What Is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom and the Great Commission by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), pp. 283, paper $10.00
The authors contend that determining the mission of the church “is the most confusing, most discussed, most energizing, and most potentially divisive issue in the evangelical church today” (p. 25). Scot McKnight claims that recent interest in social justice, or what he calls missional “represents the biggest shift in evangelicalism in the last century” (p. 142). I believe these men are correct. Much ink has been spilled of late promoting the social agenda and a good book challenging missional thinking—drawing us back to Scripture to carefully analyze such thinking—was needed. This is that book. It is well done, carefully researched, scripturally based and extremely practical. It is also written by the right men. Both DeYoung and Gilbert are highly respected by the young, Reformed, and restless crowd that is most likely to swallow the missional agenda without much reflection. If nothing else, What Is the Mission of the Church? should give evangelical Christians reasons to pause and reconsider where they are headed.
Specifically, the authors are addressing whether the “mission of the church is discipleship or good deeds or both” (p. 16). They also want to consider the role of the church in pursuing social justice and building the kingdom of God on earth (p. 16). Their thesis, often stated and defended throughout, is that the church’s mission “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 into churches, that they might worship the Lord and obey His commands now and in eternity to the glory of God the Father” (p. 62) (see also pp. 231-239; 241-242; 245-247). They do not want to be misunderstood to say that Christians should be indifferent to suffering in the world (pp. 22-23), just that alleviation of suffering is not the mandate for the church—making disciples is.
Having said this, DeYoung and Gilbert know they are swimming against the current of recent popular evangelical thinking. Discounting emergent leaders, such as Brian McLaren, who frame the church’s mission in purely social terms, nevertheless mainstream evangelicals are adopting much the same program. The difference so far is that thinkers such as Scot McKnight and Christopher Wright are not abandoning the Great Commission, they are merely adding the social schema and elevating it to equal status with the Great Commission. John R. W. Stott, an early leader in this approach wrote, “Evangelism and social action, therefore, are full partners in Christian mission” (p. 54). Although not mentioned in the book, authors from Francis Chan to David Platt would define the mission of the church as including environmental stewardship, poverty relief, digging wells, working for social justice and medical attention to the needy. In other words, the mission of the church is being broadened far beyond the Great Commission. DeYoung and Gilbert argue that the believer will involve himself in social issues by virtue of his love for his neighbors, but there is nothing particularly Christian about humanitarian work (pp. 231-239). Christians can lock arms with non-Christians over social concerns, and they should, but they should not confuse this action with the unique mission of the church—to proclaim the gospel and make disciples (pp. 224-229). “We are not called,” they write, “to bring a broken planet back to its created glory. But we are to call broken people back to the creator” (p. 248).
DeYoung and Gilbert spend much of their book examining and challenging the missional (a term they use but never really define, p. 25) mindset in light of Scripture. For example, they critique Christopher Wright’s teaching on Genesis 12 (pp. 30-34) and the Exodus (pp. 34-36), missional views of Luke 4:16-21, false uses of “Shalom” (pp. 52-53,195-203) and incarnationism (pp. 54-58), and the erroneous idea that our actions will bring in the kingdom (pp. 27-35; 197). Specifically they analyze favorite biblical texts missional leaders lean on:
Leviticus 19:9-18 (pp. 143-147)
Leviticus 25 (pp. 147-153)
Isaiah 1 (pp. 153-155)
Isaiah 58 (pp. 155-156)
Jeremiah 22 (pp. 156-158—good summary)
Amos 5 (pp. 158-159)
Micah 6:8 (pp. 159-161)
Matthew 25:31-46 (pp. 162-165—although their interpretation is out of context)
Luke 10:25-37 (pp. 165-166)
Luke 16:19-31 (pp. 166-167)
2 Corinthians 8-9 (pp. 168-170)
James 1, 2, 5 (pp. 170-171)
Of a more positive nature, the authors provides biblical understanding concerning dealing with the poor (pp. 175-177; 186-192), owning possessions (pp. 177-179), rejecting guilt motivations that are often used (pp. 192-193), the Cultural Mandate (pp. 208-213), continuity issues between the present and new heavens and earth (pp. 213-219), the importance of hell in our understanding of mission (pp. 244-245) and the value of the church realizing that it is a “holy huddle” (p. 264). They also trace God’s commands for social involvement through the Scriptures and determine that the focus of such concern is on the covenantal people not society at large (pp. 184-186). In the book of Acts, for instance, we find no examples of societal renewal on the part of the disciples (p. 49).
The authors are definitely covenantal in their theology, which affects some of their thinking. For example, they accept George Ladd’s “already, not yet” understanding of the kingdom (pp. 49, 99, 112, 117-118, 124-125, 131-132), Jesus is presently on David’s throne (pp. 85-87), confuse the millennium with the eternal kingdom (pp. 88-123), strangely believe that when John proclaimed the kingdom was near that is what he meant, but when Jesus did the same He meant the kingdom was actually here (p. 95), Christians are the Israel of God (p. 201);, and the present heaven and earth will not be destroyed but renewed (pp. 213-219). While I personally disagree with each of these positions none of them appreciatively diminishes the argument of the book, which is that the church’s unique mission is the Great Commission not the Cultural Mandate to fix the planet.
What Is the Mission of the Church? is a valuable book. I hope many well-meaning missional-leaning believers will read it and consider its thesis. In light of the popularity of the social agenda, and a present confusion over the mission of the church, I would encourage all pastors and Christian leaders to read this work.