[Editor’s Note]: Kellen Criswell, student in the MAGL program at Western Seminary, has contributed a thoughtful and well-reasoned review of What is the Mission of the Church? by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert.
It is imperative that the people of God discern the church’s God-given purpose. That noble and essential task is why Kevin Deyoung and Greg Gilbert wrote, What is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission. This review will summarize the primary conclusion of the book and discuss several strengths and weaknesses therein.
To the authors of the book, the people of God are in a state of mission confusion. The word mission, as they point out, is used to describe almost any good thing a follower of Christ does in the modern church. On an individual level, doing nice things for one’s neighbor is considered doing the mission of the church. On a congregational level, formally engaging in any number and sort of activity deemed to fit in the categories of humanitarian aide or social justice are often referred to as part of the church’s mission in the world. According to the authors, the term mission is used in connection with so many things that it has all but lost clarity of meaning and practical usefulness.
To Deyoung and Gilbert, the over-generalizations and ambiguity related to the discussion of the church’s mission is extremely problematic. Out of this conviction, they spend lots of time seeking to provide a biblical understanding of the church’s mission, the nature of justice, and the meaning and reality of biblical shalom. All of these efforts ultimately serve the main goal of the book, which is defining the church’s mission in a way that is understandable, biblical, and doable. As they put it,
as we grasp key concepts like kingdom, gospel, and social justice, we will be better able to articulate a careful, biblically faithful understanding of the mission of the church. And just as important, we’ll be able to pursue obedience to Christ in a way that is more realistic, freeing, and, in the long run, fruitful.
The central point of the book is that God’s people must think of the Great Commission as the biblical portrait of the church’s mission. According to the authors, the mission that is specifically set forth in the Great Commission is that of making disciples. They attempt to demonstrate the discipleship-centric mission of the church by providing a survey of both the similarities and unique characteristics of the various iterations of the Great Commission in the New Testament. Along the way they connect the principles of these passages to the model and emphases in the earthly ministry of Jesus. Further, they spend a good amount of space contrasting the implications of Great Commission texts with an expositional survey of social justice proof texts. This latter group of texts are often employed by those who advocate connecting social justice and acts of Christian service with the essence of the mission of the church. In the end, they contend that the biblical understanding of justice (doing what is right, telling the truth, treating people fairly) is far more simple and individual than modern ideas of social justice, and in no reflect the primary mission of the church.
One of the strengths of the book is the generous tone in which it was written. While the authors certainly have a strong opinion on what is and is not the mission of the church, they talk about those with whom they disagree with maturity and respect. Many conversations about the core mission of the church need to continue to take place. The church needs leaders who can have open, honest, and frank discussions about such matters, to engage in healthy discussion if believers are to understand the issues, and form a biblical perspective. Oftentimes, the spiritual deposits and biblical understanding that can result from interaction over important matters like the church’s mission get lost in the weeds of human pride and disrespect. The end result is that spiritual matters become points of further division instead of missional unity. It was a joy to read a book on a controversial topic that presents a strong position, but with a gracious tone. The example the authors set regarding how to engage in what can be tense discussion with love and respect may be worth as much as any point they intended to make in their arguments.
Another strength of the book was the attention that was given to defining justice biblically. Indeed, this author agrees that much of the confusion and division that surrounds topics like the mission of the church and social justice are born out of ambiguity. People talk of social justice and mission as if everyone is working from the same definitions. It seemed wise to not only offer a definition of these terms, but specifically regarding justice, to develop a biblical definition. How can true understanding about the place of social justice in the mission of the church (or lack thereof) be gained if agreement on the basic meaning of the terms has not been found? The authors do a service to readers in providing at least the beginning of a remedy to all of this unhelpful ambiguity.
Another strong point of the book was the authors’ encouragement to readers to try to discern between actions that are merely good verses those that necessarily embody the church’s God-given mission. God may lead individual believers to do many different expressions of good acts, but this does not make all such acts part of the church’s mission. God might lead a Christian to tutor children at an afterschool program. This does not mean that tutoring kids in afterschool programs is part of the God-given, biblically defined mission of the local church. This author does not view this logic as full proof per se, but valid and deserving of further reflection.
The greatest strength of the book is the overall call it sounds to the church to renew her focus on Great Commission understanding and action. While the Lord may lead church leaders to lead those in their care into many joint works of love in a respective community, the essential mission of the church (disciple-making) is universal and unchanging. Having witnessed and experienced the frustration that can come when church leaders feel the need to have a unique vision for the church they lead, this author finds the call back to the simplicity of the Great Commission task extremely refreshing. At a foundational level, all local expressions of the universal church have the same mission. There is no need to go through the stress and agony of coming up with a special mission for the church’s we lead.
Having said all that, a possible weakness of the book may be a flaw in understanding how creatively the Great Commission imperatives can be applied. Follow this thought pattern: The mission of the church is to make disciples. Fruitful discipleship will produce people who feel, think, and live like Jesus. As people begin to feel, think, and live like Jesus, they become compassionate toward the plight of hurting people. For some disciples, the compassionate heart of Christ that beats in their chest will create a passion in them to work with organizations that focus on feeding the poor, combating human trafficking, and other philanthropic endeavors, often viewed as social justice engagement. In this sense, even social justice can be a by-product of effective Great Commission work (disciple making), though none of these good things reflect the Great Commission task inherently. Social justice work is not Great Commission work, but it can be the fruit of Great Commission work that has been done well.
 Deyoung & Gilbert. What is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission. Crossway, 2011.