’s in the context of raising money for famine relief for the poor in the Jerusalem church.

Palestinian Judaism sometimes called the pious “the poor”; but the literal poverty of the Jewish Christian masses in Jerusalem is more likely in view here.

Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 523.

While the NT certainly encourages caring for the poor outside the church, there’s a very strong emphasis on care for our own as a higher (but not absolute) priority.

(Gal. 6:10 ESV)  10 So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.

And surely there’s enough need among our fellow believers — and the lost world that surrounds us — to give the mature members plenty to do to feel needed. A church that has no need of mature members is a church that has the wrong vision and wrong mission — or, more likely, a badly incomplete vision and mission.

Creation Care

Evangelicals need a better doctrine of creation. And here Chris [Wright] linked to familiar texts such as Is 65, Revelation 21-22; Romans 8; Colossians 1. God’s agenda is one of redemption, rescue, restoration – not of destruction or obliteration of the earth. The end game is a new heavens and earth; the New Jerusalem and God’s presence coming down to earth. The creation has a future …

This all means that our best view of creation is as tenants – with temporary stewardship responsibilities. Creation care now is prophetic action foreshadowing God’s restoration of creation to come. Creation care – a career in the sciences, in environmental work etc – is a legitimate and valued calling of the Great Commission.

I’m 62. I grew up before the EPA was created by (are you ready for this?) Richard M. Nixon. The environment was originally not a partisan issue. I mean, we had some pretty filthy rivers and air back in the ’60s, and no one argued for the status quo. The Chicago River famously caught on fire! There was a river in Japan that you could use to develop photos. (For you young people, we used to take pictures on “film” that had to be “developed” in a chemical bath. It’s on Wikipedia somewhere, I’m sure.)

Today, if you’re a Republican, you’re supposed to be against environmentalism because most environmentalists vote Democrat — which is stupid. We share a planet. It’s the only habitable one within reach. We’d better take care of it.

Then again, that doesn’t mean we have to mindlessly ape the positions of the national environmental lobbies. You don’t have to oppose pipelines and favor ethanol subsidies just because you’re a Christian. But you ought to be delighted when the youth minister asks you to help clean up a creek or adopt a mile of Interstate highway. God made the Creation good and charged us with keeping it that way. It’s about faithfulness, not politics; love for our descendants, rather than quick profits for ourselves.

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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14 Responses to The Mission of the Church: Wright’s Outline

  1. Jim H says:

    My experience in several different Life Groups is that they too often end up as social gatherings and serious bible study goes by the way. Will the church discover some day like the the Jewish people did we they found hidden scripture in the temple or returning from captivity that something was amiss in their commandments to teach their children? I personally feel visiting those in prison were primarily Christians who were being persecuted.
    In today’s governmental social justice giveaway programs, how can the church compete in the “salt & ” light” department when illegals and even criminals are given benefits?
    Is this current direction in our churches hastening the completion of churching the Gentiles?
    Sad state of evangelism!

  2. Mark says:

    The mission is either all about Jesus or we’re no different from the world. Amen!

    I heard no mention of Jesus for far too long. Everything was about getting the church right. I have had life-long cofC members tell me that they doubted that the youth in their particular cofC had ever heard the story of the incarnation and birth of Jesus.

  3. Rich says:

    Good and interesting thoughts here, Jay.
    Several years (decades) ago I heard a preacher propose a very simple, two part approach to the mission of the church:
    1. Save the lost.
    2. Keep the saved saved.
    Both are motivated by a genuine care for people.
    Aren’t these the true end goals? Didn’t Jesus heal and feed people as a way to open their hearts to receive the gospel? Although good stuff, I haven’t observed social justice and environment as major prioritized issues for Jesus. It seems like every waking moment, Jesus focused on either making new disciples or helping his current disciples mature.

  4. Dwight says:

    Rich, I think these are the basic mission of the saints, but I would broaden each mission to:
    1. Save the lost (in teaching them Christ and helping them in their needs)
    2. Keep the saved (in teaching and predominantly in application) which feeds back to 1.
    The saints are to not only know, but be active as Christ was. Even helping the widows was called “pure and undefiled religion.”

    I have my doubts about N.T. Wright’s 3.Caring for the Creation
    This wasn’t Jesus mission and this wasn’t a mission of Israel.
    Now I am not for abusing this world, but we have to think beyond the here and now to be spiritual.
    If a New World is in the future, then what is the point as this world will be replaced anyways with a better one.

  5. JES says:

    For the most part I agree with what you said, however, from the beginning God placed all of creation under the care of man. This is reinforced often between Genesis and Revelation. You can not avoid serving one another when you take care of the creation.

