What Is the Mission of the Church?

With The Gospel Coalition national conference a little more than a month away, there’s little time to waste before you register. Greg Gilbert, senior pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and author of What is the Gospel?, is co-leading a workshop with Kevin DeYoung on the mission of the church. Here Gilbert offers a preview of their forthcoming book, which seeks to answer this key question.

Are there new questions being asked or challenges the local church is currently facing that prompts a discussion on the mission of the church?

No, I don’t think there are really brand new questions or challenges being faced, just questions and challenges that this generation of evangelicals have not yet faced for themselves.  The question of what the church should be doing with its time and resources is one that every generation has had to ask and answer for itself, in one form or another, but it comes to us in this generation and in this place with perhaps an unprecedented intensity. That’s because we are able, unlike any generation before us, to see with our own eyes the effects that sin has all over the world, and there is then a good and right impulse in the Christian heart to hate that evil and want to resist it. I don’t think that’s a new impulse, so I don’t think it’s accurate or fair to say that Christians before us never had it. But this generation of young evangelicals does feel that impulse deeply, and so naturally the question is going to arise, “Well, isn’t it the church’s task, its mission, to be about this work?”

Can you give us a glimpse at what the differing views on the mission of the church are?

Yes, there are obviously going to be nuances in people’s positions, but I think the most important fault-line is between those who would argue for a narrow understanding of the church’s mission, and those who would argue for a broader understanding of it. Kevin and I argue in What Is the Mission of the Church? that Jesus gave his church a very specific mission, which we put as “proclaiming the gospel and making disciples.” Others would argue that while proclamation and disciple-making are part of or even central to the church’s mission, the church should also understand its mission to include more.

Sometimes that is put, theologically speaking, as the church having a mission to build God’s kingdom in the world, or to gather the building materials of the kingdom, or to join God in his work of making a better world or bringing shalom. Practically speaking, that can mean all kinds of things. We’ve read books calling for local churches to take as their mission everything from improving housing in their cities, to providing health care, to doing biological research against disease, to advocating for global environmental policies. Now, you may very well think all those are good things; you may even see reasons in Scripture to say that every Christian should see them as good things and work for them. But that’s quite different from saying that those are the things which define the church’s mission in the world.

What have been some of the consequences, historically, of getting the mission of the church wrong?

Kevin and I are concerned about the movement toward a broader conception of the church’s mission for a few reasons. For one thing, we are concerned that there is a real possibility for churches and Christians to become discouraged over time if they think their mission is to make the world—or their city, or their neighborhood—a better place. God does sometimes use the cultural and social efforts of his people to improve society. But he often does not. There are Christians who live an entire lifetime and see nations, cities, and neighborhoods get worse rather than better, or even more often just remain kind of the same over 30 years, and we don’t think that’s necessarily a result of some lack of caring or lack of effort on those Christians’ parts. But to tell a church repeatedly that they exist to transform the city is, I think, to risk their discouragement when it turns out 10 years from now that the city doesn’t transform.

For another thing, we are concerned that including in the church’s mission such things as ending sex trafficking, ending hunger, ending poverty, transforming the world, and all the rest actually creates a crushing sense of obligation on Christians that they shouldn’t have. (Jesus himself told us we’d always have the poor with us.) And over time, that sense of obligation can turn into a low-grade guilt: Those problems persist, we reason, because we as Christians haven’t done enough. Again, we think confronting all those problems is a good and important thing for Christians to do. But when you confront them, you have to do it with the right theological categories or else a wrong sense of responsibility, obligation, and guilt will result.

Finally, Kevin and I think there is wisdom in Stephen Neill’s quip, “If everything is mission . . . nothing is!” These conversations about mission far too often remain at the level of the abstract. The questions are almost always along the lines of, “Could the church do this or that?” or “Would it be wrong for the church to do this or that?” And as we explain in the book, we think that within the right theological framework, the answer to such questions is almost always going to be, “Of course the church could do that.” The trouble, though, is that churches don’t operate in the abstract. They have limited time and limited resources, and therefore they always have to choose between five good options that are on the table. So unless we have some understanding of what the mission is—something more precise than “everything that God cares about”—we’re going to have a difficult time making the hard calls that life in a limited world requires us to make. Knowing what our mission is—that specific thing or set of things that our Lord sends us into the world to accomplish—will help us immensely in thinking through those questions.


