It’s awfully hard to hit a target if you don’t even know what the target is. Successful organizations know this — it’s why they have “mission statements.” Having a clear definition of your mission is the first step to achieving it, and this is especially true of the church. So what is the church’s mission?
It’s a pretty big question, one that I’m revisiting to make sure my understanding of it is sound. (For other big questions I’ve been pondering lately, see yesterday’s post.) Today I’m going to share three foundational premises that undergird my own personal definition of our mission as believers, and then give my current working definition.
Trivia side note: Did you know that the way we got our English word “mission” is because it’s the Latin translation of the word the Bible uses for Jesus being “sent” (missio) into the world by the Father, and his “sending” of us into the world as his agents (John 17:18)?
Premise 1: The church is the body of Christ (Rom 12:4-5; 1 Cor 6:15; 12:12-27; Eph 1:22-23; 4:4; Col 1:18). This means we are the embodiment of Christ’s purposes on earth. As a person’s thoughts direct their body, so Christ directs the church to be his “body,” his active presence in the world. That implies . . .
Premise 2: Christ’s mission is our mission. Whatever it is that Christ wants to do in the world is what we should be up to. What is Christ’s mission? He repeatedly shows us and tells us about it throughout the Gospels:
- He made disciples, calling people to follow him (Matt 4:19; Mark 8:34-35).
- He came to proclaim God’s kingdom, calling all people to repent and submit to God’s reign (Mark 1:14-15, 38; Luke 4:43) and illustrating what life under that reign looks like (Matt 5-7; 13; Luke 15; 16; 18).
- He came to bring freedom and justice to the poor and oppressed through the dawning of God’s reign and by God’s Spirit (Luke 4:16-21).
- He came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:9-10) and to call sinners to repentance (Luke 5:30-32).
- He came to announce the certainty of future judgment and call everyone to make a choice to give allegiance to him and be saved, or reject him and be condemned (Matt 10:32-39; Luke 12:49-53; John 5:22-30; 9:39).
- He came to serve people and to set an example of what true, self-giving, sacrificial, loving service is (Mark 10:43-45; John 13:12-17).
- He came to fulfill Israel’s Scriptures and make good on God’s covenant promises (Matt 5:17; 12:17; 26:54-56; Mark 14:49; Luke 24:44; John 17:12).
- He came to give us abundant life (John 10:10), and to bring people out of darkness and into light (John 12:46).
- He came to break the powers of death and the devil (Matt 12:28; Luke 11:20; cf. Heb 2:14).
- He came to carry out the Father’s will by giving his life as the atoning sacrifice for the whole world (Matt 20:28; Mark 10:45; Luke 22:20; John 3:14-17; 6:38, 51; 8:42).
That’s a pretty big list. And I’ve probably even missed a few things. But it gives us a pretty comprehensive picture of what Christ came to do — to be God’s agent who ushers in God’s reign and calls everyone to give allegiance to him, proclaiming the message of how they can be saved; to explain and fulfill God’s word in the Scriptures; to love and serve the people he made and give his life as the sacrifice for them so that they can escape the power of death and enter life in God’s reign; to show us what it truly looks like to live life the way God intended, the “good life” we as humans were created to live, as we follow Christ and obey his teachings as citizens of God’s kingdom, and as we humbly and sacrificially love and serve others.
That’s still a pretty long mission statement. Here are some elements we could potentially boil it down to: evangelism, discipleship, sacrificial service, justice, and participating in the mission of God to redeem his world, all motivated by love and empowered by God’s Spirit.
How do we know that Christ’s mission is also the church’s mission? Because he tells us so:
“Truly I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do. And he will do even greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12).
“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, I also send you‘” (John 20:21).
Just as Christ made disciples, he likewise commands us to make disciples: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20). The whole reason this command is traditionally called “the Great Commission” is because it’s exactly that: Christ calling us into “co-mission” — we join him in his mission.
Just as Christ proclaimed the good news of God’s kingdom and of how people can be saved, and as he came to seek and to save the lost, so he also sends us to proclaim and bear witness so people might believe in him and be saved. “He also said to them, ‘This is what is written: The Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead the third day, and repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in his name to all the nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things'” (Luke 24:46-48). “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Just as Christ gave his life for us in service, we too are to pour out our lives in service to others — even our enemies. “For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done for you. . . . If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them” (John 13:15, 17). This service includes not just loving other believers, but also pursuing God’s justice in the world.
Obviously our participation in Christ’s mission won’t be exactly the same as his — we members of the church are not ourselves the Messiah, and we don’t literally offer ourselves as the one infinitely-valuable sacrifice for the world. His sacrifice made it possible for us to be reconciled to God. So there’s some discontinuity that’s important to recognize. But I’m enjoying thinking through the implications of the church being Christ’s body, living in union with him, participating in his mission.
Premise 3: The church’s mission must include the pursuit of justice — working to help the needy and oppressed. BUT — and this is a crucial caveat — God’s concept of justice is defined by the Bible, not by secular notions of justice. The church should be performing good works and bearing good fruit not simply to be humanitarian, but in order to be a shining light that leads unbelievers to give glory to God (Matt 5:14-16; John 15:8). In other words, the church’s good deeds and acts of justice should be as an embodiment of and witness to the truth of the gospel. The church pursues justice according to the biblical depiction of the reign of God as fleshed out by Israel’s prophets and Jesus and his apostles, not according to any one particular political party’s ideology of social justice.
Okay. So maybe my working definition of the church’s mission for now would tentatively be something like the following: to participate in the mission of Christ by proclaiming the gospel in word and deed, by making disciples who will in turn make more disciples who further proclaim and embody the gospel, by teaching and obeying God’s word, and by loving and serving the people around them and pursuing justice for them as a witness to the reign of God.
Something like that.
It’s a bit unwieldy, but it’s a start. Maybe I’ll see if I stick with this definition down the road. Especially since I just started reading what looks to be a fantastic book on this subject: Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission by Michael Gorman. I think it’ll line up pretty well with what I’m starting with, but I’ll be “checking my work,” so to speak.
My thinking on this topic has already been helpfully influenced by Dean Flemming’s Recovering the Full Mission of God: A Biblical Perspective on Being, Doing and Telling— check that out if you’re interested in this topic.
Let me know what you think. What would you say is the mission of the church? How would you break it down? Do you like my definition, or do you think it still needs work? Help me workshop it. If you’re a believer, then we’re in the mission together.
See you down the path.