I have 45 minutes, or as I just heard, 40 minutes, which is going to be a challenge. I want to talk to you about a single question which is deceptively complex and incredibly relevant, and I wish I had more time to include illustrations. I usually like to do that when I speak and preach, but I’m erring on the side of content. So, hopefully you will get content. You won’t have any stories about my young children, though they’re all very funny and very cute, including my wife, who’s also cute. And you won’t hear anything about Michigan State Athletics, though my church is right across the street from MSU and the Spartans are 4-0 and Tom Izzo is the man. You won’t hear anything about that.
I trust that you are here and you are ready to think for the next 40 minutes or so, and I don’t apologize for that. If you come to a John Piper conference, let alone one that is entitled Think, and you are expecting to sort of mentally chill out for a few days, then you are grossly mistaken. So I want you to think with me as we talk about this question: what is the mission of the church? What is the mission of the church?
The Mission of the Church
Greg Gilbert, who’s a friend of mine, and I are working on a book with Crossway by that same title, which will hopefully come out sometime next year: What Is the Mission of the Church?. And both of those terms are crucial.
Regarding mission, there is a lot of discussion. Can we even define mission? It’s not a biblical word like Christ or justification. So is it even worth trying to define? I think that it is. I think most of us understand on sort of a street level that mission refers to something or someone who is sent out with a task. We say, “Mission accomplished,” or there is Mission: Impossible, if you’ve seen the movie or you saw the old TV show. It said, “Your mission, should choose to accept it . . .” And of course, Peter Graves always did, and then the contraption blew up. That’s a mission. What are you sent out to do, or to accomplish?
And then what about church? We’re thinking together, not just about what your particular calling or mission is, though that will certainly be connected with the mission of the church. We’re thinking about this corporate body of Christ, both worldwide and your local congregation. What is it that God is expecting, calling your church to go into the world to do? What is the mission of the church?
Concerns About Being “Missional”
Let me just say a word about another word which was in the title that Scott gave you: missional. It’s become a very popular word, and I need to say right off the bat, I don’t have a problem with people putting “al” at the end of mission. The word missional increasingly means simply that you’re into mission. You believe that God has a purpose for you. That’s absolutely true. Or perhaps if you’ve heard the word missional, it sort of just means to you something like, “Get out of your holy huddle. Church is not just for you. Think about the world, and try to engage the world.” All of those things I’m absolutely for.
So I’m not on a crusade to try to get people to stop using the word missional. However (you knew there was a however coming), I have a few concerns about what sometimes goes under the rubric of missional. And let me be clear that these are concerns I have with some, not all, by any means. It’s about some of the missional advocates. I would guess, though I don’t want to speak for them, that people like Mark Driscoll, or Darrin Patrick, or Tim Keller, would not object to the concerns that I’m raising. I don’t know, but I’m just guessing that. And certainly, those men and their networks and ministries are passionate about evangelism and discipleship, which is what I want to talk about.
Okay, those are my caveats so that I don’t get in trouble. But here’s one concern. I’m concerned that good behaviors are increasingly commended, using some wrong categories. For example, it is very common to find many good deeds put under the label “social justice”. And that term has a certain history which we can’t get into, but I think a better category is usually just love — loving your neighbor.
Or folks will talk about transforming the world, when I think — and here I’m following James Davis and Hunter’s last book — being a faithful presence in the world is more what we’re called to do, and actually more realistic. Or you often find well-meaning Christians speak of “building the kingdom”, but study the New Testament and the verbs associated with the kingdom. They are not active verbs. We are never told to build the kingdom. The verbs are passive — you enter, you receive, and you inherit the kingdom. So I think it would be better to speak of living as citizens of the Kingdom, rather than building or expanding the kingdom.
A second concern under some of the missional thinking is that I’m concerned that in a new missional zeal, some Christians are putting hard oughts where there should be inviting cans. What do I mean? Well, you will hear folks say, “Your church ought to do something about human trafficking. Your church ought to do something about AIDS. You ought to do something about the lack of good public education in your city.” Now, when you use the word ought, you are implying that if your church does not address and try to solve those problems, they are in fact, being unfaithful. And I think it would be better to issue an inviting can. As you follow the Lord with your own calling and gifts, here are some of the ways in which you may love your neighbor as yourself.
The Distinctness of Christian Mission
Here’s my third concern. I’m concerned that in all our passion for renewing the city or tackling social problems, we run the risk of marginalizing the one thing that makes Christian mission mission, namely, making disciples of Jesus Christ.
