The Mission of the Church, Pt. 7

Over the past week or two, I’ve been thinking through Kevin DeYoung’s and Greg Gilbert’s book, What Is the Mission of the Church?  I’m not so much reviewing it as engaging it in conversation, working through some of the Scriptures they handle in canonical order.  Joel Willitts has also been engaging the book critically at Euangelion (see here, here, here, and here).

Today, I want to comment on the intended audience and rhetorical shape of the book.  It’s important to recognize that this book is written from and for a culture of agreement.

It’s an insider’s book, written from within a self-contained culture to others within that culture.  The authors confess openly that they’re part of the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” crowd and I think that they live and move and have their being solely within that sub-group of conservative evangelicals.

What can tend to happen in cultures of agreement is that group members don’t engage others who disagree in genuine conversation.  They tend to demonize or devalue members of other groups, minimizing their viewpoints, rarely coming into genuine contact with them.  This book is an example of this sort of phenomenon.

This book is not written for the average person interested in the mission of the church.  It is written for those within the YRR crowd who have decided already that they are not missionally-oriented Christian people.  The book is written to strengthen the identity of YRR people in their convictions about the gospel, the character of the church vis-à-vis social action, and most specifically to inoculate them against the literature and rhetoric from missional evangelicals.

I say this because the book is largely negative.  They don’t elaborate a mission for the church beyond repeating a few times that the church gathers for worship and making disciples, but isn’t responsible for doing good in the world.  Perhaps reflecting this largely negative frame for their work, Joel Willitts has been titling his blog posts, “What’s NOT the mission of the church?”

Neither is the book written for Christians who don’t know that there’s a difference between YRR evangelicals and missional evangelicals.  The authors don’t define alternative visions of church practice or help the reader to understand competing conceptions of the issues.  They dive right into their discussions in a way that would leave uninformed readers in the dust.

But insider rhetoric works in just this way.  It’s perfectly understandable to those within the camp shaped by rhetorical boundaries.  Those outside its borders are left mystified.

This book is certainly not written for missional Christians, those involved in urban churches, or those who minister among the poor.  Christians called to serve in missional churches may not feel that their philosophies of ministry are represented faithfully by DeYoung and Gilbert.

In fact, I’m not sure that the authors are familiar with the viewpoints of missional Christians.  They routinely portray them as Theonomic Postmillennialists, which is simply incredible.  They associate calls to do good in the world with the conviction that Christians are responsible to bring in the Kingdom of God by their efforts (p. 129).  They equate a missional outlook with the view that Christians are responsible to return creation to its pre-fall, edenic state (p. 75).

This is unfair and simply wrong.  I know of no missional Christian who talks or writes this way, and no one even comes close.  It seems that they know this, since they don’t cite anyone who holds the views they so vigorously and roundly critique.

Further, they regularly construct false dichotomies as they frame their position over against this straw man view of the church.  This is a typical rhetorical ploy in insider literature that constructs an “other” that is strange and dangerous.

Think “The Village.”  This book functions for the YRR crowd much like the fear-mongering that goes on in that film.  The village’s leaders spread word of monsters in the woods so that no one will venture beyond the borders of the village, discovering that they’re walled off from the outside world.

I only point this out to highlight how the book’s rhetoric functions and suggest why for some it may be a frustrating book to read.  For those who already agree with the authors’ viewpoint, it will function to strengthen their convictions.  Those expecting a fair engagement with the missional literature and an even-handed treatment of the topics they address will either be mystified or frustrated.

In my opinion, this is extremely disappointing.  We have the responsibility and privilege to bless one another and sharpen each others’ thinking.  That includes treating each other fairly and speaking and writing truthfully about one another.

19 thoughts on “The Mission of the Church, Pt. 7

  1. John Thomson


    I am a UK Christian – Glasgow even, not so far from St Andrews. Re the politics of American conservative evangelicalism I have only a sketchy understanding. I am surprised at the strength of your feeling as you disagree with the likes of De Young and Gilbert. I would have thought you would have much in common with them. Yet you seem not only to disagree with some of their emphases but to be fairly bitterly opposed.