  6. Larry Cheek says:

    JES,
    But serving creation is not serving God! Many men love, worship and care for the creation who are totally against God.

  7. Christopher says:

    Jay wrote:

    Today, if you’re a Republican, you’re supposed to be against environmentalism because most environmentalists vote Democrat — which is stupid.

    I think this is overstated. Most people are not against safeguarding the environment; they are against militaristic absolutism which would deny any development that might endanger a single toad or fern. And against claiming things to be facts (such as global warming being mostly anthropogenic) that are not out of misplaced zeal.

  8. Christopher says:

    Jay wrote:

    Really. And yet this is the very opposite of why we’re called together in assembly: to edify or build up each other. Teaching our members to study on their own is not wrong — but it pushes toward the increasing tendency in all churches for older, more mature members to drop out, because the church is so targeted toward evangelism and new members that the more mature members feel out of place and unneeded.

    The church is supposed to be a family and deep, meaningful relationships will keep believers coming – much more than teaching or music.

  9. Larry Cheek says:

    There seems to be a powerful thread running through this communication which is suggesting that drop outs from an assembly are drop outs from the Church. This is because of a total misunderstanding of the church. Assemblies are not the church, and most times the assemblies are not even a good representation of the what the church is to be like. Even families do not become disorientated and considered drop outs because they are not attending all the assemblies of the family.
    Then studying on their own sometimes we come face to face with just how immature many of our assemblies are. One of the strongest bond builder, I have seen is the family which eats together regularly (not just thinking of the Lord’s Supper as eating) bond to each other much more than those who only eat the Lord’s Supper as traditionally served.

  10. Dwight says:

    I just happen to be a naturalist and a preservationist when possible and do believe we should be good stewards of what God gave us and not take it for granted and treat it with contempt, but then again if we truly believe that God will replace this earth with another one we shouldn’t be concerned about it as opposed to concerned about our fellow brother’s welfare. Now there are things that man does to the earth that puts people at risk and we need to be careful, but we also need to teach others about Christ, which is the most important.

    I agree with Larry. We keep saying church is the people and then we turn it into a thing. The church is the people gathered or not. Edification of the body doesn’t just happen at the assembly level, but at the level we are good Christians towards others. We have made the assembly the time and place of worship and learning, when we have full access to do this at home. Assembly isn’t about worship and learning, but rather being with others who are saints in Christ, which can and should include worship and learning.
    Heb.10:25 is an exhortation to not “turn your back on assembling”, but this doesn’t make the assembly the go to place for religion. We don’t find Paul escaping prison just to go to “church”.

  11. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Larry wrote,

    Assemblies are not the church, and most times the assemblies are not even a good representation of the what the church is to be like.

    Hmmm …

    I can easily concede that our assemblies are often very far removed from the ideal. Some are pretty awful. True.

    Then again, who is “our”? I mean, if you limit your possible assemblies to the Churches of Christ in a given area, you may well have nothing but legalistic assemblies that do more harm than good. But what about the other bodies of believers who gather in the area? It would seem rare that there’d not be a single edifying assembly of any kind in the community.

    Does meeting with my earthly family at home provide something better than an assembly of the saints? In some cases, listening to a podcast in my car would be better. My father in law once took me fishing and explained how he felt so much closer to God in the woods and water than at church. He doubtlessly spoke the truth.

    But I don’t go to church to be fed, served, or make friends. I go to church to feed, serve, and be a friend. And I can’t do that in the woods, in my car, or at home with just my family. I may not be able to do that at the local Church of Christ if they’re too legalistic and cultic. But the Church of Christ is not the only body of believers in most towns.

    No church is ideal, and like individual Christians, they all have their fair share of brokenness and weakness. But that just means that if I associate with them, I have a God-given role to play. I can help. Maybe I’m only a very small part of the solution, but I can make things a little bit better. I can be gracious to my fellow Christians. I can live a life of faith. I can set a Christ-like example. I can serve, submit, sacrifice, and even suffer among my fellow Christians — never imagining myself to be any sort of cure but still able to leave things better than how I found them.

    Churches are all messy, icky places. All political. All far from perfect. And the more involved we become in church life, the better we see their flaws. It’s why we all need Jesus and why we need to be Jesus to each other.

    But I would never sacrifice my children to help a church. I may be strong enough to survive the legalism and judgmentalism, but few teens are. Sometimes you really do have to leave. But you don’t leave to be a solo Christian. Seek out another fellowship — even if they play organ music (which I detest). Even if they’re Tennessee fans. After all, I’m kind of messy and icky myself. I mean, if I ever found the perfect church, they’d never let me join — because I would mess up their perfection. So maybe my place is among the screwed up, confused, and weak. Maybe those are my kind of people.