To help people along in understanding the mission of the church, what books have been helpful for you?

We read a good number of books in preparation for writing What is the Mission of the Church?. I won’t be able to mention all the books that were helpful, but a few that quickly come to mind are:  Koestenberger’s The Missions of Jesus and the Disciples According to the Fourth Gospel; Koestenberger and O’Brien’s Salvation to the Ends of the Earth; Hesselgrave’s Paradigms in Conflict; Hunter’s To Change the World; Schnabel’s Early Christian Mission; and several others.

Can you tweet the mission of the church?

Great question! I think so. Here’s how we put it in the book: “The mission of the church is to go into the world and make disciples by declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit and gathering these disciples into churches, that they might worship and obey Jesus’ commands now and in eternity to the glory of God the Father.” Well, okay, that’s two tweets, but who’s counting?


The Gospel Coalition’s national conference on Wednesday, April 13, features three rounds of workshops available on a wide variety of issues.

  • Allen

    After reading this, I am looking forward to the upcoming book.

    I agree, it is about the Gospel. God has solely ordained the church with the task of the Gospel. When the church doesn’t share the Gospel, nobody does. When we become involved in trying to solve other social ills, we take energy away from the primary objective. Yes, there will be compassion ministries that accompany the Gospel, but too often we see these taking place without the Gospel going forward.

    Go and make disciples …

  • Renee Guthrie

    you provide their needs and love them and then share Jesus with them…

  • lander

    I look forward to the new book and I enjoy distributing “What is the Gospel?” and have found it helpful.

    A question I’d like to ask at the seminar is:

    Faith comes by hearing the Word as the Spirit enables, but do good works assist or prepare a person to hear? How? Where in Scripture do we see examples repeatable today?

    Grudem used a phrase, “door openers for the gospel” that seems like sturdy shorthand for what I’ve witnessed.

    Door openers include hospitality, apologetics, good deeds that meet needs, justice, spiritual fruits, gifts, graces, answered prayer and miracles, etc., that help gain a hearing. They don’t convert but do give context to the claims of the gospel. Communion too is a potential “door opener” since it visually portrays the gospel when the gospel is explained.

    Will you address how “door openers” may function as a demonstration of the kingdom when they precede or follow proclamation of the gospel of the kingdom?

    Demonstration is not evangelism and proclamtion is THE required priority. But “door openers” can provide a platform, context or strategy to gain a hearing for the offense of the Cross.

    “Door opener” example: In a small group we clearly proclaimed the gospel for weeks in bible study. Everyone in the group were new believers except one holdout who had never been to church much. He had all his questions answered and understood the content of the gospel but was not willing to believe and repent. We asked him how we could pray for him and his wife. They shared how the doc told them they couldn’t get pregnant and they asked for prayer. Gulp! We prayed. They got pregnant. His first response was to say, ” Now I’m ready. God is real…”

    The above is not the everyday norm, but “door openers” of grace and kindness and power, etc. are ‘useful’ in the sovereign hands of God the Evangelist and the history of missions is full of such examples.

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  • http://www.thinkpoint.wordpress.com Steve Cornell

    While I sympathize with the concerns raised here, there is also a danger in too narrow a vision for the Church. May I recommend that one also read the seasoned perspective of John Stott in “Decisive Issues Facing Christians Today.” This will offer a wider biblical theology of engagement that includes a Matthew 5:13-16 purpose. Then for focused application, Stott’s “The Contemporary Christian: Applying God’s Word to Today’s World.”

  • Jonathan Cummings

    The argument against involving mercy-type ministries (to those outside of the church) in the local church was because the church could be overwhelmed. The same could be said about verbal proclamation of the gospel. If we tell the church we are going to “end unbelief” through evangelism, then the problem is not evangelism. Thus when we phrase our involvement as a local church with mercy ministries as “end-slavery” or “end-poverty”, then likewise the problem is not with our involvement with mercy ministries.

    One of Gilbert’s other reasons for avoiding social justice or mercy ministry in the local church was because of limited resources. Well, given the economic state of many evangelical churches, I think we could trim on other areas instead of feeding the poor and helping rescue girls from sex trafficking.

