What is the most important mission of the church?

On my third Sabbatical in 2008 I attended a conference in Canada. The topic was Church, Denominationalism and Congregationalism It was an academic conference for theologians and pastors from those denominations which are drawn together by our belief that the true church is defined not as an institution but as the community of believers. Most of the sixty speakers and delegates were American or Canadian with just a few of us from Europe. There were Baptists from Canada and America, different groupings of Brethren churches and different groupings of Mennonites. The conference gathered to consider the pressures on the twenty-first century church from the ever changing post-modern post-Christendom world around us. There are particular challenges but also unique opportunities for congregationally governed churches like ourselves in a world which is rejecting all forms of established authority.
Our hosts were the Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg in Canada. Mennonite Christians follow the teachings of one of the first Anabaptists, Simon Menno. Along with our Baptist ancestors, the Mennonites were another of the first groups to practise believer’s baptism as they broke away from the mainstream Protestants at the time of the Reformation. It was the first time I had any real contact with Mennonite Christians and they are a delightful, highly moral, pietistic people. But I noticed something interesting about the Mennonites, and also some of the Brethren churches who were taking part. A major emphasis in their tradition is a commitment to non-violence. They define themselves as “peace churches”, and see the central focus of their mission to be to promote reconciliation and conflict resolution by totally non-violent means. I took part in a fascinating seminar where Mennonites and Brethren were arguing that the message of peace and non-violence was the most important element in Jesus’s message and consequently of the mission of the church. Baptists like me were contending that it is the gospel of forgiveness through Jesus’ death and resurrection which is the heart of the gospel. But the Mennonites would not be persuaded. For them their identity of being a “peace church” is even more important that being a “believers’ church”. As a denomination, Mennonites have mostly abandoned evangelism as we would recognise it. For them, working to promote reconciliation between groups of people in areas of conflict is more important than preaching the gospel of reconciliation with God.
Of course, God is a God of Justice. The God of the Bible, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is the holy and righteous God. He cares passionately about justice. God cares about what is fair and unfair. God is angry when people or communities are exploited and ill-treated, God cares when people are disadvantaged because of race or ethnicity or gender or class or disability or for any other reasons.
I will proclaim the name of the LORD. Oh, praise the greatness of our God! He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he. (Deuteronomy 32:3-4)
The LORD reigns for ever; he has established his throne for judgment. He will judge the world in righteousness; he will govern the peoples with justice. The LORD is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. (Psalm 9:7-9)
God is a God of justice. And God expects his people to care about justice too. Christians have always been at the forefront of the battles for social justice. Abolishing slavery. Racial justice. Gender equality. Safeguarding children and vulnerable adults. God says in Amos 5:24 let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!
God demands fairness. We should always keep in mind just how much God cares about the poor and marginalized, and particular for that triad which we find mentioned no less than 18 times in the Old Testament, “the alien, the fatherless and the widow”. Outsiders; refugees. People who don’t belong. People who don’t quite fit in. These are the kinds of people God really cares about. It was Bishop of Liverpool David Sheppard who in his book in 1983 drew the attention of the churches to God’s “Bias to the poor”. We find this principle throughout the Bible. God has a special care for the poor and the marginalised and the oppressed. Remember the words of the Magnificat, which may Christians use in their worship every week.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:52-53)
Remember God’s blessings promised to the poor and the woes on those who are rich and well fed in the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6. God still calls his people to show the same care He does for the alien, the fatherless and the widow, the outsiders, the refugees, anybody marginalised by society.
