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I’m thankful for pastors like Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert and count them both as friends. I appreciate them for their rigorous thinking imbued with pastoral sensitivity and a desire to be biblically faithful.

Recently, I read their new book, What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission, an ambitious work that seeks to place the church’s mission within the framework of the Bible’s story line and the New Testament gospel. DeYoung and Gilbert focus on the Great Commission texts in order to formulate this definition of the church’s mission:

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 Christ now and in eternity to the glory of God the Father. (241)

I am largely in agreement with this definition, but I’m puzzled by the way the book unpacks it. I agree that the mission of the church is to make disciples, but I think I pack more into the definition of “disciple-making” than DeYoung and Gilbert do.

So instead of doing a full review, I thought it might be helpful to put forth five nagging questions about I have about their proposal, in hopes that these questions continue the conversation that DeYoung and Gilbert’s book has begun:

1. Can we reduce “making disciples” and “teaching Christ’s commands” to the delivery of information?

It seems to me that DeYoung and Gilbert tend to reduce “disciple-making” to teaching and then reduce “teaching” to the transferring of information. I agree that teaching is a central part of discipleship (which is one reason I am dedicating the next few years to the development of solid biblical curriculum). At the same time, we need to recognize that teaching also takes place in mentoring, in modeling, and in collaboration with others. So wouldn’t good deeds of love and justice fit within the overall definition of “teaching”? Isn’t part of disciple-making expressed in older Christians coming alongside new believers and together doing the good deeds Christ has called us to? If so, then doesn’t the making of disciples inherently include, at least in some measure, our work in the world? At the end of the day, I don’t think we can separate “making disciples” from “loving neighbor” in the way that it seems DeYoung and Gilbert do.

2. If we agree that there is a zoom-lens and wide-lens view of the gospel, can we also agree that there is a zoom-lens and wide-lens view of the mission?

I liked DeYoung and Gilbert’s chapter on the gospel, particularly the way they distinguish between two ways of conceiving the one gospel. In DeYoung and Gilbert’s conception, the gospel of the kingdom is integrally connected to the gospel of the cross. Or put another way, the cross is the fountainhead of the blessings of the kingdom (pg. 108). My question is: Why not use this approach in considering the mission? Can we not conceive of the church’s mission in wide lens and zoom lens as well? Evangelism is central (zoom lens), and yet evangelism is corroborated by any number of activities (wide lens) that demonstrate the reality of our gospel proclamation.

3. Isn’t there a sense in which worship is expressed through our life in the world, not just our corporate worship services?

At the corporate level, it’s clear that worship takes place within the church’s gathering. Yet the biblical story line begins with Adam and Eve worshiping God by obeying His commands in the garden. It was their cultivation of the garden that reflected their love and praise for their Maker. So when DeYoung and Gilbert claim that worship is integral to the mission of the church and yet want to separate worship from our deeds of justice, I worry that we are failing to remember that our good work in the world is part of our obedient worship to God.

4. Even if we recognize that the verbs related to the kingdom are passive (receiving, bearing witness to, etc.), does this necessarily preclude us from speaking of “work for the kingdom”?

When people use terminology like “work for the kingdom” or “build for the kingdom,” they usually mean that their good deeds are done at the bidding of King Jesus. They are doing these things on behalf of the kingdom. DeYoung and Gilbert are hesitant to allow any of our good deeds to be seen as contributing in some way to God’s work in establishing His kingdom. I understand their concern. Yet I think that propping up an unbendable category here might suppress kingdom work rather than inspire it. I think many people in our churches are unaware of how their “labor for the Lord is not in vain.” Connecting our good deeds to the kingdom that only God will establish can be a pastorally helpful and biblically faithful way of showing the relationship between kingdom work and the church’s mission. “Working for the kingdom” does not necessarily lead to burn-out and utopianism. For most of us, it infuses our current work with passion and excitement, knowing that God will take our work and use it for His purposes.

5. Is our representation of Christ not part of the mission?

DeYoung and Gilbert believe we must represent Christ, but it seems like they connect this representation so tightly to verbal proclamation of the gospel that little room is left for representing Christ through love and good deeds. I wonder if, in addition to the Great Commission passages, we also need to consider the New Testament metaphors for the church as we seek to discern our mission. Images like Christ’s bride, Christ’s body, and the holy temple and royal priesthood help us understand that being like Jesus is part of what it means to “teach all that He has commanded.” Christ-likeness is a part of the mission, and we cannot and should not separate proclamation of Christ from the representation of Christ we offer through our acts of service.

Update: Kevin and Greg have offered some clarifying answers to these five questions here. I encourage you to read their response. This is a conversation worth having.

