What Is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission

In the lead article on the Kingdom misunderstood parts one and two, we have been suggesting that while the church is at the heart of the kingdom but is not as broad and wide as the kingdom, it has a unique role to play in making kingdom disciples. Sadly, not many churches have clearly come to grips with their mission within the kingdom. This causes the church to lose its focus, to become derailed, and extremely confused and frustrated regarding its role. Then there are those who believe that the church’s mission is determined by man and not God.

There are those who genuinely believe that the church’s primary role is to seek to have a social transforming role, or to become the champions for social justice, or the place where all energies and resources should be directed at what we call mercy ministries. What is the church and what is the church supposed to be and what is it to do? In working with church leaders over the years, particularly in strategic planning, it has not been unusual to find many of those churches struggling with those kinds of issues. What is our mission? We cannot do everything so what should we be doing? Those are often heard questions at those times.

Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert have tackled the assignment to come to grips with and define the church mission. DeYoung should be no stranger to you. He has written and we have reviewed some of his writings such as: Just Do Something, Why We Are Not Emergent, Why We Love the Church.

As the previous book by Gary Gilley suggests, so does this book— the church has and continues to be losing its focus or objective. It is being knocked of course, distracted, using its resources for some good things but things that are not necessarily what God has primarily assigned to the church. They write, “We’ve been arguing in this book that the mission of the church is best defined not by a charge to engage the world’s social structures in an effort to build the kingdom or join God in his work of remaking the world, but rather by the Great Commission that Jesus gave to his followers, just before his ascension-that is, verbal witness to him and the making of disciples.” In other words the primary mission of the church is through proclamation and teaching of the Word to make disciples. The church’s role is not changing culture but to preach and teach the Word of God to the end of making people to be more and more like Jesus.

The marks of the true church are not seen in the starting of hospitals, or running shelters for the homeless, or picketing or lobbying for social justice. While those may be things that Christians should do and support, that does not equate with defining the mission of the church. Proclamation, witness, and disciple making best define the church’s mission. Those must have priority and if some of the other things suggested above are included in the church’s life, referring to the institutional church, they must be justified as supporting its primary mission of disciplemaking.

That is what we are attempting to say in the lead article in this issue. God’s one kingdom with the church at the heart of it, is only effective as each part does its work. If Christians are to promote things like social justice, feeding the homeless, providing for the needy, they do so in the name of Christ, not the institutional church. They write, “if you think the church’s mission is to build a better, more just world, then of course the church must be involved, in some way or another, in increasing the social, economic, and political well-being of its city’s citizens…” but they go on to say, “If that is what you believe (regarding the church’s mission) then you’re actually defaulting on the mission if you are not doing things that work toward that goal.”

The real challenge comes is being willing to ask and answer these questions: what is the church’s mission? What will best further that mission? Is social transformation of the world the church’s assignment? Are there some good things that the church could do but maybe should not in light of its mission?

The challenge for church leadership, to use their words, is to keep the main thing the church’s main thing, and what is that? Making disciples, preaching Christ and him crucified, equipping the saints for their work in ministry both in and out of the church. D. A. Carson echoes my thoughts clearly, “This is the best one (referring to the church’s mission) if you are looking for sensible definitions, clear thinking, readable writing, and the ability to handle the Bible in more than proof-texting easy.”

Not only would this book be an excellent read for pastors and church leaders, its ten chapter layout would lend itself to a good book to read, study, and discuss with the adults in the church. It is really a book about Christian living as well as one that helps define and clarify the church’s mission. The truth is we cannot do every good thing that could be done and we want to do what God wants us to do and to do it well.

Charles Dunahoo pastored churches in Georgia and Alabama before being called to his present position as Coordinator for the PCA of Christian Education and Publications (CEP).

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