The Mission of the Church, Pt. 5

It seems to me that both “missional” Christians and the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” folks envision God on a mission.  They just configure that mission differently, and the result is two different conceptions of the church and the church’s mission.

DeYoung and Gilbert offer a narrative reading of Scripture in their third chapter.  They portray the creation condition mainly in static terms.  Humanity had a relationship of “perfect harmony” with God.  This was a state of moral and legal purity that needed to be guarded and protected.

Adam and Eve disobeyed and violated the relationship with God in a moral and legal sense.  It’s at this point that God initiates his mission, and his goal is to restore the relationship with humanity.

Every story has to have an obstacle that needs to be overcome, providing the central tension.  For DeYoung and Gilbert, the obstacle is this broken relationship: “the main tension of the Bible’s story line seems to revolve around the question, How can hopelessly rebellious, sinful people live in the presence of a perfectly just and righteous God (p. 89)?”

The mission of God, on this conception, involves God’s aims to repair his relationship to humanity.  This mission begins at the fall and ends at the consummation, returning creation to a sort of static condition of moral and legal perfection.

This narrative shapes the identity of the church by making it the place where God’s restored people gather.  And what is the church’s mission?  They are to gather and worship and give thanks for their restored relationship.  If they do anything beyond that when they scatter, that’s commendable, but there isn’t anything essential beyond their gathering for worship and making disciples.

In addition, it may be worth considering how God’s supposedly antagonistic relationship with outsiders shapes the church’s attitude toward doing good in the world.

Missional Christians will respond that this narrative has the wrong starting point, an inappropriate narrative obstacle, a misplaced resolution, and a thinned-out ecclesiology.

They’ll point to an alternative narrative, claiming that God’s mission begins at creation.  It’s not a static condition at all, but a vigorously and vitally dynamic one.  God gives shape to what was formless and begins filling with wonderful things what was formerly empty.  He creates a vibrant, teeming, swarming, and super-abounding world that is overflowing with life and commissions humanity to join him in filling it even more.  Further, God wants the whole of his creation to be characterized by shalom and universal flourishing.

As the Creator God’s image multiplies and spreads throughout the earth and continues to grow into this role, the Creator God will be increasingly glorified in all of creation—God’s temple.  God’s glory increases with the spread of creation’s flourishing.

A missional reading of Scripture gives priority of place to Genesis 1-2 and not Genesis 3, considering God’s passion for and delight in creation as the driving force in the narrative.

The obstacle in the narrative is, of course, the fall.  Humanity has rebelled, failing to carry out God’s commission to subdue creation and manage the spread of universal flourishing.

The question that drives the narrative is, How can the Creator God redeem humanity as his image, reclaim creation as his temple, and restore creation’s flourishing for the glory of his name?

Missional Christians will claim that this story line satisfies in ways that the other doesn’t.  It recognizes the dynamic and compelling character of God’s original intentions for creation.  It makes sense of God’s call of Abraham to be a blessing to the nations.  God still wants to be glorified by all of creation and by all the nations.  He didn’t toss out that original desire at the fall.

This also makes sense of Jesus’ life and ministry.  He did indeed come to die, but he also came to live!  His life isn’t just a bunch of insignificant details until he goes to the cross.  He enacts the truly human life that God wanted all along, one that subdues creation and seeks human flourishing in so many different ways.

This also makes Christ’s work on the cross multi-faceted.  Jesus’ death and resurrection provides forgiveness, effects the reunion of shattered humanity, unleashes resurrection life on creation, and inaugurates the new creation.

All of that sets the trajectory for the church’s mission.  The church is God’s people on earth, created, sustained, and empowered by the Spirit to experience God’s own life and joy in Christ.  They are created to be communities of justice and flourishing, and this is to have a spill-over effect so that churches are literally “bodies of Christ.”  They do in their wider communities what Jesus did when he came to earth, bringing healing, shalom, flourishing.

To a world that is enslaved to Sin and Death, suffering under the weight of evil’s devastation, the missional church embodies good news.  And the church is a sign to the world of God’s coming renewal that will free creation finally and completely so that it once again becomes God’s temple. 

At that point, the story starts to get profoundly better and the narrative really takes off…

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18 responses to “The Mission of the Church, Pt. 5

  • Russ

    Thanks for this blog series! It’s been a gift in assisting me in connecting some dots.