    Expressions such as

    ‘they’re part of the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” crowd and I think that they live and move and have their being solely within that sub-group of conservative evangelicals.’


    ‘those within the YRR crowd ‘

    Your vehemence surprises me. You sem to have little respect or time for this ‘crowd’.

    Perhaps this is a reaction to your perception that they caricature of your position within the book. I have not read the book (in time I probably will) however, I drop regularly into De Young’s blog and find he is most irenic and balanced in his judgements. He is rarely if ever vitriolic in his comments. I don’t always agree with him. I am neither American nor Durch Reformed. I am not even Reformed with a capital ‘R’. I don’t belong to a Reformed Church. But I respect his thoughtfulness and general judgements.

    I have read a fair bit of NT Wright (which is at least broadly where you seem to come from) and can find much with which to agree and areas where I disagree. People like Craig Bartholomew and Tim Chester (both more keen on restoring of creation in mission) I gain real help from while not agreeing wholeheartedly with their perspective.

    None of us disagree that Christians should ‘do good to all men, especially those of the household of faith’ but what this means in terms of engagement with culture has always caused Christians to draw different lines and make different judgement calls. It is right that we should each try to convince the other (and even bolster the convictions of those who share our views). Surely we should be able to do this graciously while remaining firm in our convictions.

    Again, as I say, as an outsider I do not know the political undercurrents at work. I hope they can be worked through and each can be of mutual benefit to the other.


    I do understand that Coalitions so easily create insiders and outsiders. If one perceives oneself to be an ‘outsider’ it can be embittering and frustrating. The answer is of course personal excellence in devotion to Christ, remembering he was an ‘outsider’ among his people. By the end of the C1 Paul was an ‘outsider’ in the church. Both were outsiders ever seeking the unity and oneness of God’s people and that is perhaps the calling of many today.

    1. timgombis

      A few quick thoughts, John.

      I wrote this post because I’ve had conversations with a handful of missional Christian people who were fairly frustrated that their positions on things weren’t fairly represented. I tried to think through this a bit and it’s my opinion that this book represents rhetorically something more of a insider work–written not to convince outsiders but to strengthen the group dynamics within the group. This is the product of reflecting on what sort of book this is. I’m just trying to understand it. You’ll note that I don’t condemn or excuse them for doing this, though I do feel it’s helpful to try to grapple with the shape of their rhetoric.

      In identifying them as part of the YRR group of people, I’m noting how they refer to themselves within the book. I’m not imposing it on them. That’s what they say of themselves, even making a bit light of it, in their good-natured way. To simply repeat what they say is not evidence of my vehement feeling toward them at all. I’m just trying to understand their work and the character of the book they wrote. I am referring to them as Christian brothers throughout my engagement and not casting aspersions on them at all.

      I don’t think you’re wrong to find DeYoung a thoughtful person. Again, I imagine that both he and Greg are good people and I’m treating them as such. I’m engaging with the book they wrote and not passing judgment on them at all. I’m not mentioning what I think are their motives and thoughts. I’m interacting with what they wrote in their book.

      In my opinion, this book represents something important in the landscape of evangelicalism in America, so I want to work through it carefully.

      You seem quite ready to pounce, John — and at length! But I wonder if you’re reading me fairly. Perhaps it might be helpful to read the book. That would do a bit more to ensure that your contributions are fruitful and less speculative. You might even find that I’m actually treating them fairly!

  2. John Thomson


    You may be right. Perhaps I am ready to pounce. I really don’t intend to other than as a reaction to ‘pouncing’ I feel you may be doing. I apologize if I am too defensive. I guess at times I feel you are a little dismissive. Perhaps there is in both of us a forcefulness of expression that results from strong convictions.

    My more general comments are intended to inteact with you own views. Here I am not so much ‘pouncing’ as I hope challenging where I believe I differ. I do so hoping that the issues may be clearly aired and worked through (at least as far as a blog permits). Having read some of what you have written, I do not see you as an enemy, far less so an enemy of the gospel. I write as a believer outside the academic world, hoping both to learn from it and at the same time challenge its trends or at least hold them to account. This I think is the best service (via blogs) I can give you fellows at the cutting edge.