Now, having given those concerns, let me be very clear with what I am not saying. I’m not advocating that Christians be indifferent towards suffering in the world. I’m not saying that Christians should think evangelism is the only worthwhile ministry, and the rest of your vocation is all just sort of an excuse so you can evangelize. I’m not encouraging Christians to stop dreaming of creative ways to love their neighbors and reach the world.
What I am saying is that I want the gospel — and I believe God wants the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection — to be absolutely front and center in our churches. I want Christians — and I believe God wants Christians — freed from false guilt and freed from thinking that the church is either responsible for the problems in the world, or responsible to solve all of the problems in the world. And I want — and think God wants — the utterly unique task of the church, which is to make disciples of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit to the glory of God the Father, not to be lost in a flurry of humanitarian good deeds, or environmental concerns.
The Mission and the Great Commission
Let’s come back to the question, what is the mission of the church? I want to argue the mission of the church is to go into the world and make disciples by declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit, and gather these disciples into churches that they might worship and obey Jesus Christ, now and in eternity, to the glory of God the Father. Or if you want to make that much shorter, I believe the mission of the church is the Great Commission.
Now, we’re going to get to the Great Commission and why we should look at the Great Commission, but let me step back and let me give you a couple of other passages that people sometimes put forward as giving a fuller, broader, even better mission of the church.
One of those passages is Genesis 12. If you brought a Bible, and it’s a good idea to bring a Bible, even to a conference, you might want to follow along. Genesis 12:1–3 says:
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
It’s an absolutely pivotal text. It’s essential for our understanding of mission, but how? How does that relate to mission? Reggie McNeal, who’s a popular missional author in some circles, argues this in the Abrahamic Covenant:
The people of God are charged with the responsibility, and enjoy the privilege, to bless everyone.
Or Christopher Wright, who’s a wonderful churchman and scholar, says:
It would be entirely appropriate, and no bad thing, if we took this text (Genesis 12:1–3) as the Great Commission. There could be worse ways of summing up what mission is supposed to be all about than “Go and be a blessing.”
And later he says:
The Abrahamic Covenant is a moral agenda for God’s people, as well as the mission statement by God.
Did you hear that? In a lot of missional thinking, Genesis 12 is more than a promise; it is a command, and the command is to go in the world, and your job is to be a community-blessing station. We are to actively bless people and serve.
A Command or a Promise?
Now, if you think about the entire story of Genesis, it doesn’t quite work that way. The patriarchs were blessed, despite themselves. And if you follow Genesis 12 through the rest of the book, you see that Genesis is really about all of these individuals and these nations that either treat Abraham and his family well, so they’re blessed, or like Abimelech found out, they treat him poorly and they get cursed. God blesses Abraham’s family, despite themselves. And so, there’s lots of blessing going around, but there is no evidence in Genesis that Abraham ever took the call in Genesis 12 as a summons to go out into the world and just bless people.
Now, of course, please hear me. People are going to ask, “How was that session?” Don’t say, “Well, the speaker told us not to bless people. That was strange.” No, no, no, of course it’s good to bless others, but we should not take Genesis 12:1–3 as the moral agenda for the church, or as the Great Commission. The call of Abraham is not about a community-blessing program, not in that sense. It is about God’s unilateral promise to bless Abraham and all of those who have the faith of Abraham, when they trust in the seed of Abraham. So the emphasis is on God’s chosen family as the recipients of blessing, not as those who are doling out blessing.
And if you think of Galatians, you know this is exactly how Paul understood the call of Abraham in Galatians 3. After he quotes from Genesis 12:1–3 — “In you shall all the nations be blessed” — Paul says this:
So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith (Galatians 3:9).
So yes, Genesis 12:1–3 is a glorious missions text. It speaks to God’s heart for all the nations, but if there are missiological imperatives here for us, reading through the lens of Galatians 3, the implication is not to go and do whatever we can to bless people. The implication is to go and call the nations to put their faith in Christ, in order that they might be blessed. That is the Abrahamic blessing.
Jesus’s Mission and Our Mission
Let me give you a second text, sometimes put forward as a bigger, broader, better mission for the church. Luke 4:16–21 says:
And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Increasingly, you hear people say, “Look, this was Jesus’s mission statement, his sermon in Nazareth, reading from Isaiah 61. This was Jesus’s mission statement. Surely, shouldn’t this be our mission?” And so often, you will hear people explain it as Jesus’s mission was to serve the materially destitute and the downtrodden, to give the year of jubilee to the oppressed, to transform social structures, to bring God’s creation back to shalom. And so, then people say, “If that was Christ’s mission, then our mission should be the same.” One author says:
Our mission is to extend the kingdom by infiltrating all segments of society with preference given to the poor, and allowing no dichotomy between evangelism and social transformation.
