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When our book What Is the Mission of the Church? came out last fall it generated a fair number of responses, including some heavy (and usually respectful) pushback. We tried to respond to a few of these thoughtful responses. Since then the conversation has quieted down, which is entirely appropriate.

But that doesn’t mean the issue is any less urgent. Few Christians would question that disciplemaking is at the heart of the church’s missionary imperative. No evangelical is against evangelism, reaching unreached peoples, and making disciples. And yet, I believe we are blind to serious dangers if we think we can pay mere lipservice to these things, spotlight everything else, and still expect our missionary heartbeat to keep beating. For many churches and many Christians our mission work and mission aims have become indistinguishable from that of any number of humanitarian organizations.

Last week I was reading through a Christian magazine and saw a page with short blurbs about local church life. The snippets included a story about a church dedicating a wind turbine, a church celebrating clean water for Earth Day, and a worship leader organizing a shoe donation. These were three of the six stories about church life (in fairness, one did mention discipleship).

Similarly, while checking out a church website several months ago I was struck by the goal of their missions program: “to connect people and their resources with opportunities to respond to human need in the name of Jesus.” Of the local missions supported by the church one was a food pantry, another a fair trade coffee shop, and the third an organization that rebuilds homes.

And finally, I noticed recently that a large missions conference, in describing what attendees will experience at the conference, talked about “exposure to global issues and realities” and a special track in “poverty and social justice” but there was no indication in this list that the conference would alert attendees to the plight of the lost or the urgent need to share the gospel and call people to faith and repentance.

In my experience, there is hardly a college Christian in the country who needs to be reminded that God cares about the justice and poverty. Almost every young up-and-comer Christianity Today highlights on their back page is involved in or passionate about some kind of social justice ministry. It’s not like we are sending out a generation of Christians into the world who are so zealous to rescue the eternally perishing that they won’t be bothered to give a cup of cold water or protest injustice. The opposite is much more likely to be true, that scores of mission trips, mission budgets, and missional pursuits are full of good humanitarian deeds with little thought about heaven and hell and the proclamation of the gospel.

I’m not saying that evangelicalism’s better missional thinkers are making this mistake. What I am suggesting is that we are making a mistake if we think no one is.

Consider this sentence:

What would it take to change the world, provide food for the hungry, and water to the thirsty, teach children to read, and keep them healthy, shelter families and train a new generation, give the poor a chance to better themselves, create a worldwide network of peacemakers, and conquer a disease that has killed or crippled millions?

This sentence poses a fine question, one which provokes us to pursue noble goals. It almost sounds like the mission statement for a church, or the introduction to a new conference, or, for some, the summation of the Christian life, but it’s the opening line to the promotional video for Rotary International. I have nothing against Rotarians. Who could? Their motto is “service above self.” That’s a much better way to live—for you and for everyone else—than striving for “self above service.” It is good. It is honorable. It is important. And done with the right motives from the right faith, humanitarian service is profoundly pleasing to God. But is it the mission of the church?

If service broadly defined as bettering nutrition and reducing illiteracy, with or without gospel proclamation and disciplemaking, is Christian mission, then the Rotary Club belongs with Carey, Judson, and Paul in the pantheon of missionary heroes. If not, then we still have some work to do in helping our people see what is the mission of the church. Doing good is great, but only good news saves.

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28 thoughts on “Why the Mission of the Church Discussion Still Matters”

  1. Randy in Tulsa says:

    “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important (weightier) aspects of the law–justice, mercy, and faith (or faithfulness). You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things.” Matthew 23:23 (NLT) Justice will get people’s attention, mercy their heart and faith their life. The full gospel.

  2. Nathan Brown says:

    Hi Kevin,

    This is a helpful post in the conversation on a number of points. You are spot on. The “mission of the Church discussion” still matters.

    I particularly appreciate this statement:

    “I’m not saying that evangelicalism’s better missional thinkers are making this mistake. What I am suggesting is that we are making a mistake if we think no one is.”

