Understanding the mission of the Church today

Craig Kraft / Thursday, June 30, 2016

As Christians read the headlines in the news, it becomes evident that modern western society is on a perilous slide of moral degeneration.  Trinity Western University law students will not be allowed to practice law in some Canadian provinces because of the biblical position the university has taken on sexuality and gender.[1]  The Supreme Court in the United States of America has legalized homosexual marriage in all fifty states.[2]  Canadian lawmakers legalized doctor-assisted euthanasia[3] to join abortion as legal rights for individuals to become the masters of life and death.  Such decisions are not made in a moral vacuum.  Rather, a morality which was shaped in the past, primarily by the influence of Scripture and tradition, is now being reshaped through the lenses of personal experience and a scientific base of reasoning.[4]  These decisions are not merely the result of a change in how people feel about these subjects but are the reflection of a worldview which has abandoned the authority of God’s Word and the traditions of western civilization. 

This new worldview has significant implications for culture in North America and around the world.  Young Christians are conflicted between what they learn at church and what they learn in school.  Churches and denominations are challenged to be “politically correct” or lose parishioners. Adult Christians are pressured to change their beliefs or be considered homophobic, bigots, or just irrelevant.  Immigrants to North America, who seek citizenship, are confronted with pledging allegiance to a nation which has espoused values that oppose their own religious or moral beliefs.[5]  The world wrongfully looks at these changes in the west and makes the assumption that these are the values of Christianity.

            The church in North America needs an anthropologically informed theology of mission.[6] Society is changing, and culture is evolving with it.  The church needs a strong voice to be heard among the confusing sounds of modern culture; a voice that will echo forward into this culture with a message that is consistent through the ages and yet relevant to the times.  Society does not need a new campaign to put The Lord’s Prayer back in schools and the Ten Commandments on the wall of a courthouse.  I believe that they need to get back to basics. They need to learn how to pray for themselves, and they need the law of the Lord written on their heart (Lk. 11:1-13; Ps. 19:7).

            This essay will present a theology of mission that is grounded in Scripture and culturally relevant to modern North American society.  It will focus on how followers of Christ relate to the Missio Dei and how they minister to the culture in which they live today.  It will conclude with practical recommendations for the church as she relates to secular society as described above.  

Missio Dei

            Drs. Arthur Glacier and Charles van. Engen contend that every portion of Scripture, from creation to revelation, reveals the mission of God to consummate his Kingdom with fallen, but not forgotten, mankind. “The whole Bible, both Old and New Testaments, is a missionary book, the revelation of God’s purpose and action in mission in human history.”[7]

          In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth and took that which was “formless and void” (unsuitable for man) and transformed it into a place of order, beauty, and sustainability.  He placed man there in a place called Eden (Delight).  He said that it was “very good.”  God and man shared a special relationship in the garden until Adam and Eve willfully broke their relationship with God by disobeying his command.  From that time forward, God has been on a mission to restore the relationship which once was. This is his mission, the Missio Dei. He is establishing his kingdom.  From his curse on the serpent in Gen. 3:15[8] to the covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and the New Covenant, God has not wavered from his mission to restore his relationship with fallen man and to establish his Kingdom.  There is no Christian mission apart from God’s mission.  The church and every Christian mission agency on the planet exists to participate in the mission of God; to join him in the task of reconciling the nations to himself.

            God accomplishes his mission by sending people on mission.  We could see them as missionaries.  God the Father sent his one and only Son to be the incarnation of himself here on earth (Jn. 1:1-18).  Jesus is the supreme messenger of God in word and deed.  He shows us that the way to fellowship with the Father is through the Son (Jn. 3:16; 14:6-7). After Jesus had concluded his ministry on earth, he promised to send the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4-8).  Jesus said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses…” (Acts 1:8).  Jesus is announcing that he is sending the Holy Spirit to empower his disciples to become apostles.  Their role will change from being followers to being proclaimers or witnesses of Jesus.  In Matthew’s gospel it is clear that the followers of Jesus are commissioned to, “Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations…” (Mt. 28:19).  As the Father sent the Son, the Son sends the Spirit, and the Spirit empowers and sends the church.  Later in the book of Acts, Luke records the missionary journeys of Paul.  Luke introduces Paul and Barnabas’ first missionary journey by telling the story of how the church at Antioch was worshipping and fasting when the Holy Spirit told them, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2).  A couple of verses later he writes, “So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down…” (13:4), and that signifies the beginning of the missionary era of the church.