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43 thoughts on “5 Nagging Questions about DeYoung/Gilbert’s "Mission of the Church"”

  1. Jeff Lebowski says:

    You’ve hit the nail on the head, Trevin. A regenerated life should be an example to the rest of the world of what God intends humanity to be. People should look at Christians and see what a marriage can be, what work can look like… It’s unthinkable that we could live as children of a living God and tolerate the existence of poverty without seeing it as a source of shame; we can’t preach about the sanctity of life and the dignity of the individual or witness of a God who knows when a sparrow falls and not live by these values in the public realm.

    This ridiculous American political left-wing/right-wing view of the world is in danger of infecting the church and our interpretation of the Gospel which is ludicrous and dangerous. Personal righteousness and responsibility is in no way opposed to participation in God’s transformation and reconciliation of creation.

    Two quick verses:

    Romans 6:13 suggests that we are not saved from sin to become passive objects but our very bodies have a new purpose – “Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness.”

    And Ephesians 2:10 makes it clear that we are not predestined to just sit in church waiting to die and go to heaven/be raptured; instead, salvation is a springboard for action! “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

    Thanks Trevin. Keep talking sense!

  2. Brilliant. Thanks so much for this.

  3. Taylor says:

    I had a difficult time with the chapters on justice. They seemed to take the term ‘social justice’ and use it to focus only only on the believer’s call to do justice, often at the expense of the mercy commanded in the same texts.

  4. Arthur Sido says:

    Excellent comments. I haven’t read this book yet but it certainly seems to fall into the same trap that books like “Why We Love The Church” and blogs like 9 Marks often do, namely an inability to look at issues outside of the framework of the traditional, institutional church. Many writers when writing about the church, assume the church model based on tradition and then make everything they read and apply fit into that model even when it makes little sense. As Jeff said above, I don’t think sitting in a pew and listening to sermons week after week are really the “good works” we were predestined for (Eph 2:10)

  5. Trevin,

    Great words. While I appreciate DeYoung and Gilbert, I do believe they have taken a reductionistic stance on the gospel and the mission of the church. One cannot reduce what Jesus intended the church to be from a few texts, particularly Matthew 28.

    Great questions. I didn’t read the book, but because I know their arguments and positions already, I probably don’t need to. Nothing you wrote surprised me.

    Tim Keller’s Generous Justice, on the other hand, was a great, challenging, non-reductionistic take on the role of mercy in the church.

  6. Craig Beard says:

    Trevin, I’m glad to see this appreciative critique from you. I think some have seen similar concerns expressed by others in the blogosphere and thought “That’s just what so-and-so thinks, and he’s not sound on the gospel anyway.”

  7. Nick Carraway says:

    I dearly hope this is not the firing shot for another turf war which will lead to yet more expulsions from the evangelical family. Yes, it is important to debate gender roles, the atonement, the existence of hell and justification, but yet again it looks like a self-appointed magisterium is pontificating over who is in and who is out in a way which posits the North American professional pastor-led reformed congregation as the supreme model for the global church to follow.

    I’m sure there are plenty of Christians leaders in the developing world who live on less than $5 a day who would like to be a US pastor and earn an average of c.$85,100 but that is not going to happen if believers in the world’s only superpower do not consider the poverty of their brothers and sisters a scandal which needs to be resolved.

    Actually, I agree with many of the authors’ concerns and I’m sure they’re good, earnest young men. It is tragic if personal evangelism falls by the wayside; there is something deeply sad about faith-based work that is actually delivered according to secular goals and outcomes, and if Christian NGOs lose their connection with the salvation message, yes, they are to be pitied. The solution is not to run away from enagagement and expressions of love in a hurting world but to teach a biblical theology which shows Christians how God wants to deal with the effects of sin – regenerating the individual and healing the damage of this disease in His world. God works in the macro and the micro and we are destined to share in his work as harvesters.

    But when I read a sentence from these guys like “If we only hope for renewed cities and restored bodies in this life we are of all people most to be pitied” I can hear the landing of a blow. Is it aimed at the Sojourners crowd, over the sea at UK evangelicals such as Chris Wright, or even within the Gospel Coalition at Tim Keller?

    The broad church movement of 20th century evangelicalism had its failings and has been critqued by emergents for being individual-obsessed to the point of losing focus on community and by the reformed for losing focus on God. But some amazing things happened. Billy Graham helped millions of people hear God’s call into His kingdom, John Stott helped millions gain a true grasp of the Bible’s riches, World Vision saved a multitude of lives, and colleges such as Wheaton shaped generations of Bible-loving leaders who enriched different denominations.

