Mission Critical

Your church cannot do everything that everyone wants it to do. Some requests are simply impossible to fulfill; others would be inappropriate. Church leaders turn to God’s Word as our guide in prioritizing how we spend limited time, treasure, and talent.

This is some of what I’ve learned while discussing these issues with Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, authors of What Is the Mission of the Church? It’s also what I’ve seen while serving in churches seeking to do good in their communities. In my experience, churches unclear about their mission from God spend much time talking about everything they should do and exasperate over how little they can actually accomplish.

Even so, healthy churches will disagree about how exactly to serve their different communities, and some may engage in activities that make others uncomfortable. At least within The Gospel Coalition’s fellowship of churches, that’s a healthy debate we’re happy to facilitate. TGC’s Theological Vision for Ministry, a consensus document for Council members, explains their unswerving commitment to seek justice while leaving room for diverse applications.

Christian churches must work for justice and peace in their neighborhoods through service even as they call individuals to conversion and the new birth. We must work for the eternal and common good and show our neighbors we love them sacrificially whether they believe as we do or not. Indifference to the poor and disadvantaged means there has not been a true grasp of our salvation by sheer grace.

Though this statement lays out helpful guiding principles, it hardly settles the matter. So as we continue discussing the proper mission of the church, I hope we’ll keep focused on two overarching matters: the big problem that prompted DeYoung and Gilbert’s book, and the meaningful unity that should underlie any criticism.

Big Problem

If you doubt whether evangelicals need to read What Is the Mission of the Church?, follow me on a tour of one fairly typical evangelical church. The leaders of this church want their community to know the saving love of Jesus Christ. What else would motivate them to plant a church in a small community where long-established churches view them with skepticism and even hostility? They believe the Bible without reservation and eagerly invite their friends, family, and neighbors to join them in church each Sunday morning. During the last decade the church has grown beyond what any other church in this community has ever seen.

These leaders look to large suburban megachurches for advice on how to grow the size of their congregation. You name the program, and they’ve probably tried it. Alpha and Financial Peace University have been helpful. Lately some leaders have broadened the church’s horizons. The church has teamed up with the local Chamber of Commerce to promote local businesses. They’ve invested serious time and money into a community Easter egg hunt. They’ve adopted several needy families to provide free home and car repair.

It’s never enough, though. Recently some members read a moving book about how Christians have neglected the needs of the poor around the world. Now they’re asking everyone in the church to give everything they possibly can to the church, so they can distribute the money to the less fortunate in their city. Every week the congregation hears about how they’ve failed to live up to their calling as Christians. They must do more. Volunteers are always desperately needed.

Some long-time members have noticed a change in the church’s mission over the years. Preaching the Bible is no longer a priority, though the pastor still grounds his exhortations in Scripture passages. Evangelism is no longer an urgent calling, though community service certainly attracts some new members, including a few who previously claimed no church affiliation. Overall, however, church leaders are most excited these days about doing good works that will express the love of Christ and win the community’s favor.

Maybe you’ve attended a church that cares little for the outside community, and this activity excites you, too. Maybe you recall how the early church won many new converts in the Roman Empire after sacrificially serving all who had need. Good! I share this story not to disparage good works, because all Christians bear responsibility to minister in word and deeds. Rather, this example illustrates how a church can lose sight of its unique mission to preach the gospel and make disciples. Several mainline and Roman Catholic churches do good works in this particular community. So do many volunteer organizations. But we’re not called to be the Jesus Jaycees. If we don’t make a priority of preaching the gospel and teaching Christians to obey everything Jesus commanded, no one will.

Meaningful Unity

Even in churches concerned to keep on mission, you will hear of many believers who staff homeless shelters, run crisis pregnancy centers, and cook Christmas meals for the poor. To be sure, the elders will devote themselves to teaching and prayer, according to the example of Acts 6. But they will also disciple believers to exercise their love for God by serving the community. And the deacons will oversee support for the needy, inside and sometimes outside the church, by distributing funds collected from members. Indeed, DeYoung explains, “We also have a terrific diaconate which responds to physical needs in our congregation and responds with compassion and wisdom to requests that come from outside our congregation.”

