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What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission

What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission

by Kevin DeYoung, Greg Gilbert
What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission

What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission

by Kevin DeYoung, Greg Gilbert


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DeYoung and Gilbert help us think carefully about what the church is sent into the world to do. Looking at the Bible’s teaching, they explore the what, why, and how of the church’s mission.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781433526909
Publisher: Crossway
Publication date: 09/08/2011
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Kevin DeYoung (PhD, University of Leicester) is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina, and associate professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte. He has written books for children, adults, and academics, including Just Do SomethingCrazy Busy; and The Biggest Story. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have nine children.

Greg Gilbert (MDiv, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is senior pastor at Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He is the author of What Is the Gospel?; James: A 12-Week Study; and Who Is Jesus?; and is the coauthor of What Is the Mission of the Church? Greg and his wife, Moriah, have three children.

Read an Excerpt


A Common Word in Need of a Careful Definition

If everything is mission, nothing is mission. — Stephen Neill

IF YOU'RE READING THIS BOOK, you're probably a Christian. And if a Christian, you probably take some kind of interest in the church. And if you've been involved in a church, you've probably wondered from time to time, "What are we trying to accomplish anyway?" Maybe as a pastor you've asked yourself, "With everyone interested in their own program and passionate about their own cause, are we even aiming at the same thing?" Maybe as a Christian businessman or stay-at-home mom you've thought, "I know we are supposed to glorify God. But under that big umbrella, what does God want our church to be doing?"

At their root, these questions all ask the same thing: What is the mission of the church?

The question is deceptively complex and potentially divisive. For starters, what do we even mean by mission? And if that can be settled, we then face more difficult questions. Is the mission of the church discipleship or good deeds or both? Is the mission of the church the same as the mission of God? Is the mission of the church distinct from the responsibilities of individual Christians? Is the mission of the church a continuation of the mission of Jesus? If so, what was his mission anyway?

Related to these questions are others: What should be the church's role in pursuing social justice? Are we right to even use that phrase, and what do we mean by it? Does God expect the church to change the world, to be about the work of transforming its social structures? What about the kingdom? How do we build the kingdom of God? Or are we even capable of building the kingdom? How does the kingdom relate to the gospel? How does the gospel relate to the whole story line of the Bible? And how does all of this relate to mission?

Despite all these questions, there is a lot that evangelicals can agree on when it comes to mission: the gospel is, at the very least, the good news of Jesus's death and resurrection; proclamation is essential to the church's witness; heaven and hell are real; people are lost without Jesus; bodies matter as well as souls; and good deeds as the fruit of transformed lives are not optional. But if we are to find a lasting and robust agreement on mission praxis and mission priorities, we must move past generalities and build our theology of mission using the right categories and the right building blocks. In other words, as we grasp key concepts like kingdom, gospel, and social justice, we will be better able to articulate a careful, biblically faithful understanding of the mission of the church. And just as important, we'll be able to pursue obedience to Christ in a way that is more realistic, freeing, and, in the long run, fruitful.

What Is Mission?

Before going any further in answering the question posed in this book's title, we should acknowledge the difficulty in the question itself. A big part of the problem in defining the mission of the church is defining the word mission. Because mission is not a biblical word like covenant or justification or gospel, determining its meaning for believers is particularly difficult. We could do a study of the word gospel and come to some pretty firm biblical conclusions about "What is the Gospel?" — and we will, later in this book!1 But mission is a bit trickier. On the one hand the Latin verb mittere corresponds to the Greek verb apostellein, which occurs 137 times in the New Testament. So mission is not exactly extrabiblical. But as a noun, mission does not occur in the Bible, which makes the question of this book more difficult.

The answer to the question, "What is the mission of the church?" depends, to a large degree, on what is meant by "mission." One could make a case that glorifying God and enjoying him forever is the mission of the church, because that is our chief end as redeemed believers. Someone else might argue that loving God and loving neighbor is the best description of our mission, because those are the greatest commandments. And someone else might borrow from the nineteenth-century hymn and argue that trust and obey is the essence of our mission, because that is the great call of the gospel message. In one sense we would be foolish to argue with any of these answers. If mission is simply a synonym for living a faithful Christian life, then there are dozens of ways to answer the question, "What is the mission of the church?"

But isn't it wise to aim for a more precise definition of such a common word? We've never met a Christian who was against mission. In fact, every church we've ever known would say they are passionate about mission. So shouldn't we try to be clear what we are all for? Christians have long seen the importance of carefully defining other theological words like Trinity, essence, and inerrancy. Theology will not go far without careful attention to distinctions and definitions. So why not work toward a definition of mission? Christians often talk about mission trips, mission fields, and mission work, so it would seem to be a good idea at least to attempt to define what we are talking about. Granted, word meanings can change, and it may not be possible to rein in the definition of mission after fifty years of expansion. But it seems to us that a more precise definition is necessary, if for no other reason than the conviction that Stephen Neill's quip is spot-on: "If everything is mission, nothing is mission."

