Yesterday, I shared links to several reviews of Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert’s book, What is the Mission of the Church?, and I highlighted some common concerns with their conclusions concerning the mission of the church. Here I’ll share more of my own thoughts on the issue.
When Jason Sexton, the book review editor for “mission and culture” at Themelios, asked me to write a review, I was hesitant. I don’t generally do book reviews– the only other one I have done is a three part review of Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins. I suspect most reviews don’t really further conversation as much as they reinforce ideas already held by the convinced.
But, in this case, the review was for Themelios, a journal of the Gospel Coalition where many were discussing the book. Since many people have been asking my opinion, this seemed a good venue to share some thoughts.
Now, this is a review, not my theology of mission (or a definition of mission). If you are interested in that discussion, I’d direct you to the book I recently co-edited with David Hesselgrave called MissionSHIFT: Mission Issues in the Third Millenium. In the first third of that book, “‘Mission’ Defined and Described,” missiologists like Charles Van Engen, Keith Eitel, Enoch Wan, Darrell Guder, Andreas Köstenberger, and me spill much ink debating those definitions.
Yet, this is a review and a critique. For those of you not accustomed to such approaches, you should know that this is how academic discourse is often conducted– you critique the work of others. Actually, much of What is the Mission of the Church? is a critique of the view of many missiologists such as Christopher Wright. So, it is in that spirit that I offer my critique, highlighting the good, critiquing what I think is not as good, and then giving my opinion of the project.
Let me add that working with Jason Sexton and the other editors of Themelios has been exceedingly helpful. They did not just ask me to write the review, but they engaged along the way, providing feedback and insight, helping me to tighten my statements and make clear my references. I appreciate their help.
Also, the editors decided that the book merited a longer review– it is about triple the normal length. For that, I am grateful. I think that partly it points to the fact that the book is being widely read and discussed. DeYoung and Gilbert have done well to read the issues of the day and seek to speak into those issues (emerging church, the nature of the gospel, the Calvinist resurgence, etc.). The same is true here– they have written the book at a time when people are talking about these issues. I am glad more people are having these conversations.
Also, I (and the editors) felt that I needed the space to address the issues fairly. We should always be fair, but since Themelios is a Gospel Coalition publication, and DeYoung is a Gospel Coalition blogger (and Gilbert a Gospel Coalition friend), this is in a sense a conversation between partner publications. More than that, it is a conversation among brothers in Christ with a desire for the advance of God’s mission, though we may differ on some of the particulars of how that is defined.
Here are excerpts that make up about a third of the actual review:
The evangelical church is often engaged in important theological discussions. Given the impact that changes in our culture have had on the church, these conversations are expected and often needed. We anticipate that greater clarity and unity within the evangelical community would emerge, wherever possible, from these conversations. In a number of these conversations and debates, I have felt the need to participate, contributing in particular to our understanding of the mission of the church in the world. Many articles, books, and conferences have helped to shape where we are today on this topic, and most recently, Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert have written What Is the Mission of the Church?
They plod through the biblical text in workmanlike fashion and have written a thorough and irenic book seeking to answer the title question. Much of the recent missional conversation and missiology in the last sixty years revolves around answering this basic question. DeYoung and Gilbert, through what they call “straight up exegesis,” locate the mission of the church in the Great Commission passages. “The mission of the church,” they conclude, “is to go into the world and make disciples by declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit and gathering these disciples in churches, that they might worship the Lord and obey his commands now and in eternity to the glory of God the Father” (p. 62).
I appreciate the deliberate interaction with key passages of Scripture and found this to be one of the book’s strengths–despite not following all of the exegetical conclusions. DeYoung and Gilbert are commended for not offering merely a collection of thoughts, nor an extended argument for what is or isn’t “mission,” but rather a biblical exercise intended to strengthen the church. Nearly every conclusion they draw is based on exegesis, except for their treatment of social justice, where after defining justice biblically, they depend on certain economic theories and the practical principle of “moral proximity” to construct how we should think about this topic.