So we hear that Jesus’s mission statement in Luke 4 was to serve the poor. I cannot tell you how many times in my mainline denomination I have heard that, and therefore, our mission, the argument goes, ought to be the same.
Proclamation and the Poor
Now, that is very close, but that understanding of Luke 4 misses two critical observations. Number one, it overlooks the actual verbs Jesus uses when he reads from the Isaiah scroll. Listen. He says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
With the exception of “to set at liberty the oppressed” — which we’ll come back to — all of the other verbs are proclamation, announce, declare, and preach, and we often just skip by those. If Luke 4 gives the mission statement for Jesus, which I think it does, then the implication, the tone for the mission of the church, is the proclamation. The announcement of the good news of Jesus is at the very center of what we do. That’s what Jesus says he came to fulfill.
There’s a second consideration. We need to allow for a broader and better understanding of the Greek word ptōchos, which is the word translated “the poor”. It is probably not without some reference to material poverty, but there are several reasons to think it is more a spiritual word than an economic word.
Just think about it. If the poor are just literally, mainly, exclusively the materially poor in this passage, then it would stand to reason that the blind would be the literally blind, the captives would be the literal captives, and the oppressed would be the literal oppressed, and yet, we know in the gospel, Jesus never literally set free those who were in Roman prisons. In fact, John the Baptist sent disciples to Jesus to say, “Are you really the Messiah? Because I thought you were this liberator, and I’m in prison.” So, if we naturally understand one to refer to spiritual bondage, might the others also?
And then later in the chapter — this is really key but we don’t have time to go look and read through Luke 4 — Jesus goes on and gives two examples of what this poverty looks like, the sort of person to whom he is bringing good news. One is the widow of Zarephath, and she was materially poor, and the other was the Syrian general Naaman, who is certainly not poor. All of that suggests that Jesus has in mind something more than material poverty. Naaman was poor, in the Luke 4 sense of the word, though he was an important man. So Andreas Kostenberger and Peter O’Brien say:
The poor to whom the good news is announced are not to be understood narrowly as the economically destitute, as most recent scholars have suggested. Rather, the term refers more generally to the dispossessed, the excluded, and those forced to depend upon God.
Now, it’s not entirely without an economic reference. There’s a reason Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor” (Luke 6:20), rather than, “Blessed are the rich.” Because it is more generally those who are poor who can recognize their great need for God. The more you have — the more riches, athletic ability, beauty, connections, money — the less likely you are to be dependent and to see your need for God. So there’s a reason why he says the poor, but it is more than a material word.
So if Jesus lays out his mission in Luke 4, we have to conclude that his mission was not one of structural change — though we might do some of that — or social transformation, but a mission to announce the good news of his saving power to all those brokenhearted enough to believe. That was his mission.
The Place of the Great Commission
Now, we can start coming to the Great Commission, and I’m not quite there, however. I want to explain why it’s important to look at the Great Commission. Now, you may say that that’s a no-brainer. We have a missions week every year, and we always talk about the Great Commission. But when you read a lot of the newer literature, you find that people sometimes are skittish of putting too much emphasis on the Great Commission. Even the great John Stott, 35 years ago, wrote:
We give the Great Commission too prominent a place in our Christian thinking.
So why would we look at the Great Commission to determine our mission? Let me just give you a few reasons. Number one, it makes sense that we would ground our mission imperatives on Scripture’s explicit commands. Now, this is very important, and we don’t have time to get into it very much, but I think this is one of the biggest missteps in some of the missional literature. There is an assumption that whatever is the mission of God, that too, is our mission imperative. You may have heard the phrase missio dei. That’s Latin for “mission of God,” and it can be a very good phrase because it signifies the mission that we’re fulfilling is not our mission ultimately, it’s God’s mission. He’s the one who has a mission.
But sometimes you’ll find folks saying, “Well here’s the Missio Dei. God’s mission is to bring all of creation back to shalom. God’s mission is to renew the cosmos. Therefore, your mission as a church is also to transform the world and renew the cosmos.” But what if the work of salvation, restoration, and recreation are divine gifts that God gives us, and our work is not to recreate them but to bear witness to them, and to invite people to belong in them? What if our mission is not identical with God’s mission? All that to say, I think it is safer and better to say, “What are the explicit commands we are given?” rather than to assume, “Well, this is what God’s doing, and therefore we’re going to do just the same thing.”