    But when I read reformed blogs and skim books such as this I don’t get that sense of revival among God’s people, of friendships crossing ancient divides, of a sense of shared, well, mission. Instead, I see young and relatively affluent men with publishing deals dismissing peers from outside their tradition as naively misguided. In their self-appointed role of winnowing they can inadvertently sow the seeds of division and discord in families and churches when Christ taught us we are a body made up of radically different members with unique callings. The critical spirit and with-us-or-aginst-us spirit which defines so much of this reformed phenomenon is, I find, deadening.

    If you feel that gender roles is a defining issue, make your case with grace and love. By all means, debate long into night with passion the wonder of justification as we try to comprehend the majesty of God’s work, and defend the truth o the atonement with passion and joy. But, guys, when you see some chaps who seem to be caring for the widow and the orphan with a little too much enthusiasm, can you give them a break? Sit this one out. Jesus didn’t allow his disciples to stop the men they saw as rivals casting out demons in His name, so on this occasion perhaps we can let brothers and sisters get on with the work God has laid on their hearts.

  8. trey says:

    Nick, I wasn’t going to read your long comment all the way thru because I had judged it early as just a “being critical of being critical” and “lets all get along,” which is fine, there’s just one in every place available to comment! I’m glad I kept reading. I think you NAILED was. has eaten at me for so long but I’ve never been able to express it that way. I won’t reiterate what you said, but will simply leave it at “thank you” for articulating that so well.
    Trevin, great questions. I think we create too many point-counterpoint arguments where there should be a third way.

  9. Brian Fulton says:

    I’ve been really processing as I read how to simply put the relationship between gospel proclamation and gospel demonstration. Here’s my thoughts, and I’d like to hear what you think.

    Since both our mission and our marriages image the triune God, I think the two can shine some light on how deeds and work relate.

    Both Gospel Proclamation and Gospel Demonstration are equal in value and importance. Their roles are different.

    Gospel Proclamation, like headship, takes the lead. Substitute the terms in Eph. 5. “Gospel proclamation, love gospel demonstration.”

    Gospel demonstration, like the wife’s role gives support to proclamation. Eph 5. “Gospel demonstration, submit to Gospel proclamation.”

    This illustration breaks down on all kind of levels and is not a perfect analogy, but I think it is helpful. I think it shows that deeds are not enough in our mission, but they are more than just fruit of the Christian life. (I could give a whole biblical explanation of this but don’t want to clog up the comment section).

    Thoughts on the analogy? helpful? confusing?

  10. Logan Gentry says:


    This is well-done. A thoughtful, encouraging and non-provoking review and critique. Much appreciated.

  11. Corey says:

    Question #1

    Can you reverse your question, though? And I think this is where Gilbert and DeYoung try to make a distinction.

    While discipleship isn’t less-than “loving your neighbor,” can you reduce the act of “loving your neighbor” to discipleship? I would argue that simply “loving your neighbor” is not, in fact, discipleship.

  12. But what about the fact that DeYoung/Gilbert are writing about the Mission of the church over and against the mission of individual Christians? The church, as the church, has different responsibilities and obligations than individual Christians. I feel like all of Trevin’s questions can be, and are, answered in the affirmative by D/G when we are talking about individual Christians. When we start talking about the church as an institution/body, however, there are some things she shouldn’t do WHILE SIMULTANEOUSLY providing a way for her members to do them.

    For example: should a church run a soup kitchen? Maybe. What if the church financially supported members of the congregation who started a non-profit who then started a soup kitchen? I think that is actually a better way to do it as it lets the church maintain it’s primary focus on gospel proclamation while at the same time enabling and equipping the body for acts of mercy.

  13. Brian fulton says:

    Chris, with the soup kitchen example, I see it more this way. The church (and/or) individual members start the soup kitchen. The only reason the Christians or church takes the time to do the soup kitchen is to make disciples by proclaiming the gospel. The soup kitchen is one of several ways that gives support to the church’s mission of making disciples.

    Lets take orphan care. Hopefully many of you belong to a church where orphan care is taking place. Its part of our biblical mandate in Scripture. The reason why we adopt or take care of orphans is not because it is our mission. It is because we are making disciples through orphan care. We are taking in a person abandoned and taking them into our home and church to share the gospel with them and see them live a life that worships and glorifies God and is baptized into a local church. In turn, goes and does the same one day.

  14. Brian fulton says:


    I would read the book. Regardless of where you stand, you’ll find it helpful in shaping your personal theology of missions because what I really appreciate about the book (even though I find disagreements in every chapter almost), is that they are doing exposition and really looking to the Bible to discover the mission of the church. Kostenberger has been a huge tool for them. I think the book has reminded me a ditch that us from the young, Reformed, and restless movement fall into, which is to be influenced by certain leaders and then try to test everything we read into those frameworks rather than the framework of Scripture.