Not of this world but in this world

            We have seen that the mission is God’s and that it is he who calls believers and the church and sends them out with a commission.  How then are followers of Christ to minister to a society where the culture has intentionally marginalized God and made efforts to mute his voice in the fields of ethics and morality?  Many Christians have segregated themselves away from society claiming that “we are to be in the world but not of the world.”[9]  It becomes the justification for living out the Christian life with little contact, influence, or presence in the secular arenas of society.  This is not what Jesus taught or modeled.

In John 17 we have a record of Jesus’ high priestly prayer.  The theology of this prayer is rich, and it helps us to see the mission of the Father as it is passed on through Jesus to his followers.  Jesus recognizes in this prayer that he is sent by The Father.  Knowing that his time on earth will end soon, He prays, “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world” (Jn. 17:14).  We must not make the mistake of stopping here and concluding that followers of Christ should not be a part of this world for Jesus goes on to say, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one… As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (Jn. 17:15&18). Christians are not of this world, but they are definitely sent by Jesus to be his witnesses in it.  Further, they have the assurance that Jesus has petitioned on their behalf for protection from the evil one.

          Peter brings understanding to what it means to be “not of this world.”  He describes a believer’s new citizenship when he refers to followers of Jesus as “sojourners and exiles” in the world (1 Peter 2:9-12).  In his epistle to the early followers of Jesus, Peter reminds them that they are a holy nation that belongs to God, they are not to live as citizens of the world but as citizens of God’s kingdom. Believers live in this world, but it is not their home.  They are sojourners and exiles here; migrant people who are passing through for a time but it is not their permanent home.  Believers must live as good citizens in their temporary home, but their ultimate loyalty is to The Kingdom.  God has made the church his sojourners here so that the world will have the opportunity to be exposed to the incarnational presence of Christ in his people, in order that “they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12).[10]

The church is not of this world, but Jesus makes it clear that his followers’ co-mission with him is in this world.  Post-Modern North America is not the first culture to be hostile toward Christianity. The culture into which God sent his son was hostile toward the truth.  They killed the messenger.  Things did not improve over the next generations--church history records that most of the apostles were martyred.[11]  Into the early church age, the culture of the day rejected Christianity and frequently put to death any who would speak out against the religion of the day.[12]/[13]  When we look at the culture of North America in the twenty-first Century we see a culture which is actually much friendlier toward Christians than at many other times and places in history. 

Today Christians must hold fast to the timeless truth of the Gospel: God is building his Kingdom, He sent his son to make a way for man to be reconciled to himself (Jn. 3:16), Christ died on the cross, was buried, rose again, and was seen by many (1Cor. 15:3-8), and then he ascended to Heaven, where he is seated at the right hand of the Father (Mk. 16:19). The core of the Christian worldview is the gospel and the authority of Scripture.  This cannot be compromised in modern culture.  However, we can contextualize our message and methods of evangelism to fit our times.

People desire religion.  Michael A. Rynkiewich defines religion for us: “Religion is a set of beliefs and practices that function to help people make sense of the world, answer life’s questions, and deal with life’s problems.” He goes on to state that religion usually includes a cosmology, explanation of spiritual power, rituals associated with demonstrating belief, and structure for the perpetuation of those beliefs.[14]  Thus, everyone seeks to accept or construct some form of beliefs to help them understand the world around them.  Christians have an opportunity to live out their faith in a way that draws people toward the story of God.  Jesus taught many things, but when asked what the greatest of all the commandments was, his answer was simple: “Love the Lord your God… and love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt. 22:36-40).  In a similar passage in Luke 10, Jesus is asked a follow-up question, “And who is my neighbor?”, to which Jesus responds with the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan and the injunction to “go and do likewise” (Lk. 10:29-37). 

