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Book Review: What is the Mission of the Church?

Book Review: What is the Mission of the Church?

[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.[1]

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.


[1] Deyoung & Gilbert. What is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission. Crossway, 2011.

Reflection & Book Review on “Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes”

Reflection & Book Review on “Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes”

[Editor’s Note: D. J. Baber is a student in the MAGL program at Western Seminary. As a field-tested missionary, he provides much insight into the claims and propositions of the book, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, by Brandon O’brien and Randy Richards.]


“…the most powerful cultural values are those that go without being said”, write Richards and O’Brien’s in their book “Misreading Scripture through Western Eyes”.[i]  The authors labor diligently, not so much to bridge the cultural gap so that the Scripture is perfectly understood, but rather to attempt to expose the cultural blind-spots of the modern, rational, individualistic, (and you guessed it) Western reader.  As someone that has lived in SE Asia for the last ten years, I can resonate at a very personal level when the authors write: “In whatever place and whatever age people read the Bible, we instinctively draw from our own cultural context to make sense of what we’re reading.”[ii]  We all suffer from the challenges of historical particularity.

Bridging the Chasm between Hermeneutics and Missiology

This books is a primer for those who are unacquainted with the complexities of cross-cultural communication.  It is a well-articulated attempt to bridge the chasm between the subject of hermeneutics and missiology.  Indeed, the book is concluded with the admission that even the idea to write such a book stems from the western drive to examine, evaluate and synthesize a particular subject.

I found the author’s referencing to the Western “famine forgetters” to be particularly interesting.[iii]  As someone who has never encountered a famine, I can surely resonate with this bias.  The closest equivalent I could fathom would be the American Great Depression of two generations ago, which is hardly a firm memory in my parents or grandparents’ minds.  While my maternal grandparents were wheat-farmers, they worked the ground using modern tractor technology, and never suffered what would be categorized as a famine.  Few, if any, ever starve to death in America.

The authors helped me to see the majority-world perspective on money and material goods as a limited resource.  I found this a striking contrast to the reality that often majority-world cultures see time as an unlimited resource.[iv]

Trying to “Read the Air” of Scripture

While I agree with much of what they write, I did find some of their confidant assertions to be forced.  There are some serious challenges when we attempt to properly “read the air” of Scripture.  If we are honest, sometimes we simply don’t know what exactly “goes without being said” because God’s word is, well…words.  We are inevitably going to fill in meaning, and sometimes we’re still just making educated (dare I say Western?) guesses, particularly when considering the significant historical distance.  There can easily be an excluded middle when it comes to making judgment calls on meaning of a text.  Language and culture have always been understood by interpreters as inextricably connected, however there are reasonable limits (and room for further research) for what can be confidently asserted by modern readers.  This is why the study of ancient Mid-Eastern history is a very valuable endeavor.

While emphasizing the original cultural context of the Text, I feel that the authors do nearly as much good (if not more) in helping modern readers consider their own cultural setting and worldview than giving new insights to the biblical setting.  Their observations, for example, of our own current mores regarding sexuality, namely, that singleness is somehow deviant and that marriage is always preferential in the life of a Christian leader.  Likewise, the concept of modesty as related both to sex appeal and to a flaunting of wealth is a helpful corrective in our age of material abundance.

Regarding Race

Regarding race, I didn’t find the argument that the divisions in Corinth (over following leaders such as Alexander or Cephas) as primarily a culturally driven to be convincing.  While surely cultural divisions may have had an effect on how these leaders were revered, I don’t believe that we can confidently assert that this was the root.  However, the authors do make some good observations about how the rich cultural diversity (and the accompanying cultural biases) are evident throughout the Scripture.  The reflection questions at the end of this section were helpful for me, even as a cross-cultural servant, I yet have prejudice that needs to be crucified in my flesh.[v]

Regarding Honor and Shame

I found this paragraph to be helpful in defining the concept of shame and honor for a majority of the world:

In shame cultures, people are more likely to choose right behavior on the basis of what society expects from them. It is not a matter of guilt, nor an inner voice of direction, but outer pressures and opinions that direct a person to behave a certain way. Rules and laws are less a deterrent for bad behavior than the risk of bringing shame on oneself or one’s family. In fact, one should not regret actions that, in the words of Dayan and Pitamber, “have been approved by those considered significant. When a person performs any act in the interest of the community, he is not concerned about the wrongness or rightness of the acts.”[vi]

For their example of this concept, they highlighted the encounter of David with Bathsheba.  I personally disagree with a fair amount of their supposed cultural insights on this biblical narrative.  I do not believe, for example, that Bathsheba is somehow culpable taking a bath in the view of the palace.  Nor does the text imply that David had no sense of inward guilt before Yahweh before he is confronted by the prophet Nathan.[vii]

