What is the Mission of the Church?

There have been many predictions about the next evangelical crisis. Perhaps correctly, many have predicted that it will again be on the nature and authority of the Bible. Is the telltale sign of this the fact that the post conservative post-modernists have tried to change the argument from being about the reliability/accuracy of the Bible to the interpretation of the Bible, all in the name of wanting to be an insider of this “evangelical” club?

After reading a critique of Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert’s What is the Mission of the Church? I wonder if their question is the next great debate of the evangelicals. Certainly, there is great overlap and relationship between these two issues. And maybe the somewhat defunct Emergent Church (or, is it Emerging?) has brought together these two issues in what it has tried to say and do.

Whatever one thinks of the debate, you can’t deny – at least in the US – that the issue of the church is on the forefront. I only heard questions about the church and its mission in the halls of my seminary as a student. Now, I am hearing them from the most average of the average Joes at my church.

Why does the church exist?

What should a church look like?

What should a church do?

Not less than a few Moore College graduates have told me of Broughton Knox’s take on the issue. Second-hand sources tell me that he said “The church doesn’t have a mission. The church is the mission.”  I’d like to think that it is a correct reporting of his statement because I like it.

Either way, does it reframe the discussion? Or, is it another way of saying the same thing that DeYoung and Gilbert are saying? (You can get a good feel from the review posted above, but I suppose I can safely say that the church’s mission, according to the authors, is to make disciples.)

Maybe a few MTC graduates who know about the context of this purported statement can fill me in. Or, better yet, maybe anyone can let me know if he is on to something with this statement.


12 thoughts on “What is the Mission of the Church?

  1. Marty, I may be recalling wrongly, but I think this sort of line from Knox and those who have been influenced by him might say something like this…

    The church does not have a mission. Individual Christians (who gather in the church) have the mission. And the church is the end point of the mission.

    Others might tweak my quick and dirty summary better.

    Here is Moore College lecturer and compiler of the collected works of Donald Robinson, Dr Mark Thompson, in a blog post in the area of ecclesiology last year,Church Mission Evangelism and Programs…in a way that challenges the Matthias Media approach on a couple of things just a bit, as a friend!

    And here is the Sydney Diocese Doctrine Commission’s excellent report from 2008 called, A Theology of Christian Assembly. In a diocese very committed to evangelism, it makes the point that evangelism is not the mission of the church, but the church is the fruit of evangelism. In para. 44 it makes the point that

    Proclaiming the gospel for the purpose of the conversion of unbelievers is not then the primary purpose of the Christian assembly. But if the assembly is functioning well, it will further this gospel work by building outward-looking, mission-minded Christians, who will spontaneously take the gospel to the world (1 Thess. 1:8). Members of the assembly will naturally be partners in gospel work, with each other and with Christians from other assemblies (cf. Phil. 1:5, 7, 14; 4:15). For the sake of this work, assemblies may send some of their members to take the gospel elsewhere (cf. Acts 13:1-3).

  2. One of the most valuable legacies of Knox’s approach comes from the fact that he relentlessly pushed his students back to biblical “first principles” in their theological thinking. In the case of “the church”, that was (and still is) very valuable thing to do. There is a real problem with the question, “What is the mission of the church?”: the words “mission” and “church” come to us with all sorts of unquestioned cultural baggage attached. In today’s evangelical climate, for example, we might carry on our discussions while unconsciously assuming that the “church” should be understood an organisation which therefore needs a “mission statement” to clarify its “core business” and to cut out its “non-core business”, etc. Knox (and Donald Robinson) keep pushing us to ask, “What is the church anyway?” and “What is mission?” Their answer was that biblically, the church is not an organisation or a society, but a gathering around God’s word. It’s also been pointed out that “mission” does not mean “statement of core business” but rather “reason for being sent”. Since a “gathering” can’t really be “sent” anywhere, there’s good reason to question our assumptions, deconstruct the entire question and start again from biblical first principles. Others have pointed out that this approach can end up being too reductionistic, and I can see that there’s some substance in this critique (at least in some of the ways the Knox-Robinson approach has been reductionistically applied). Nevertheless, I think their approach is worth taking very seriously. Question the question, I say!

  3. (I have written something that has some things in common with Lionel. It’s taken me ages to put it together and so I’ll leave it as it’s written. I was waiting for my husband to read it to check I hadn’t written anything too heretical!)

    The gathering of God’s people (‘church’) is the temple of God (dwelling place of God). The gathering is formed by the gospel, lives by the gospel and the gospel is proclaimed amongst the gathered for holiness and the gospel creates ‘gospel speakers’ to all the nations. Christ is the head of the gathering in heaven to which we have already come.

    I think the question – ‘what is the mission of the church?’ – is the wrong question. I think we should be asking: ‘what are God’s revealed purposes?’ for I think that is what the scriptures are on about. Then I think we are more likely to stay on track and avoid false dichotomies eg works/evangelism, church for insiders/outsiders….

    We know from Ephesians that God purposes to build himself a place where he will dwell – so no room for sin, only love/good works amongst his people and always room for God’s multitude that he calls. We are ‘being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit’. So what does God purpose? Pure, loving sons like their Father and multitudes of them!