    As you approach this discussion diachronically, are you planning on addressing the relationship of the Creation Mandate with the Noahic Covenant? While G/DY don’t explicitly discuss this, they appear to be framing the discussion in the classic 2K format which depends largely on the nature of the Noahic Cov to make the common kingdom case and thus reduce the mission of the church to the “walls” of the church.

    Appreciate your thoughts on this!

    • timgombis

      Thanks, Russ — it may come up in a post on God’s character. There are a number of passages that are relevant to speak of God’s concern for his creation, including the Noahic covenant. Stay tuned…

  • greekUnorthodox

    Tim-

    Great summation of the difference between the two paradigms. I wonder if the missional view also has something to say about Babel and that, perhaps, God didn’t destroy is so much because of their audacity in thinking they could be like God (as most preachers emphasize) and more because they aren’t “filling the Earth [with God's image]” as was commanded in Genesis 1:28 and 9:1. In the Babel account, in Gen. 11:4 there seems to be a two-fold problem. Namely that they are “making a name for themselves” BUT ALSO that they don’t want to be “dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”

    In other words, would it fit into the ‘missional’ gospel to think that God destroyed Babel because the people were coming in when God was trying to send them out?

    • timgombis

      Dude, that episode is HUGE!! Yes, that’s an instance of humanity specifically refusing to fill the earth for the glory of God–to be a ‘name’ for him. They wanted to make a name for themselves, instead. So, the form of their disobedience was a perversion of their humanity. True humanity is to fill the earth, bring about flourishing, relate well with others and have all of this constitute worship of the one true God.

    • timgombis

      Think also about how this is reversed in Jesus’ mission–going beyond Israel’s borders into towns he wasn’t supposed to go in, according to corrupted Jewish prejudices. Further, Jesus command to go and make disciples, and the spread of the church in Acts — all of this happens as a fulfillment of God’s original intentions to worshiped around the entire globe, reclaiming it as a temple for the glory of his name.

      So, again, human flourishing is the worship of the one true God.

  • Dan Jr.

    I’m loving these posts. You have laid out with clarity the two hermeneutic lenses.

    One revolves around starting in Genesis 3; the fall, dealing with our offensiveness and reinstating us to an acceptable level because God is holy.

    The other starting in Genesis 1-2: our original missional DNA, God’s humbling act to reclaim the human project and his desire to recruit us to work on His behalf in this world because He loves what He makes.

    These two different lenses have a profound impact on what we import into the mission of the church and eventually what we disciple our people to pour their life energy and resources into. It really is quite crazy the stark differences.

  • joey

    If Col 1:15ff is talking about the resurrected, glorified Jesus, and if Col 1 is saying that God’s first thought before he began creating was (this) Jesus, it must mean that he intended forgiveness before he began. Forgiveness (in response to the Sin he knew WE would choose) was part of his predetermined process to bring us to glory. He did not approve of, choose, or create sin, but it was part of the process he purposed from the beginning. Otherwise, he could not have purposed a crucified, resurrected and glorified Jesus before the world began.

  • John Thomson

    Tim

    I’ll continue for a little to be a devil’s advocate – or a thorn in your flesh.

    1. I suspect you are guilty of caricaturing De Young and Gilbert, however, I will leave them to protest if this is so.

    2. The story starts in Gen 1,2 but that isn’t the beginning of the story. The narrative does not develop chronologically. It involves flashbacks. If you wish to explore it diachronically then you must start in eternity with divine purpose (if diachronic is an appropriate word outside of time). Divine purpose begins with Christ and his people not Adam and his. The Second Man and all in him was God’s purpose. The natural was always intended to lead to the spiritual and the spiritual was always the priority. This is the point I believe Joey is making. Thus creation was not God’s purpose but new creation and whatever it entails. God’s ‘mission’ was never merely creation but always new creation. This only becomes apparent as the narrative unfolds. 1 Cor 15, Col 1 and Eph 1.

    (A few other points but must go for now).

    • timgombis

      Just quickly on your first point. I’m working pretty hard to represent them rightly and to be fair. Where am I getting them wrong?

      • John Thomson

        Tim
        ‘And what is the church’s mission? … If they do anything beyond that when they scatter, that’s commendable, but there isn’t anything essential beyond their gathering for worship and making disciples.’

