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What is the mission of the church?


‘The Church's commission, which is the foundation of its freedom, consists in this: in Christ's stead, and so in the service of his own Word and work, to deliver to all people, through preaching and sacrament, the message of the free grace of God.’

-- Article 6 of the Barmen Declaration

 In these words it is clearly stated that the Church’s mission is Gospel proclamation.  Yet, considering the source and the context of these words, one cannot regard them as betraying a ‘one-eyed’ fundamentalism divorced from social and political realities.  Nor could anyone suggest this as a cowardly retreat from the pressing issues of the day.  Rather, the Barmen Declaration is an extremely provocative political challenge precisely because it refuses to engage with the world on its own terms. The Nazis are confronted because the Confessing Church occupies itself with its one true Fuhrer (Christ), its one true Reich (God’s Kingdom) and its one true commission: delivering ‘the message of the free grace of God’.  Far from creating an ‘ecclesiastical ghetto’ for the Confessing Christians, this single-minded determination to let the Gospel set the agenda for the Church brings it into its most significant contact with the surrounding culture.

Here we see Robert Speer’s dictum played out:

‘Missions are powerful to transform the face of society, because they ignore the face of society, and deal with it at its heart.  They yield such powerful political and social results, because they do not concern themselves with them.’

-- Missionary Principles and Practice, p35

 We will argue in this essay that the mission of the Church is exclusively a Gospel mission and therefore a mission of proclamation.  Mission is evangelism.  It is imperative though that we first define our terms.


 Mission – God’s and ours


Two years before authoring the Barmen Declaration, Karl Barth addressed the Brandenburg Missionary Conference.  There he introduced a missiological perspective which has determined the shape of mission theology in every part of the Church.

“Must not even the most faithful missionary, the most convinced friend of missions, have reason to reflect that the term missio was in the ancient Church an expression of the doctrine of the Trinity—namely the expression of the divine sending forth of self, the sending of the Son and Holy Spirit to the world? Can we indeed claim that we do it any other way?”

Through linking the sending of the Son by the Father, to the sending of the Church by the Triune God, Barth finds an origin for mission not in ecclesiology or soteriology, but in the doctrine of God.  There are missions because of the missio Dei.  David Bosch has memorably put it like this:

'To participate in mission is to participate in the movement of God’s love toward people, since God is a fountain of sending love.' (Transforming Mission, p390)

This insight has been picked up by all wings of the Church, from the conciliar to the Anabaptist, from the Roman Catholic to the evangelical.  Such consensus must be rejoiced in since this understanding is clearly Biblical.  However, to agree that our doctrine of God determines our missiology does not guarantee agreement on what that doctrine of God should be. Divergences at the source of this ‘fountain’ will multiply greatly as the flow reaches the practicalities of modern missions.

Thus, as we consider the relationship between evangelism and mission, we must ask whether the missio Dei is itself an exclusively evangelistic mission?

Our answer must be an unequivocal ‘yes’.  The purposes of the Father from all ages have been exclusively focussed on His Son (REFS).  In the power of the Spirit, His word has been the agent for all divine activity in creation and redemption.(REFS)  In the Incarnation of the Word, the Father gives to Jesus His word (REFS), which accomplished all that Jesus does (REFS), and it is this word that Jesus entrusts to his followers (REFS).  The Church has inherited a Gospel mission for the world, i.e. the Father’s mission to the exalt His Son in His Spirit-empowered word.

In this context, Christ’s introduction to the Great Commission is crucial: “All things in heaven and on earth have been given to me.  Therefore go…” (Matthew 28:18ff)  Here, at the resurrection of Jesus, we have seen the consummation of the missio Dei declared decisively in history: the risen Christ is the cosmic Consummator and Heir.  And with the word ‘therefore’ Christ emphasizes a profound continuity between God’s mission and ours.  The Gospel-mission of God is handed to the Church.  Yet there is also discontinuity.



Because the Church’s mission has taken shape from Christ’s completed work, our mission must not be confused with His. The Church has not received its mission from a needy Christ, looking for the Church to finish the job.  In the most profound sense, the job is finished: all authority is His.  The Church betrays its mission the moment it attempts to bring the Kingdom itself.  Rather, to be faithful to its risen Lord, the Church is constituted as a ‘witness’ to Him (Acts 1:8).  We are not the do-ers – we are witnesses to His ultimate and all-encompassing Doing.

Christ’s command in the Great Commission is simply to ‘go’ in a baptizing and teaching ministry that aims, with His resurrection power and presence, to realize in advance of His return, that obedience in the nations which He has already won on Easter morning.

