The theme of this essay is quite simple:
The purpose of the church is to be God’s missionary people in the world.
Missions is not an afterthought in the mind of God. There is no partnership in Christ without partnership in missions.
But is this really our top priority?
In his book The Household of God, Leslie Newbigin has stated (New York: Friendship, 1954, p. 165):
It is taken for granted that the missionary obligation is one that has to be met AFTER the needs of the home have been fully met; that existing gains have to be thoroughly consolidated before we go further afield; that the world-wide church has to be built up with the same sort of prudent enterprise.
Such thinking is a sin against the truth. The church is to be missionary because that is its divine design. Thus it is vital that the church be other-worldly and this-worldly at the very same time. Only as our congregations intentionally live out their nature as God’s missionary people will the church begin to emerge to become what Christ is creating it to be.
This missionary focus of the church as a sent group of people is stressed in Johannes Blauw’s classic work The Missionary Nature of the Church (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1962, pp. 121-22):
If one wants to maintain a specific theological meaning of the term mission as “foreign mission,” its significance is, in my opinion, that it keeps calling the Church to think over its essential nature as a community sent forth into the world. Seen in that light missionary work is not just one of its activities, but the criterion for all its activities…. It is exactly by going outside itself that the Church is itself and comes to itself.
I agree wholeheartedly with this statement. Missions is the inevitable and indispensable expression of the church’s essential nature as a fellowship of Christ’s disciples. The church is not a hierarchy or an institution but a people in community whose mission is to spread the rule of Christ. The purpose of the Body of Christ is to make Jesus visible in the world. In fact, in the present age the church is uniquely the instrument of the kingdom of God in the world. Thus service to the kingdom means service to the world through missional activity.
There is great practical significance to this truth. It means that local congregations must live out their spiritual life not only as church but also as God’s people in the world. Our calling and assignment is to preach the Gospel of the kingdom to the whole world (Mark 16:15). Once again, missiologist Leslie Newbigin captures the essence of what I am trying to say (The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society [London: SPCK, 1989] pp. 232-33):
[I]t has to be said that there can be no going back to the “Constantinian” era. It will only be by movements that begin with the local congregation in which the reality of the new creation is present, known, and experienced, and from which men and women will go into every sector of public life to claim it for Christ, to unmask the illusions which have remained hidden and to expose all areas of public life to the illumination of the gospel. But this will happen as and when local congregations renounce an introverted concern for their own life, and recognize that they exist for the sake of those who are not members, as sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s redeeming grace for the whole life of society.
What Newbigin is saying in vitally important. Congregations must no longer follow an introverted, self-serving agenda. Our priority must be to become the King’s servants in the world. Local congregations must begin to see themselves as satellite offices of the kingdom of God. Each member must consider him- or herself a strategic player in missionary work as both salt and light. Jesus spoke only of the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Both elements must be dispersed if they are to be effective. Churches must get out of the saltshaker – out of their self-centered fellowships that negate their very reason for existence.
I have written elsewhere that Christian marriage has a higher purpose than marital happiness and even marital compatibility. Believing husbands and wives must be partners in the Gospel (Phil. 1:5), intentionally creating perspectives, attitudes, priorities, and goals that are in keeping with the Great Commission of Jesus. The same truth can be extended to our families, churches, and seminaries. As members of Christ’s missionary Body, our purpose is to build up the community of the saints in mission to the world.
This missionary perspective will color, direct, and motivate everything the church does. I am reminded of what a friend said to me a few weeks ago: “My church spends 35,000 dollars annually on Sunday School quarterlies, money that in my opinion could be much better spent on global missions. Yet few in our church have had the courage to suggest that our investment is a misuse of the Lord’s resources.” Evangelist Tom Skinner once said, “Let’s be honest. We tithe to ourselves.” What he meant is that most of the money we contribute to the offering plate is used for facilities and programs designed for ourselves and our families. Very little is dedicated to evangelism or social action, whether in our communities or in the rest of the world.
