In this post I will briefly sketch the overall purpose of What Is the Mission of the Church? by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert. In subsequent posts I will engage the biblical, theological, and ideological arguments that support their larger intention.
DeYoung and Gilbert write to bring clarity to the discussion regarding the purpose of the church. They “want to help Christians articulate and live out their views on the mission of the church in ways that are more theologically faithful, exegetically careful, and personally sustainable” (p. 24).
Their central contention is that the “church is sent into the world to witness to Jesus by proclaiming the gospel and making disciples of all nations” (p. 26). This involves “gathering these disciples into churches, that they might worship the Lord and obey his commands” (p. 62).
The discipleship of which they speak is carried out within the church and involves cultivating “a life of poverty of spirit, meekness, mercy, purity, and peace” (p. 127).
For DeYoung and Gilbert, this is the central task with which the church must concern itself. The remainder of the book distinguishes this singular mission from the variety of things in which individual Christians may be involved.
This is a very important distinction for DeYoung and Gilbert. The church gathers and focuses on discipleship and worship. These are essentials, what the gathered church ought to do. When the church scatters, individual Christians can be involved in good deeds in the world, but they are not obligated to do so.
The majority of the book makes this singular point. It is commendable for individual Christians to do good deeds in the world, contributing to culture, meeting others’ needs, helping the poor, and fighting human trafficking. For the church, however, these are distractions from the main task of proclaiming the gospel and making disciples (p. 193).
One of their main concerns is that Christians have been made to feel guilty in the past for not doing enough to alleviate suffering in the world. They “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” (p. 23).
Some Christians make it sound like every poor person in Africa is akin to a man dying on our church’s doorstep, and neglecting starving children in India is like ignoring our own child drowning right in front of us. We are told that any difference in our emotional reaction or tangible response shows just how little we care about suffering in the world. This rhetoric is manipulative and morally dubious (p. 185).
They claim that this rhetoric comes in the form of talk among Christians about “social justice,” “restoring shalom,” and “advancing the kingdom.” They address each of these topics throughout the book, attempting to place them properly in relation to the central mission of the church. I’ll engage their treatments in future posts.
One final note. DeYoung and Gilbert may object that it isn’t fair for me to engage their book. I have a Ph.D. in biblical studies and teach New Testament at the seminary level. The authors state that this book isn’t for me:
This is not a book by and for biblical or theological scholars. We will deal with a lot of texts and interact with a lot of theology (and hopefully will do so responsibly), but we are not attempting a scholarly monograph on a biblical theology of mission (p. 25).
I’m engaging their work for the following reasons. I committed myself to biblical scholarship precisely because I am compelled to serve the church out of love for Jesus Christ and the wonder of being included among the people of God. My life is in service to the church and I want to play my role in discerning between life-giving words and destructive counsel.
Second, the authors present a vision for the mission of the church based on a range of theological notions and biblical texts. It is inappropriate to criticize them for failing to handle them as scholars—they’re writing to a broad lay audience. They must, however, be read carefully to see that they have handled Scripture and theology faithfully.