We’ve looked at the commissioning statement given to Moses (“So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt”—Ex 3:10). We’ve heard statements from the lips of Jesus indicating his own sense of mission (“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost”—Lk 19:10). We’ve thought about the differing missions and audiences of two New Testament churches (Jerusalem and Antioch).
There are, however, a series of passages in the New Testament that speak to the mission of the church. Any one of these passages could form the missional backbone of a congregation and provide an excellent template on which to build a mission statement. All of them together, taken collectively as the missional mandate for every church, could easily break the back of a particular congregation—mission impossible!
The “Witnessing” Mission
Inevitably, when the word “mission” is used of churches, the mission given by Jesus to his apostles comes to mind:
Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Mt 28:19-20)
The interpretive emphasis on this passage has leaned heavily in the direction of evangelism and conversion. The disciples (and, of course, we ourselves) are to be witnesses of Jesus (Jn 15:27; Acts 1:8). We are to preach and baptize. In particular, this evangelistic activity is to go on in “all nations.”
For many churches, Jesus’ command to his apostles, uttered on a hillside in Galilee so long ago, has morphed into the prime directive for the church at large in every place and every time and is satisfied primarily through bringing people to saving faith in Jesus. Thus, it is a commonplace to hear Christians equate the mission of the church (the mission of every church) with evangelism and, in particular, with foreign mission work aimed at converting the lost.
The Worship Mission
Ask a faithful Jew a question about mission or focus and you would be directed (emphatically) to Deuteronomy 6:4-9—the Shema.
Hear, O Israel. The Lord our God, the Lord is One. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.
The Jews understood their essential business in terms of their relationship with Yahweh: they were his people, he was their God. They expressed their relationship to God primarily through worship and religious traditions: sacrifice, Sabbath, circumcision. Readers of the Bible might quibble about the depth of Israel’s commitment to holiness and obedience, and question (like Jesus) whether devotion to temple, Torah, and the traditions was a suitable substitute for a submitted life. But what cannot be quibbled or questioned is the primacy of the Shema in defining Israel’s life and self-understanding.
In fact, when the most famous Israelite who ever lived (Jesus of Nazareth) was asked an essentially missional question (“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”), he answered in echo of the Shema: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment” (Mt 22:37-38). Indeed, love of God and worship of God were primary elements not only of Jesus’ teaching but of his life as well. He sympathized with the Jewish notion that God’s people are defined first and foremost vertically … by the quality of our relationship with God.
The Church Mission
There are passages that seem to direct us for mission to the church—the intimate and faithful community of Christ’s chosen people. Jesus’ words to Peter (on his intent to “build my church”—Mt 16:18) and Paul’s church-planting activities (as exampled in Acts and explicitly mentioned in 1Cor 3:1-17) provide the pragmatic basis for such a mission. The pivotal description of the church in the wake of Pentecost—the depiction of the original, unadulterated Jerusalem church—becomes the defining passage for those who believe that the church itself is the mission:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)
When “church” is the mission, passages about love, unity, and harmony become definitional:
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (Jn 13:34)
Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. And in fact, you do love all the brothers throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers, to do so more and more. (1Th 4:9-10)
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God…. If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. (1Jn 4:7, 20)
Unity and harmony become primary values in this focus. Churches pursuing this mission tend to stress passages like John 17:20-23 (“May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me”) and Ephesians 4:3 (“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace”).
The “one another” passages are emphasized and are expected to shape the life and behavior of those who belong to the fellowship of saints: love one another; live in harmony with one another; be kind and compassionate, bear with, and serve one another; forgive, encourage, and submit to each other; accept, instruct, and be humble towards one another.
And passages like 1 Corinthians 12 are given priority in the teaching and practice of the church: we are the body of Christ; we, though many members, are one body; each member works for the common good; the body needs every member.
The Gospel Mission
Much of Paul’s ministry, for instance (especially as represented by his letters), was focused on a “gospel mission”: defining the core gospel, preaching it, protecting it. By getting the gospel right, Paul believed he was honoring God, truly serving the lost, and building the church on the only valid foundation. For Paul, missing the gospel meant dishonoring God, offering the lost something that lacked the power to save, and building the church on a foundation of straw.
As a result, Paul was constantly talking about what “was” and what “was not” the gospel.
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ…. I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. (Gal 1:6-11)
He would not allow the gospel to be confused with Moses and the way of the law. He focused his ministry on the only story that had the power to save—the story of God’s work through Christ, his grace shown through the cross, the promise of new life contained in the resurrection, and the freedom that comes through Christ. He determine to preach about nothing but “Christ and him crucified” (1Cor 2:2). He insisted that—for God, the church, and the world—there were matters of “first importance” (1Cor 15:3), matters that went to the heart of the kingdom of God (Rom 14:17), and matters that eternally matter (Gal 6:15)—all having to do with the core gospel.
When “gospel” becomes the mission, expect churches to focus on Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and on Scriptures like Romans 1-6, 1Cor 1:17-2:3, and Galatians and Colossians (entire). And expect such churches to be fervent in their proclamation of the gospel, careful of their understanding of the gospel, and secure in their confidence in the gospel.
The Maturation Mission
Still other passages point us to a “maturational mission” for the church. They suggest that the prime focus of God’s people should be to complete the work God began at creation, helping all God’s sons and daughters grow up into the image of Christ.
Ephesians 4:11-16 is perhaps the most significant (though by no means the only) passage defining this mission:
It was [Christ] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
The purpose of the church and of church leaders (according to this passage) is growing people into the “fullness of Christ.” To some extent, this mandate can be viewed as an extension of Jesus’ disciple-making commission to his Apostles: “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
This understanding of mission causes churches to focus on a unique vocabulary: transformation, image, likeness, modeling, fullness, maturity, growth, completion, put on/put off, etc. It focuses churches on defining passages such as:
For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (Rom 8:29)
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritualact of worship. 2 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Rom 12:1-2)
And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2Cor 3:18)
We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity … (Heb 5:11-6:1)
Such a mission also focuses churches on particular “methods” for achieving the maturational end: holding up Jesus as the ultimate example of sanctified living, modeling, mentoring, careful and practical instruction about life-style, etc. The emphasis here is less on worship styles or evangelistic methodologies as on a process whereby people grow and develop and become spiritually mature.
This brief review by no means exhausts the subject of what the mission of the church should or could be. To the above possibilities, we could add discussions of a “holiness” mission, an “eschatological” mission, a “Spirit” mission, a “service” mission, etc. For the sake of time and space, however (and from sheer compassion for my overwhelmed readers!), I will limit the “key mission passages” to those outlined above.
Hopefully, this discussion will be sufficient to cause readers to ask some important questions:
- What should be the central mission of the church today?
- Can any church attempt all of these missional emphases?
- Is it permissible for a church to make one of these areas its primary emphasis, while not ignoring or overlooking important aspects of the others?
- Does the primary mission of individual congregations change over time, given different opportunities and skill sets, and in response to shifting needs in the world and the church?