Frustrated By The Mission: A Review of “The Mission of the Church” by Greg Gilbert and Kevin DeYoung

Greg Gilbert and Kevin DeYoung are concerned that their new book is going make them seem like they are against helping the poor. I think it’s a legitimate fear. The Mission of The Church is out to offer a balance to the “social justice” mania and hype that is sweeping the church, but it often does feel very down on helping the poor. The authors themselves, of course, are not. I have had the pleasure of knowing Greg for several years now; he was my pastor in Louisville while I attended seminary. I know he would do all that he could to help a person in need, and he would absolutely encourage others to care for the needy as well. The book offers good encouragements at various times to do these things as well, it is not all one-sided. And yet, I found myself often frustrated by the conclusions that the authors drew as they worked through the various so-called “social justice” texts of the Old and New Testament. In the end, however, it’s hard to argue with their exegesis. And so my continued frustration made me wonder: why does this bother me? I wonder if the answer isn’t found in our sometimes arrogant assumption that we will change the world for Jesus, instead of receiving that gift from Him. While I don’t agree with all that the author’s say I am challenged by their call to humble ministry.

What is the “mission of the Church”? It’s the question that dominates, as the title makes clear, this work. How you define that makes all the difference and Gilbert and DeYoung want to define it clearly according to what Scripture articulates. While the authors agree that concern for the oppressed, needy, and poor is important they believe that the “mission of the church,” technically defined is limited to the proclamation of the good news and the making of disciples. They write:

In short, we will argue that he mission of the church is summarized in the Great commission passages – the climactic marching orders Jesus issues at the ends of the Gospels and at the beginning of Acts. We believe the church is sent into the world to witness to Jesus by proclaiming the gospel and making disciples of all nations. This is our task. This is our unique and central calling. (25)

Whatever else Christians are called to do, they say, this simple statement is what marks the “mission of the church.” At one level I don’t have any real problem with this. Gilbert and DeYoung want to draw the focus of many young evangelicals back to the centrality of the death and resurrection of Jesus. They write:

You cannot proclaim the “full gospel” if you leave out the message of the cross, even if you talk for an hour about all the other blessings God has in store for the redeemed. (107)

I could not agree more. The emphasis on the centrality of the good news to the mission of the church is one of the major strengths of this book! That being said it is the insistence by the authors that social concerns are not also a part of that “mission” which bothers me.

Here is where I think DeYoung and Gilbert are offering a different paradigm than someone like Tim Keller, whose book Generous Justice seems to view social concern and evangelism as two sides of the same coin called “making disciples.” That phrase, “make disciples” is crucial to our understanding of the “mission of the church.” The authors offer no official definition of “make disciples,” which is a shame I think. For this is really the crux of my frustration. For if what it means to be a disciple is to do “justice,” to care for the poor, etc. then to “make disciples” would seemingly include doing these things. Our making of disciples is helping people to live out what it means to be a disciple daily. So when Jesus says that we are to “make disciples” by baptizing and teaching them to obey all that Jesus taught, then the church’s missions must also include doing justice. Here is where I part ways with Gilbert and DeYoung, and yet I still very much love this book. This book challenges me and I believe that the challenge it offers towards the “missional/cultural engagement” community is vital to the health of our churches and Christians.

It is evident that the authors have a real burden to relieve some of the guilt brought on by this new trend towards Christian “social justice.” They write:

We want Christians freed from false guilt – from thinking the church is either responsible for most problems in the world or responsible to fix these problems. (22)

All their writing aims to put the burden of ministry first on gospel proclamation and discipleship. And where our responsibility in caring for the needy and poor depends on the principle of moral proximity (183). But the bulk of the book aims to work on the other side of this equation too, that is that Gilbert and DeYoung want to promote humility among the missional-minded.