    Lastly, if we believe that the local church is to be involved in mercy ministries, then it does not mean we have to have our hands in every single injustice. We don’t have to be about “everything.” That we might say the local church is called to mercy ministries is not to say that the local church is finds its mission in “everything.” With our “limited resources”, we should evaluate the needs of our particular community and get involved in those ways…

    I understand that some people and churches do not think their calling is to do mercy ministries, but I did not find Gilbert’s reason convincing…

    • Iris

      Thank you, I was going to write this, but you have already done it eloquently.

  • Jonathan Cummings

    For those interested, I have found Dr. Perrin’s new book “Jesus the Temple” to be very helpful, especially chapter 4 (‘Forgive us our debts': Announcing the kingdom among the poor)

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  • Freddy Taul

    Can we start some sort of controversy over this book? I’d love for the pub date to be moved up. Thanks.

    • http://www.citydomain.blogspot.com Ryan Donell

      This is not aimed at Freddy Taul, but just in response to the article in general. It’s frustrating that Jesus both proclaimed good news about the kingdom of God and also constantly did works that accompanied, attracted, and identified that the news he was proclaiming was actually good and the kingdom he was bringing connected heaven and earth. Why can’t the mission of the church be as abstract as proclaiming the message of the gospel and continuing Jesus’ works which testify to the validity of the message. This “abstract” idea has to be made concrete in different contexts, cultures, and churches throughout all time. “Making disciples” and “declaring the gospel” can be just as vague unless it’s defined, described, contextualized etc. The entire book of Acts is a way of saying, “this is what the church does with the mission Jesus gave them after his ascension.” I mean you might be able to tweet the description of Paul’s ministry at the end of the book, but that probably wouldn’t be a description Gilbert would like. ?

  • http://www.citydomain.blogspot.com Ryan Donell

    Sorry- the reason why what Jesus did is “frustrating” is not actually meant to be a critique on Jesus. I’m using the word sarcastically. I’m not frustrated with Jesus- just to be clear :)

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  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com Steve Martin

    I think you’ve got it right.

    The main thing, the important thing, is to proclaim Christ to a lost world.

    This audio study of ‘mission’ seems to say exactly what you’ve said, but explains some of the reasons for the difficulty.



  • Gaye Clark

    The stated mission of our church has provided me a helpful balance:

    To restore people and rebuild places
    through the gospel of Jesus Christ.

    Christ is primary- it it always his work- restoring people speaks to sharing the gospel, and discipleship..rebuilding places speaks to tangible deeds of mercy.
    Having been involved in mercy ministry, I concur with the concerns Greg Gilbert raises here. However,I don’t think he’s advocating abandoning mercy.
    Both Word and deed ministry remind us repeatedly of our own need for Christ. The “I cannot do this,” ought to drive us needy people to the cross, bringing our needy neighbors with us.

  • http://tkalliance.wordpress.com Jason Carter

    Is this why Piper gave the message he did at Lausanne? After 2-3 days of hearing nothing but human suffering in all corners of the globe, Piper tried to steer the mission ship back to proclamation.

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com Steve Martin


    That is job #1 !

    Hand over Christ to real sinners who need a real Savior…not a religious assistant.


  • http://www.cometochrist.ca Charlene Nelson

    It’s amazing how many Christians believe that all we need to do is “let our light shine” and that somehow this will bring people to saving faith. They want a gospel “preached without words.” This is my main concern in this area. Romans 10:14 “But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?”

  • Ryan Donell

    Thanks for everybody’s comments. I love this discussion. I think Jesus makes this really clear. He has a particular message to announce, but he is himself a particular kind of person, namely a Human one. By this I’m not denouncing his divinity, I’m just saying that the way he came to reach us was not only through speaking to us. That’s what He had done for thousands of years. The culmination of his mission to the world was through becoming a human being. As a human being he preached. Yes! But he was also person of a certain character and virtue who behaved in such a way so as to literally “embody” what he announced. Which is precisely what I think the Apostle Paul did in his ministry along with the other apostles. It still seems like proclamation as well as transformation, “saying” as well as “being”, speaking and doing should be the bread and butter of the church’s mission. Isn’t the salvation that he brings both for the soul and the body? Isn’t the new creation both spiritual and material? And though I believe the dimension of heaven is physical, isn’t God bringing together both heaven and earth (Rev.21, Matt.6:10)? This just seems to me to be the whole point of the gospels record of Jesus’ life instead of just skipping from the manger to the cross. (NT Wright, Bavinck, and Keller are not the originators of these ideas. God is :)

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