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.