how faint a whisper

glimpses of God in a heaven-crammed earth

book review: What is the Mission of the Church?

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I first wrote about this book a few weeks ago here, and mentioned that I had hoped to blog my way through it, highlighting some of its thought provoking points and quotes. I’m now kicking myself even more for failing to do that, because there’s so much worth discussing in this book and one post can’t accurately portray its depth or communicate all its main emphases. But I guess that’s why it’s called a review, not cliff notes. So instead of trying to give a thorough synopsis, and since you can already tell from the past few sentences that this is going to be a positive review, I thought I’d try to provide a list of characteristics of this book that directly influence its quality. Of course there’s the subject matter, and those who are particularly interested in these topics may need no other reasons to read the book, but unfortunately there are plenty of books out there with good subject matter and even good conclusions that don’t go about addressing it in the most effective manner. This book is theological but readable, deep, but engaging, unique within its subject matter without reinventing the wheel unnecessarily, and its authors (Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert) manage to be very sure of their standing without needing to be arrogant, condescending toward, or dismissive of contrary opinions. This is an incredibly difficult line to walk.

The full title of the book is What is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission, and it sets out to do just that. It looks at the idea of mission (with all of that word’s Christian society loaded connotations), specifically related to the church and asks the question of what it is that Jesus has sent us into the world to do. It explores Biblical “missional” and “social justice” passages, looking critically at them for the truths that really can be drawn from context and in the larger picture of the Biblical narrative as a whole, and it delves into the discussion of topics such as the kingdom of God, the idea of shalom, the Great Commission, and, of course, good works and social justice. It does all this through, and while being…

This is not synonymous with uninformed, unopinionated, or undecided. There are plenty of books out there that spend a whole lot of time and words saying not much of anything because they’re afraid to stand for something anyone else might disagree with. There are also books out there (though probably not as many as the first description) that have no problem taking a stand but feel the need to step on everyone else on the way there and then, while they’re at it, kick ’em while they’re down. Now, there are a lot of things that we need to take hard stands against (though still in humility), but in a book like this, in which the differing arguments and camps and opinions are all Christians, and really, all want the same things, DeYoung and Gilbert do an excellent job of posing careful reactions and corrections to what they believe are the errors and dangers within some of the church’s current definition of mission. They do so in a way which keeps the focus where it needs to be, namely on what the Bible has to say, not just what they think. They also take intentional pains throughout the book to acknowledge those in disagreement with them and show that they are not, in these corrections, declaring everything that opposing camps say and think worthless and un-Biblical, emphasizing commonalities along with differences when possible. In a section within the first chapter, which is setting out a foundational definition of “mission,” demonstrating some of the history of this word that needs to be corrected, and also trying to clearly show this desire for balance, DeYoung and Gilbert write this as the first few sentences under a heading, “A Correction to the Correction,”

“Our sincere hope is that this book can be a positive contribution to the mission discussion so prevalent and so needed in the evangelical world. We want to be positive in tone. We want to build up rather than tear down. But inevitably, a fair amount of our work in these chapters will be corrective as well.

Some of what we want to correct is an overexpansive definition that understands mission to be just about every good thing a Christian could do as a partner with God in his mission to redeem the whole world. But we are not antimissional. More and more, missional simply means being ‘on mission’ – concious of how everything we do should serve the mission of the church, being winsome and other-centered and Good Samaritan-like with those outside the community of faith, and having a sanctified strategy of being intentional and “attractional” for those who don’t know Christ…We are all for that. Every Christian should be.

…Nevertheless, it is not wrong to probe the word missional. It’s a big trunk that can smuggle a great deal of unwanted baggage.”

From here, they list a few of their major concerns with the way the church currently sees mission, and then a clear list of what they do and do not want to accomplish over the course of the book, which is an essential collection of bullet points that really say a lot about the book as a whole and the authors’ attitudes within it. They follow the list by saying,

“In correcting certain aspects of some missional thinking, we realize that missional thinking itself is trying to correct the abuses of traditional missiology. Both corrections may be necessary at times. Hopefully no evangelical would say (or think), ‘Ah, let it all burn up. Who cares about food and water for the poor? Who gives a rip about HIV? Give ’em the gospel for the soul and ignore the needs of the body.’ This is what missional thinking is against. And similarly, we hope no evangelical would say (or think) the opposite: ‘Sharing the gospel is offensive and to be avoided. As long as the poor have job training, health care, and education-that’s enough. The world needs more food, not more sermons.’ This is what we trust missional thinking is not for.

The truth is that bot sides have some important things to say to one another, and we should be careful in our mutual correction not to overcompensate.”

Balance without compromising truth, much needed, and done some of the best I’ve seen within these topics.

Scripturally founded.
DeYoung and Gilbert spend an almost surprising amount of this book doing straight scriptural exegesis. They take almost nothing for granted and want to make sure the foundation for their thoughts and criticisms is very clearly laid. And, as I mentioned above, they do so in a way that emphasizes the context and larger picture of scripture, not simply throwing in references as proof-texts. Some of the areas in which they explore specific passages of Scripture are a chapter in which they look at a series of popular missional passages for the church, an extended section on the Great Commission text(s) (which they see as the foundational mission text), and then another whole chapter where they back up and show how they see the story line of Scripture pointing toward the Great Commission and to defend this, take a speed walk through the Biblical narrative beginning with creation and continuing through the fall, redemption, Abraham, Moses, and David all the way to Christ. After spending significant time on this foundation, they then spend a chapter looking at passages that answer the question ‘what is the Gospel?’ and later on, look at a number of specific scriptures relating to the kingdom of God and the Biblical idea of shalom. In the heart of their discussion on social justice, another entire chapter titled “Making Sense of Social Justice: Exposition,” takes a number of the most well known Scripture passages on possessions, wealth, generosity, and caring for the poor, and tries to define what principles can be drawn from each, along with what principles cannot be, before combining them all to paint a picture of the message of the whole of Scripture as it relates to these issues of social justice.