Our part in the missio Dei is, therefore, very different to Christ’s, yet, by the grace of our Lord, it is the same mission in which He has called us to participate. Because of the continuity point we see that any reticence to equate mission with evangelism will correspond to a reticence to see God’s ways as exhaustively revealed and expressed in his Gospel.  Because of the discontinuity point, we see that faithfulness to the completed missio Dei in the resurrection of Christ requires a witnessing community rather than a reforming task-force.


A definition of Mission

The Church is not sender but sent (REFS) – it is constituted by this higher calling, ‘that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light.’ (1 Peter 2:9) This mission to exalt Christ is the work of the whole Church(REFS), in proclaiming the whole Gospel (REFS), for the sake of the whole world (REFS) until His coming again (REFS).



Our definition of mission above bears a deliberate similarity to the definition of ‘world evangelization’ given by the Lausanne International Congress on World Evangelization (1974):

‘The whole Church [taking] the whole gospel to the whole world.’

We are happy with Lausanne’s definition of the Gospel and note its emphasis on the good news. Evangelism is announcement and summons – calling the world to the obedience of faith which Christ deserves.

Thus in ‘Lausanne’ terms – we are suggesting that the mission of the Church is ‘world evangelization’. This summons to Christ is our one and only mission.  What then is the point in speaking of arelationship between mission and evangelism?

Just this, that the substance of mission be properly understood as evangelism and the context of evangelism be properly understood as the Church’s mission.  The two can be stated as equivalents only when understood in terms of each other.  Mission cut loose from evangelism becomes worldly kingdom-building. Evangelism cut loose from mission becomes ‘a  fine idea’ but not that for which the community exists.  The two must be held together – then it will be seen that they perfectly explain one another.


Is there more to mission?

There have been some gross efforts in the 20th century to distract the Church from its evangelistic mission.  Walter Rauschenbusch’s first championed a “Social Gospel” in the early part of the century. For him the Kingdom of God is ‘a reconstruction of society on a Christian basis’.  Rauschenbusch contrasted the ‘old evangel of the saved soul’ with the ‘new evangel of the Kingdom of God’.  This was not about populating heaven with souls but ‘transforming life on earth into the harmony of heaven’. Besides the misplaced utopian optimism which would be decimated by two world wars, such a theology replaces Christ with the Church and His finished work with our human striving.

After World War II came the ecumenical movement of the World Council of Churches.  Their efforts to define the goal of mission have been, at times, disastrous:

“We have lifted up humanization as the goal of mission because we believe that more than other [positions] it communicates in our period of history the meaning of the messianic goal.  In another time the goal of God’s redemptive work might best have been described in terms of man turning towards God… The fundamental question was that of the true God, and the Church responded to that question by pointing to Him.  It was assuming that the purpose of mission was Christianization, bringing man to God through Christ and His Church.  Today the fundamental question is much more that of true man, and the dominant concern of the missionary congregation must therefore be to point to the humanity in Christ as the goal of mission.”

-- Drafts for Sections, The Upsalla Report 1968

Or take the conference at Bankok in 1973:

“Salvation is the peace of the people of Vietnam, independence in Angola, justice and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.”

All such missiologies usurp God and enthrone man.  They confuse the kingdom with the world and consider the Church to be, at best, a kind of signpost to all that God is doing in the world (i.e. peace in Vietnam, independence in Angola, etc, etc).  They will not be seriously considered by anyone who values the theology of mission as set out in the first section of this paper.  Far more dangerous are the subtler shift effected under an evangelical banner.

In 1974, the Lausanne International Congress on World Evangelization met and produced the Lausanne Covenant from which we have quoted above.  Strangely, the main thrust of the conference ‘for World Evangelization’, and its resultant Covenant, was not to spotlight world evangelization but to make room for another agenda in the Church’s mission.

Mission, flowing from the missio dei, became ‘everything the church is sent into the world to do”.  That ‘everything’ was not exclusively a mission of proclamation but was, more broadly, “to identify with others as [Christ] identified with us” and to serve as “He gave himself in selfless service for others.”

Thus, the carefully worded article 5 of the covenant, acknowledges socio-political involvement as a part of the Church’s mission of ‘service’:

Although reconciliation with other people is not reconciliation with God, nor is social action evangelism, nor is political liberation salvation, nevertheless we affirm that evangelism and socio-political involvement are both part of our Christian duty.

