What about mission?

Given the biblical revelation that God has reconciled all humanity to himself in and through Jesus Christ (2 Cor, 5:17-19), why should the church be concerned about reaching out to the world in mission? And if it is to be concerned, what does that mission look like? In order to answer these questions, we first must answer this one: Who is God? The Bible;s answer is that the one God exists eternally as a tri-personal communion of love. In his being (nature), God is love (1John 4:8), and God does what God is. The triune God of love is a God who, in love, reaches out to others.

Missional God
In love, God created the cosmos as a time/place in which to share his triune love and life with his creation. And because his love never ceases or diminishes, he became Redeemer to rescue his creation from its inability, due to the fall, to live in communion with him. As Creator and Redeemer, God has, from before time, been on mission.

The mission of God (missio Dei) in creation and redemption originates in the heart of the Father (John 3:16-17), and is accomplished through the Son of God, in the power of the Holy Spirit. In redemption, the Father sends the Son, who through his incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension, and sending of the Holy Spirit, reconciles all humanity to the Father. In this great missional act, the Father is the sender, Jesus is the sent one (the missionary) and the Spirit is the sending agent. And note that this mission is not finished. It continues with Jesus' ongoing intercession on our behalf through the power and indwelling of the Holy Spirit (Heb 7:24-25).

Tissot's "Disciples on the Road to Emmaus"
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
Missional people
It is here that the church comes in. Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to form, call and gift the church to share in his ongoing ministry, which is fulfilling the Father's mission to the world. In short, the church exists because of, and for God's mission. The church is no mere 'tool' in God's hand, but is called to actively participate (partner as co-workers) in mission with him.

Mission = discipleship
Since the ascension and Pentecost, what God is now doing in the world in and through the church has principally to do with discipleship. This aspect of God's mission is not about 'getting people saved' (God has accomplished that already in Jesus), but about getting people into their salvation - helping them be (live) saved. This missional work (ministry) is about illumination, education and application. Jesus is working in people's lives in all three areas through the Holy Spirit. The church is called to participate by bearing witness to Jesus (Acts 1:8). It does so by sharing in Jesus' ongoing acts of healing, mercy and forgiveness; and by proclaiming with Jesus the stunning truth of the gospel (a declaration that includes inviting and empowering people to follow Jesus as one of his disciples).

In solidarity with the world
According to Karl Barth, the church participates in this ministry by living in solidarity with the world. Doing so means sharing with Jesus as he shares the world's suffering (due to sin), and its hope, which is grounded in the "free grace of God" in the person of Jesus (see Church Dogmatics;IV/3, p773, quoted by William Pannell in Evangelism: Solidarity and Reconciliation,Incarnational Ministry, p197).

Through incarnational ministry
According to Barth, the church finds its reason for being not in itself, but in this incarnational ministry with Jesus. God, in Christ, exists for the world - his supreme act of love is the incarnation by which he came to the world, becoming part of the created order, while remaining its Creator and Sustainer. In so doing, he reconciles the creation back to God. And his church, his "body" on earth (1Cor 12:27), is called to share this ministry with Jesus. Note, however, a word of caution: Our calling is to incarnational solidarity with the world, not conformity to it. As Barth notes, the church cannot say "yes" to the world, if it cannot also say "no." Here is the genius of Jesus himself - a friend of sinners, yet without sin of his own.

Reconciliation = incarnation
Pannell notes that the church's inability to stand in solidarity with the world is largely due to a lack of understanding that reconciliation is a function of incarnation. The reconciliation of the world to God is accomplished not only at the cross, but in the entirety of the incarnation. Thus reconciliation, because it is in the incarnate Son of God, is both personal and permanent. Jesus remains forever human on our behalf.

And now Jesus is making himself known - making this reconciliation that all people have with God in him, an experienced, personal reality (2Cor 5:20). Jesus is doing this ministry principally through his human presence in the world, in and through his body, the church, sent to stand in solidarity with the world - sharing its plight and proclaiming and demonstrating to humankind its one and sure hope.

And so we return to our original questions: Why should the church be concerned about mission? And what does mission look like? In both instances, answers are found in the person and work of Jesus - the Son of God incarnate, who stands in solidarity with the world. Let us be among his disciples - those who not only hear his voice, but actively join with him as he, in the power of the Spirit, helps people live into the reconciliation with God that they have forever in and with him.