The apostle Paul issues a helpful guideline in Galatians 6:10: “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” DeYoung and Gilbert wisely argue on the basis of this verse for moral proximity. We cannot meet the needs of the whole world. And we should take care of the needy within our church before anyone else. But as we have opportunity, we should do good to outsiders as well. This way we adorn the gospel and fulfill Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. Christians rejoice to give sacrificially in such churches, because they appreciate the leaders’ priorities and also their generosity.

If you talk with biblically grounded leaders on different sides of this debate over the mission of the church, you’ll find more unity than the blogs betray. Yes, we must do good for everyone. And yes, we must guard our priority as leaders in local churches on the ministry of the Word. The elders should not be meeting together to plot economic development plans that will bring shalom to their communities. But they should be delighted that their discipleship might produce Christians who take up the challenge of fighting injustice to the glory of Jesus Christ.

Fabric of Society

I give thanks that so many Christians look at the social decay around them and want to make a difference. We should remember, however, the wisdom of theologians who have gone before us. In particular, Abraham Kuyper’s “sphere sovereignty” distinguishes between the responsibility of the state, society, and the church. What we see now in the West is a breakdown of society, which includes families, voluntary organizations, and local communities. The government has overstepped its responsibility by seeking to occupy this sphere. Our financial crisis and political stalemate should disabuse us of any notion that the government is capable of replacing these so-called mediating institutions.

But neither can or should the church bear this burden; otherwise, it will lose sight of the unique mission Jesus gave us. And that would be a critical loss indeed for all who need above anything else to hear and believe his liberating gospel. Perhaps if we trust God to demonstrate the power of this gospel to save, he will rebuild the fabric of our torn society.

  • http://stevengaines.wordpress.com/ Steven Gaines

    I agree that we shouldn’t separate the two sides of the mission. Actually, either without the other is not the gospel, which is more than a message but a holistic way of life. May the life-giving words of Mark 1:15 work transformatively through our discernment and action.

  • http://www.edstetzer.com Ed Stetzer


    Good word. Thanks.

    I had not read this statement from the Gospel Coalition:

    Christian churches must work for justice and peace in their neighborhoods through service even as they call individuals to conversion and the new birth. We must work for the eternal and common good and show our neighbors we love them sacrificially whether they believe as we do or not. Indifference to the poor and disadvantaged means there has not been a true grasp of our salvation by sheer grace.

    I thought the statement was helpful. (I need to read more of the excellent work of TGC!)

    I think the example you gave is helpful– it is a real issue. If engaging in justice supplants proclamation, we are missing it. I’m in complete agreement– I’ve written on the issue myself (most recently in reference to Lausanne and social justice).

    It seems that many churches ARE getting distracted from evangelism—some churches seem almost embarrassed by the idea. But, these churches want to engage in social action. It’s more acceptable. The world will cheer when you engage in justice but often jeer when you preach Jesus.

    The challenge is to decide the solution to that evident problem. I think most evangelical pastors are concerned that gospel proclamation be central– whether it is “part / not part” of the mission or the “center” of the mission. They are looking for how to balance those out.

    As you said, gospel preaching leaders and pastors are not that far apart. I’d hate for this become a point of division between believers, particularly those within the TGC world. I wrote on this on my own blog a while back. I appreciate friends who are on both sides of the issue– and see them engaging in mission even if they prefer to not use the terms in the same way I do.

    There is a place for both views and I hope we will treat one another that way—one is not orthodox and one heterodox. One is not biblical and the other unbiblical. They are differences of perspective and conclusion based on a sincere engagement with the biblical text.

    What there is NO place for is a view of justice demonstration that eliminates or distracts from gospel proclamation. On that we all should agree.



  • http://www.churchfurniturepartner.com Church Chair Guy

    The church example you gave seemed amazingly descriptive of the one I have pastor for 25 years.