-- Article 5 of the Lausanne Covenant

Here ‘service’ is the over-arching value which co-ordinates both evangelism and socio-political involvement.  What is more, the one served seems not to be the same One as for the Barmen Declaration cited at the outset!

Yet in 1982 the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization put it starkly:

In addition to worldwide evangelization, the people of God should become deeply involved in relief, aid, development and the quest for justice and peace. (REF)

The 1982 paper attempts to co-ordinate evangelism and social action in three ways.  Firstly, it claims that that social action is the consequence of the Gospel.  This is well and good and something championed by all ‘evangelism-only’ protagonists.  The positive impact of the proclaimed Gospel and conversions to Christ on a society at large are regularly held up by the ‘evangelism only’ fraternity (e.g Billy Graham, George Whitfield, ‘Wheaton 1966’, Robert Speer, Peter Beyerhaus, Karl Barth, Arthur Johnston, Peter Back etc).

Yet the report goes on to say that ‘social responsibility is more than a consequence of evangelism; it is one of its principal aims’.  In explaining this it says, secondly, that ‘social activity is a bridge to evangelism’. And thirdly, ‘social activity accompanies [evangelism] as its partner. They are like the two blades of a pair of scissors or the two wings of a bird, as they were in the public ministry of Jesus.’ (REF)

One must ask the question, ‘where does the Bible ever hold out social action as an aim – even a ‘principal’ aim – of Gospel proclamation?’  As Melvin Tinker points out, “if social responsibility is put forward as a principle aim in evangelism, it is a small and logical step to conceiving social change as part of the evangel itself. To take that step is to produce ‘another Gospel’.” (Evangelicals and Socio-Political Involvement)

In addition to this danger we see a number of others:

‘Service’ stands over ‘evangelism’ rather than the other way around

The logic of making ‘service’ the mission into which evangelism fits is denied by Scripture. It is a reversal of 2 Corinthians 4:1-6. There it is ‘setting forth the truth plainly’ (v2) which is the umbrella activity under which service (v5) fits.  Undoubtedly the Church should serve as did its Lord, yet our service is 1) to bring the word of life and 2) to bear the loads of those who will sit under it.  Thus evangelism stands over ‘service’ and co-ordinates it – not the other way around.

Social work becomes a necessary 'point of contact' rather than the Gospel

Very often people will make a case for social action as the only hope for a "bridge" into the community. While William Booth and David Wilkerson had a "gospel-first" approach to their needy mission fields, we are tempted to doubt that mission can forge ahead with the preached gospel at the forefront. But this may turn out to be doubt in the power of the gospel. Certainly a loving community is the context for such proclamation but let us never say that the Word iself cannot make a way. The gospel can create its own point of contact.

God as Creator becomes divorced from God as Redeemer

We anticipated this issue above when we discussed the missio Dei and differing views of the doctrine of God.  As we turn to the literature we see this continual reticence in missiologists to identify the one Creation-Redemption goal of the Living God effected in the Gospel of His Son.

[There are two freedoms and two unities  for which Jesus Christ is concerned] On the one hand there is socio-political liberation and the unity of all mankind, for these things are the good will of God the Creator, while on the other there is the redemptive work of Christ who sets his people free from sin and guilt, and unites them in his new community.  To muddle these two things (creation and redemption, common grace and saving grace, liberation and salvation, justice and justification) is to plunge oneself into all kinds of confusion.

-- (quoted in Timothy Dudley Smith, John Stott: A Global Ministry, IVP, 2001, p204)

Unfortunately, the confusion lies in demarcating these concerns as ones separately addressed by the Living God.  Of course He is interested in the whole spectrum of these activities – yet He accomplishes them through the one Gospel! (See Creation and Redemption in Athanasius and Irenaeus).

Yet, time and again we see ‘evangelism plus social action’ proponents putting asunder what God has joined together.

Ron Sider, for instance, speaks of the necessity of properly distinguishing the doctrines of creation and redemption. He approvingly introduces a quotation from Vinay Samuel and Chris Sudgen:

If the redemptive work of Christ is limited to where there is conscious confession of Christ, then, according to Vinay Samuel and Chris Sudgen, “this means that any true change toward God’s purpose for man in society, arising out of the death and resurrection of Christ, can take place only within the confines of the church.”  [Sider goes on to say…] This is the source of evangelical confusion about the relationship between evangelism and social concern: “Since the acknowledgement of Christ is always required for any true social change, evangelism always has a priority.”