    This statement recognizes that there is a break down in orthopraxy too often. The truth is such breakdowns can be spotted everywhere. (Too often, I am afraid pretty close to my own home.)

    This posture gives us space to have an enriching conversation. Now, I am nobody. No one will invite me to that conversation, but I will listen in.

    Another way for us to have an enriching conversation to start with a central position. Constructing our own biblical/theological positions is necessary. But, too often, with these, we talk past one another–too much scaffolding to actually hear the other person’s perspective and understand their argument.

    In my mind, a good place to start would be around the GC statement. Do you affirm the Gospel Coalition’s Theological Vision for Ministry statement on this issue?

    The statement that I am referring to is:

    “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 would love to see a coordinated a conversation around this statement. I think there is a good chance to have a clarifying conversation from this statement. We need a conversation that starts from what we mutually affirm. Then we can talk about how we apply it differently, what terms we use differently and why, and what theological commitments are directing us.

    Looking forward to your response. Thanks, Nathan

  3. Susan says:

    Kevin, Amen! Here’s the mission statement of the church we just left: A community of the new creation living out of the gospel for the flourishing of all. Your comments are descriptive of this church.
    An interview with N.T.Wright recently appeared in the local paper in which he stated, “First-century Jews who believed Jesus was the Messiah also believed he inaugurated the Kingdom of God and were convinced the world would be transformed in their lifetimes. This inauguration however was far from complete and required the active participation of God’s people practicing social justice, nonviolence and forgiveness to become fulfilled. Once the Kingdom is complete the bodily resurrection will follow with a fully restored creation here on Earth. What we are doing at the moment is building for the kingdom.”
    I include this quote because the current pastor has shifted the theological framework of the church to this model as he has been more influenced by Wright than any other New Testament scholar for the past 12 years or so. Therefore, as Wright states, it seems that our job is primarily to bring in the Kingdom (and resurrection) by our acts of social justice (and pacifism).
    Evangelism has become a dinosaur word, and concept, in the church over the years. There seems to be little recognition among leadership that a person is transformed from the inside out as they come to conversion and are transformed by God’s indwelling Spirit. Instead, the focus seems to be one of transforming culture.
    Also, I think that a mistake is made when we view the ‘disciple’ of the great commission to be something other than a Christian. They are one and the same. I think that the confusion enters because of the modern day VERB “disciple”, and “discipling”…which are not biblical words. To make disciples means to make Christian converts, THEN we teach them to obey all that Christ commands. If someone is leading a discipleship group they shouldn’t assume that they are fulfilling the Great Commission if they are not sharing the gospel with those not-yet-saved.

  4. Rob French says:

    As we (rightly) consider social justice, mercy ministry, etc. we also need to keep an eye on the late 19th- early 20th-century Protestant church and its descent into liberalism, losing the full gospel to the social gospel, and becoming indistinguishable from the world at large.

  5. Sam says:

    Your misinterpretation of the mission of the church is caused by your failure to understand the mission of Christ. In teaching his disciples how to pray, Jesus called for God’s will to be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” Our mission is not to get people to heaven, as if heaven is a place that exists somewhere else after we die, but to bring the Kingdom of God to the here and now. Take a closer look at Jesus’s words and you’ll that he says nothing about going to heaven. His life, death, and resurrection were about saving this world, not about helping people escape it before it goes up in flames.

  6. Rob in Indy says:

    This is a very good reminder Kevin. Service in these areas is not contrary to the church’s mission, but it has to be kept in the context of its greatest eternal calling, which is to make disciples.

    Forgetting that will relegate all these ministries of mercy to just another in long list of distractions and rabbit-trails that have beset the church, especially the Western church, over the past 50 years.