  15. John Mastin says:

    I think you hit the nail on the head with the need to distinguish the Churches ultimate mission from that of individual Christians (or even collective groups of them). I think chapter 9 does a pretty good job of clarifying this as well.

    I see it this way. The primary mission of the Church is to make disciples and thus assist and equip it’s members to fulfill that mission.

    That might manifest itself in a lot of different ways – soup kitchens, adoption, etc. But, the Church’s mission is not to feed the poor or adopt orphans. It is to pour the Word into it’s members (see individual Christians) so that they in turn go out take care of neighbors, feed the hungry, adopt, etc.

    This may or may not involve financial type assistance to the individuals, but it MUST be driven by the Word which would in turn be shared in relationship with those being served. If not, it’s not really discipleship.

  16. Trevin Wax says:


    If the individual/institution distinction holds up, then how do we make sense of their definition: “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”

    In other words, the mission is to go and make disciples (individually, I’m assuming, since “churches” institutionally are referenced in the latter part of that definition). They are right to see the mission of the church as both gathering and scattering (or scattering with the purpose of gathering, etc.), but it’s in the scattering part where the tension arises. Can we separate the mission of the church (as individuals) in the world from the mission of the church institutionally? I don’t think it’s as simple as that.

  17. Marc Mullins says:

    A definition is needed. Church as Body of Christ, or Church as institution/organization. I think we use these terms interchangeably and cause ourselves more confusion than necessary, when in fact I think our underlying convictions are quite similar.

  18. John Mastin says:

    Trevin –
    I don’t think you ultimately can separate the two, because the mission of the individuals should ultimately further the mission of the institution.

    The way you and I as individuals go about disciple-making might look completely different (at a high level), but should serve the same end.

    Perhaps it is helpful to flip it on it’s head a bit, similar to what I think Corey was suggesting above: The church institutional would still be the church if it wasn’t directly starting up a soup kitchen or promoting/assisting adoption, but I would argue that it probably isn’t truly a church if no teaching/equipping leading to disciplemaking is happening. Therefore, the mission must be that which defines.

    A church does not cease to be a church

  19. John Mastin says:

    oops, scratch that last line…

  20. Arthur Sido says:

    I would add that I don’t you can distinguish between the church as a corporate entity and Christians as individuals. The Scriptural model is not a collection of competing organizations in a locality each doing there own thing but of one people in a given area. I think we are in danger, or actually we have moved way beyond a potential danger, of elevating the organization over the individual Christians. To say that “The Church” is tasked with doing A, B and C but the individual Christians is welcome, on his own of course, to do X,Y and Z is impossible to support from the Bible.

  21. Dan says:

    Question #4

    It seems as though you have a different definition of the kingdom then DY/G do.

    “The only way the kingdom of God-the redemptive rule of God-is extended is when he brings another sinner to renounce sin and self-righteousness and bow his knee to King Jesus.” (pg 121)

    They seem to define the kingdom as being spiritual and therefore the only way to bring people in and do “kingdom work” is by evangelism. Good works may be a part of that evangelism but by themselves they have nothing to do with evangelism and the kingdom.

  22. Taylor says:

    I’ve been thinking about the zoom lens gospel, and I’d like to suggest an alternative theory (admittedly not completely original).

    To start, it is better to differentiate between the Gospel and its implications than to simply split the implications.

    Doing it this way would read something like:

    The Gospel is the story of Jesus, Lord and Savior. He met, and commands us to meet two types of needs, the needs of both body and soul. Of these, the needs of the soul are more ugent. What good is a nice meal before eternal destruction? However, needs of the body are often most immediate. “A hungry man has no ears.” Neither is simply a means to an end, and neither should be unnaturally seperated from the other. Both should be done, and if Jesus comes first, we have room as a body to allow for different individual emphases coming together as complete in Christ Jesus.

    It is worth noting though that as far as we can see, Jesus preached without helping but never helped without preaching. One is vital to all men, one is vital to those in physical need. Full people need Jesus as much as hungry people.

    Now mission is not just making disciples, but being disciples.


  23. Caleb B says:

    I think Gilbert and DeYoung would disagree with your last statement: “Now mission is not just making disciples, but being disciples.”

    But I don’t see how they can disagree in light of what Jesus says in John 13:34-35 and 17:20-21. Jesus connects our unity and love with lost people believing in him.