    In regards to the book and critique mentioned, I haven’t read the book but from the critique it highlighted for me the need to firstly let the scriptures critique our questions. It’s easy to skew the scriptures to answer our questions.

    Gospel proclamation creates the gathering, and it grows and trains those of the gathering to live by the gospel and speak it. That’s how God is building his dwelling in his wisdom. I can’t see why Christians get so all over the place in thinking about this. But perhaps people can show me what I’m missing.

    The Spirit of Christ is God’s ‘missioner’ doing the work of God, breathing where he wills.


  4. I’m most of the way through the book, and think it’s excellent. And can I encourage any bloggers to read the book and not just Stetzer’s critique (linked to in this post)!! DeYoung and Gilbert have just posted a good rejoinder here.

    In terms of the Knox quote, and building on the comments above, I have no problem reconciling it with DeYoung and Gilbert’s book – surely it just takes a quick recategorisation, given the sense in which they are using the word “Church” (clarified in their response to Stetzer as “basically plural for Christians”). So, Sandy, they may well agree with you: Our mission as Christians is to proclaim the gospel and make disciples (their book), and the goal of this activity is the gathering of God’s redeemed people in Christ around the Word (Knox’s point).

  5. Hi Stephen, I will certainly read their book (have already read the blog summaries and some reviews) and know I am in very real sympathy with them. I certainly do not want people making social action an equal arm of the mission (whether of the church or the individuals of the churches). The mission is making disciples of Jesus by the preaching of the gospel, in the context of the whole counsel of God.

    And Di, as you said, God the Holy Spirit is therefore the great missioner! Thanks.

  6. Of course you can’t make an absolute distinction between being and doing.

    The church is a congregation of living beings so our ‘being’ involves ‘doing’.

    And so the ‘goal of the mission’ is a dynamic entity.

    Sooner or later we need to ask, what is the purpose of this dynamism in the church? Or we could reword that, ‘What is the mission of the church?’

    I like Lionel’s comment that ‘mission’ might be a biblically inaccurate word, because it involves ‘being sent’. (and we could go for another round of whether it’s ever helpful to use biblical words in unbiblical ways – cf ‘worship’!).

    So perhaps then it would be clearer to say ‘the church doesn’t have a mission, it is the goal of the mission. Christians have a mission, the church has a purpose’?

  7. If the goal of the discussion is to determine whether Christians when gathered together as a people should focus (only?) on bible teaching or whether other activities such as evangelism and social action of some kind have some place, a key text that has shaped my thinking on the matter is proverbs 29:7. I don’t think the three activities (bible teaching, evangelism or social Action) are seperable. Bible teaching inherently involves a call to repentance and faith – rather than (merely) being intellectual knowlege transfer, and faith inherently implies rejection of sin, which inevitably means social action at some level since much sin is social in nature (greed, adultery, disregard for the poor)

  8. David,

    Actually, when we’re talking about the mission of God’s people (in the way DeYoung and Gilbert mean it), it is essential to separate them! We’re going through Luke’s Gospel in my Bible study group at the moment, and it has struck me the way Luke emphasises that, in terms of Jesus’ “mission” in his earthly ministry (i.e. what he was sent for), he expressly separates them and prioritises “proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God” (Luke 4:43) over, for example, healing people’s physical ailments. He was sent FOR the former, and not for the latter, though he certainly healed multitudes of people.

    For more, read their book! It’s a key part of their argument, and I think they’re spot on. This is NOT to say that works, as the fruit of faith, are somehow optional or not important – they clarify this very strongly. If you mean “Faith must lead to works and faithful living in the world”, they say “Amen!” – but the issue of whether they are “separable” is a bit slippery. I think we need to be careful with the precision of our language at this point. DeYoung and Gilbert also talk (briefly) about “social justice”, the idea of improving society as a supposed way of creating “shalom” in this world, and about their preference of language like “faithful presence” in the world. All good stuff.

  9. hi Steven, I admit, I’ve not read the book (or even the critique of the book this article links to until after my posting) (a result of reading and responding on my tiny iPhone screen on the bus to work ;-) ). I wasn’t so much meaning that the concepts couldn’t be separated so much as responding to the notion that I have come across that the mission of the church can be confined to only one of these… That is, if we Are preaching the word in terms of expounding intellectual ideas) in our church gatherings that we have thereby fully implemented the mission of the church and those other areas are extraneous to core business) perhaps confined to the role of individual believers acting independently of the church gathering). However I may have jumped the gun a bit. All I was trying to say was that we can’t really say we’re being entirely faithful unless all of those things are going on in some form. How this translates into practice is of course highly contextual.

  10. For those who can wait a bit—and I certainly don’t want to shut down discussion in the mean time—there’s 2 articles coming out in the January Briefing on church that are closely related to this topic. Phillip Jensen has an article on what the church is for (is it for evangelism, edification, or is it the goal in itself?), and Mark Thompson reviews Knox & Robinson’s teaching on church and draws some conclusions for us today. Both of them are thorough, well-argued pieces, so I won’t attempt to summarize them any further here!

    They’ll both be published online in mid-late December, and in print at the start of the year.

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