This amount of time and detail spent within the Word as the base of a discussion of Christian life shouldn’t be surprising, but at the same time, it is also not necessarily standard, and the strength and clarity it lends to the book are irreplaceable.

Gospel centered.
This point follows logically from the last, but along with being gospel-centered in its methodology, What is the Mission of the Church? is also gospel-centered in its conclusions, and unapologetically so. In the chapter specifically focusing on the definition of the gospel, DeYoung and Gilbert once again address both sides – those who by “the gospel” mean, “What must a person believe to be saved?” and those who mean, “What is the whole good news of Christianity?” and shows how Scripture speaks to both questions using gospel language (and of course use various Scripture passages and exegesis to defend this point). Then, bringing them together, they have an absolutely beautiful description that clearly describes where they stand, and which I love,

“You cannot proclaim the ‘full gospel’ if you leave out the message of the cross, even if you talk for an hour about all the other blessings God has in store for the redeemed. Doing so would be like picking up an armful of leaves and insisting you’re holding a tree…Jesus never preaches simply, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ He always preaches, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’…That is a crucial thing to keep in mind; indeed it is the difference between preaching the gospel and preaching something that is not the gospel at all.

…the gospel of the cross is the fountainhead of the gospel of the kingdom. It is the gate through which all the blessings of the kingdom are to be gained…that’s why it makes perfect sense for the New Testament writers to call the gospel of the cross ‘ the gospel’ even as they go on calling the whole complex of good news ‘the gospel’ as well. Because the broader blessings of the gospel are attained only by means of forgiveness through the cross, and because those broader blessings are attained infallibly by means of forgiveness through the cross, it’s entirely appropriate and makes perfect sense for the New Testament writers to call forgiveness through the cross-the fountainhead and gateway to all the rest-‘the gospel.’ That’s also why we never see the New Testament calling any other single promise of God to the redeemed ‘the gospel.’ For example, we never see the promise of the new creation called ‘the gospel.’ Nor do we see reconciliation between humans called ‘the gospel.’ But we do see reconciliation between man and God called ‘the gospel’ precisely because it is the one blessing that leads to all the rest.”

This book is primarily written for and about the church, a consideration that is important to remember when, at times, mission specific to the church as a body of believers in a location may differ from (though never be in conflict with) God’s call and commands to us as individuals. In fact, DeYoung and Gilbert directly address how they feel the mission of the church is specifically narrower than all commands given to individual Christians.  Now this mission of the church is performed by individual Christians in the sense that every church is made up of believers and they participate in its mission, but the church also has unique responsibilities to complete tasks that individual Christians should not undertake for themselves (for example, discipline of a fellow believer). Likewise, individual Christians may have a call to serve God through furniture building or kindergarten teaching, but that does not mean that those tasks are part of the mission of the church as a whole. All that being said, though this book is written to the church, it is by no means only relevant for pastors or church planters. Even at the most basic level, this book is applicable to all believers because all believers should be part of a church body, and so should have an understanding of the mission of that body and be involved in making sure it is being faithfully pursued. Even further, however, as long as you are bearing in mind the areas in which commands to the church may differ from commands to individual Christians, this book has much to say to the individual believer about good works, justice, the kingdom, generosity, and focus. I found it in many areas enlightening, challenging, and convicting.

Social justice is also a “hot topic” in our society right now. The Christian culture is flooded with opportunities to give, messages about the church’s responsibility, debates about evangelism vs. social action in domestic and overseas work, and examples of churches getting involved in radically different ways in meeting people’s needs. As with anytime we are being saturated with information on a specific topic, we should be informed ingesters of what we are receiving, and this book is an excellent step in understanding not only some of the current terminology and debates, but also a Biblical foundation and response within them. (DeYoung and Gilbert’s footnotes are also just absolutely stocked with further resources for anyone who may wish to delve even deeper into any area which the book speaks to.) This book is well-timed and incredibly applicable.

As I’ve hinted toward in several statements underneath some of the main points above, I could also talk further about the clear writing style and well-researched aspects of this book, and probably even more positive qualities, but this review is getting long enough that it may soon threaten being cliff notes, so I’ll leave you with that. Of course, no book is perfect and I don’t intend to communicate that, but this one is very worth reading. Very. And maybe it’s just me, but a book that addresses a quasi-important question such as, “What is the reason for which we’re on this earth?” tends to pique my interest to begin with.

I’ll end where the authors end, with a phrase that they bring up at more than one point throughout the book, and which has stuck with me over the past few weeks since I’ve finished reading it. It serves not only as a sort of summary for why the Great Commission must remain central in the church’s mission, but also as a reminder for me as I look to my own life, its decisions, and my place within God’s redemptive story,

“There is something worse than death, and there is something better than human flourishing.”

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