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter. (Isaiah 53:6-7)
We have seen this call to care for the poor and the marginalised especially in the concern in Luke’s Gospel for people who are poor and marginalized and in the way Jesus treated women. But that call is more often implicit than explicit. The apostle Paul never fought for the abolition of slavery or for the emancipation of women. Instead Paul wrote in
Galatians 3:26, You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, 27 for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
That New Testament Christian ethic of the equality of all human beings comes from the Old Testament convictions about the justice and compassion of God. These were the seeds from which all modern ideas of human rights have grown. But here is the important thing. Jesus and the apostles he sent out did not give up their lives to address issues of social justice. Instead they preached the gospel of the Kingly Rule of God, the gospel of forgiveness and new life. That gospel is good news for the poor and the oppressed. It is that gospel which ultimately sets the captives free. It is only “in Christ” that all human beings can become one. So the greatest task of Christians is evangelism – proclaiming the life-saving gospel of Jesus Christ.
There are so many issues of social justice around the world and even on our doorstep which Christians are rightly concerned about. We could talk about the many injustices against women, racial discrimination, the great sufferings of the poor which the rich conveniently ignore. All the issues of Fair Trade and Debt Relief for Third World economies crippled by generations of corruption compounded by the greed of the global North. We should do more about the exploitation and abuse of minorities, child slavery and human trafficking, torture, climate change.
God cares about these issues more than we do. God wants us all to be involved in prophetic campaigning and practical action to put right the injustices in society and around the world. It would be really good if every Christian took a particular interest in at least one issue of social justice from around the world. Read up about it. Signed up to an organisation (and not necessarily a Christian organisation) which is taking action on that issue. Praying about that problem and stirring up the rest of us to care about that issue too. Christians should still be at the forefront of addressing the social problems and injustices of our age, as we always have been for centuries.
But I believe some churches, and even some Baptist churches, have lost their way in this. Some have espoused the cause of equality and inclusion, fighting for the rights of minorities, as if that was the most important aspect of mission. Putting right the wrongs of the world must not be allowed to become the central thrust of the mission of the churches. Because, as important as issues of social justice are, there is a message which is more important than that. There are many other groups also fighting for justice in many areas, very often following paths which the churches first trod. But there is a mission which God has entrusted to his children alone – the task of proclaiming the gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ. The ministry of reconciling men and women and children to Almighty God.
The Mennonites are by no means the only Christians who have lost sight of this great commission. Sadly, there are Christians and Churches and denominations in this country who no longer emphasise forgiveness and eternal life. Instead they preach what some have call a “social gospel”. They work tirelessly to fight against injustice and to help the poor and oppressed. But they don’t talk about what Christ has done for us dying on the cross for our sins. They don’t talk about the relationship with God which each of us can enjoy which is our eternal life.
There are many excellent aid agencies and it is right that Christians support those expressions of compassion most generously. But then there are some missionary societies whose focus over the years has shifted away from evangelism towards helping the poor and working for social justice. I think that is a mistake. Christians dare not neglect forms of mission like evangelism, church planting, theological education and Bible translation. Because surely these are the core of the mission of the church – making disciples of all nations, baptising them and teaching them.
There is a host of reasons why Christians and churches highlight issues of compassion and social justice. The best reasons of course is that these issues are Biblical. They are one aspect of the gospel. Back in the 1960s and 1970s there was a polarization between churches who preached this social gospel and evangelical churches who insisted that the gospel of salvation was the totality of the gospel. Evangelicals have realized we were wrong. Social justice and compassion for the poor are an important part of the package of salvation Christ came to bring!
But the central reason why evangelical Christians fought to preserve the “purity” of the gospel of forgiveness and eternal life is that back in the sixties and seventies the social gospel was coming out of the liberal theology which was dominant across mainland Europe at that time. That was a theology which denied central truths like the bodily resurrection of Christ and the authority of the Bible. It is good that evangelical churches have recognized the place of social justice and compassion for the poor. But it is also the case that some churches have only done so at the expense of a commitment to sound doctrine and Bible truth.