    I wouldn’t regularly drop in and comment if I did not believe I was interacting with someone who had a respect for Scripture and a desire to sit under it.

    1. timgombis

      You’re always welcome here, John. If you feel I’m being dismissive, then read the book and point me to passages where I’m not representing them rightly. If you feel that I’m not treating them rightly, but you haven’t read the book, then you are speculating. I’m doing my best not to speculate on their motives or their character. I’m only dealing with their content.

      The mission of the church is a serious matter and this book plays a serious role in shaping a vision for the church for many people. If I disagree on the basis of Scripture, then I will be critical. As it happens, I will be quite critical of their work. I’m honoring them by taking them seriously and honoring them by not impugning their motives as I do so.

    2. timgombis

      Just to add, John, I thought it may be helpful to try to understand why they present their case the way they do. I believe they misrepresent Christian people who see the church’s role within the world as one of creative redemptive action in imitation of Jesus. But as I have encountered folks who have been frustrated by this, I thought it would be helpful to situate their work rhetorically. And it seems to me that they write for those who agree with them rather than to convince others who see things differently.

      I’m not saying that it is okay for them to mis-characterize others since this is their focus–in fact, I don’t think it’s good at all. But in coming to grips with why they argue the way they do, it’s helpful to understand the sort of communication the book constitutes.

      I’m open to other suggestions as to why they argue this way, but their writing for a culture of agreement seemed to make the best sense to me.

  3. Timothy

    Perhaps Tim overstates his case slightly when he says of the YRR “I think that they live and move and have their being solely within that sub-group of conservative evangelicals.” I believe many of them attended Cape Town 2010 where they would have heard many “missional” views expressed. Indeed, the first half of the Cape Town statement was largely written by a notable “missional” Christian, Chris Wright. This first half of the statement was the statement brought to the conference and represented the unifying doctrinal core of the conference. So it is perhaps hyperbolic to say that YRR operates ‘solely’ within the YRR subgroup. This openness to contrary positions can be observed from time to time in some of the postings on TGC. I can remember one from an Arminian theology professor at TEDS that was posted on Justin Taylor’s blog.
    But it is a true statement if one treats it as a generalisation. This openness to the views of others is not frequent. It lapses entirely when challenged by books as diverse as the recent books by Rob Bell and Christian Smith. Its limits are clearly seen when even such reasonable people as Don Carson and Tim Keller can speak of TGC being a centred/boundary organisation when this is something of an oxymoron. If something is at the centre it is not on the boundary. And even if the luminaries of the YRR are sporadically open to constructive discussion, many of the followers are not as the comments on the TGC amply confirm. This is a frequent problem. Even if the ‘great ones’ are able to keep a perspective, us followers often are not. Thus we need to acknowledge, as Tim perhaps slightly obliquely does, that the pathology is not restricted to YRR but is actually quite widespread.

    1. timgombis

      Timothy, I trust that what you’re saying is right and do hope that it’s true. In saying that, I’m just trying to wrestle with the rhetorical frame of the book — how and why they argue the way they do, how they construct an image of those with whom they disagree, etc. Missional folks wouldn’t necessarily recognize themselves in their caricatures. So, in trying to situate what sort of communication their book is, it makes sense that perhaps they haven’t rubbed shoulders with many Christians who disagree with them. Very often it’s easy to caricature others you never see and it becomes harder to do so the more you spend time around others. There may indeed be evidence from elsewhere that this isn’t the case, but from their book, it would be difficult to determine that they’ve really sought to understand well what “missional” is all about.

  4. Justin Taylor


    Would you say that your comment on Joel’s blog that this book is a “call to pull back from robustly following Jesus” is a good example of “treating each other fairly and speaking and writing truthfully about one another”?

    1. timgombis

      Hi Justin,

      Here’s my comment in full:

      “Thanks for this, Joel. I must say that when I saw this book a few weeks ago, my heart sank. I knew already what they’d be arguing and how they’d take a very narrow conception of the gospel to its unbliblcal (anti-biblical) extreme conclusion. My heart sank because evangelicals are finally getting clued in to the fact that–as you say–following Jesus means doing things as communities that Jesus says to do that are hugely on God’s heart–serving people, doing justice, concretely loving mercy.
      For this book to advocate that while these are nice, if you can find the time, they aren’t essential to the gospel is to risk endorsing the complacency of far too many ‘Christians’.
      I don’t think you’re ranting at all. The book does need to be engaged, but in many ways it’s tough not to get pretty fired up about its call to pull back from robustly following Jesus.”