Modern missions in North America could do well with a bit of cultural deconstruction. Paul G. Hiebert writes, “We must be careful to proclaim the gospel, not our culture.  We must also speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15).”[15]  Much of what repels unchurched millennials from the church today has nothing to do with the gospel and everything to do with protecting a culture, tradition, and way of life that the church is comfortable with.  The church is often judgmental to people who do not look and act like the Christians who have been in the church for most of their lives.  The doors of the church stand wide open for anyone who can fit through them, but the passageway has become fairly narrow in many church traditions, and few can fit through until they have shed all their worldly baggage.

Modern Christians struggle with secular society because they feel they have been called to convert their neighbors.  They miss Jesus’ main point: that we are to love our neighbors.  This changes the way we approach those with a different worldview.  Rather than viewing them as potential converts to be won over by our careful handling of Scripture and good apologetics, Jesus wants us to love them. 

“Biblical love is not superficial sentiment. It is a deep commitment to be for the other.  We affirm the full dignity of others as humans created in the image of God and care enough to confront them when we believe they are wrong. Above all, we must continue to point people to Christ as the way, the truth, and the life.”[16]


Believers have struggled with this for a long time; even our professional missionaries have sometimes missed the mark.  Early in the last century, missionary E. Stanley Jones had a conversation with Mahatma Gandhi and asked him what he would suggest to make Christianity more acceptable to the people of India.  Gandhi responded with four observations:

1. “I would suggest first that all of you Christians, missionaries and all, must begin to live more like Jesus Christ.”

2. “I would suggest that you must practice your religion without adulterating or toning it down.”

3. “I would suggest that you must put your emphasis upon love, for love is the center and soul of Christianity.”

4. “I would suggest that you study the non-Christian religions and culture more sympathetically in order to find the good that is in them, so that you might have a more sympathetic approach to the people.”[17]

It is troubling to think that a Hindu guru of the 1900s had a better understanding of Christianity than many modern believers. 

Many of the people who fill Christian churches in North America today know a lot about Jesus, but they do not know him.  The emphasis in many churches has been on proper doctrine.  Good theology and doctrine are important, but they are not the gospel.  Jesus is the gospel.  It is time to throw wide the church doors and invite people to meet Jesus. 

Modern Christians will do much better at connecting with society if they keep their message centered on Jesus, but many are afraid.  They want to attack what they see as a negative culture.  Christians wonder what will happen if they simply love and accept those people who are radically different from them.  What if these new people start coming to the church; will they fit in? What if they want to start their own Bible study groups, cell churches, or disciple-making movements?  What if, before they have become “fully mature” in the church, they start witnessing to their friends and family; might they promote heresy?  People are afraid that this could change the culture of the church.

Writing about a contextualized gospel for India, Jones says: “If some are afraid of what might happen if we were to give India Jesus without hard-and-fast systems of thought and ecclesiastical organization, lest the whole be corrupted, let our fears be allayed. Jesus is well able to take care of himself.”[18]

Richard Twiss, a missiologist among the First Nations people of North America was addressing the same concern regarding what would happen if Native Americans had the message of Jesus and were given freedom to work out what their faith and worship should look like in their own context.  He writes:

“Christian Native people have been given the Spirit of the Lord, bringing power, love, and a sound mind (see 2 Tim. 1:7). Nevertheless, for far too long they have been taught to be afraid of their own culture. I am firmly convinced that if our hearts beat with the Father’s heart to reach lost people, if we walk in council with wise brothers and sisters, if we remain humble, then even if we do inadvertently cross the line, the Holy Spirit is big enough and sufficiently powerful to correct any possible errors and to transform our worst blunders into the best wine for the feast (see John 2:1-11).”[19]