With language like “build the kingdom” and “expand the kingdom” and an attitude of “changing the world,” the authors worry that some of us have misunderstood the concept of God’s transforming power. Their contention is that the Kingdom of God is a gift given by Jesus to His disciples. It is not something we accomplish, it is something He does. They write:

Mission statements like “Transform the City and World” and “Change the City, Change the World” express a commendable desire, but simply go too far beyond what the Bible tells us we should expect to see in the world during this age, before Jesus returns. (129)

The new heavens and the new earth are not something that we build for ourselves out of the ruins of our fallen world. They are a gift of God to his redeemed people. Christians do not build the holy city, New Jerusalem, from the ground up; it doesn’t rise from the ashes of Babylon (Revelation 18-19). Rather, it comes down from heaven (Revelation 12:12), a gift of God to his people. It is “the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). And thus it is the one seated on the throne who takes the glory for this new creation: “Behold,” he declares, “I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5). (206)

Whether you agree with all the details of the book or not this is an important reminder for all of us.

It is often that I find younger evangelicals most excited about the transformation of the world, most motivated by the agenda of social justice, and most passionate about their good works. Gilbert and DeYoung point out the place for all these things, and even if I will take issue with some of their paradigm, I believe their call to humility is crucial for the health of the church. If we are not most passionate about King Jesus, about being with Him, introducing Him to others, and making His glory known then we have a skewed view of the gospel and the mission of the church! If for no other reason than the fresh perspective on humble ministry I commend this book. After all if the way they describe the mission frustrates some of us, it might be because they point out that the mission is not all about us…and that’s a good frustration to expose.

Update: For more on this subject you might check out the following interview.

Comments

  1. thank you for your thoughts on this. i was trying to find a critique of the book that didn’t simply shower praise on the book for attempting to correct an evangelical “obsession” with the poor. their observations about who indeed it is that is building the kingdom were good, and i am thankful for quite a bit of what they wrote, but i felt just a bit on-edge with much of it, too. i agree with you, their failure to define “making disciples” is unfortunate. you are right, their exegesis is hard to argue with, but i did feel they were trying to use their exegesis to prove something (if that makes sense…). unfortunately the presentation/tone of the book seems that it will attract readers who already agree with what the authors believe (check out the amazon reviews) which is sad because i do think there could be good discussion from many of the issues they raise with those who have been drawn to the more extreme/culturally motivated side of the social justice issue.

    thank you!

  2. Thanks for your comment, Kate.

    I think you’re right about the book attracting largely those who already agree. The tone of the book isn’t as inviting towards the “missional” group as I would have hoped a book on this subject would have been. I don’t doubt that the authors tried to be inviting, and they were very gracious, but the tone of the work is strong. Hopefully a few key missional thinkers will read it and engage in some thoughtful conversation with Greg and Kevin. I know I would learn a lot from that. I am actually hoping that someone more kin to the missional movement but not far from the author’s positions, like Tim Keller, Ed Stetzer, or Christopher Wright, will identify if and where they disagree with the book. That would generate some good, healthy discussion I think.

    Thanks again

    • Hm.. Just a wandering reader passing through; I have not read this book but enjoyed your review. It’s easy to be “against false guilt;” Newt Gingrich will agree with that. I would be interested to hear more about this “principle of moral proximity.” What are these authors’ qualifications for church leadership?

Trackbacks

  1. […] this burden and no longer sees this as an issue. Recently Greg Gilbert and Kevin DeYoung wrote a book in which they specifically address this subject, stating that social justice is not part of the […]

  2. […] and broad sense of the mission. Check it out and and check out my review of both Keller’s and Gilbert and DeYoung’s books. LD_AddCustomAttr("AdOpt", "1"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Origin", "other"); […]

  3. […] posted some of the general criticisms regarding the book, highlighting different reviews (including mine, which is gracious of him). Later, he states, he will post his own review of it. This is an […]

  4. […] continues to be a fascinating and important discussion. Greg Gilbert and Kevin DeYoung’s book added to the discussion earlier this year, but it has been going on and continues to go on. […]

  5. […] much about Greg Giblert and Kevin DeYoung’s response to this bent, even if I didn’t agree with all that they said in their book. But apparently some key theologians at Westminster […]

  6. […] activism and cultural engagement. I actually do believe that “social justice” is part of the mission of the church. I believe Christians ought to engage the world around them fully, but there is a huge qualifier to […]

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