Kevin DeYoung & Greg Gilbert, What Is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 283 pages.
I would like to thank Crossway for providing me a review copy.
“Mission creep” is a phrase coined in military strategy to describe what happens when an operation goes beyond what it originally planned to do. The phrase usually conjures up a “quagmire” of political entanglements because the functioning body took on more responsibilities than it had ability to. Although Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert do not use this memorable phrase, it nonetheless describes their critique of contemporary “missional” and “emerging” churches in their book What Is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission.
DeYoung and Gilbert make it clear from the outset that they are not against the term “missional,” per se; it’s all how you define “mission.” Their argument, in sum, is that many missional churches are guilty of mission creep; they have defined the church’s mission too broadly. Not only do they contend that such expansive definitions go beyond what the Bible sets down, but practically energy is expended in places of lesser importance. The result is usually guilt, burn out, and general disappointment.
DeYoung and Gilbert set about their case by first asking where the church should go to understand its mission statement. They consider the more recent proposals of missional thinkers in starting with such texts as Genesis 12:1–3 (the call of Abraham), Exodus 19:5–6 (Israel at Mt. Sinai), and Luke 4:16–21 (Jesus’ first sermon at Nazareth), but in each case, the text either does not provide the church with a clear mission statement or it simply does not mean what most missional thinkers say it means. This leads next into an exposition of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18–20), along with other “commissions” from the risen Christ as well. DeYoung and Gilbert argue that this traditional text does give the church a clear mission statement, and that task is focused on the verbal proclamation of the gospel. The Book of Acts shows the clear emphasis on preaching, while works of mercy within the church play a secondary, supporting role. The mission of the church is not about social transformation but gospel proclamation.
According to the authors, the basic storyline of the Bible is about the hearing of this verbal proclamation of grace that reconciles sinners to God. Personal, spiritual redemption is the center of the Bible’s storyline, and other aspects of redemption and culture—society, politics, arts, wisdom—are all subordinate to addressing the problem of alienation of individual persons from God. Forgiveness of sins is the “narrow lens” definition of the gospel; cosmic transformation is the “wide lens” definition of the gospel. The main point for the authors is that the narrow lens definition is the foundational, more important aspect of the storyline.
To continue their discussion, they attempt to define kingdom of God as the redemptive reign of Christ, in distinction from the non-redemptive reign of God since creation. The church is the “initial manifestation” (127) of the kingdom now. They are especially emphatic that the kingdom is not the effort of human hands but is God’s work alone.
The next section of What Is the Mission of the Church? deals with social justice. First, the authors look at commonly cited “social justice” passages in the Bible and argue that the do not support what most missional thinkers contend they mean. Their main burden is to show that either these passages have only to do with Old Testament Israel (Jubilee Year) or are not about justice as a result (equal distribution) but as a process (impartial judgment). Second, they go on to argue that in using terms like “social justice” Christians should not lose sight that the Bible is primarily about the spiritual poor, not the material poor. Likewise, we should not believe that the “shalom” of human flourishing here and now approximates the shalom of human flourishing in the new heavens and new earth. They argue for a strong degree of discontinuity between this age and the age to come. Human effort in social and cultural transformation does not play a significant part in the life of the world to come. What matters are persons redeemed by Christ’s atoning death.
The last two chapters touch particularly on the issue of motivation. DeYoung and Gilbert are concerned that in trying to motivate Christians to be involved in social change current missional leaders have set the bar too high. Instead of a motivation of “world changing” and “kingdom building,” Christians should be motivated to do good works in society out of simple gratitude for salvation in Christ. DeYoung and Gilbert want to be on-guard against an expectation that the kingdom will become more and more manifest through Christian effort. Social change is not unimportant, but neither is it of upmost importance. The authors attempt to resurrect a strategy of good works as a “preparation” for evangelism, though without the “bait and switch” techniques of previous generations. The church’s mission is greater than and more narrow than the mission of individual Christians, and not everything that God calls individual Christians to do constitutes the church’s mission.
The book ends with an epilogue of a fictitious conversation between a young, missional church leader and a seasoned pastor who has embraced the vision set forth in the book’s contents. The driving point is not to saddle a church with the call for social transformation but to realize the specificity of Christ’s call to make disciples through the verbal witness of preaching the gospel message.
I share with the authors a concern that some young evangelicals are so concerned with social justice that they seem to be abandoning traditional doctrines of the church in order to pursue their political agendas. In this sense, DeYoung and Gilbert provide a good counter-balance. One can situate their book alongside other works in a “Two Kingdom” movement in North American Reformed churches that seeks to avoid “transformationalism.” In one place, DeYoung identifies himself as a “careful two kingdoms” proponent. The strengths of this movement are its recapturing of a churchly form of Christian life in American individualism, its taming of shallow American optimism, and its tenacity in holding to traditional doctrine despite a possible loss of relevance in contemporary culture.
