What is the Mission of the Church?

Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, Crossway Publishers, 2011

Reviewed by Lee Ann Zanon, DEDICATED editor and adjunct ministry professor

A quick amazon.com search for missional church—the current hot topic related to how the church should function—generates more than 900 results. In the midst of this vast sea of discussion, What is the Mission of the Church? offers a biblically based compass to navigate the issue.

Authors Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert explain, “We are pastors, writing for the ‘average’ Christian and the ‘ordinary’ pastor … our sense is that this whole issue of mission is the most confusing, most discussed, most energizing and most potentially divisive issue in the evangelical church today.”

While the authors are conversational rather than confrontational in tone, their convictions and conclusions are distinct. They state their position early, “We believe the church is sent into the world to witness to Jesus by proclaiming the gospel and making disciples of all nations. This is our task. This is our unique and central calling.”

In recent years, the mission of the church has been expanded in some cases to include environmental stewardship, community renewal, helping the homeless, and more. DeYoung and Gilbert assert this definition is too broad. “Even in the world around us, everyone understands that a mission is the primary thing you set out to accomplish. Most every organization has something, as opposed to other things, that it does and must do … its mission. We think the same is true of the church.”

The authors acknowledge and encourage Christians’ good works, yet do not name them as the primary purpose of the church. Rather, they assert that evangelism and discipleship must be given top priority.

The book dedicates considerable space to exploring and defining the complex realms of mission, gospel, kingdom, and social justice. Substantial Bible references and explanations are included for each, presented in understandable terms.

In determining the mission of the church, the authors state that it cannot be an umbrella covering all actions taken in obedience to Christ. Rather it is a specific task, as established in the Great Commission. This section of the book includes insights from theologians including John Stott, Andreas Kostenberger, Darrell Bock, and others.

For “Understanding the Gospel,” the realm of photography is used to illustrate differing perspectives. A “zoom-lens” person views the gospel as simply the “message a person must believe in order to be saved.” A “wide-angle” person sees it as “the whole good news of Christianity … not just forgiveness, but also God’s purpose to re-make the world.”

Related to believers’ role in establishing the kingdom of God, the book emphasizes the church’s need to tell people about the King (Jesus), realizing that He alone can and will establish His kingdom. The authors counter the idea that “extending the kingdom” involves planting trees, feeding the homeless, or renovating run-down apartments. They explain the kingdom as relational and dynamic, rather than geographic. They observe, “Good deeds are good, but they don’t broaden the borders of the kingdom. 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.”

In the realm of social justice, the authors present seven principles for making sense of it. In principle five, they use the idea of “moral proximity” related to responsibility. They note that we are all responsible to help someone, but we are not obligated to help everyone. They state, “The closer the need, the greater the moral obligation to help.” They go on to say, “Moral proximity should not make us more cavalier to the poor. But it should free us from unnecessary guilt and make us more caring toward those who count on us most.”

Love rather than obligation/guilt as the basis for social justice is key. It is a person’s gratitude for salvation, and comprehension of what God has done for him or her, that is the biblical motive for service. The authors observe, “The problem is that social justice has too often been sold with condemnation by implication and the heavy hand of ought. It seems much better to simply encourage churches and individual Christians to love.”

The depth of biblical study and research used to support the authors’ viewpoint is significant, and their writing is refreshingly free of angry language or innuendo. They invite readers to seriously consider their findings, yet there is no sense of condemnation toward anyone who has a different opinion. DeYoung and Gilbert are confident of their conclusions, and don’t convey a need to prove them at others’ expense.

The epilogue, a fictional conversation between a young pastor and an experienced ministry leader, incorporates the book’s overall themes and offers readers a different way to process them. It touches upon commonly disputed elements regarding purpose and strategy, presented in a framework of mutual respect and consideration. As we individually and collectively move forward in implementing God’s design for His church, we would do well to heed this example.

Copyright © 2012 Corban University School of Ministry. Originally published in Corban’s e-journal, Dedicated. As long as you include this copyright credit line (and hyperlinks), you may reprint this article in its entirety.

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