Of course, our lives must back up our message. It is undeniable that “they won’t care what we know until they know that we care” Thankfully most strands of the church have recognised this fact and moved increasingly towards “integral mission”, proclamation of the gospel and demonstrations of the gospel side by side. It is important that loving our neighbours, by serving our communities and by striving for compassion, justice and peace, should always go hand in hand with delivering the Good News of Jesus in words. But in his book Mission Matters, Tim Chester makes the point very well. “It is not enough merely to address people’s felt needs. As well as their temporal needs we must also address their eternal need of Christ.”
The reality is that it is much easier in today’s world to preach a social gospel than it is to preach a gospel of forgiveness and eternal life. It is much easier to preach that people should be nice to each other and care about the poor and needy. It is much easier to appeal to moral ideas like “human rights” than it is to say that Almighty God commands justice and compassion. You can fight for justice for the oppressed and give generously to the poor without needing to mention God at all. In today’s world it is actually so much easier to say “We believe in life before death” than it is to say “We believe in life after death.”
The hard part of the gospel to preach is the bit which says, “Repent and believe”. The hard part of the gospel is telling people that the God of justice will one day be the judge of all of humanity, and that despite all our good works of compassion for the poor and fighting for social justice every single one of us stands condemned. Apart from the saving work of Christ, every one of us is doomed. That’s the tricky bit. That’s the gospel message that’s hard to sell in today’s materialistic world. People who care about their own money can be brought to care about somebody else’s poverty. People who insist on getting what they regard as their “rights” can be brought to care about the human rights of others. People who value their own health and their own freedoms can be brought to care about the health and the freedoms of other people. But all the while people who face a lost eternity without Christ are not hearing about Him. And the tragic reason is that in this secular de-spiritualised world many Christians and Churches and even Missionary Societies don’t talk so much about God any more. The gospel of forgiveness and new life can be very uncomfortable to proclaim – and many Christians have given up trying.
John Stott rightly defined mission as “everything God sends Christians into the world to be and to do.” That embraces showing God’s love in practical action for the poor and needy. That embraces fighting for social justice in every aspect of life and throughout the world. But in today’s world which is running faster and faster away from God, the primary focus of Christian mission must surely be making disciples of all nations.
Mark 16:15 (Jesus) said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. 16 Whoever believes and is baptised will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. Here is the heart of the mission of the church. To preach the good news. Because it really is a matter of life and death. Believe and be saved. Don’t believe and a person stays condemned. “Jesus said, I am the way, the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me.”(John 14:6)
Acts 4 12 Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.
Mark 16 19 After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God. 20 Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.
That was the priority in the early church. To preach the gospel. Not to put right all the wrongs in the world. But to preach the gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ. And that should be our greatest priority too. Jesus taught his followers to care for the poor. But he also said, “The poor will always be with you.” There were many issues of social justice in Jesus’s day. The problems of slavery. The oppression of women. The rich exploiting the poor. Jesus rebuked the society around him by the compassionate way he treated people, especially the poor and the marginalized and indeed women. But he did not speak out against slavery or racism or for women’s rights. Jesus’s Great Commission was not a call to solve all these problems in society. Jesus calls us to make disciples.
I am not saying it is a case of either – or. Surely it should be both – and. Christians should be BOTH preaching the gospel of forgiveness and eternal life AND fighting for justice for the poor and oppressed. But when it comes to priorities in time and money and energy, we should bear in mind that many ordinary decent non-believing people give generously to the poor and many people are fighting very hard for justice and human rights. But only Christians will give to pay for things like evangelism and theological education and Bible translation. Many people will work and campaign for the needs of the poor. Only Christians can tell their neighbours that God loves them and Christ died for them. Only Christians can show their neighbours the way to be saved.
Paul wrote in Romans 1:16, 16 I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes,
Sadly it looks as though many Christians are ashamed of this gospel which brings salvation. Christ commands his followers to go into all the world and preach the gospel. He commands us to make disciples and baptize and teach. Evangelism should always be the top priority in the church’s mission. If this generation of believers neglects this mission, there won’t be a next generation!

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