What is the Church’s Mission?
by Dr. Michael Horton
In recent days, Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert have taken a fair number of hits for their arguments in What is the Mission of the Church? (Crossway, 2011). (See one review here) The main worry is that they define the mission too narrowly, focusing on the Great Commission. At least on the more vehement side of the opposition, the concern is that there is no place for the church to have an impact on culture, particularly in social and economic terms.
Having received some similar objections to my argument in The Gospel Commission (Baker, 2011), I think that many criticisms rest on basic confusion of categories. There are several examples that could be mentioned, but I’ll stick with this one: the confusion of the church as a divine institution (place) with the church as Christians (people).
Gathered to Receive and Scattered to Serve
We are made Christians—from the beginning to the end of our discipleship—through the ministry that Christ ordained: preaching and teaching, baptism, the Supper, and the privileges and responsibilities of church membership. Growing up into Christ together, we are living stones in a global sanctuary. Our heavenly citizenship shapes the way we live out our earthly citizenship. Like salt that loses its savor, we are always on the verge of being reabsorbed into the world’s bloodstream without contributing any distinctive flavor or preservative characteristics. So we come to church each week to be “re-salinated,” bathed again in the minerals of God’s Word, swept by the Spirit into the unfolding story of Christ’s kingdom. We exchange gifts among the saints and then get shaken out into the world for our various callings throughout the week. The church’s job is not to raise children, fix neighborhoods, manage relationships, and heal society. Rather, the church is commissioned to make disciples of Christ by preaching, administering the sacraments, and teaching them to observe everything he commanded. All of the other things—being good neighbors—can be done by the members, and not only with other Christians but with their non-Christian neighbors who also care about the needs of their community.
Historically, evangelicals have an almost Gnostic (hyper-spiritualized) view of the church. It is simply the sum total of born again individuals. There is often little conception of the church as a divine institution with ordained offices and a holy ministry of preaching and sacrament. Accordingly, the church is seen not chiefly as a community of sinners receiving God’s judgment and grace, but as a group of activists fulfilling Jesus’ redeeming work and building his kingdom. “Getting saved” and “joining a church” or “believing” and “belonging” are considered two separate issues. Some zealous world-changers who have left their pastoral ministry to become humanitarian activists even celebrate their freedom from the church to become truly “missional.” No longer members of a church, they are followers of Jesus. This older pietist bifurcation between personal salvation and the church has widened with each generation to the point now where the Great Commission itself can be described implicitly as narrow and confining.