What is the mission of the church? Conservatives will say that the mission of the church, at core, is to save people. Other activities, no matter how laudable, are secondary to this task because there is nothing more important than a person’s eternal destiny. More progressive types will say that the mission of the church is to serve people. That’s partly because people don’t want to be saved any more, but there’s also a gratifying ethical-political edge to it. It’s a way of getting some traction in the world.
Oversimplifying admittedly, I suggest that both the conservatives and the progressives have got it wrong. Saving people and serving people are understandable responses to the crisis of credibility that the church in the secular West faces. But they lack a sense of narrative context and for that reason miss the point.
I think it helps to differentiate between the basic vocation of the people of God and things which we need to be done along the way as a consequence of that basic vocation or for the sake of that basic vocation. It’s like a board game (click for a larger version). We start with our core identity and then have to move the piece from square to square, reacting to events along the way.
The basic vocation has been since Abraham to live as an obedient new creation people, actively loyal to and engaged with the one true living creator God, in the midst of the nations and cultures of the world, throughout the ages. This was God’s response to the rebellion, hubris, and disinterest of humanity. He set apart a people for his own possession to serve him through their corporate worship and witness, a priestly and prophetic people that would mediate between the creator and the rest of humanity.
So the basic vocation of the new creation people of God is neither to save people nor to serve people but to serve the historical interests of the creator.
Over time things happened to the family of Abraham, driven initially by the promise of a land in which they would multiply and prosper. So what we might call “missional” tasks or responses arose: to bless the Egyptians, to escape from Egypt, to learn a way of obedience in the desert, to conquer the land, to become a state, to portray the good, wise and just rule of YHWH to the nations, to survive exile, to return from exile and rebuild Jerusalem, to resist Hellenism, to suffer faithfully, to find a way to live well under Roman occupation….
These were the challenges and opportunities that the new creation people of God was presented with as a consequence of its historical existence. Mission was simply doing what needed to be done.
The Old Testament narrative, however, gave rise to a future or eschatological expectation—that the God of Israel would rule directly over the nations and empires that for so long had opposed him and oppressed his people. So the new creation people of God acquired the further task or mission of proclaiming and living towards the coming kingdom of God.
This is the mission of the apostles and churches in the New Testament. It is not a universal mission of saving people from their sins; nor does it have much to do with serving people. It is the historically and geographically circumscribed task, spear-headed by Jesus, of annexing the Greek-Roman civilisation for YHWH through faithful suffering and witness. The great commission was not as big as we think it was.
So I know it’s controversial and a quite offensive idea to many people, but I maintain that the kingdom mission, as conceived in the New Testament, was fulfilled when the nations of the Roman Empire abandoned the old gods and confessed instead that Jesus Christ was Lord, to the glory of the God of Abraham. I’m sorry, but that’s what happened, and I think that scripture demands that we take history seriously.
It meant that the “mission” or task of the church changed quite dramatically in the fourth century. It was no longer to embody the future coming of the kingdom of God but to develop a theology, legal system, ecclesial structures, civic practices, social customs, etc., that would sustain this new concrete political expression of the historical supremacy of the God who raised his Son from the dead and gave him all authority and power.
Over time the Christendom mission developed further. On the one hand, it had to include self-examination and reform; on the other, it took the opportunity offered to it by European imperialism to take the “gospel” to foreign lands.
But that’s all in the past now. We have thrown the dice again and moved beyond Christendom; and the historical mission or task of the new creation people of God is, frankly, to work out where we go from here. This at least we have in common with the New Testament church: we have to learn what it means to embody in ourselves a new and viable future in a world that is so rapidly and furiously disengaging itself from its Christian past. That, I suggest, is our current mission.
Personal evangelism is part of it. Social action is part of it. Experiments in missional-community are part of it. Biblical-theological reconstruction is part of it. Prophetic storytelling is part of it. The recovery of moral, religious and intellectual integrity is part of it. Any exercise in rethinking and renewal is part of it.
But the overriding and urgent task is for the church, as a new creation people that serves the interests of the one true living creator God, to address its place in history. How do we remain true both to our basic vocation and to our story at this moment in time, at this stage in the game? There is no point in doggedly pursuing our particular missional agendas without some sense of where we are on the board.