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What is the mission of the church? (book review)

What is the mission of the church? Making sense of social justice, shalom, and the Great Commission by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, 2011. All page numbers indicated below are Kindle locations.

This book styles itself as a shot-block to the last 40 years of mission thinking. The authors describe it as ‘a correction to the correction’; they’re concerned that John Stott, Christopher Wright and others have overcorrected in response to earlier problems. The definition of mission has been broadened, and DeYoung and Gilbert are seeking to narrow it again. For them, ‘mission’ is a task that we do, and they want to resist the idea that we participate in God’s mission (555) and the idea that our ministry is an embodiment of Jesus’ ministry (739), among others. 

Behind this is a concern that missiology has burdened local churches with more than what they’re made for. Because it’s written as a shot-block, What is the mission of the church? doesn’t have the scope to be a general introduction to either ‘mission’ or ‘church’. And if you were thinking of ‘world mission’, it’s not about cross-cultural ministry or global Christianity either.

Of course, a limited scope can enhance clarity, but I found it to be a source of confusion here. The authors dedicate space to defining certain words — a chapter apiece for ‘gospel’, ‘kingdom’ and ‘shalom’, and two chapters for ‘social justice’ — but give little attention to other key concepts. For example, the title’s question appears to be answered straightforwardly in the first two chapters: in short, the mission is to make disciples (858). But what is a ‘disciple’, how do we make them, and why? This never really gets dealt with, even when the book gets around to it in the final chapter.

However, the thing that has struck me most is the book’s lack of attention to ‘church’, so for the rest of this short review I’ll limit my comments to ecclesiology.

In fact there’s no exploration of ‘church’ until chapter 9, the second to last chapter. At that point (3480) it becomes clear that this book is concerned with the local, gathered body. It would make sense to tweak the book’s title in light of this: What is the mission of a local church? DeYoung and Gilbert are speaking as local church pastors to local churches, and if there’s one question driving the book, it seems to be this: is my local congregation required to run ‘justice’ programs? The authors point out that what might be generally commanded of Christians (e.g. ‘do justice’) is not necessarily specified for a local church, and it’s easy enough to appreciate their point: it’s not as if each and every local church should be compelled to start a soup kitchen or an advocacy group!

The authors make this reassurance by restricting ‘mission’ to making disciples. (Now, it’s one thing to say that a local church isn’t commanded to ‘do justice’ in a particular, programmatic way, but quite another to say that ‘proclamation’ is central while good deeds are not — which is the line of this book. The difficulties revolving around this have been explored elsewhere, for example in Ed Stetzer’s review at the Gospel Coalition and the critiques by Tim Gombis and Joel Willitts.)

However, my concern at this point is with who does mission. What chapter 9 indicates is that the entire book tends to equate ‘the church’ with local churches. Does this hold water?

There is certainly a difference between ‘a church’ and ‘individual Christians’, as the authors say (3489), however these two categories are the only ones they make use of. But what about the difference between a church and the capital-C Church? If we want to talk about all Christians generally and collectively, there is more to be said. For example, Ralph Winter has argued that the global Church is made up of two redemptive structures, modality and sodality — that is, broadly speaking, local congregations and mission societies. Similarly, Howard Snyder has argued that the Church is a people/community, while all organisational/institutional structures are parachurch ‘wineskins’. Unfortunately, What is the mission of the church? bypasses these ecclesiological discussions.

So it appears that this book makes two simultaneous moves: it conflates the local church with the universal Church, and it equates ‘mission’ with the local church. This perpetuates a recurring problem for us Protestants: what is the place of the sodality, the Christian organisation that is distinct from a local congregation? One answer is that the modality attempts to absorb and reproduce the functions of the sodality. We see this when local churches start their own in-house cafes, drop-in centres, publishing companies, and so on — much of which is associated with ‘loving the city’. Yet this is exactly the sort of thing that DeYoung and Gilbert are resisting. Their response is to claim that good works are important, but not part of ‘mission’. What this amounts to is an affirmation of the local church at the expense of other Christian groups, and it’s hard to see it as a viable alternative.

This also sends us into a cloud of tortuous questioning: for example, is Bible translation ‘mission?’ Yes, surely, because it’s an aspect of ‘proclamation.’ Ah, but is a Bible translation project ‘church?’ If not, are we really expecting a local congregation to run Bible translation projects? One way or the other, it’s a pretty bizarre turn of events when we are questioning whether a Bible translation team qualifies as mission! It seems to me that these things can only be put in perspective when a local congregation sees itself as part of the wider, global Body of Christ.

The question of how ‘mission’ works at the local church level is a vital one, but the framing of this book probably makes for more confusion than clarity. In its place, I would recommend John Dickson’s The best kept secret of Christian mission and Michael Frost’s short new ebook, The five habits of highly missional people (free).

Categories: Book Church Mission Written by Arthur

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

2 replies

  1. I like this.

    I haven’t read the book, but I’m confused about how Ephesians 4 (and Romans 12 etc) fit with the view that their can be individual functions for Christians outside of and separate to the body/community we are united to through Christ – whether that’s the church or the Church. Again – I haven’t read the book – but this seems an unfortunately individualistic picture of “imitating Christ” or being the body of Christ (which must surely be linked). So, I guess I’m also challenging their challenge of the idea that our ministry is meant to be the embodiment of Jesus’ Ministry. It seems (but I haven’t read it, so they may address this) they’ve focused on Matthew’s Great Commission at the expense of John’s (John 20:21).

    Anyway. I haven’t read the book. I just want to make that clear because personally I hate comments on reviews or books where people think they’re across what the book says. But I am unlikely to read the book, because it seems a bit specious.

    1. Cheers Nathan. What books would you recommend for thinking about mission (at the local church level or beyond)? Got any suggestions for me to read or review?

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