  24. Trevin Wax says:


    Paul says “Follow me as I follow Christ.” I don’t know how the mission of making disciples can be separated from our being disciples. It seems to me like these things go together hand in hand.

  25. Caleb B says:

    Sorry, I was referring to Taylor’s statement.

    I completely agree with you, Trevin. I was merely pointing to another line of reasoning that would prohibit the separation of making disciples and living as a disciple (in community).

    For a number of reasons I was very unsatisfied with the response given today on Kevin DeYoung’s blog. What did you think about their response, Trevin?

    Although I do appreciate how you and they are treated each other with love as brothers in Christ!

  26. Trevin Wax says:

    I thought a couple of the responses were helpful clarifications. There are still a couple of areas however where I think we’re talking past each other. I’ll be thinking through the response over the next few days.

    This is a good conversation that I hope will continue as we sharpen each other for the good of the church.

  27. Ben Edwards says:

    I think the distinction between the the church qua church and individual Christians is a crucial point in this discussion. As is evidenced by Arthur Sido’s comments above, many believe there is no distinction. I’ve found 1 Timothy 5:3-16 to be an important passage in this regard, especially since it’s dealing with a mercy ministry/social justice issue. Paul points out that believing relatives are to care for needy widows in their family rather than the church, whereas the church has the responsibility to care for the widows who are truly in need. Paul obviously believes that the responsibilities of the church and the responsibilities of individual Christians are not coextensive.

  28. Ben Edwards says:

    I also wanted to say something further regarding the statement: “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.”

    You say that this is to be done individually since “church” isn’t referenced until the end. But that’s not true. It’s the subject of the mission. So I don’t think they would agree that this is to be done individually. They are arguing that this is the mission of the institutional church (at least, that’s how I would take it.)

  29. Taylor says:

    I’ve been thinking about their argument since I finished the book (about a month), and I think it is an important discussion about an arbitrary definition.

    In other words, I see how one could argue that mission is proclamation. To me it makes little sense, because one then must treat most of the epistles’ instructions as if they were to individuals believers and not the church together.

    It does have ramifications,including how we view the human body in general. If mercy is only a means to an end, I think the risk becomes a sort of neo-gnosticism that devalues the needs of the flesh without really raising those of the soul.

    Also, pragmatic justice as they suggest it dates back to Augustine. He suggested it as a result of limited resources, not a principle. In making it a principle, D and G have unintentionally reduced the urgency to do good to all men to a level that Augustine did not.

  30. David P says:

    Trevin, why do you say so very litle positive about the main purpose of DeYoung and Gilberts book?  It is an honorable defence of the truth from the latest trendy counterfeit gospel.  They are one of the very few who have stood up against the claptrap they are exposing. I find your take very disappointing.

  31. Grady Bauer says:

    I’m currently in a European, post-Christian context and have previously served in a pre-Christian, Islamic context. I’ve worked in both settings on the platform of a NGO, doing legitimate work, developing relationships, sharing life and faith.

    I see people on the field struggle with the issue of proclamation vs. presence….and they find themselves paralyzed because of it. I think the US church largely prefers proclamation over presence because it allows them to maintain the Christian bubble, church as a hobby lifestyle. If we say proclamation over presence it allows us to simply invite someone to an event, without interaction. This may work for now in the US, but as we continue to develop into the minority we will one day realize that no longer know how to engage the lost apart from a large event.

    We will also wake up one day to a government that cares for the poor, the widows and the orphans and they may not share our values for such care. All of this because the church decided that if they couldn’t preach at an event then they wouldn’t be a part of it.

    I think however we define what the mission of the church is, and of the other related questions, we must be clear to define more than what the “mission of the mostly white, middle class, republican, campus driven church is”….we have to think through what is the mission of the church in a pre or post Christian context.

    In this context proclamation alone is not only ineffective but can also be harmful. Presence alone is nice, and may create some questions but it also falls short of the ultimate purpose. I see the two as requiring each other to complete the mission. We need to get of our campuses, stop creating our own sub-culture, get some true non-Christian friends and interests and share life, share struggles and look for every opportunity to share this amazing salvation with those we interact with. The gospel isn’t just for those who are comfortable with visiting a church, not just for those who are ready to be preached at that day, it’s for those who would never visit a church, those that need time to work through things so they can be moved towards the gospel. If we connect through presence than we will find ourselves in a context for both proclamation and discipleship.

  32. DiscipleShift by Jim Putman, Robert Coleman refers to this book, using it as a well researched answer to the question of the purpose of the church. They work more then on the nitty gritty of how does a church make disciples and how to keep that the focus of a local church. I have found this helpful as we work on church movements based on movements of multiplying disciples.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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