      I think I’m representing DeYoung and Gilbert fairly. On their view, joyful obedience to Jesus by the people of God is something very narrowly conceived as activity within the church while other sorts of doing good in the world are minimized as good but not essential. This misrepresents the character of God’s magnanimous love for creation, the variegated work of Christ on the cross, the robust nature of the gospel, and the holistic character of life-giving discipleship to Jesus.

      I’ve tried to treat them fairly, be kind in my comments about them personally, avoid impugning motives, and resist employing emotive language in my engagement with their work because I want to focus very specifically on the book’s argument. I think there’s something deeply wrong with its constricted vision of the church’s mission in the world.

      1. Justin Taylor

        Tim, when you say that they have an “anti-biblical” conception of the gospel, I think you’ve actually committed slander—and would be a good counterexample to the claims of your final paragraph about your virtues in this exchange.

      2. timgombis

        I’m happy to be held accountable for my rhetoric and if it’s inflammatory, I’ll climb down from it. But I’m not slandering them and I don’t claim that their conception of the gospel is anti-biblical. My critique is that their narrowed conception of the gospel is pushed to an extreme so that their conclusions run directly against the grain of other major themes in Scripture. It remains for me to demonstrate this, of course, but that’s my chief criticism of the book.

        That is, it would be one thing for Kevin and Greg to note that they’re emphasizing Theme A and leaving aside Themes B and C for the sake of space. Every book is selective–we can’t deal with everything and it would be unfair to expect that. But they pick out Theme A and set it over against Themes B and C. If Themes B and C are central to God’s aims in Christ for the people of God in the world and have everything to do with the gospel and the mission of the church, then that’s a big problem.

  5. Justin Taylor

    Tim, I know this exchange can’t go on forever, so I’ll close with this and let you have the last word. Just two quick comments on what you’ve said and what they’ve said.

    You just wrote, “I don’t claim that their conception of the gospel is anti-biblical,” yet you wrote to Joel that before you even read the book you knew that DeYoung/Gilbert “take a very narrow conception of the gospel to its unbliblcal (anti-biblical) extreme conclusion.”

    I guess I can see how you would have that preconception which leads you to conclude that they are putting Theme A “over and against” B and C. But since I don’t think they do that, your presupposition would turn out to be incorrect. To pick out an excerpt from the book (almost at random), see p. 231:

    // While we’ve argued that tasks like disciple making, proclamation, church planting, and church establishment constitute the mission of the church, we’ve tried to walk a fine line so as not to insinuate that any other kind of work—say, humanitarian work or justice work or love work—is somehow un-Christian. Please, please, please know that is not what we are saying. Any book that comes across as suggesting that loving our neighbors is somehow sub-Christian is a very poor book indeed. In order to walk this tightrope, we’ve described the disciple-making mission of the church with words like central, priority, focus, and emphasis. As Tim Keller has argued, even if “more broadly conceived, it is the work of Christians in the world to minister in word and deed and to gather together to do justice,” it is still “best to speak of the ‘mission of the church,’ strictly conceived, as being the proclamation of the Word.” //

    1. timgombis

      A month or so ago, someone sent me an ad for the book and asked about it. I hadn’t heard about it, so replied that I couldn’t comment on it. My interest was piqued, but I didn’t think I’d have time to read it. Later, I saw that an excerpt was posted on Crossway’s site (which more publishers ought to do, by the way — thanks, Crossway!). It was after reading this overview of their argument and then leafing through someone’s copy of the book that I made my comment on Joel’s site. I wouldn’t have commented without knowledge of their argument. I hadn’t presupposed that they isolate themes and set them over against others. This is what I’ve discovered as I’ve read their work.