DeYoung and Gilbert should also be commended for the way they discuss the gospel, particularly Gilbert. Their discussion here demonstrates some development since Gilbert’s What Is the Gospel? (Crossway, 2010). They are clear, nevertheless, that there is only one gospel and that it is often communicated from different perspectives, using the imagery of “zoom lens” to zero in on the center of the gospel or a “wide-angle lens” that pulls back far enough to see that Christ fulfilled all the hopes and promises in the biblical story. They note that the “wide-angle” perspective on the gospel is captured biblically with the phrase “gospel of the kingdom.” Gilbert and DeYoung argue, however, that regardless of the lens the call to repent and believe is always included, for the “gospel of the cross” is the fountainhead of the kingdom. Even if one expounds the nature of the “gospel of the kingdom” in different terms, their basic framework reflects the biblical teaching, that the “gospel of the cross” is central to the “gospel of the kingdom.” This is the right line to hold.
When they deal with the missio Dei they are careful to differentiate between it and the missio ecclesia, arguing that there are some things that only God does, that only God can do. His mission is different in certain ways from the mission he gave his church. They are right, I think, to define the idea of “mission” broadly as the “specific task or purpose that the church is sent into the world to accomplish” (p. 20). When they unpack precisely what the mission of the church is, they give a clear picture of the church sent in the power of the Spirit to make disciples by proclaiming the gospel.
Many will find their definition of the mission of the church too narrow. I do. With their definition, they underplay the relationship of secondary ministries to those in the community that are not immediately didactic and explicitly gospel revealing. In arguing that God’s mission for the church does not include caring for the poor or intervening on behalf of those who are oppressed (good, God-honoring, and God-commanded), but making disciples through the proclamation, they overlook the role of work and example in discipleship. Rather, they equate “making disciples” with evangelism. Making disciples includes evangelism, but in “teaching everything Jesus commanded,” love and good deeds are also a part of the disciple-making process.
The mission of the church always must include making disciples, but the life of disciples will always produce work unique to its time and place, relating to the various needs and corruptions in the world around us. And such work is not only the fruit of discipleship, but is also, through modeling, part of the process of making disciples.
While they acknowledge that doing good works may help us personally “win a hearing for the gospel,” they do not adequately acknowledge the role of love and good deeds in commending the gospel to unbelievers in the ways Scripture does. Paul honors the church of the Thessalonians for how “the word of the Lord sounded forth” from them through their example in a “work of faith,” “labor of love,” and “steadfast hope,” and he says there is no reason for him to say anything in the places where their witness and faith had gone forth (1 Thess 1:3-8). Probably the deeds that Paul celebrates in the church were accompanied by verbal proclamation, but he is sure commending them for how their “works” served to extol the gospel to the surrounding people. Then Peter instructs the church to watch their conduct so that others may “see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Pet 2:12). Because good deeds may extol the gospel to unbelievers, they can serve as the first stage of the disciple-making process.
Of course, I am not suggesting that verbal gospel witness is not essential (and even central) in the disciple-making process. So feeding the poor, for example, may come after verbal proclamation with respect to its ultimate role in fulfilling the church’s mission, but it is essentially connected to the church’s mission. The Scripture honors the way good deeds extol the gospel in the midst of unbelievers. Though DeYoung and Gilbert affirmingly quote Robert Plummer on this point, their argument appears to be distinct: Plummer, saying something very similar to the point I raise, states, “all the various segments of the Christian community are to live praiseworthy lives–not simply for the sake of obeying God, but because their behavior will commend or distract from the gospel” (p. 61; cf. Robert L. Plummer, Paul’s Understanding of the Church’s Mission: Did the Apostle Paul Expect the Early Christian Communities to Evangelize? [Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2006], 104-5)…
…Ultimately, will the book be helpful? In some ways, yes–it will help people keep focused on proclamation and its central role in discipleship. That is a concern that I (and many others) have expressed in the missiological debate.
However, I think it ultimately will not succeed at its task. Instead, it will have some people needlessly looking to parse terms when the mission instead is more about faithfulness. Those who read and share the book may very well be those who most need a stronger missional focus–the theologically minded who think deeply but engage weakly. Yet those who could benefit from the book will not read it because the authors lack the background and engagement to make the case to the missional and missiological community.
Feel free to add your thoughts about the book or this review in the comments. I am speaking and traveling but will moderate as I can. I don’t mind you critiquing my critique of their critique, but be sure to read the comment policy if you have questions about how to do so.