Church-shaped Mission

This Spring Quarter at Northern I am in a class called Mission-Shaped Church taught by Dr. David Fitch which meets every Monday night. It is a class focused on ecclesiology, culture, and church practice. There should be some explanation here. This is not primarily a theology course. The question of “What is church?” comes up often enough, but it is less a question about the ontological nature of the church and more a question of context; What does it mean for a group of believers to function and practice life as the church in this particular context in particular ways? It is a question of methods and ways of shaping the people within the community of faith in relation to the current moods and eddies of culture.

For some students this already begins to become confusing, and for good reasons. The confusion can be found in the continual and numerous usages of the terms “mission” and “church” both in the class and in the readings. The variety of uses of the term “mission” in relation to the work and/or identity of the church has grown so obscure that it has spawned entire degree programs. I break down these terms in the simplest and most general ways as the mission is the work of the kingdom of God and church is the visible identity of the kingdom of God. The confusion comes for student when mission language is used for identity concepts.

There are plenty examples of this strange intermingling of mission and identity. Some are open about this. “…[Anabaptist] awareness that mission is part of the nature of the church.”[1] Others are more ambiguous, but their general thrust seems to be this direction. “…the people whom God has called to be his own (in both Testaments) has been shaped as a community of memory and hope, a community of mission, failure, and striving.”[2]

The problem here is with the implication that the nature of the church is bound to the mission given to it by King Jesus. So, what then happens at the Eschaton, on the Last Day, when the mission comes to end? When work to invite the Nations comes to its completion? If the nature of the church is bound to its mission there are only two options. 1) The church will simply cease to exist, or 2) the church will undergo further transformation. Some accept this second option by means of kingdom-language.

“The identity and role of the church are defined by this election, this purpose in God’s mission for the sake of the world. As a preview of the kingdom in its communal life, as an instrument of the kingdom in its words and deeds, the church is a sign of the coming kingdom.”[3]

For most, option two doesn’t sound so bad. Christians expect further transformation to come in the form of resurrection so why would this be any different? But number two is theologically untenable for us. First, resurrection is the completion of God’s work in humanity that began in King Jesus. It is not a new thing in the life of the church it is the final part of the long process of our millennia of faithful life with our God and King. It means we get to be fully in his presence in the image of the Son, even in the physical way of bodily life. Resurrection, the radical transformation that it will be for the church, is a manifestation of our identity being rooted in King Jesus’ accomplishments rather than an indicator of the mission.

Second, the church/kingdom connection is further misconstrued. How is it possible that the church is the “preview” or “sign” of the kingdom if the natures of church and kingdom are different based on the having and not having of the mission? If the church exists as the mission of God to the nations it is not able to reveal what the kingdom is like beyond the mission. The main issue here is both a lack of understanding the nature of the kingdom of God,[4] and not recognizing the church as the incarnational existence of the kingdom in the present. While the second option seems better because it does not make the church non-existent after the Eschaton, it actually does just that! The church will still cease to be and some new social existence of the people of God will be created after the mission is complete.

Lastly, I believe this idea of mission as essential or integral to the identity of the church goes against King Jesus’ teachings on understanding human nature. When he taught us to watch those who teach he said, “Every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.”[5] King Jesus teaches us that behavior flows from identity. The mission then flows from the identity of the church.

It is not enough for those studying the mission to seek to distinguish between the mission of the people of God and the mission of God, as if this solves this problem of the mission as the Church’s identity. In this semantic it is still recognized that the people of God are those who participate in the mission of God. The mission of the church therefore proceeds its existence in God’s act of creation meaning that the church is still defined as the people participating in the mission. Now the mission is just no longer the direct responsibility of the church, it is God’s mission and we are simply being carried along in it. This may stave off some of the guilt for Christianity failing to convert the majority of the Western cultures it help create or it may be new method of laid back cultural interaction, but it doesn’t change the ontological issues with claiming the mission is essential to the nature or identity of the church.

There is a lot to be learned from studying how the church has succeeded, failed, or should change the way it goes about completing the mission to the nations given to us by King Jesus. But the mission should never be seen as the identity of who we are, rather it is the natural way the people of God interact with the Nations in the present time. The church worships, teaches, obeys, and lives in the presence of King Jesus. In a world that has rejected the claims he made, the church’s mission naturally invites the Nations into the community of faith, the kingdom of God. Someday mission will end because the Nations have come, but our life with God, the very identity and nature of the people of God, will never end.

Behavior flows from identity, and the mission of the church flows from the identity of the church created in King Jesus. A church-shaped mission for a Jesus-shaped church.

 


[1] Stuart Williams, Post Christendom: Church and Mission in a Strange New World. (Milton Keynes: Authentic Media, 2013), 236. This is a two-scholars-for-one-point quote! Williams is making his point by quoting David Smith in Crying in the Wilderness.

[2] Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2006), 51.

[3] Michael W. Goheen, A Light to the Nations: The Missional Church and the Biblical Story (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 20.

[4] See Scot McKnight’s Kingdom Conspiracy.

[5] Mt. 7:17-18

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