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  • Andrew

    Thanks, Colin, for a balanced and thought provoking piece. You have highlighted once again the significance of DY & G’s thought on the issue.
    It occurs to me that your example of ‘one fairly typical evangelical church’ is not so typical in my experience. Perhaps it is a fairly typical example in the terms of your argument. Could you clarify whether this is an hypothetical example or one that you have actually seen functioning?
    I’d be seriously worried about an evangelical church that is asking people to give everything they possibly can to the church for whatever reason.
    I’d be questioning the reference to evangelical if they began to make people feel they’d failed in their christian calling on the basis of good works…

    • http://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org Collin Hansen

      It’s a real church and not unique.

      • Susan

        Andrew, see my comments below…

      • Andrew

        OK, thanks Collin.
        Susan, I agree that there is a serious doctrinal and practical issue at stake in this discussion. In essence, justice in any form is not a complete picture of the gospel and cannot be confused with or replace the centrality of Christ’s completed work or the individual’s need for salvation from God’s wrath. I hope you can see me as a brother in this matter.
        A couple of things I’m not sure about though. I would like us to be clear in our language about such issues so that we can win our brethren rather than stake out our lines of disagreement. I believe in a God who can use a dumb animal to correct those who are in error – so I trust he uses my faltering communication of the gospel as much as my brother’s faulty proclamation. Are we as concerned about encouraging christians to live upright lives as they await for the blessed appearing of our Lord as we are about correcting their doctrinal manners or helping them ‘make converts’?
        I maintain that my personal experience does not lead me to see as typical the example of a church that is more concerned with social justice than evangelism. Your experience may be different. I do, however, share the concern that this is a rising tide. I hope I have understood the connection between our posts. My consolation is that the church is not mine and is ultimately under good leadership.
        Finally, as an Australian missionary theologian, I find your reference to a certain “well known “missiologist'” uncomfortably oblique. Care to enlighten me with food for research?

        • Susan


          “Are we as concerned about encouraging christians to live upright lives as they await for the blessed appearing of our Lord as we are about correcting their doctrinal manners or helping them ‘make converts’?”

          The way you phrase the question sounds somewhat accusatory or defensive, “are we as concerned….about correcting their doctrinal manners”…..I’m not trying to correct ‘doctrinal manners’. But, if the core doctrines of the gospel are neither understood nor spoken with reasonable resemblance to truth then we aren’t preaching a gospel which will lead one to true salvation, right? So, in that sense doctrine is quite important. Also, you seem to assume that I might not think that it’s important to encourage Christians to ‘lead upright lives’ since I’ve expressed this concern about evangelism. I’m not sure why that would follow. To answer your question, I think that both are important. And, I’m not sure why you put ‘make converts’ in quotes. Christ’s command involves ‘making disciples’ which begins with conversion (after hearing the gospel) , right? After that comes the ‘teaching them to obey’ (or as you put it, ‘encourage to lead upright lives’). That is also part of The Great Commission.

          I appreciate that you have not encountered churches such as Collin describes. A pastor in my city told me recently that there aren’t many churches around this area now which are actively engaging in evangelism. So, yes, that would be the connection.

          As far as the comment about Australian missiologists goes I have had quite a bit of communication with one who’s name I suppose you would be familiar with. He has sharply disagreed with me about issues of evangelism. As I recall he seemed to be saying that it’s important to expose people to the reign of Christ (via acts of social justice) but didn’t seem to agree with me that it’s important to actually verbally share the gospel with people. Apparently he will talk about Jesus if asked by someone who’s physical needs he attempts to address, but that doesn’t appear to be what he is purposing to do otherwise. I base this on a number of conversations with him and observation of some talks he has done which are posted on youtube. Even in one youtube I watched he said that someone at the conference where he’s delivered a talk asked him afterwards if he ever actually shares the gospel with people. He said yes, sometimes people ask, but when he explained what he then shares with someone…it wasn’t the gospel. I’ve noted his emphasis is shared by another who is closely associated with him. I was intentionally oblique because it is not my purpose to defame him/them. Your opening statements to me make me think that you might not see eye to eye with the individuals I have in mind.