But where to start with a definition? In his influential book Transforming Mission, David Bosch rightly argues, "Since the 1950s there has been a remarkable escalation in the use of the word 'mission' among Christians. This went hand in hand with a significant broadening of the concept, at least in certain circles." It used to be that mission referred pretty narrowly to Christians sent out cross-culturally to convert non-Christians and plant churches. But now mission is understood much more broadly. Environmental stewardship is mission. Community renewal is mission. Blessing our neighbors is mission. Mission is here. Mission is there. Mission is everywhere. We are all missionaries. As Christopher Wright puts it, disagreeing with Stephen Neill's quote, "If everything is mission ... everything is mission." The ambiguity of the term mission is only augmented by the recent proliferation of terms like missional and missio Dei. It's no wonder Bosch concludes a few pages later, "Ultimately, mission remains undefinable."

But perhaps a common definition is not yet a lost cause. Before giving up on a definition, Bosch acknowledges that mission, at least in traditional usage, "presupposes a sender, a person or persons sent by the sender, those to whom one is sent, and an assignment." Though his broader theology of mission is quite different from what we will propose in this book, and though he doesn't like many of the ways this traditional understanding was employed, Bosch is on to something here. At its most basic, the term mission implies two things to most people: (1) being sent and (2) being given a task. The first point makes sense because mission comes from a Latin word (mittere) meaning "to send." The second point is implied in the first. When sent on a mission, we are sent to do something — and not everything, either, but rather we are given a particular assignment. On a street level, people basically know what mission means. For example, the old TV show Mission: Impossible always involved a specific goal that Peter Graves was supposed to accomplish. Companies spend millions every year honing their "mission statements," and fast-food restaurants even post "Our Mission" on the wall to assure us they're fanatically focused on serving us the best burgers in town. Even in the world around us, everyone understands that a mission is that primary thing you set out to accomplish. Most every organization has something, as opposed to other things, that it does and must do, and it understands that thing to be its mission. We think the same is true of the church.

In his study of mission in John's Gospel, Andreas Köstenberger proposes a working definition along the same lines: "Mission is the specific task or purpose which a person or group seeks to accomplish." Notice again the key concepts of being sent and being given a task. Likewise, John Stott has argued that mission is not everything the church does, but rather describes "everything the church is sent into the world to do." We are convinced that if you ask most Christians, "What is the mission of the church?" they will hear you asking, "What is the specific task or purpose that the church is sent into the world to accomplish?" This is our working definition of mission and what we mean to ask with the title of this book.

A Correction to the Correction

Our sincere hope is that this book can be a positive contribution to the mission discussion so prevalent and so needed in the evangelical world. We want to be positive in tone. We want to build up rather than tear down. But inevitably, a fair amount of our work in these chapters will be corrective as well.

Some of what we want to correct is an overexpansive definition that understands mission to be just about every good thing a Christian could do as a partner with God in his mission to redeem the whole world. But we are not antimissional. More and more, missional simply means being "on mission" — conscious of how everything we do should serve the mission of the church, being winsome and other-centered and Good Samaritan–like with those outside the community of faith, and having a sanctified strategy of being intentional and "attractional" for those who don't know Christ. It is often shorthand for "get out of your holy huddle and go engage your community with the gospel." We are all for that. Every Christian should be. We are not out to tar and feather any Christian who dares put -al on the end of mission. Even less do we want to cast aspersions on many of our friends who happily use the word and usually mean very good things by it.

Nevertheless, it is not wrong to probe the word missional. It's a big trunk that can smuggle a great deal of unwanted baggage. Being suspicious of every mention of the word is bad, but raising concerns about how the word is sometimes used is simply wise.

With that in mind, we register a few concerns about how missional thinking has sometimes played out in the conversation about the church's mission:

1. We are concerned that good behaviors are sometimes commended but in the wrong categories. For example, many good deeds are promoted under the term social justice, when we think "loving your neighbor" is often a better category. Or, folks will talk about transforming the world, when we think "faithful presence" is a better way to describe what we are trying to do and actually can do in the world. Or, sometimes well-meaning Christians talk about "building the kingdom" or "building for the kingdom," when actually the verbs associated with the kingdom are almost always passive (enter, receive, inherit). We'd do better to speak of living as citizens of the kingdom, rather than telling our people that they build the kingdom.