  7. Mark says:

    I think this is really a manufactured controversy. Are there young Christians who dilute or de-emphasize the gospel in their call to service? Of course. What I don’t get is this great worry that this is an epidemic or that sharing the gospel and restoring the broken world is a zero sum game. As a church, not only can we do both, but I think scripture is clear we are commanded to do both. Moreover, you have no credibility with the lost when you walk among them declaring the good news as you step over the person lying on the ground in need of help. Let us go into our communities restoring the broken while declaring the good news of a God who has given his Son to bring the ultimate restoration.

  8. Susan says:

    Sam, although Christians will ultimately dwell on this earth, after it’s restoration by God, in our resurrected bodies, this does not mean that people will not go to hell. Those who reject Jesus as the one true Savior will dwell in eternal punishment at the hand of God. Thus, our primary mission is to ‘make disciples’. The word ‘disciples’ is equivalent to the word ‘Christians’. One who is not a Christian/disciple will be punished in hell. Isn’t that reason enough to consider what Kevin is saying here?

  9. David Axberg says:

    Three ways to accomplish the mission of every believer and the church is pretty simplistic. It must be in this order.
    1. Love God
    2. Love the world with God’s love
    3. Work for nothing (this does not mean you don’t take care of the responsibilities you have, husband/wife, parent/child, food/shelter) but work as unto the Lord with all your heart mind and soul and He will provide.

  10. Susan says:

    David, statements about what is in a person’s heart do not really describe mission.
    In order to take your comment and move it toward mission I would ask: How do you love the world with God’s love, as in, what will this love propel you to do in order to share God’s love with the world. He did commission us to action, after all.

  11. kyle says:

    I’ve been reading Hans Kung’s “On Being a Christian” recently and he tackles some similar questions from the perspective of what he calls the “challenge of modern humanisms.” His basic point is that we must be careful not to sellout the Christian reality in all our getting involved. Here is an excerpt:

    “It may seem like a caricature, but there is considerable truth in the picture of uncommonly open-minded Churches which go in for action instead of prayer, get actively involved everywhere in society, subscribe to all manifestos, identify themselves with all possible enterprises and- whenever possible- take part in revolutions, at least by supporting them in words from a distance; meanwhile, nearer home, the churches are becoming emptier, the sermon is acquiring a new function and the Eucharist is more and more forgotten, with the result that community worship- deliturgized and detheologized- degenerates into a sociopolitical discussion and action group…”

  12. david carlson says:

    but of course doing good to those who are oppressed is the gospel. That is, unless Mathew 25: 31-46 is not part of the gospel….

  13. Susan says:

    David, doing good to the oppressed is not the gospel. As Kevin points out, even nonbelievers do that. The gospel is the good news about Jesus which He has charged us to proclaim to others.

  14. kyle says:

    Doing good to the oppressed is certainly good news but it is not the Good News. I understand Matt 25:31-46 as referring to the criterion of Christ’s judgment of the unregenerated nations alive on the earth at His second coming.

  15. David Axberg says:

    Susan, I have thought of your question if you take the three points I made in the order they were made.

    Love God – I am a sinner in need of my Savior’s Grace
    Love the world with God’s love – Because I have the Grace I now freely give it to anyone and everyone In hope of them accepting it.
    Work for nothing – I think I said enough or even better see above.

    God Bless Now!

  16. Susan says:

    David, I might take your #2 and instead of just giving ‘grace’ to others add the speaking of the gospel of Jesus Christ and what he accomplished on the cross and why it matters…then you have mission!

  17. David Axberg says:

    Susan OK I would say that I have that opportunity to share the Gospel because of the Grace freely given. See what I did there the same thing Christ did for me. God Bless Now!

  18. June says:

    This is true we need to be reminded of the call to reach lost souls with the gospel and to disciple them. Yet, I think we need to hold our spiritual calling and social calling to the world in a healthy tension. Because, Jesus most definitely fed stomachs and souls. In the past people have gone to far in one direction or another. This is and always be a BOTH AND mission, not an EITHER OR mission.

