He Will Build His Church

What Mission Are We Talking About Exactly?

A few nights ago a friend forwarded an email from another friend with some quotes on the importance of being missional in our churches and in our lives. I read it on my way to bed which turned out to be a mistake since I was awake for another three hours or so thinking about it. More than anything I was filled with disappointment, and though I should have just gotten back out of bed and written my response, letting a little time pass has been profitable.

I did ask permission to post this response on my blog. It isn’t that I have something new or profound to add to the missional conversation, but people do ask me about it. And even though the quotes below are not exhaustive of the missional approach they do give a good feel for the mindset and I thought this might be a resource I could share in the future.

I also realize that this post is way too long. If you are a casual reader you are free to go and I promise not to take offense. My new fountain pen basically exploded over 11 pages of legal paper when I wrote the rough draft, though I have tried to clean it up as best I could. That said, it is still longer than the uninterested will care to cover.

The original email had three quotes and then a short exhortation based on those quotes. My plan is to give each quote a turn and then respond. I’ve also decided to add a constraint to myself, that is, I am only going to support my thoughts from the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20 or the book of Acts. Since I assume most of the missional speak was generated in these sections of Scripture I want to interact on their ground. So here we go.

I asked a lady, “Would you come to church with me?” “Oh, no, Ms. Tillie. Isn’t church for people who have their lives together? I don’t have my life together yet. When I get my life together, I’ll come to church.” That is when I knew we must take church to the people. Our definition of church is what we do seven days a week, almost twenty-four hours a day, all year long! It is just who we are.

We immediately sense the sadness in this story. An invitation to church was turned down by a needy lady with a partial misunderstanding about the church. We naturally commiserate with Ms. Tillie because we too have interacted with neighbors and co-workers who are apparently uninterested because of a skewed perspective toward the church.

But before we re-define “church” we should make sure the real definition is clear. Besides, it doesn’t matter what “our definition of church is,” it matters how God defines it.

The church is the Body of Christ. Church is not something we do, nor is church “just who we are.” Yes, believers are part of the Body, but the whole Body does not go somewhere just because one of the members does. The church is a worldwide group that holds local meetings. So we don’t take “the church” to the people, we take the gospel of Christ to the people. We are to live as, and make disciples of, Christ seven days a week, every waking hour. But that is not the same thing as taking the church to the people.

Church is not for “the people,” church is for Christians. The church is comprised of believers and church meetings are for the saints. The church gathers for worship and teaching and fellowship and then individual Christians scatter for evangelism. Unbelievers may attend our services and often do. Obviously we should preach the gospel and pray for their salvation, but where did we get the idea to invite those with no spiritual taste-buds to our corporate feast?

And let’s go back to our lady’s partial misunderstanding that church is “for people who have their lives together.” We see the signs around town, “Such and Such Church: No perfect people allowed” (often with a word misspelled for emphasis). We get it. Someone had a bad experience with a (probably hypocritical) pietistic, proud, professing Christian with no joy and a chip on their shoulder. We don’t like the self-righteous either.

But righteousness is required in the church, it just isn’t our righteousness. Church isn’t for Christians who are better than non-Christians, it’s just that we don’t fear God’s wrath against our unrighteousness because the righteousness of Christ was credited to our account when we believed. But anyone who doesn’t have His righteousness is not safe. Unrighteous people should feel no more comfortable at church than darkness does with light. It should be no surprise if unbelievers want to stay as far away as they can.

The story of Ananias and Sapphira makes it clear: don’t mess around with the church–God takes His church seriously. In fact, God took the lies of Ananias and Sapphira so seriously that He killed them and “great fear came upon all who heard of it” (Acts 5:5, 11). Even though God doesn’t immediately kill hypocrites who come to church today, hypocrites should still be afraid.

The point is, yes we should make disciples and bring them to the church. We should purposefully live with love and speak with grace and tell the truth to unbelievers next door or across the hall or behind the checkout counter. But we should not expect those who are at enmity with God to want to worship Him in the splendor of His holiness. Redefining church won’t fix that.

Alright, quote #2:

We don’t care if you’re wearing a suit or a T-shirt and jeans. What we care about is the condition of the heart.

One thing I learned from my dad is that there are jerks everywhere. That includes the church. It is possible that some people care more about what you wear rather than the condition of your heart. But is it also possible that someone could care about the condition of your heart and what you’re wearing?

How about a hypothetical story…what do you care about more in a bride, her pure heart or her white dress? Obviously you care more about her heart. If her heart was chaste but all she had or could afford was a pair of capris from Old Navy and a nice tank top, would we say that she couldn’t get married? No. Would we say the marriage was in trouble? Probably not. But would we also conclude that her heart must be pure because at least she wasn’t trying to fake it with a white dress?

If the tank top is all she has, no argument. If the tank top is what she really, really, really prefers. OK. But just because another bride spent time and money on a nice dress does not equal that her insides are ugly, nor are we forced to conclude that a pastor or parents are superficial if they ask the first girl why she decided to go with short pants.

