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The Church in Post-Christendom: Recovering the Mission of the Church

March 31, 2008
S. Michael Craven
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If the ecclesiocentric view of the church’s mission tends to focus on the building and maintenance of the church then a proper theocentric view rightly focuses the church on the mission of God or missio Dei.

For the church to be a relevant instrument and faithful witness of the gospel, especially in the wake of Christendom’s collapse; we must recover this God-centered understanding of the church’s mission. The “mission” of the church is not reducible to simply maintaining the institutional church; it is not a program of the church, and it is not an activity that only occurs on foreign fields. The church is a body of people who are called together and sent by God into the world to represent His rule and reign: the kingdom of God. The church exists for the mission of God and not for itself!  

My friend and pastor of Church of the King in Corpus Christi, Dave Lescalleet describes the in-breaking reign of God well when he says:

There is a great conversation in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings where Samwise is talking to Gandalf and he asks Gandalf a great question:  “Will everything sad come untrue?”  The Kingdom message is that Christ (because of his death and resurrection) is setting things right again - making everything sad come untrue.

In essence, the church bears witness to the in-breaking reign of God and serves as the instrument by which God is making “everything sad come untrue.” There is an optimism that should naturally flow from the perspective that “our God reigns.” (cf. Isaiah 52:7) Sadly, this optimism is, in my estimation, largely missing from the Evangelical church in America. Many Christians seem to live and think as if Christ has been overcome by the world rather than vice versa. (cf. John 16:33) Or that the gates of hell do indeed prevail against the church. Perhaps by recovering the biblical mission of the Church as participation in God’s unrelenting reign; we can, once again, be a people who live as more than those who are simply surviving!

So, understanding that the church is not the kingdom of God but rather its ambassador; how does the church represent the mission of God in the world? The biblical narrative seems to outline a three-fold approach. One, the church demonstrates the reign of God within a distinct community; Two, the church serves the world by doing justice and meeting human needs through compassion and mercy thereby setting things right, and three; the church proclaims the message of the risen Christ as the only means by which one may enter the kingdom of God.

Given that “service” and “proclamation” are fairly self-explanatory, I want to focus on what I believe is both the church’s greatest weakness and her greatest challenge: Demonstrating the reign of God within a distinct community. Because as George Hunsberger put it, “Before the church is called to do or say anything, it is called and sent to be a unique community of those who live under the reign of God.” In a radically individualistic America, this may be the church’s greatest obstacle to the missio Dei.

Jesus’ invitation is to “enter the kingdom of God.” Practically, this means that we are saved out of our individual isolation and alienation and into the community of faith. Recall that the Great Commission given by Jesus was to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit...” (Matt. 28:19) Jesus is stressing the conversion of individuals through relationships (i.e. make disciples) followed by their being joined to the Body of Christ through baptism. There is a “corporateness” to the kingdom message.

Paul stresses that the Gentiles who were once alienated from “the commonwealth of Israel” (God’s covenant people) have been brought near “by the blood of Christ” that “he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross.” (Eph. 2:12, 13, 15) There is a corporate sense to God’s redemptive plan that carries forward from national Israel to form a new covenant people (the church) out of both the Jew and Gentile into the new Israel.
At the conclusion of chapter two Paul writes, “Built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” (Eph. 2:20-22) Again, the emphasis is on the corporate nature of God’s redemptive plan.

One commentator writes:  “The last verse…reminds the readers of the enormous privilege that they are part of this whole construction. They are incorporated in the building, the one universal church, which God makes his dwelling by the Spirit. And they are incorporated in it precisely by union with Christ, in whom all things are being brought into the cosmic harmony and peace enabled by reconciliation inaugurated at the cross.”

This community is not merely the social gathering of a people with common values but rather a people who display proof of God’s redemptive work in the world. This “proof” flows forth from converted individuals whose transformation is authenticated through their interaction with each other. This community, the church, is intended to bear testimony to the restoration of fellowship with God and each other—a community of self-sacrificing love and support that stands in stark contrast to the fallen world. Jesus himself established this as the authenticating fact of our faith when he said “By this all people will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35) Was this not the preeminent testimony of the first century church in which “they had all things in common?”

As Americans, we enter the church with nearly overpowering individualistic inclinations. We come with and cling to “expectations” and demands that are centered on ourselves. We want people to talk to us but we are unwilling to talk to strangers. We have a myriad of personal preferences that we impose on the church about worship styles, music and the like. We grade the pastor on whether or not he has met our needs through his sermon. And we certainly aren’t interested in anyone getting in our business! We don’t humbly submit to one another. We argue and divide over inconsequential issues. We attack those outside our theological framework and we rarely listen to those with whom we disagree. Often our attitudes and actions toward each other are shameful and bring disgrace on the name of Christ.

We simply do not fulfill this essential part of God’s mission because we fail to demonstrate the reign of God within this authenticating community. If we don’t get this right, our service will remain indistinguishable from any other and our proclamation of the risen Christ will appear shallow and without basis. If we want to be faithful witnesses to the King who has come and is coming again; we must repent of our self-centered individualism that thwarts the authenticating community of God’s people and humbly submit to one another. Make it so, Lord!

© 2008 by S. Michael Craven

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Response from : Bob Geiger  

March 31, 2008 9:58 AM

If Christ has but one body, is it visible or invisible? Is the head of the Body of Christ visible or invisible? If my brother trespasses against me to whom do I go and why?

Response from : Helen Cary  

March 31, 2008 4:47 PM

Good job! It is so true that the "Christian" world has gotten so far away from the true mission of the church. I think it all boils down to one thing.
Matthew 28
19Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in[a] the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."