  19. Derek says:

    And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Mark 16:15

    Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. Luke 24:45-47

    And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20

    Jesus’ final instructions were to preach the gospel, make disciples and teaching them to observe what He commanded them.

  20. Mike says:

    Quite a collection of comments to a controversial topic.

    And it is being talked of too often in terms of the extremes. It is true that the gospel is not “justice to the needy” or some other social comparable. But in the desire to share the “good news of Jesus” we have ignored that Jesus did command that we do “justice to the needy.”

    What I find perplexing about these discussions is that the old-school line presumes that the new focus is simply social justice (which is rightly described as undertaken by many, including non-Christians) while the new-school adherents presume that the push-back is a rejection of any kind of social justice. This is not an either/or discussion.

    And sometimes it looks true. When the topic of the sermon is so exclusively social, or exclusively non-social. The old-school often needs to step-up their “justice” efforts because it too often seems just a band-aid to feel good (or ignored as being non-spiritual). But the other side just as often needs to remember that doing a lot of good works of social justice is no substitute for repentance, grace, and forgiveness. We need to be reminded of both our need to believe and to obey.

    I will admit that I have not read the book. But based on the reviews, it is worthy of note that Jesus did not give the Great Commission to the whole of those following him. He took the apostles aside and gave them the command. (Not sure what to make of that.) But he declared that the greatest commandment was actually two: love God and love your neighbor. We can argue that social justice is just like the heathen taking care of the poor. No need for salvation. And this is true. But not all heathen do that. But Christ-followers were all given that command. We can’t avoid it just because some heathen do similar-looking things. Seems like some kind of confirmation bias at work when that argument is put forward.

  21. Susan says:

    Mike, June and David,
    Consider this quote from Duane Letfin:
    “Some today will claim that there is no true evangelism without “embodied action.” In fact, according to one critic, “Unless [Christ’s] disciples are following the Great Commandment, it is fruitless to engage in the Great Commission.” According to this view, the gospel is without its own potency. Its “fruitfulness” depends upon us. But this is not the testimony of the New Testament.”

    Here’s the rest of the article. It’s worth reading and very much on-topic:

  22. Susan says:

    Mike, how loving is it to do good deeds for your neighbor and yet let them continue on the road that leads to destruction and eternal damnation? Yes we should care for the physical and monetary needs of those around us, but if we never proclaim the gospel of Jesus they are still heading for hell. The most loving thing you could ever possibly do for a nonbeliever is to tell them the gospel of Jesus. I didn’t say anything about ‘avoiding’ social justice. That’s important too, but the highest prioriy should be to lead people to salvation. What do you think Paul’s priority was as you read the book of Acts–a great book of mission? What was he doing, focusing on social justice or proclaiming Christ?

  23. Derek says:


    Jesus did show mercy and compassion but in the majority of the miracles He dealt with the person’s sins. Also John 6:23-69 shows how He dealt with the people who sought after Him “because they ate of the loaves and were filled”. He said many hard sayings dealing with salvation which caused people to grumble and “many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore.”

    He did the miracles as proof that He had the authority to forgive sins. Matthew 9:6 “But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” –then He said to the paralytic, “Get up, pick up your bed and go home.”

    “fruitfulness” depends on if we are in Christ not on us. Jesus said “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. “If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned. John 15:4-6

  24. Susan says:


  25. David Axberg says:

    Susan or anyone else for that matter am I wrong to believe the meanig of “go and make desciples” is as follows?

    The word “go” in the Great Commission is not a command. The word is a participle “going” or “as you go” make disciples. We are all “going” all of the time. Disciple making is to happen “as we go” wherever we are.

    Just a question – yes we speak of our King as often as possible but we also need to live the Gospel life. Thats all I have to say. I think I use to worry about just living and needed to always have a “Gospel Word” to say. We are to say and live the Gospel not forgetting either of them. Thank you for helping me see that I still need to speak the Gospel.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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