What Is The Mission Of The Church? Kevin DeYoung, Greg Gilbert, and Criticism

Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert have co-written a book to help evangelicals “get on the same page” as it pertains to the mission of the church.  The book is called “What Is the Mission of the Church?  Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission” and not too surprisingly has created a fair amount of debate and concern among conservative evangelicals.  I’m sure DeYoung and Gilbert expected the more moderate and liberal world of church life to question the premise of their work, but I wonder if they are a bit surprised by the amount of criticism they have received from “their own.” 

I want to provide the briefest of summaries of the book here and then comment on one of the more interesting criticisms of their thesis.

DeYoung and Gilbert have a concern regarding the church’s understanding of “mission” and how that term has evolved over the years.  A quote by Stephen Neill permeates the essence of their argument: “If everything is mission, nothing is mission.”  In other words, these authors fear that the church has embraced an all-encompassing attitude toward its central mission which has created confusion in the primary purpose of the institutional church.  They say, “some of what we want to correct is an overexpansive definition that understands mission to be just about every good thing a Christian could do as a partner with God in his mission to redeem the whole world” (20).  They highlight the common use of the word “missional” and begin to ask questions to probe the central and most important aspect of being “on mission.” 

As a corrective to this tendency, DeYoung and Gilbert offer a definition of mission centered on the Great Commission passages.  They conclude that “the church is sent into the world to witness to Jesus by proclaiming the gospel and making disciples of all nations” (26).  Proclamation is key for DeYoung and Gilbert and is what has caused the most debate with other authors and pastors.  The authors demonstrate how Jesus never entered a city with the primary purpose of healing or to perform miracles.  These were done to demonstrate what he was proclaiming.  The book spends significant time on the meaning of “social justice” and good works, but at the end of the day conclude that the church is about proclamation and disciple making, which is best done through expositing Holy Scripture and being intentional about relationships centered on Christ, “teaching” them to obey. 

By far the biggest criticism to the book has been a deep concern that DeYoung and Gilbert have stripped deeds away from the primary mission of the church and have focused solely on proclamation.  Popular Christian author and blogger Trevin Wax summed this point up nicely when he asked “5 nagging questions” about the book.  He said, “DeYoung and Gilbert believe we must represent Christ, but it seems like they connect this representation so tightly to verbal proclamation of the gospel that little room is left for representing Christ through love and good deeds.”  DeYoung and Gilbert graciously responded to the “5 nagging questions” and answered the one referenced above by saying:

“We wonder what it means that “Christ-likeness is a part of the [church’s] mission.” If this means our good works adorn the gospel and win a hearing for the gospel then we totally agree. But we do not think Jesus sends the church as church into the world to adopt schools, remedy unemployment, make a contribution to the arts, or plant trees (which is not what Trevin says here, but what we have heard others say and are arguing against in our book). We have many good things to do as Christians and many good things we could do, but everything good does not equal the mission of the church.”

DeYoung and Gilbert have clarified (which I figured was obvious) that their book is about the institutional church and not just individual church members.  Sometimes those distinctions can cause trouble, but in this case it is a helpful reminder to make.

I have been perplexed by the outpouring of criticism to this book regarding works and good deeds.  Much of the writing against DeYoung and Gilbert seems to portray the book as having nothing to say about works, as if the authors see no use or biblical mandate to be a people who are active in the community and world.  This is confusing since an entire chapter is called “Zealous for Good Works.”  The authors make particular attention to the need for the church to be a people who “practice what we preach.”  However, for them, this practicing is for the explicit purpose of making known Jesus Christ and opening opportunities for his name to be spoken.  If the church places as equal the task of baking cookies for the local police station (a great thing) with the sharing of Jesus to those police officers, then the mission of the church has been skewed.  I resonate deeply with this sentiment.  Although love and good works in our communities is an essential aspect of our union with Christ, it is not the central purpose of the church.  We must never become just a humanitarian organization, although we should be involved in mercy ministries and seek to relieve earthly suffering.  It’s just that eternal suffering is far worse.

I recommend this book for all pastors.  It will challenge your thinking, even if you disagree with their conclusions.

You can read Trevin Wax’s 5 Nagging Questions here.
You can read DeYoung and Gilbert’s response here.     

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