Yet for the book’s strengths, DeYoung and Gilbert move too far in the opposite direction. Though I agree with most of the practical suggestions that DeYoung and Gilbert offer in putting gospel proclamation at the center of the church’s life, the way in which they come to these conclusions is problematic. I could identify a number of problems, but four main categories of critique stand out: a lack of a doctrine of creation, dismissal of the Old Testament, lack of a doctrine of participation, and misunderstanding of “teaching” in the church’s mission.
- Creation: This is the most significant problem and, in some ways, the one that controls the others. For DeYoung and Gilbert, the biblical story starts with Genesis 3, not with creation in Genesis 1–2 (a variation of the felix culpa motif). This is evident in that the overriding question of the Bible is “How can hopelessly rebellious, sinful people live in the presence of a perfectly just and righteous God?” (89) One major reason for this is their conception that Adam’s task was to merit eternal life by building a godly culture. Since Adam failed at this, it could only be completed by Christ alone. The creation mandate does not have an ongoing purpose except preservation in a fallen world. Salvation does not connect to creation’s narrative; rather, it restores a static relationship of God to humanity from the beginning. Such a view of salvation leads to their narrowing of the church’s mission to humanity’s spiritual relationship to God only and neglecting other aspects of humanity’s place in the world.
- Old Testament: Neglecting the Old Testament witness would seem to follow naturally from neglecting a doctrine of creation. The Old Testament is very “earthy,” often speaking about the fullness of human life in its social and cultural context more than most evangelical Christians are comfortable with. DeYoung and Gilbert dismiss the attempt of biblical theologians such as Christopher J.H. Wright to include the Old Testament more fully in the Bible’s storyline of mission. My only comment here is this makes perfect sense if they are going to narrow the church’s mission to spiritual reconciliation only. They do this, however, at the risk of lapsing into a kind of Marcionism that sees the trajectory of the Old Testament to the New Testament as from “physical” to “spiritual.”
- Participation: This point follows in part from the first critique. DeYoung and Gilbert conceive of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility as a zero-sum game. If God is to have any glory in an action, humanity must have no part in it. This is seen in Christ’s completion of the original creation mandate: ‘if Jesus fulfilled it completely, then humanity must not have any part in it’ is their reasoning. Similarly, they argue that since the new heavens and new earth are a gift from God, then there must be no human effort in its triumph. Yet they do not see that salvation as a whole is a gift, and yet Christians are called to “work out” their salvation (even the most monergistic theologians recognize this). Is there any human participation in salvation at all? Their appeal to the conquest of the Promised Land as a parallel to the new heavens and new earth proves this point well. It is true that Canaan was “received as a gift” from God (205), but does that mean that Israel was to have no participation or effort in taking hold of or realizing that gift? I agree that the conquest of Canaan is a good parallel, and for that reason I conclude that the new heavens and new earth includes human participation in its reception.
- Teaching: DeYoung and Gilbert are emphatic on the church’s mission being verbal proclamation of the gospel. Though this is certainly central, they fail to mention baptism as being central to the Great Commission as well. Baptism, a tactile rite, embodies the word and is not simply a verbal teaching mechanism (Gilbert, a Baptist, may believe that, but DeYoung, RCA ordained, would be out of step with his Reformed confession on this point). Nevertheless, teaching itself involves more than DeYoung and Gilbert assume it does. Teaching disciples “to obey everything [Christ] commanded” (Matt 28:20) will involve much more than a simple evangelistic proclamation. As an example, suppose either author had a politician in their congregation who was about to vote on a congressional bill about end of life issues. This politician comes to the pastor and asks for advice on what he should do as a disciple of Christ. Do DeYoung and Gilbert simply refuse to “instruct” the believer from biblical principles because it involves politics? Is this scenario included in the church’s mission or excluded from Christ’s commissioning of the church? Teaching disciples of Jesus will involve every aspect of life, even if it is indirect. Ministers are stewards of the Word, as the authors emphasize, but it is the Word that equips disciples for “every good work” (2 Tim 3:17). Is there a good work that Scripture will not equip a disciple for? No. Then ministers must be prepared to teach (at least indirectly) on how Scripture equips for politics, science, art, etc. Teaching, as central to the church’s mission, opens up the church’s mission much wider than DeYoung and Gilbert make out.
What Is the Mission of the Church makes a contribution to a theology of church ministry at the very least in the questions it asks, as well as by the answers it gives. DeYoung and Gilbert have pointed out some problems in contemporary evangelicalism’s missional thinking, and they have made a good start in trying to think through how to conceive of the church’s mission. More work needs to be done on this topic, but future writing should take note of this book and not dismiss it as an un-academic work of two pastors. DeYoung and Gilbert have asked good questions that deserve attention, regardless if you agree with all of their formulations or not.
 Kevin DeYoung, “You Can Get There from Here,” http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2011/12/22/you-can-get-there-from-here/.