        I doubt if De Young would wish to frame godly living in society as merely commendable or non-essential. Their quibble would be whether it is best to call this ‘mission’. They would wish to be good plumbers, policemen, artists, nurses etc and in this way commend the gospel and elicit glory for their father in heaven but they would not call this ‘mission’. As you say, different concepts of ‘mission’ come into play.

      • timgombis

        That may indeed be the case, John, and I do hope so–I don’t know them. I’m just working from how they frame things in their book.

    • joey

      Yes, John. You said it better than I.

    • timgombis

      I’m not sure you’re taking the narrative seriously as a narrative, then, John. That is, you’ve got to start from the beginning and read forward. There are indeed some theological traditions that start in the NT and read a spiritualized interpretation back into the OT, but I don’t think that’s appropriate. Christ is indeed the first-born over all creation, indicating his supremacy. I’m reading Scripture bound to the narrative as it unfolds, not reading later ‘chapters’ in ways that negate previous ones.

      Creation and its flourishing are God’s goal. That’s pretty clear from Gen. 1-2. Christ as the second Adam accomplishes what the first failed to do–subdue creation and bring about its flourishing, taking on death and putting it to death, being raised the first of the new creation. We look ahead to the fully restored creation, when resurrection life covers all the earth as the waters cover the sea.

      Revelation depicts heaven and earth rejoining so that our eternal hope is the restored earth. I’m not sure what you mean by the spiritual as God’s ultimate goal unless you’re headed in a gnosticized direction?

      • John Thomson

        ‘I’m reading Scripture bound to the narrative as it unfolds, not reading later ‘chapters’ in ways that negate previous ones. ‘

        I do not agree that my narrative reading of later chapters negates the previous, rather it fully enlightens them. We are not told that we look forward to a fully restored creation – this IMO Tim is your language and not that of Scripture. We look forwards to a ‘new heavens and new earth'; continuity involves radical discontinuity. Nor are we told that the future hope of the Christian is life on a restored earth. This may be so but it is not plainly so. The New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven. John does not see it on earth. The point is primarily its heavenly origin; it is the ‘Jerusalem above’.

        No, I am not advocating a gnostic direction. I did say previously spiritual did not mean non-material but it does mean something substantially different from original creation. Resurrection bodies are ‘bodies of glory’. They are bodies like Christ’s own body of glory – who is able to live in God’s presence presently.

        My main point here is we cannot be too dogmatic about what life in the future will be, but we can say it is radically different from life in the first creation. The fulfilment far eclipses the type, and the first with its Adamic head, seems to be a type. It is true that ‘He didn’t toss out that original desire at the fall.’ but he did ‘toss out’ the origin design. In fact the origin design was never intended to be the final design; it was the prototype, or in terms of the novel, the prelude.

        Having said this when you describe the missional model in the last five paragraphs I amen what I read. I suspect De Young would too. Disagreement may be in the fine print.

        One final point. An important distinction between creation and new creation is the basis on which humanity relate to God. In the initial creation Adam is placed on the ground of personal responsibility to maintain his relationship. He is not ‘aided’ in his obedience and so guaranteed life. His is a relationship of works. New creation is all of grace. Obedience is guaranteed. New creation humanity in Christ is of a different order. Of necessity only the second can be God’s purpose for he will not allow humanity any ground to boast in his presence. All must be of grace and God. (Roms 4; 1 Cor 1).

      • timgombis

        It’s important to think narratively along with the Scriptural narrative. God’s aims for creation actually don’t change. There was progression and the intention of development from the very beginning. So, there’s a direct line from creation through to new creation. God’s original design was for humanity to bring that about — to his glory! At the fall, that intention doesn’t get tossed out. Christ’s work has direct reference to it. He puts to death (in an inaugurated sense) Sin and Death, intending to rid creation of these forces completely some day. At that point, he will bring in the fullness of the new creation. It will be this creation, fully renewed and restored — and advanced beyond what it is now and what it was in the garden. But it is still in continuity with this creation.

        So, I see continuity. But we see all this in Genesis 1-2, especially when read along with Revelation. So, it is creation regained and restored and reclaimed. Not tossed out and re-created.

  • Rene Diebenkorn

    Uh this whole concept of being on mission and missional has always thrown me over-board!

  • S Wu

    Tim, this post is so……. good. Thank you!

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