-- Ron Sider, Evangelism and Social Action, Hodder and Stoughton, 1993

Here we have it in black and white.  Evangelism-only advocates have it wrong because they do not properly distinguish between creation and salvation!  Apparently it is an unfortunate thing to insist that re-creation of the fallen world occurs only in salvation – thus it must occur only in Christ, only in the Church.

Yet at this point, we would like to turn the tables.  God is exclusively concerned for the exaltation of His Son.  All other interests (in justice, liberation, common grace etc) find their place under this one agenda.  And the Father has committed all His omnipotent power to Christ (Matt 28:18) who in turn grants it to the Church (Matt 28:19-20; Eph 1:22-23).  The Living God has unreservedly committed Himself to the Gospel mission of the Church.  His work is conducted through her.  So Samuel, Sudgen (and one assumes Sider) find themselves bemoaning a truth that is held in Scripture to be one of the most precious divine promises!

All of this highlights the crucial question of what must be united and what must be distinguished in our mission theology.  The next two sections address this point.


Correcting False Dichotomies

The Lausanne Paper of 1982 identifies some false dichotomies in the ‘evangelism only’ camp.

“Another cause of the divorce of evangelism and social responsibility is the dichotomy which has often developed in our thinking. We tend to set over against one another in an unhealthy way soul and body, the individual and society, redemption and creation, grace and nature, heaven and earth, justification and justice, faith and works.  The Bible certainly distinguishes between these, but it also relates them to each other, and it instructs us to hold each pair in a dynamic and creative tension. It is as wrong to disengage them, as in "dualism", as it is to confuse them, as in "monism". It was for this reason that the Lausanne Covenant, speaking of evangelism and socio-political involvement, affirmed that they "are both part of our Christian duty"

-- Paragraph 5, Lausanne Occasional Paper – Evangelism and Social Responsibility

It is right to react against false distinctions. Above we have reacted against Lausanne’s own[38] false distinction between God’s creation and redemption purposes.  And, as against some proponents of ‘evangelism only’ we must say that to divorce body and soul, time and eternity, earth and heaven, is closer to Plato than Scripture.  Christ is the One in Whom these hold together – they are therefore united at the most basic level.  In view of this, the Gospel must never be considered as an other-worldly message delivering souls from the world and into timeless bliss.  It must be admitted that many who have proclaimed an ‘evangelism only’ mandate have, at times, fallen for such thinking.  Yet the LORD’s Gospel-agenda is to see all creation renewed under Christ.  Our evangelism ought to be only as ‘narrow’ as this glorious evangel.

Yet there are distinctions to be maintained also.

True Distinctions

Firstly, we must make the strongest distinction between those in Adam and those in Christ.  To make a person (or a culture) which is ‘in Adam’ more moral or socially aware has not brought them a millimeter closer to Christ.  The Apostle Paul’s experience of ‘faultless’, even Biblical, legalistic righteousness was not a ‘stepping stone’ to faith: quite the opposite in fact.(Phil 3:2-11) Furthermore, we must be aware that the ability of those ‘in Adam’ to correctly interpret Christian philanthropy as an ‘adornment’ of the Gospel (Titus 2:10) rather than the Gospel itself is, without illumination by the Spirit, nil.  We ought to remember that the way the LORD has ordained for faith to come is by ‘hearing’. (Romans 10:14-17).

Secondly, we must distinguish the Church from the world.  Though the Church is sent out into the world, and though we are to penetrate it at all levels and in all ways with the Gospel, we are not ‘of the world.’ (John 17:14)  Our responsibilities to our brothers and sisters in Christ are not the same as our responsibilities to our neighbour.

To our neighbour, we are called to show mercy when they cross our path (Luke 10:25-37) and to repay the evil of our oppressors with good (Romans 12:14-21).  Yet this is hardly a ‘mission strategy’ for the Church.  These expressions of our character, being transformed after Christ’s likeness, are not the things you can plan for!  They are, rather, to be borne in mind as we concentrate on the true mission – evangelization.

Towards one another we are to display counter-cultural, life-sharing love (John 13:35; 17:21; Acts 2:42-47; 1 John 3; James 2).  This love ought to be transparent to the watching world and in this way even our Church fellowship is a missionary fellowship (Matt 5:16; John 13:35; 17:21).

In this we see the breadth of the evangel as it works through in our Christian communities.  Under the Headship of the true Lord, under the authority of the divine word, in the power of the Holy Spirit, there is a power to transform social structures and bring healing to every aspect of life – even in advance of Christ’s return.  Yet all this is to happen within the Church – ‘the pilot plant of the Kingdom.’ (Keller, Mercy Ministries, p54)  To attempt to bring this healing into a sphere which explicitly rejects this Head, this word, this Spirit, is to deny that the Gospel is the power to transform.  It is, therefore to betray the evangel – it is to be anti-evangelistic.