Client/Patron System and the Greco-Roman Concept of Grace/Faith

In Chapter seven, the authors propose that the model that Paul refers to when considering the concept of grace and faith:

Because it was impossible to escape the patronage system, Paul worked within it, even in his explanation of the Christian message of salvation. Patronage had its own vocabulary. Words we usually consider particularly Christian terms—grace and faith—were common parlance before Paul commandeered them. The undeserved gifts of assistance the patron offered were commonly called charis (“grace” and “gift”). The loyalty the client offered the patron in response was called pistis (“faith” and “faithfulness”). Roman philosophers noted that when one received a god’s favor (charis), one should respond with love, joy and hope. When Paul sought to explain the Christian’s new relationship with God, then, one of the ways he did so was in terms of the ancient system of patronage—something everyone understood. In other words, it went without being said that relationship is the premier and determinative aspect of charis, grace.[viii]

While I find this idea compelling, I’m not sure that the mere vocabulary is enough to prove the point, as the semantic range could allow for other interpretations.  What kind of grace the pagan god’s offer?  What kind of loyalty was expected?  If patronage is a valid model for faithfulness to Yahweh, how has the modern societal structure in the West hindered proper interpretation?


Overall, I would recommend a person read this book, simply as a tool to better understand Western worldview blind spots.  The book is not exhaustive, but it is a good starting place for the conversation.


[i] Richards, E. Randolph, and Brandon J. O’Brien. Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012. Print.  Page 12

[ii] Ibid. Introduction, Page 14

[iii] Ibid. Introduction, Page 14

[iv] Ibid. Chapter 1, Page 41

[v] Ibid. Chapter 2, Page 66

[vi] Ibid. Chapter 5, Page 116

[vii] Ibid. Chapter 5, Page 122

[viii] Ibid. Chapter 7, Page 165

10 Questions for Evangelistic Conversations

10 Questions for Evangelistic Conversations

Dr. Don Whitney has a great resource on his website called, “Ten Questions to Ask to Turn a Conversation Toward the Gospel”.  Actually initiating a gospel-focused conversation is usually the hardest part.  Here are ten questions he has found helpful for turning a conversation toward the gospel:[1]

  1. When you die, if God says to you, “Why should I let you into Heaven?”, what would you say? Are you interested in what the Bible says about your answer?
  2. If you were to die tonight, where do you think you would spend eternity? Why? Are you interested in what the Bible says about this?
  3. Do you think much about spiritual things?
  4. How is God involved in your life?
  5. How important is your faith to you?
  6. What has been your most meaningful spiritual experience?
  7. Do you find that your religious heritage answers your questions about life?
  8. Do you have any kind of spiritual beliefs? If what you believe were not true, would you want to know it? Well, the Bible says . . . .
  9. To you, who is Jesus?
  10. I often like to pray for people I meet; how can I pray for you?



[1] Copyright © 2002 Donald S. Whitney.

Copyright Disclaimer: All the information contained on the Center for Biblical Spirituality website is copyrighted by Donald S. Whitney. Permission granted to copy this material in its complete text only for not-for-profit use (sharing with a friend, church, school, Bible study, etc.) and including all copyright information. No portion of this website may be sold, distributed, published, edited, altered, changed, broadcast, or commercially exploited without the prior written permission from Donald S. Whitney.


The Book of Heavenly Wisdom

The Book of Heavenly Wisdom

Adoniram Judson believed deeply in the power of the written Word. So firmly did he rely on the power of the Scripture that he printed and distributed his own tracts to a people who were not highly literate. Though the common person had some elementary literacy level, it was uncommon to spread news in general through the printed page. However, Judson still sought to spread the gospel through literature and Bible. Against all conventional wisdom, he was remarkably successful in his tract distribution. Having seen the amazing conversion fruit of tract distribution in Burma, he penned this poem, relishing the Word and its power to draw souls to Christ.

He never saw

The book of heavenly wisdom, and no saint

Had told him how the sinner might be saved.

But to his hut

A little tract—a messenger of love,

A herald of glad tidings—found its way.

The hue

Of death was on his cheek.

His burning brow

Told of the pain he felt.

Still no saint was near

To tell of joys to come.

No man of God

Stood by his bed to soothe the final hour;

But he had peace.

“When I am dead,” he saith, “put ye the little book

Upon my breast, and let it go with me

Down to my sepulcher.  It taught me all

That I have learned of God, and heaven, and hell.

I love the man who wrote it, and that God

Who brought it to my home.”[1]


[1]Middleditch, Burmah’s Great, 288-289.