It all boils down to priorities. And there is absolutely no reason why our priorities should not change. We must ask ourselves, “How would God have us use the resources He has given us to have the greatest possible impact on the kingdom?” In practical terms, this might mean using the Bible instead of quarterlies in our Sunday School classes. It could mean renting a facility to meet in rather than building an expensive sanctuary. It will certainly mean using all of our resources with a sense of global responsibility. As Paul said, stewardship requires us to ask how we can use the resources God has entrusted to us more equitably (see 2 Cor. 8:13-15). Each of us must examine our lifestyles for wasted resources that could be invested in the kingdom. We must become better stewards of our time, budgets, homes, and physical recourses. Some time ago a woman contacted Becky and me about sending us gifts for Ethiopia instead of giving Christmas presents to her grandchildren. The gifts were made out in their names! What would happen if 60 million American evangelicals did the same thing and gave presents to Jesus every Christmas? This is the kind of creative planning that is required if we are to respond to the challenges of global missions.
This readjustment process does not mean falling into the trap of legalism. It does not mean establishing additional “programs.” It is the Holy Spirit, through the Word of God, who must be at work so that we may see what the church must become as it emerges from its cocoon and into ministry in the world. Unfortunately, trained seminarians are not always eager to assist their congregations to think about their missionary commitments. It is far easier to maintain the status quo than to involve all members of the church in the work of a missionary community. But ministry is the work of the church among its entire membership and never the exclusive responsibility of ordained ministers. I strongly suspect that only a grassroots movement in many of our congregations will be able to successfully conquer the forces of inertia. But if we take seriously the idea that every member is a minister and that the clergy-laity distinction is unscriptural, then it follows that we cannot limit theological education to a select few. Ministerial training belongs to and must actively involve the whole people of God.
And what should be the goal of our training? The people must be trained in serving rather being served. This means that theological education must be “inside-out.” Its purpose is to equip God’s people for works of service to the world. The goal is to teach, train, encourage, apprentice, and mobilize the people of God for the work of the ministry. Church leaders, whether seminary trained or not, will be deemed “successful” to the degree that the church becomes the missionary people of God. Leaders will be judged, not by their rhetorical prowess, but to the degree to which the people’s spiritual gifts are expressed in ministry. Pastors are not called into ministry any more than any other church member. But they are charged with the solemn obligation of preparing God’s people for works of service (Eph. 4:11-12).
Notice that I have said nothing about leadership as administration or management. Lawrence O. Richards and Clyde Hoeldtke correctly point out in their book A Theology of Church Leadership (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980, p. 6) that the church “is a living body of the living Jesus. Since we are part of a body, not an institution, the task of body leaders must be distinctively different from the management task of institutional leaders.” Leadership, thus defined, calls for people who will be catalysts to mobilize the people of God for mission in the world. These people lead best when they themselves model, illustrate, and perform service to the world. On the other hand, leaders must be wary of assuming a “clergy” role in ministry. One reason the so-called laity are so passive is because leaders have made “ministry” and “missions” the professional roles of a few ordained people. Leaders lead best when they do the tasks and teach others to do them. Effective ministry calls for participation by all.
The fields are white unto harvest. So said Jesus. Let us, then, ask the Lord of the harvest to grant us laborers. Jesus did not come to condemn the world but to save it (John 3:17). He forces us to reexamine our priorities as the people of God. Are leaders directing the laborers in an efficient and fruitful way? Are they themselves going out into the fields? Is the Gospel the criterion for all of our activities? Are we willing to lay down our lives for the world? Have we forgotten the purpose for which the treasure of the Gospel was entrusted to us? Have we kept it wrapped up and buried in the ground? To such unprofitable servants Jesus said, “You wicked and lazy servant! You ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at My coming I should have received what was My own with interest.” The Gospel has not been entrusted to us to be buried in the ground.
Throughout this essay I have argued that Jesus’ Great Commission is the church’s marching orders. By this I do not mean to imply that missionary activity is something onerous. To be sure, it takes up a great deal of one’s time, energy, and (if one is self-supporting) financial recourses. But by no means is it an occasion for self-pity! Again, no one has put this better than missiologist Leslie Newbigin, to whom I must give the final word (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p. 116):
There has been a long tradition which sees the mission of the Church primarily as obedience to a command. It has been customary to speak of “the missionary mandate.” This way of putting the matter is certainly not without justification, and yet it seems to me that it misses the point. It tends to make mission a burden rather than a joy, to make it part of the law rather than part of the gospel. If one looks at the New Testament evidence one gets another impression. Missions begins with a kind of explosive joy. The news that the rejected and crucified Jesus is alive is something that cannot possibly be suppressed. It must be told.
June 19, 2009
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.