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 —
- Building the church = evangelism and teaching
- Serving society = compassion and justice
- 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 likeand 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.
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.