If the body (the church) does that (all of that) then we are doing God's will on earth until he comes again.

Response from : Don  

April 3, 2008 6:29 PM authentic community of believers. Visually I see a ranch without fences where the believers roam together but continue to invite the nonbelievers to mingle with the herd.

If too many nonbelievers show up, does the church get any less authentic? I think not as long as the authentic community holds on to its roots.

Response from : Eric Baesel  

April 10, 2008 1:19 PM

I am starting to think that the Church should be more actively and strategically involved in its communities - invested in the health/growth/wellbeing of the community in which the church (and usually thereby its members) is located. By being so invested in the community, the church is tied to the successes and failures of the city or neighborhoods around the church. In return, the community recognizes the church and its members as charitable, hard-working people committed to the bettering of the city.

What I have trouble thinking through is how to lose my individualistic mindset in doing these good deeds. If I join a group from my church in a service project within our city, I look at this as a missional act and something that is a good thing to do. But I am not necessarily made any closer to the others in my church group just by participating. And unless we wear "Anytown Bible Church" t-shirts to the workday, we're not identified as an organization. I can do a hundred such good deeds without building the community of believers in our church or building good will for the church in the city.

What is needed is a new paradigm, in which the church sees activity in our community as a vital and necessary expression of the Gospel. Then maybe sending workers out is less about having an opportunity to do a good deed that day (or rather my church providing me with such an opportunity for me to do something nice for others, giving me a good feeling) and it becomes more about redefining how we “go to church” - we work together in our community. If Anytown Bible Church is characterized by its good deeds – a real-world representation of the kind of God-love we preach - that should draw people to it or at least make its message more relevant/acceptable to the people in Anytown.

If participation in these kinds of good deeds were somewhat compulsory to be a member at Anytown Bible Church, I could imagine a genuine sense of “togetherness” being created. Although, I am uncomfortable at the thought of trying to force group participation in good deeds – as this seems like trying to legislate what must be a change of heart/mind in order to truly achieve the type of Christian community we desire. So the desire to do good works must spring naturally from people who are being transformed by the renewing of their minds – which means that Anytown Bible Church must be also about truly discipling its members toward spiritual maturity (i.e. Christlikeness) and not simply toward gaining salvation and/or living a harmless, good life.

Our church was involved in relief efforts following Hurricane Katrina. I might even say a majority of members were involved in some aspect of the effort. It resulted in building a better sense of church identity and personal responsibility to serve the church’s mission. But unfortunately, this sense has dissipated since the relief efforts ended. Our church continues to offer mission opportunities and community service projects, but I wouldn’t say that there is a shared sense of obligation to participate as a member of this church.

In contrast, is there something to be gleaned from the sense of community that people experience as fans of their favorite sports team? When college football season rolls around, I identify myself as a USC fan. I wear cardinal and gold on gameday. I identify myself with other Trojan football fans on web boards and sports bars if I go to watch a game. I live in north Texas, a long way away from southern California, so I look forward to gathering with other USC fans where I can find them. There is a real camaraderie that comes with being a fan of the team. We come from every walk of life and social class but demonstrate a kind of unity for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon. I look forward to flying back to California for the homecoming game for all of the celebrations and pageantry that accompany the day. What’s more, I didn’t attend USC (I went to private Christian college that didn’t have a football team) but my father and brother did. So I adopted the team and traditions as my own.

How do we generate the same sense of identity and community in the Church? I don’t mean to be glib, but since building the Kingdom of God is worth far more than winning a championship, how can we ignite the same passion that some feel putting on their football jerseys as a people clothed with garments of salvation, arrayed in robes of righteousness, delighting greatly in the Lord, rejoicing in our God? (Isaiah 61:10)

Response from : John Brown  

April 14, 2008 11:17 AM

Michael Craven's article on "Recovering the Mission of the Church" is significant because of it's focus on "the greatest weakness and the greatest challenge of the Church: Demonstrating the reign of God within a distinct community."

Michael has hit the nail on the head when he suggests that the solution lies, not so much on our outreach, as in how we relate to one another within that community. Our Lord Himself, as revealed in the only prayer that we have of His for the Church that was to come, asks three times for only one thing, and it is that "they may be made perfect in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and have loved them even as You have loved Me."

But why are we suprised that "We come with and cling to “expectations” and demands that are centered on ourselves. We want people to talk to us but we are unwilling to talk to strangers. We have a myriad of personal preferences that we impose on the church about worship styles, music and the like. We grade the pastor on whether or not he has met our needs through his sermon. And we certainly aren’t interested in anyone getting in our business! We don’t humbly submit to one another. We argue and divide over inconsequential issues. We attack those outside our theological framework and we rarely listen to those with whom we disagree. Often our attitudes and actions toward each other are shameful and bring disgrace on the name of Christ."

Why are we suprised that the making of disciples works. Have not the sheep become as their shepherds, the disciples as their teachers, and the servants as their masters?

"It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher, and the slave like his master." Matt 10:25

The Church in America is exactly like it's pastors and teachers because "It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher."

I believe with all of my heart that there is a great multitude within the Church of America that are waiting, while crying out to the Father, for Christ-like leadership to come forth and show them the way.

Response from : Mike  

May 2, 2008 1:28 PM

This is a great article that is timely as our church reflects on it's current identity, purpose and mission. May we be one in corporate character collectively displaying the love of God and the holy and perfect reign of God in our community. Lord help us to understand what this should look like. Thanks Michael, for your insight.


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