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  • ForeBarca

    Excellent article.
    I also wish that churches would cease sending missionaries to places like Central Africa or to India or to Indonesia. We have become an increasingly broken society as evidenced by a rising numbers. We take care of the fatherless in India (an increasingly wealthy country thanks to mostly beneficial neo-liberal economic policies). How do we do this? By sending financial donations or by sending long term or short term missionaries. While I am sure that God calls some people to minister to these countries, I am equally convinced that we ought to firstly take care of our own, especially those households led by mothers alone or the widowed or the orphaned. Here is a crucial element: the Gospel must also be preached to these neighborhoods and to our wealthy neighborhoods, which are usually White or drawn from people from South East and South Asia.

    • Tom Larsen

      Churches should not cease sending missionaries to places like Central Africa or to India or to Indonesia. Christians in the West, for the most part, have the resources to do so, and to minister to the people in their own congregations as well.

  • Susan

    Hi Collin, this is a good continuation of our former blog discussion!

    Amen to what you have said here. This is a very important issue. It is true that many churches have shifted their emphasis toward social justice and the proclamation of the gospel has all but disappeared and is rarely encouraged from the pulpit. Accordingly, there is no longer an equipping of believers to engage those not-yet-saved with the message of the gospel. Also I have seen the gospel itself muddied to nearly non-recognizable ends. When sin/judgement is rarely spoken of and the resurrection is the primary emphasis–to the near extinction of the atoning sacrifice of Christ, the good news looses it’s goodness and fails to be compelling. I’ve seen this change occur in our church over the past 10 years and I see this among well known ‘missiologists’ of Australian origins. Being ‘salt and light’ is no longer associated with evangelism for many (but isn’t it true that the primary importance of salt in the ancient world was ‘preservation’?) I think that N.T.Wright has been influential in this shift. We can see how his theology is playing out in the churches who embrace him.

    Whatever happened to Paul’s, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified”? As we follow Paul on his missionary journeys we see him proclaiming, proclaiming, proclaiming…and he didn’t do it within the context of social justice. I think that we are deceived when we believe that people will not be receptive to the message of salvation unless we have first labored hard to display our good deeds before them. Many times I have shared the gospel with people without having first attending to social justice with them and have found people to be open to the discussion. Often this is in the context of having built a friendship first (but not always). Scripture is clear on this. Our command from Christ is clear. Good deeds flow from the heart transformed (and yes they should be encouraged), but as Tim Keller says, “Evangelism should be a leading edge ministry of the church”.

    People are walking toward Hell without Christ, which is ultimately much worse than the temporary sufferings of this world. So, what then should be our goal and priority? Engaging in meeting people’s needs has great value in that it can open doors for the preaching of the gospel, but I see few people these days walking through those opened doors and opening their mouths to speak the true gospel. Most walk away feeling that they have done their part to advance the kingdom.

    Many fail to understand the inherent power of the gospel spoken, thus fearing any mention of sin and impending judgement , the blood shed on the cross etc.. Our fear, and lack of faith in the message and the Spirit’s power to awaken a heart of stone by it, keep us in the realm of good-deed doing without proclamation. It’s time for churches to hire evangelism pastors who can aid in the equipping of the saints for this incredibly vital task…something we will realize much joy in if we obey the commission of our Lord and start spending more time honing our ability to effectively speak the message of the gospel.

    Who most desires to see the church/believers distracted from the preaching of the true gospel? The enemy himself!

    I for one am very thankful for De Young and Gilbert’s corrective attention to this subject. They point out faulty theology which contributes to this neglect of evangelism (seeing the Abrahamic covenant as a mandate for the church to bring blessing (shalom) rather than seeing that Christ is the blessing as He allows us to be reconciled to God–thus the reason for evangelism). Much needed! I appreciate your heart in this, Collin!