Second, it makes sense that we would look to Jesus. That’s good too. The mission in the Bible is the sending of the Son from the Father. That is the mission. And so, it makes sense that we would look to the Son as we continue in that mission. What does the Son, sent from the Father, tell us, his disciples, to do?
Third, the Great Commission records Jesus’s final words on earth. It’s common sense, and there’s lots of precedence for this in the Bible. Final words have extra weight and importance, especially when you consider that some form of the Great Commission is in Matthew, Luke, John, and Acts, and in a little different shape, it’s in Mark.
And fourth, the placement of the Great Commission suggests its importance. We could go through Matthew and show that Matthew 28:16–20 is not some sort of add-on. The whole book is about what it means to follow Jesus, and that is the very culmination. Or in Acts, as we’ll see in a moment, Jesus says, “Go be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Acts is a book about that verse and the unfolding of the word of God as it spreads throughout the known world.
Our Mission Prescribed in Scripture
So we’re going to talk about the Great Commission. I don’t know how much time we have left. Let me just read through the texts, and then summarize what they say. Matthew 28:18–20 says:
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.
What about Mark’s gospel? I don’t think that the verses at the very end of Mark past Mark 16:8 are authentic, so I don’t think we find the Great Commission there. But earlier in Mark we see similar words. Mark 13:10 says, “The gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations.” Mark 14:9 says, “Truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”
Luke 24:26–49 says:
Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.
Acts 1:8 says:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.
And finally, John 20:21 says:
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”
Five Questions About Our Mission
So what do we have here? You’ll notice those aren’t all identical. They hit on different themes. Some are more about discipleship, and some more about witnessing. John focuses on the theological nature of our sending, that just as Jesus was humble and submissive to his Father, so we go out humble and submissive.
I would summarize all of these texts by answering five questions. First, why? The authority for our mission comes from Christ. So the why is rooted in the word of God, based on the Father’s sending of the Son. That’s what we heard in those five texts.
When? The mission began at Pentecost, when the disciples were clothed on high with power, and it continues as long as the promise continues. This is one of the reasons I think some of the Reformers were wrong when they thought that the Great Commission had been fulfilled in the apostles’ day. The promise is that Christ will be with them until the end of the age, and so long as that promise remains, the task remains.
Where? We are sent into the world. Ours is not a come and see, but a go and tell.
How? We go in the power of the Spirit, in submission to the Son, just as he was submissive to the Father.
What? This is the money question. I would argue from those texts that the mission consists of preaching and teaching, announcing and testifying, making disciples and bearing witness, evangelism and edification. Notice those two words: evangelism and edification. Sometimes we hear “make disciples” and we think that it says “make decisions.” Decisions are good, but disciples are something further than just decisions. So when you teach the Sunday school class to the six and seven year olds, you’re helping to fulfill the Great Commission. You are making disciples. You are building up mature worshipers of Christ. So the mission focuses on the initial and the continuing verbal declaration of the gospel.
Relentless Proclamation of the Word
If I’m correct, and that is the mission of the church, what would you expect to see in, say, the Book of Acts? Well, we see precisely that. See, we have a book that contests this thesis. What is the mission of the church? What was the mission of the first church in Acts? It is absolutely astonishing. Just go through Acts sometime and see how often it is spoken of as the word going forth. If you are looking for examples of creation care, or societal renewal, or strategies to serve the community in Jesus’s name, all of which have a place, you don’t find them in Acts. If you are looking for examples of preaching and teaching and the centrality of the word, that’s your book.
Mathias has chosen in Acts 1 to replace Judas so that he might be a witness to the resurrection (Acts 1:22). In Acts 2, Peter preaches at Pentecost. He explains the Scriptures. He calls people to faith and repentance, and it says, “Many were added that day to the church” (Acts 2:41). In Acts 3, Peter heals a lame beggar in Jesus’s name, so good deeds are good. But he uses the occasion then to bear witness to Christ and call people to repentance.
In Acts 4, Peter and John testify before the council to the crucifixion, and then when they’re released, the believers pray that they might have boldness to keep on speaking the word. In prison again, in Acts 5, an angel of the Lord sets them free and commands them, “Go and stand in the temple, and speak to the people all the words of this life” (Acts 5:20). And then Luke records that they entered the temple at daybreak and began to teach.
Literally, every chapter in Acts is like this. In Acts 6, the apostles say, “It would not be good for us to wait on tables” (Acts 6:2–3). That’s important and they say that they’ll set aside people to do that. But they say, “We must minister the word of God and prayer” (Acts 6:4). In Acts 7, Stephen bears witness to Christ. He takes them through the Old Testament. In Acts 8, Philip proclaims Christ in Samaria, and the Samaritans receive the word. In Acts 8:25, the disciples preached the gospel to the villages of the Samaritans. Later, Philip explains the Scriptures to the Ethiopian eunuch, after which we read, “He preached the gospel to all the towns, and he came to Caesarea” (Acts 8:40). Over and over in the Book of Acts, we see that this testimony, this proclamation of Jesus, is the mission of these first believers.