2. We are concerned that in our newfound missional zeal we sometimes put hard "oughts" on Christians where there should be inviting "cans." You ought to do something about human trafficking. You ought to do something about AIDS. You ought to do something about lack of good public education. When you say "ought," you imply that if the church does not tackle these problems, we are being disobedient. We think it would be better to invite individual Christians, in keeping with their gifts and calling, to try to solve these problems rather than indicting the church for "not caring."

3. We are concerned that in all our passion for renewing the city or tackling social problems, we run the risk of marginalizing the one thing that makes Christian mission Christian: namely, making disciples of Jesus Christ.

Before we go any farther down the missional-corrective road, though, perhaps it would be helpful to make clear at the outset what we do and do not want to accomplish with this book.

We do not want:

• Christians to be indifferent toward the suffering around them and around the world

• Christians to think evangelism is the only thing in life that really counts

• Christians who risk their lives and sacrifice for the poor and disadvantaged to think their work is in any way suspect or is praiseworthy only if it results in conversions

• Christians to retreat into holy huddles or be blissfully unconcerned to work hard and make an impact in whatever field or career to which the Lord calls them

• Christians to stop dreaming of creative, courageous ways to love their neighbors and impact their cities

We want to underline all those bullet points, star them, mark them with highlighter, and write them on our hearts. It's far too easy to get our heads right, but our hearts and hands wrong.

Having said all that, however, here's some of what we do want:

• We want to make sure the gospel — the good news of Christ's death for sin and subsequent resurrection — is of first importance in our churches.

• We want Christians freed from false guilt — from thinking the church is either responsible for most problems in the world or responsible to fix these problems.

• We want the crystal-clear and utterly unique task of the church — making disciples of Jesus Christ to the glory of God the Father — put front and center, not lost in a flurry of commendable concerns.

• We want Christians to understand the story line of the Bible and think more critically about specific texts within this story.

• We want the church to remember that there is something worse than death and something better than human flourishing. If we hope only for renewed cities and restored bodies in this life, we are of all people most to be pitied.

In correcting certain aspects of some missional thinking, we realize that missional thinking itself is striving to correct abuses of traditional missiology. Both corrections may be necessary at times. Hopefully no evangelical would say (or think), "Ah, let it all burn up. Who cares about food and water for the poor? Who gives a rip about HIV? Give 'em the gospel for the soul and ignore the needs of the body." This is what missional thinking is against. And similarly, we hope no evangelical would say (or think) the opposite: "Sharing the gospel is offensive and to be avoided. As long as the poor have job training, health care, and education — that's enough. The world needs more food, not more sermons." This is what we trust missional thinking is not for.

A Prayer for Humility and Understanding

The truth is that both sides have some important things to say to one another, and we should be careful in our mutual correction not to overcompensate. At their best, missional thinkers are warning the church against a careless, loveless indifference to the problems and potential opportunities all around us, a dualistic disregard for the whole person. On the other hand, a (usually) different group of Christians fears overly optimistic (and exhausting) utopian dreams, a loss of God-centeredness, and a diminishment of the church's urgent message of Christ crucified for hell-bound sinners.

Both are real dangers. We admit we are probably more sensitive to the second danger. And indeed one of the aims of this book is to guard the church from these errors. But we fully understand that many Christians, perhaps even the two of us, are often in danger of passing by the wounded man on the Jericho road. One of the challenges of this book — probably the biggest challenge — is that we may be seen as (or actually be!) two guys only paying lip service to good deeds. While we hope this book gives Christians a better handle on disputed texts and better categories for thinking of their service in the world, we would be disappointed to discover a year from now that our work did anything to discourage radical love and generosity for hurting people. Both of us, although far from perfect examples, have often given to hurting people and have supported organizations and individuals who work to alleviate suffering. Both our churches are involved in mercy ministry at home and abroad. All that to say, we want to be — and we want our congregants and all our readers to be — the sort of "just person" Tim Keller describes as living "a life of honesty, equity, and generosity in every aspect of his or her life."


Excerpted from "What Is the Mission of the Church?"
by .
Copyright © 2011 Kevin DeYoung and Gregory D. Gilbert.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments, 11,
1 A Common Word in Need of a Careful Definition, 15,
2 What in the World Does Jesus Send Us into the World to Do?, 29,
3 The Whole Story Seeing the Biblical Narrative from the Top of Golgotha, 67,
4 Are We Missing the Whole Gospel? Understanding the Good News, 91,
5 Kings and Kingdoms Understanding God's Redemptive Rule, 115,
6 Making Sense of Social Justice Exposition, 141,
7 Making Sense of Social Justice Application, 173,
8 Seeking Shalom Understanding the New Heavens and the New Earth, 195,
9 Zealous for Good Works Why and How We Do Good, both as Individuals and as Churches, 223,
10 The Great Commission Mission What It Means and Why It Matters, 241,
Epilogue: So You're Thinking of Starting a New Kind of Church? Advice for the Young, Motivated, and Missional, 251,
Bible Credits, 267,
General Index, 269,
Scripture Index, 273,