      I do realize that they desire to avoid undercutting support for the church’s involvement in the world. They say as much at the beginning (pp. 22-23) as well as on p. 231, as you’ve noted. In fact, it was their initial caveat along this line that made me want to take up and read. I wanted to see how they maintained their central argument without doing just this. I was open to being convinced of their central claim.

      Despite their stated wishes, however, their rhetoric and the substance of their presentation undermine this desire. I’m not the only one who has noted this.

    2. timgombis

      I gave this some more thought today and I do think that my rhetoric was over-heated. Saying that their conclusions are “anti-biblical” isn’t helpful rhetoric and condemns Kevin and Greg as situated against God’s purposes. That wasn’t right of me and it was unkind. I’ll be careful to employ constructive rhetoric as I engage their work. Thanks, Justin.

  6. Seth Horton

    Hello Professor,

    I haven’t been privileged to meet you yet, and will likely not ever take a course with you since I’m close to starting my M.A. thesis. But, your concerns with DeYoung’s work reflect similar concerns I have had, though mostly through second-hand discussions. I have not, however, read this newest book.

    Have you interacted much with Schneider’s “The Good of Affluence” and his notion of ‘moral proximity’? Perhaps his intention is to limit a poor use of guilt as a motivator (as your describe in your most recent post), but I’m afraid he suggests that geographical distance removes ethical responsibility.


    I sincerely hope I to meet you soon at GRTS.

    1. timgombis

      Hey Seth,

      I haven’t read Schneider, but DeYoung and Gilbert mention the notion of moral proximity. It makes good sense, though I’d like to see some positive expression of it. Instead of stating merely that we’re not responsible or less responsible for those in farther geographical locations, we should remember that we’re seriously responsible to bless and look out for those near to us. Further, in a globalized economy, it’s worth noting that very often those far away are highly affected by goods and services we enjoy. Just think about our coffee, chocolate, and other things we enjoy daily. How are lives affected in order to bring these things here? If that distance is collapsed through production of goods, then perhaps we ought to think creatively about how to collapse that distance as the Western, very comfortable church, and serve these people, even though they’re quite far away.

  7. Pingback: brewing conversation | almost an M

  8. Denny Burk

    Hey, Tim. I’m jumping in late here and haven’t read the other comments. You wrote:

    “It’s an insider’s book, written from within a self-contained culture to others within that culture. The authors confess openly that they’re part of the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” crowd and I think that they live and move and have their being solely within that sub-group of conservative evangelicals.

    “What can tend to happen in cultures of agreement is that group members don’t engage others who disagree in genuine conversation. They tend to demonize or devalue members of other groups, minimizing their viewpoints, rarely coming into genuine contact with them. This book is an example of this sort of phenomenon.”

    Two Quick points:

    (1) The YRR’s are not monolithic on their view of the mission of the church. In fact, from my vantage point, it looks like DeYoung and Gilbert may very well be in the minority among YRR’s. In any case, it would be a mistake to think that this is a “preaching to the choir” kind of a book. There are a lot of folks in our circles who disagree with their thesis (though I am not one of them).

    (2) I don’t think it’s fair to characterize DeYoung and Gilbert as “demonizing” or “devaluing” those they disagree with. It’s important not to confuse disagreement with disrespect. DeYoung and Gilbert confront the issues head on, and they are direct in their critiques. But that is not the same thing as “demonizing” and “devaluing.” They have done neither of those things.

    Denny Burk

    1. timgombis

      Hey Denny,

      There may indeed be diversity within the YRR group, but in my view the book is written specifically to that crowd and to accomplish purposes within that narrower group. There is a high degree of “insider” rhetoric without much elaboration of opposing viewpoints or measured assessments. So, while it may be that not everyone in the YRR group agrees with Kevin and Greg, it seems addressed to that group to shore up an ecclesial vision within it.

      It’s clear that they don’t agree with a missional vision of the church, which is completely fine. But I was looking forward to an even-handed assessment of missional literature. I was disappointed not to find that. I tried to say this in a way that isn’t inflammatory or questions motives, so I said that it seems that they don’t really understand what many missional thinkers are saying. This misunderstanding resulted in the misconstrual of views and approaches of missional thinkers. If such folks don’t find their views represented well in the book, they may disagree with your assessment.

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