The Triumph of the Word of God
Paul and Barnabas proclaimed the word at Cypress, Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra, and they didn’t just preach it evangelistically, but Acts 14 tells us they planted churches and they appointed elders. Do you ever wonder in Romans 15, why Paul can say, “My work in these regions is completed”? (Romans 15:23). It’s because there was a faithful, established, organized, gospel church in that region. And then Paul considered, “Okay, it’s reached, and I’m going somewhere else.” So Paul was a churchman, an evangelist, and also a discipler.
On and on it goes through the Book of Acts, in Derbe, in Philippi, in Thessalonica, in Berea, in Athens, in Corinth, in Ephesus, and finally, in Jerusalem the word is proclaimed. Paul bears witness before the council, then before Felix, then before Agrippa, and finally in Rome. And then have you ever noticed how the Book of Acts ends? Acts 28:31 says:
[Paul was] proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.
You are meant to end on an upper, thinking, “Aha, Acts 1:8 is happening, which says, ‘You will be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’” Paul is now in Rome. The gospel is winning. The word is triumphant. That is the mission of the apostles, and I believe it is our mission. The mission of the church is to go into the world and make disciples by declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit, gathering these disciples into churches that they might worship and obey Jesus now and in eternity, to the glory of God the Father.
Our Great Focus and Priority
So I would argue that the mission of the church does not equal everything that God means to do in the universe. It does not equal everything we might do in obedience to Christ. And it means that disciple making is central. It is a priority. It is a focus. It is an emphasis.
Now, I use those words intentionally, because I don’t want anyone to think, “Well, then good deeds are silly.” Galatians 6:10 says, “Do good to all people, especially to the household of faith.” So there you go. There’s a verse. Do good, especially to the church. So there’s nothing wrong with that. There is everything right with doing good. What is that specific mission? That priority that we see lived out in the apostolic mission and we hear from the lips of Jesus? I believe it is to make worshippers. It is to make disciples.
So discipleship must have priority in the mission of the church. Not all things are equal. We live with finite time, finite resources, and finite people. The church cannot do every good thing that there is to do. By God’s grace, we will do some, but we must say no to some things so that we can say yes to others.
I do not have a formula for your church. I don’t know what percentage of your budget can go to humanitarian relief and what can go to church planting. Your leaders have to focus and have to work those things out. I don’t know exactly how your local congregation should make discipleship the priority, except to say this: If the church as a body tackles few community programs, but it is making disciples, and those disciples are living as disciples, then the church is being faithful. And conversely, if we do lots of good things and we bless people, and we serve the city, and we create culture, and we transform our schools, but we are not making worshipers of Jesus Christ, then we are failing in our mission.
The Responsibility of the Church
In 1933, in the depths of The Great Depression, the heyday of theological liberalism, before Neo-Evangelicalism, J. Gresham Machen tried to understand a similar question. He asked, “What is the church’s responsibility in this new age?” That’s very similar to the question we’ve been considering: What is the mission of the church? And his answer, 75 years ago, is just as good as it was then. He says:
The responsibility of the church in the new age is the same as its responsibility in every age. It is to testify that this world is lost in sin, that the span of human life — no, all the length of human history — is an infinitesimal island in the awful depths of eternity; that there is a mysterious holy living God, creator of all, upholder of all, infinitely beyond all; that he has revealed himself to us in his word, and offered us communion with himself through Jesus Christ the Lord; and that there is no other salvation for individuals or for nations, save this.
An unpopular message it is, and we are told it is an impractical message, but it is the message of the Christian church. Neglect it, and you will have destruction; heed it, and you will have life. It is not the church’s responsibility to right every wrong, nor to meet every need, though by God’s grace, we will do some of both.
It is, however, our responsibility alone — no one else will do it — our unique mission, and our plain priority, that this unpopular, impractical gospel is proclaimed. In our day, many people will thank you and applaud you as you try to combat hunger. They will praise you for it. People will not applaud you when you tell them to repent, to put their faith in Christ, because there is no other name under heaven by which we are to be saved (Acts 4:12). We must not lose our courage and our nerve. We must not lose the plain priority of the Scriptures and of the early church, that the neighbors and our nations would know that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that they would believe in him, and by believing, that they would have life in his name.