Instead, we understand that the bride’s dress is one way to reflect her heart. What she wears isn’t the only reflection, but it does communicate something. A wedding is a special occasion, a solemn, worshipful ceremony. It should be treated as such and what we wear is part of what makes it unique. Worshiping God when the church gathers, though more regular than our weddings, is also a special celebration. Sure, in different times and different cultures, different dress communicates thoughtfulness. And yes, we’re under grace, not law. I get it. But I also want to be sober-minded when dealing with serious things, inside and out. On top of that, Hawaiian shirts aren’t necessarily more spiritual than three piece suits.

And then third, this quote is so close to being good and yet is still so potentially misleading.

Truth is not a set of rules to be obeyed, mysteries to be known or evidences to be mastered, but Christ, by whom we know and are known. Truth is not discovered, it is revealed in relationship to both the head and the heart. Therefore, Truth is not something merely known or proclaimed but Someone experienced, tasted, and seen as the psalmist says, by grace, faith, and presence that not merely knows the Truth but loves Him.

“Truth is not a set of rules to be obeyed,” but truth does include God’s law that we are responsible to keep. “[Truth is not] mysteries to be known or evidence to be mastered,” but truth does explain mysteries and provide reason for faith. “Truth is not discovered, it is revealed in relationship to both the head and the heart.” That’s okay if the author meant to say that intellectual information alone is insufficient. But we do “discover,” or better yet, God reveals truth to us by illuminating Scripture as we read and study and meditate. It is not magical or mystical revelation that bypasses our brains.

Finally, “Truth is not something merely known or proclaimed but Someone experienced, tasted, and seen.” The key word is there but it is buried. It is the adverb “merely.” I agree that truth is not merely known, but to be of value it cannot be less than known. John Piper put it this way in a recent sermon I heard:

Knowing the person of Christ salvifically requires knowing propositions about Christ truly.

That is absolutely why the early church was consumed with the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42). That’s why the Lord commanded the apostles to “speak to the people all the words (the facts) of this Life” (5:20) and why they were committed to preaching the word of God over performing (good) acts of service (6:2, 4). It was “the word of God” that kept increasing and multiplying (6:7; 12:24) as people received it (8:14; 11:1). Preaching the good news was of highest priority (8:12; 8;35; 10:36; 13:32; 14:15). With the unbelievers in Athens Paul “reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer” (17:2-3). With the believers in Ephesus Paul was concerned to proclaim the whole counsel of God (20:27). He was “occupied with the word” (18:5). His ministry partner Apollos was “competent in the Scriptures” (18:24) and “spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus” (18:25), “powerfully refuting the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus” (18:28).

Knowing and proclaiming was apparently important in the mission of the early church, both publicly and from house to house (Acts 20:20). That shouldn’t surprise us because we know it is the word of God which is able to build a person up (20:32).

If all that still isn’t convincing, consider the actual Commission Jesus gave in Matthew 28:18-20.

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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 all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

We are responsible to do more than merely introduce others to Jesus. We urge them to identify with the Triune God in baptism that could cost them their lives. That’s not all. We also train them “to observe all that I have commanded you.” There are rules–Christ’s rules–that must be obeyed if we are going to be His followers. His rules are not burdensome, they are for our joy, and His Spirit enables us to obey them, but there is a way of life demanded of true disciples.

These standards for discipleship are truth, the kind of truth that sets us free. Truth must be “known and proclaimed” as well as “experienced, tasted, and seen.” But it starts with proclaiming accurately so that others might know precisely. Without building a solid foundation the building will not stand and eventually the “experience” of Jesus will be experience of another Jesus in whom there is no salvation.

About a year ago I wrote a couple posts connected to the idea of contextualization, incarnational ministry and being missional. [Those articles are Ashamed of the Gospel 2.0 and 4 Tools for Great ComMissional Disciple-Making.] In the meta of the first post a friend and Emergent-sympathizer expressed similar concern to the quotes above:

My argument would be that the vast majority of churches today are not on God’s mission but are most concerned with “building up the saints” (or at least maintaining them). When churches ignore their need to embrace their Great Commission calling as something that should impact everything about how they operate…they end up being social clubs that you can join if you want but you’ll have to walk, talk, and look like everyone else.

I think his point fits well in the context of this post, and my response to his comment still applies:

So God’s mission is conversion? Evangelism and spiritual rebirth is the completion of our Commission? That is not only narrow but unbiblical. The Great Commission does not exhort us to make great number of converts but disciples. Seeing people get saved (your description) is only part of our responsibility. After repentance and faith they must also be taught to observe everything that Christ commanded. God’s mission is more than just evangelism but also edification and equipping. “Building up the saints” is part of God’s mission for the church, hence why He gave leaders to do just that.

To say that some churches end up being “social clubs” is a straw man. What about the churches that end up being skate-parks or concert halls in their effort to contextualize and reach the lost?

[An insular church full of insular people is no good] but perhaps we should also be afraid of churches full of professing believers that in fact are not followers and lovers of Christ. Even more than that, perhaps we should be afraid that the Head of the Church will return to find us investing in someone else’s kingdom.

Our lives are about mission, the mission to praise God’s name above all others. Therefore, reaching the lost and making friends and building community is important in so far as it is consistent with the truth about God that He reveals in His Word. That means sometimes people won’t want to go to church and it isn’t a problem with church; they don’t like the God they meet there. It also means that wearing a t-shirt instead of a tie is not a certificate of authenticity that your heart is right. It also means that those who glorify God most passionately and make disciples most purposefully are those who know God most clearly and love Him most intimately.