    • http://tomlarsen.org Tom Larsen

      I agree with N. T. Wright on a great deal—not everything, mind you. He is quite right to point out that the Gospel is about how God has established His kingdom on earth (and is bringing it to consummation) and declared Jesus to be Lord through Jesus’ death and resurrection. The cross is deeply central to the Gospel; but I do worry that a lot of evangelical preaching could succeed even if Jesus had never proclaimed the kingdom of God or risen from the dead, if Jesus’ miracles and resurrection were just fancy proofs of His divinity.

    • Scott Buchanan

      Hi Susan,

      Agree with much of what you say. A hearty “amen” to the imperative of evangelism. Just one point, however – is social justice (or biblical justice, or whatever) merely a way of making people more receptive to the gospel (which you appear to assume when you call this a “deception”)? Or is an effort to challenge the various social manifestations of sin that we witness around us?


      • Susan

        It is of value to rescue those who are oppressed and victimized by the sin of others or in need in some way, much as we would do for a family member. Why would we do this? Often times because God has given us a heart of flesh, so that we have compassion for people the way He has compassion for us in our suffering and lostness. This is good, and an extension of His love and grace even if we do not have the opportunity to to share the gospel with someone in the situation.

        You quote me as having referred to something as ‘deception’. I can only see this in my post:

        “I think that we are deceived when we believe that people will not be receptive to the message of salvation unless we have first labored hard to display our good deeds before them.”

        I think perhaps you have misconstrued my meaning. I stand by what I said here. It is possible to share the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ with someone even if you have not first done some good deed for them.

  • Taylor

    While I respect that your example is a real church, I don’t see how the guilt-trip defense is in any way specific to the justice side of the spectrum. People that read books like Radical and give guilt trips to those who don’t do ‘enough’ have missed the point in the same way that someone who reads a book on DL Moody and gives guilt trips on personal evangelism has. And yet, in both areas, the legitimate observation could be also made that the American church could stand to see the disparity between her words and her deeds.

    Regarding the fabric of society, am I correct in reading that it is neither in the church’s nor the government’s sphere of influence? That understanding suggests a let-it-burn mentality regarding the secular world that diminshes the power of the gospel almost entirely to individual salvation. Taken to its natural end, it promotes anarchy and compound-style Christianity. If certain family and societal values are inherent from creation, why is it outside the scope of Christian living to encourage and facilitate our neighbors. Pointing towards the common grace that right values bring is loving our neighbor and is often the first step in sharing the gospel.

    • http://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org Collin Hansen

      The book in question is not Radical. And I certainly don’t advocate evangelistic guilt trips as an alternative. The government cannot replace the family, to offer one example. The government cannot create harmony and peace in a community. The government, to cite one responsibility, should seek through policing to foster a safe atmosphere for families to flourish. Other believers, to extend the family example and biblical teaching, can and should care for the widows and orphans among them. They should be free to also assist the vulnerable outside the church—deacons take up this responsibility as elders focus on the teaching of the Word and prayer. Individual members might team up to assist their neighbors in all sorts of practical ways, to demonstrate the love of Christ. But the pastor should be wary of leading this activity, lest he become distracted from his unique calling from God to this church. Again, the church is a spiritual family, but it does not replace the commandments given all humanity in Genesis. For the church to fulfill the roles of this social sphere—family, trade unions, professional organizations, public schools, interest clubs, and so on—would be to burden the body of Christ with responsibilities beyond our capability and outside our calling. But by all means Christians should joyfully serve in these institutions as an expression of their vocational calling, in some cases, and at all times out of love for their neighbors. Again, the problem I’m addressing is the suggestions that the church can and should respond to the social ills around us by seeking to replace the mediating institutions that have disappeared and led to this problem in the first place. Then the church will do no one any lasting good, because we’ll forsake the one thing—the good news of Jesus Christ—that leads to full human flourishing in this life and the next.

  • http://www.corinthtoday.org paul

    I’m surprised that the book in question is NOT Radical…because Radical seems to embody exactly what Deyoung and Gilbert are talking about…and they have already responded to it in a similar fashion in an earlier review.

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