A third distinction to maintain is that already mentioned above between the finished work of Christ and the on-going work of the Church.  In order for the latter not to betray the former, our on-going work must be as witnesses to His finished work.  We do not bring redemption to the world, we bring Christ to the world as One who has already accomplished our redemption.


There is one Gospel agenda for the Living God. The LORD does not have one sphere of operations regarding creation and another regarding salvation.  The LORD does not have one desire for justice and another for justification.  Not one motive in common grace and another in saving.  Rather, His one agenda is brought about by His mighty word proclaimed in the power of the Spirit, setting forth His Only Son. When the word is received in faith, there (and there only) the old creation is brought under the Lordship of Christ.  This is a present reality (in that the King and therefore the kingdom has come).  And it is a present witness to a future reality (when Christ will apply His resurrection power in full to the Church and to the whole cosmos).  As the body of Christ, we are witnesses to the world of where this redemption is possible (in Christ alone!).

Ministries of mercy come in alongside proclamation in two ways.  Firstly the life of the kingdom is a life of bearing one another’s loads (Galatians 6:2).  Thus the Church will model a sacrificially loving community before a watching world.  This bears witness to the Gospel (John 13:35).  Secondly, as with Jesus’ ministry, deeds of service will accompany the proclamation of the word, but they will do so in the context of people sitting under the word.

In Jesus’ own ministry we see for instance in Mark 6 and parallels that those who would sit under the teaching of Christ were shown tremendous kindness – the feeding of the 5000!  Yet even this deed was a sign proclaiming Christ (and Jesus used words to explain it as such).  Note too that Jesus does not put on an evangelistic supper and then give a talk (our well-worn evangelical model).  Jesus sees their primary need: Mk 6:34 – teaching.  First He preaches, then He feeds those who sit under His word.

Thus our desire for a powerful social ministry should not be: ‘let’s have a soup kitchen with a 5 minute gospel talk’.  Rather, we should be saying ‘let’s move into a deprived area and proclaim the word of the LORD.  And let’s provide food, shelter, clothing and every material need for all those who will hear.’

In all this, we must remember that clothing the poor and feeding the hungry does not bring in the kingdom in any way, shape or form.  The most these deeds can do is act as signs of the kingdom.  Yet these signs must be interpreted.  The unregenerate have no capacity for understanding ministries of mercy in Gospel terms – they will most likely see the mission of the Church as trying to repair the old creation.  Thus their impression will be that the Church’s mission is to invest in the kingdom of the world.  This is the opposite of a Gospel witness!

Having said this, in the LORD’s sovereignty He may open up a situation where mercy is to be shown first – before any opportunity for Gospel proclamation.  Think for instance of the opportunities for Christian organisations to get into Banda Ache for the first time after the Tsunami in December 2004. In the sovereignty of God we have an entrance into a virtually ‘unreached’ area.  Of course it is right to offer aid.  Those who go must be wise as serpents and innocent as doves, yet they must seek ways of communicating the Gospel or else it is not Christian aid they give.

These emergency situations will confront us from time to time where proclamation is not immediately possible (think of the good Samaritan).  Of course a Christian response involves loving service, yet it will be service which is desperately prayerful for Gospel opportunities.  After all, the LORD is a Gospel God and His intention, even in the most complex situations, is for His Gospel to go out.  Yet, simply because the LORD dishes up ‘service-first’ opportunities from time to time does not give justification for ‘service-first’ or even ‘service-only’ mission strategies.  That’s a bit like saying ‘since the LORD has sovereignly brought people off the streets and into our Church on Sundays, our mission strategy ought to be to wait within the Church building, praying that more would be sovereignly sent!’  The Gospel opportunities He brings unexpectedly are to be seized upon and rejoiced in.  They are not to be extrapolated out into an unbiblical methodology.  As we have argued throughout – it is the proclaimed Gospel taken out to the world which defines and constitutes the mission of the Church.

We finish with the rousing words of Robert Speer, calling us back to the historic mission of the Church:

‘I had rather plant one seed of the life of Christ under the crust of heathen life, than cover that whole crust over with the veneer of our social habits, or the vestiture of Western civilization.’

-- Missionary Principles and Practice, Fleming H. Revell Co., 1902, p37

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