Randy Bloom said…
Well stated, Ted. In our union and communion with Father, Son and Spirit we share in his “being” (the life he shares with Father and Spirit though not, of course, his divinity) and his “doing”. And what he is doing is mission. As mission, as you have pointed out, is as intrinsic to the nature and identity the Trinity, it is intrinsic to the nature and identity of the church.
It's not a "one-sided" life we share in Christ - all love, acceptance, inclusion, security and all that goes with being included in God's life and love. There is also the "down-and-dirty" aspect of living out that love in real-life experiences with people all around us. We can't just crawl up into God's lap and luxuriate in his love. In that love we also need to go with Jesus into the world, with all its brokenness and with all our brokenness and meet people where they are which is where Jesus is. He invites us, urges us, to do this.
It seems that a large part of the identity crisis the church is experiencing is due to not living more fully on mission. We spend a lot of time reading books, talking and writing about the Trinity, preaching sermon after sermon and teaching Bible study after Bible study and yet too often the church doesn't appear any different year after year. There is a sense of frustration and aimlessness in many churches. Perhaps it is because (to one degree or another) they are not living out their full identity in Christ as missionaries with Jesus.
What happens when a person does not fully live out their identity whether they are an artist, musician, scientist or whatever? They experience disfunctionality. They suffer and others around them usually suffer as well. Maybe this analogy can be applied to the church of Jesus. If more churches sought to be with Jesus in the outpouring of his life and love in mission maybe there would be more of a sense of wholeness, peace and purpose within the church. Perhaps we would offer a more compelling witness of God's love to people. And in the process we will be transformed by the Spirit in our participation in what he is doing in the world around us.
I encourage people to read Chapter 11 of Atonement (Robert T. Walker, ed.). Thomas Torrance said some profound things about the church and its participation in Jesus' mission. Others write on this as well. This is just one of my favorites.
Ted Johnston said…
Thanks for your comment Randy. It reminds me of the observation from the Apostle Paul that "Christ's love compels us" (2Cor 5:14). Paul speaks of his own compulsion to give himself fully (and radically) to Jesus' "ministry of reconciliation" (v19) to the world. He urges the church in Corinth to do likewise, serving as God's "fellow workers" (6:1a) so that they do not "receive God's grace in vain" (v1b).
Anonymous said…
Hi there!

And thank you Randy for your words. They deeply moved me.

In that line, I feel that the problem of frustration and aimlessness in many churches is a direct result of the way Christainty goes about its business. In short, the Christianity we see all about us tends to be program driven rather than message driven. My experience has shown me that programs wear people out. In contrast, the message, when not tainted with various works ideas, stirs those called to accept the message in wonderful ways.

All the best!

J. Richard Parker
Ted Johnston said…
I ran accross this post today from the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). I think it's relevant to our discussion here of the mission of God.

"In October 2010, more than 4,000 evangelical leaders attended the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in Cape Town, South Africa. At its conclusion, the Congress recognized that Christians’ care for the environment affects their witness, stating, '[T]he gospel is God’s good news, through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, for individual persons, and for society, and for creation. All three are broken and suffering because of sin; all three are included in the redeeming love and mission of God; all three must be part of the comprehensive mission of God’s people.'"
Randy said…
Regarding being “compelled by love” to participate in God’s mission it is helpful to realize that participation in Jesus’ mission is not something that is optional or contingent on Christians having “loving feelings”. As mission is intrinsic to the “being and doing” of God it is intrinsic to the “being and doing” of the church. In our union and communion with the Trinity we are called to find ways to participate in his mission regardless as to how we “feel”. While flawed Christians may not always have a deep “compelling” love as a motivator they can still actively participate in Jesus’ mission. Waiting on a sense of “compelling love” or standing on the sidelines out of an over-reaction to perceived programmatic activity produces inactive believers not living as fully as they might in their union and communion with God.

Missional programs have their place. They provide a structure to the missional process that is helpful and they are instructive (as long as the program or structure does not take priority over people and relationships). To avoid missional involvement out of perceived legalistic approaches is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. For the same reasons it is an error to not pursue mission just because one does not feel “compelled by love.” We can learn and grow more by working together, even within imperfect contexts, than by not working together.

It seems that love grows in the doing of things related to mission. We may love people in vague general way but when we begin to serve them in tangible, practical and personal ways, as Jesus did (for instance Matthew 9:35-36), our love for them generally grows. Greater love then compels us to continued action. It’s not that we must act before we can love. We act, with whatever love we have. Then we trust the Spirit, who transforms our hearts and minds, to “grow our love.” These aren’t the easiest concepts to describe, especially in writing, but hopefully this will engender some thoughts.
Ted Johnston said…
Yes, the "love of God" that compels us is not a mere emotion - it is a sharing in God's loving acts of redemption and reconciliation in the world. To do that sharing, we are called to live with and in the world - sharing life; entering into conversations; seeking for a "person of peace" (Luke 10:6) through whom we are able to enter into true, lasting relationships with both believers and non-believers. There we will discern what God is "up to" in a particular community, and will be shown ways to join with him. That's being "on mission" with our missional God.