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“In what appears to be a growing tension over what the mission of the church encompasses, DeYoung and Gilbert bring a remarkably balanced book that can correct, restore, and help regardless of which way you lean or land on all things ‘missional.’ I found the chapters on social justice and our motivation in good works to be especially helpful. Whether you are actively engaging the people around you with the gospel and serving the least of these or you are hesitant of anything ‘missional,’ this book will help you rest in God’s plan to reconcile all things to himself in Christ.”
—Matt Chandler, Lead Pastor, The Village Church, Dallas, Texas; President, Acts 29 Church Planting Network; author, The Mingling of Souls and The Explicit Gospel 

“Christ is the greatest message in the world, and delivering it is the greatest mission. But are we losing our focus? Are we being distracted, sometimes even by good things? Zealous Christians disagree sharply today over the church’s proper ministry and mission. Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert bring us back to first things in an age of mission creep and distraction. Offering balanced wisdom, this book will give us not only encouragement but discomfort exactly where we all need it. It’s the kind of biblical sanity we need at this moment.”
—Michael Horton, J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics, Westminster Seminary California

“Among the many books that have recently appeared on mission, this is the best one if you are looking for sensible definitions, clear thinking, readable writing, and the ability to handle the Bible in more than proof-texting ways. I pray that God will use it to bring many to a renewed grasp of what the gospel is and how that gospel relates, on the one hand, to biblical theology and, on the other, to what we are called to do.”
—D. A. Carson, Cofounder and Theologian-at-Large, The Gospel Coalition

“DeYoung and Gilbert have put us in their debt with their clear, biblical, theological, and pastoral exposition of the mission of God’s people. That mission, which they rightly understand within the story line of the whole Bible, is summarized in the Great Commission and involves gospel proclamation and disciple making. This superb book will encourage its readers ‘to go into the world and make disciples by declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit and gathering these disciples into churches, that they might worship and obey Jesus’s commands now and in eternity, to the glory of God the Father.’”
—Peter T. O'Brien, Former Vice-Principal and Senior Research Fellow and Emeritus Faculty Member, Moore Theological College, Australia

“A very timely and eminently engaging book for all those who care deeply about the church’s mission in our day. Again and again, I found myself nodding in agreement as the authors made a key point from Scripture or noted the missional relevance of a given biblical passage. I highly recommend this book, not just as food for thought, but more importantly, as a call to obedient, biblically informed action.”
—Andreas J. Köstenberger, 

“Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert have written an important book on an important topic. Fair, keenly observant, startlingly honest, this book is replete with careful exegetical work. Verses are not merely cited; they are considered in context. The length of an idea is considered, all the way from its expression in the local church back to its source in Scripture. The result is a book that is nuanced and clear, useful and enjoyable to read, and that is no small gift from two young pastor-theologians who have already become reliable voices. Open this book and you’ll want to open your Bible and open your mind on everything from justice to capitalism, from mercy to love.”
—Mark Dever, Pastor, Capitol Hill Baptist Church, Washington, DC

“DeYoung and Gilbert clear the fog that has settled over the nature of the church’s mission. Their tone is gracious, the style is accessible, but most importantly this book is marked by fidelity to biblical revelation and the gospel of Jesus Christ. The authors have succeeded in what they exhort us to do: they have kept the main thing as the main thing.”
—Thomas R. Schreiner, James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

“DeYoung and Gilbert provide clarity to some of the most complex contemporary issues facing the church. Focusing us squarely on the redemptive nature of the gospel, they ultimately point us not only to the church’s mission, but to practical ways to understand and live it. The result is a book that will be of great help to pastors, missiologists, theologians, and practitioners.”
—M. David Sills, Faye Stone Professor of Christian Missions and Cultural Anthropology, Director of the Doctor of Missiology Program and Great Commission Ministries, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

“Every generation is tempted to augment or diminish, even nuance or redefine the mission of the church. Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert have provided a biblical corrective and protection for our generation in What is the Mission of the Church? With a gracious and kind spirit, this book reclaims the ecclesiastical concepts of mission, purpose, social justice, and the Great Commission from those who have redefined these words with a dictionary other than Scripture. Pastors should read this book with their elders, deacons, and leadership teams to wrestle with answers to the most pressing questions about the church in our day.”
—Rick Holland, Senior Pastor, Mission Road Bible Church, Prairie Village, Kansas

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