  12. Larry Cheek says:

    Jay,
    You have made a good comment, one which I mostly believe. The major error I have noticed being taught about churches is exactly that, (churches). We define different fellowships of Christians as (churches) and they are not supposed to be. Multiple different assembles of Christians are still the church. If all assemblies of Christians is just the church, there should be no competition, there should be no separation of assemblies because of doctrine or tradition, no condemnation of another assembly because they are not following a guideline. There should be no organization which sets policy or rules for those within an assembly. Groups of Christians who call themselves by a certain title are not the church at all. It appears to be the goal of all churches to either be or to become the savior of all who will submit to that body. I see a goal being presented in these communications which is attempting to community-ize the churches. But, I have found nothing in scriptures which gives me the concept that churches will be saved in their entirety. You have spoken of unity, yes unity for the cause of Christ. Indicating that a lack of unity is going to effect the church, as if the church is a packaged unit. I see that the church is not a replacement for the nation of Israel, as Israel God was displaying his power to the world, he held all inhabitants to the same standard and rendered judgement upon the nation which effected all of the inhabitants. In full visibility of the rest of the world. I know that commentators are trying their hardest to place the church in the picture of the history of Israel. God gave his instructions (The Law) to Israel the whole nation. God has not and Christ did not give the instructions (The Gospel) to the church or any organized body of humans. The Gospel is given to individuals, it is totally within each individuals power (free will) to obey or disregard the message. In the corporate setting as Israel was, an individual did not have an option of free will, disobedience there brought immediate restitution. A Jew could not live his life within the nation not under submission to The Jewish Law.
    I see the church In NT is not a entity at all it is all the saved, the bride of Christ (only one and complete), individuals who obey anywhere and everywhere in the world are being added to this body by God. Individuals are not in control of unity or disunity, in fact God is in control of that, any disunity that exists is outside the church which God and Christ has assembled. If you have been added to that church, you have been added because you are saved, the church is not in the saving business. The church was never given the responsibility to be the drawing point or element to draw the lost to Christ. Christ came to save sinners, he did not commission the church to save them. If Christ saves a sinner and adds him to the body called his church, what need would there be for him to save the church? Aren’t all those in the church saved because they have made the commitment?
    Churches need to get out of trying to be the intercessor for lost souls, and Christians need to get back into teaching the Gospel to their lost friends. Christians have attempted to turn over their responsibility to a body called church and church has obliged and become something it was never intended to be.
    Some will doubt my message about individuality. But, I will have to ask was it Abraham and his family, or Abraham and his friends faith, and we can continue with Noah, Elijah, Enoch, was each Apostle tied to the group or did each stand on their own merits before God?
    What other human would you like your salvation to be linked, you know if they are lost so it is with you?

  13. Dwight says:

    I think one of the problems is in that we say the church is the people and then we say the churches are the church, because the churches are made of people, but this is not generally how we approach “churches”.
    I truly believe that in the scriptures the church was seen in the individual and in the assembly and in the assemblies. The letters weren’t sent to groups or a collective group, but the people within an area. But Paul would often get onto them because when they sometimes assembled they sought to be prideful of their gifts or a respecter of persons. But he also chided them on not helping others and teaching others and doing good as individuals towards other saints and to the non-saints as well.
    But what we have to day are churches or little enclosed groups that are separate entities from the next group over and this is how we do things. It kind of makes me mad when our preacher gets up and speaks about unity and coming together in Christ, when there is a church that is meeting in the school next door and we know nothing about them and don’t care to. They are them and we are us. They could teach exactly the same as we do and we would not see them as brother’s, but rather competition.
    And I do believe that generally that “I don’t go to church to be fed, served, or make friends. I go to church to feed, serve, and be a friend.”, but we should also go to be fed and served and make friends as well. We are supposed to edify each other, so this implies give and take. We give and we get as well.
    But also we associate with each other and share thoughts and emotions and ourselves, which I find is mostly done after “church” is over.

  14. Nick Gill says:

    But serving creation is not serving God! Many men love, worship and care for the creation who are totally against God.

    Worship is for God alone.

    But for the vast majority of this comment, the question is intent.

    You are part of Creation, but if I serve you to make myself feel better — rather than to honor the Greatest Commands — then I fall under Paul’s condemnation in the first verses of 1 Cor 13. Honoring the commandments of God out of love for God IS serving God.

    “It is not allowable to love the creation according to the purposes one has for it, any more than it is allowable to love one’s neighbor in order to borrow his tools.” – Wendell Berry

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