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.