Missing the Difference: Confusing Missions With the Mission of the Church
I recently read an article in Christianity Today by Ed Stetzer that was published back in May of this year. You can read this article here. In the article, Stetzer lays out 3 areas that he believes the church needs to rethink in terms of how it reaches the culture. Before I interact with each area individually, let me state that the reason this article stood out to me is because it nicely sums up what I believe are some of the biggest problems that prevents the evangelical church from maturing and properly influencing the culture – not the reasons that Stetzer offers, but the way that he addresses the mission of the church. The more I read the popular evangelical leaders of our day and the way they refer to the church and her mission, the more I’m convinced that they’re one of the biggest hindrances to missions. Not because they are the only one’s who are getting it wrong, but because these are the leaders that the majority of the evangelical church are taking their cues from. Now, don’t get me wrong – I don’t question the sincerity or intentions of these men and women, but I do think it’s time for the church to take the next step in her reformation, and it’s going to mean rethinking the way we’ve defined the church and her mission – a task that Stetzer (and many others) are honestly trying to accomplish, but have either misidentified or misdiagnosed the real problems.
1. Too many churches love past culture more than their current context.
Essentially what Stetzer is speaking to here is that many churches need to change with the culture in order to reach those around them. I do not necessarily disagree with this in principle – what I disagree with is how he categorizes the church and her mission. Here’s the problem: While no doubt there are many churches that appear to be stuck in the 50’s in terms of their approach to worship or missions (or whatever it is he’s talking about), he seems to think that what goes on at the church building is related to missions. It’s not. This is where he is confusing the mission of the church with missions. When the church gathers together for corporate worship, her duty (mission) is to worship God. It doesn’t matter whether it resembles something from the 50’s or something from the future (actually it does, but I’m only speaking in terms of the world’s perception of our worship for the purposes of this post – style is a whole separate post in and of itself). Missions happens when the people of God leave worship and go out into the world. The funny thing is, most people do not address their culture from a 50’s mindset. In other words, even if their worship service resembles something from the 1950’s, the software developer (or teacher, or nurse, or farmer, or CEO, etc…) does not approach his co-workers (or the coffee barista, or their kid’s little league coaches, or their next door neighbor, etc…) with this same mindset. They interact with them in a modern context.
This is precisely what’s happening in Acts 17:16-34. Paul is interacting with the culture as an individual. Of course, he was a missionary, so his approach is a bit different than if he was a software developer, and even more importantly, the context for what Paul is doing in the time between the resurrection and ascension of Jesus and before the destruction of Jerusalem (the creation of the church) is quite different from the church’s mission post A.D. 70, but we can still draw important principles from the passage that help us in our mission today. Regardless, though, it is obvious that what Paul is not doing is telling the local church that she needs to get with the times (unless, of course, you count that Paul is in the local synagogues preaching to the Jews and Gentile God-fearers, telling them to repent and follow Jesus), and here’s why: the church back in Paul’s day gathered together for the exact same reasons that she is supposed to gather together today – to worship God through corporate confession, singing, prayer, preaching and communion). Stetzer’s article seeks to convict churches about whether they love their past culture more than their current context. The problem is, churches need to first be convicted about not observing weekly communion or not singing the Psalms (both are commanded in the New Testament) before they worry about their music style. Why? Because these components of worship are what strengthen and equip the body to go out into the world to do missions. It’s backwards to think that we need to draw people into the church in order to reach them, and pouring all of our time, energy, money and resources into making church hip, “relevant,” or inviting is a waste – especially if you’re not doing the basics… the stuff that effects change.
But wait, you say. Doesn’t Matthew 28 (The Great Commission) teach us that missions is the mission of the church? Well, in one sense, I am having fun with the phrasing and have no problem saying that missions is part of the mission of the church – as long as it’s understood in it’s proper context. The thing is, most people – when quoting The Great Commission – jump immediately to verse 18 and bypass verses 16 and 17. It’s here that we find the context of Jesus’ commission: a worship service. It’s no coincidence that they gathered on a mountain top (worship always happened on a high place) and worshipped Jesus. This is what gave them the strength to be able to fulfill their commission. The commission came at the end – not in the middle or the beginning. The commission was not to bring the world to the mountain top in order to make disciples. The commission was to go into the world and make disciples – who would then come to the mountain top to worship their Lord as well.
2. Too many churches love their comfort more than their mission & 3. Too many churches love their traditions more than their children.
My response to the second statement actually incorporates Stetzer’s third and final observation, so I will go ahead and address both statements at the same time.
While I agree with the sentiment of Stetzer’s statement, what I want to point out is that he fails to recognize that this is an inherent problem within the current leadership of the broader evangelical, conservative, reformed community. What I’m talking about is the comfort of theological ideologies. One of the trends that I noticed long ago is the regurgitation of the same old views over and over again. There’s a staleness in the reformed evangelical community, and rather than seeking to move beyond it, we find our leaders patting each other on the back every time they write a book or an article saying the exact same thing the last guy wrote. This is not to say that there are not biblical truths that bear repeating – many times even. The problem comes when anyone offers a new thought or a different way of looking at a subject that doesn’t fit with the reformed tradition. For instance, in recent years N.T. Wright has been writing a lot of good stuff on justification, but because some of his conclusions do not necessarily coincide with the traditional reformed view (or, more appropriately, the traditional reformed view as it’s currently understood), many of our leaders have been calling “heresy” as loud and fast as they possibly can. The amusing part is that Wright’s exegesis, for the most part, is far superior to those who disagree with him. Admittedly, it’s hard to concede that your theological heroes or your beloved tradition might not be 100% correct across board, but it becomes even harder when the comfort of your doctrine is affirmed by all your in-house friends who refuse to honestly engage the issue and stand there with their eyes closed and their fingers plugging their ears while yelling “lalalalalalala… I can’t hear you!!”
If my criticism seems harsh, it’s because I’ve experienced this first hand a number of times in recent years, most recently when an online discussion started about the necessity of God’s wrath being poured out on Jesus on the cross. I proposed that maybe there was biblical warrant to think about this doctrine in a different way (after all, there are some orthodox denominations who reject this doctrine). I presented scripture passages to support my suggestion and then qualified my position by saying that I realized this was not a popular view, that I was not sure about it myself, and I would happily drop my little theological excursion if presented with some scriptural evidence that I might have missed. Alas, aside from one cry of “heretic!” I was completely ignored. The point to be made here is not whether I was right or wrong, but that any digression outside of the reformed comfort zone is met with harsh resistance. Stetzer make’s the point in his article that the church needs to be always reforming. The problem is that he narrowly defines this act of reformation as “humbly looking at itself and assessing its ability to reach people with the good news of Jesus.” I’m happy to include this within the larger scope of the term, but the historic foundation for “reformation” – at least in terms of the church – refers to fixing and maturing the church’s theology and worship. While it’s good to have strong boundaries around our doctrine, if the reformed church refuses to admit that she has a long way to go in her theological development, she will die. Of course, the biblical model for growth is death and resurrection, so perhaps what we need, and what is happening in the reformed community, is a death and resurrection toward a more mature church.