Upon this Rock I will build my church

            In Matthew 16:18 Jesus says, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”  Believers do well to remember who’s church it is.  The church is Christ’s, and the same spirit who raised Jesus from the dead is the spirit of the church who unites the church (1 Cor. 12:13), empowers the saints (Acts 1:8), and gives gifts to the church for her growth, edification, and worship (Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:8-10; Eph. 4:7-16).  As we let go of some of the cultural and traditional rigidity that has been a characteristic of the modern church, then we must trust the Holy Spirit to guide those whom he has gifted and empowered to lead her in a way that is contextually relevant.  This does not mean that we cast away our symbols and texts, but rather that we allow the meanings of those things to be preserved in new forms.  An example of this may be seen in baptism.  Over the past few centuries, it has become the tradition of most churches to conduct their baptisms inside the church building.  Both immersion and affusion are deeply meaningful symbols that are highly revered as an ordinance or sacrament of the church.  Many newer expressions of church are taking baptism out of the building and placing it back in the community.[20]  This new form preserves the old function but allows it to be a visible testimony to those outside the church.

            The Missio Dei is reaching the world with the gospel of Jesus so that all the nations of the world may have the opportunity to know and follow Jesus Christ.  A Christian worldview must be grounded on the Authority of God’s word, contextually understood to be relevant in modern culture.  Christian forms and traditions should not be discarded, but they should be measured, and when possible, their meanings should be preserved in new expressions which may more adequately express God’s intent in modern society. 

            Those who have adopted a worldview that is based on experience, culture, and reason, may not be won over to Christ through moral judgment, exceptional ecclesiology, or innovative new evangelism programs.  But, they may respond if Christians introduce them to Jesus by living out the agape principle; loving one another as Christ has loved us.  The church today is changing, but her message and mission remain the same.  She may have new instruments, darker sanctuaries, creative outreach, services on Saturdays, bigger kitchens, and pastors who don’t wear suits and ties, but their prayer has remained the same.



Lord of the Harvest, Hear

By Charles Wesley

Lord of the Harvest, hear Thy needy servants cry;

Answer our faith’s effectual pray’r  And all our wants supply.


On thee we humbly wait; Our wants are in thy view.

The harvest truly, Lord, is great; The laborers are few.


Convert and send forth more Into Thy Church abroad;

And let them speak Thy word of pow’r  As workers with their God.


O let them spread Thy name, Their mission fully prove;

Thy universal grace proclaim, Thy all redeeming love!

(Wesley, 1982: 95)





Bibliography of Works Cited

Gertz, Steven. “How Do We Know 10 of the Disciples Were Martyred?” Christian History.com, August 8, 2008. Accessed July 29, 2015. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/asktheexpert/sep23.html.

Glasser, Arthur F., and Charles Edward van. Engen. Announcing the Kingdom: The Story of God’s Mission in the Bible. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2003.

Hiatt, R. Jeffrey. “Anthropology For Christian Mission - Class Notes,” Asia Graduate School of Theology, July 20, 2015.

Hiebert, Paul G. Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 1994.

Jones, E. Stanley. The Christ of the Indian Road. United Methodist Publishing House, 1924.

Liptak, Adam. “Supreme Court Ruling Makes Same-Sex Marriage a Right Nationwide.” The New York Times, June 26, 2015. Accessed July 26, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/27/us/supreme-court-same-sex-marriage.html.

Rynkiewich, Michael A. Soul, Self, and Society: A Postmodern Anthropology for Mission in a Postcolonial World. Eugene, Or.: Cascade Books, 2011.

Twiss, Richard. One Church, Many Tribes. Ventura, Calif: Regal, 2000.

“List of Christian Martyrs.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, June 29, 2015. Accessed July 29, 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=List_of_Christian_martyrs&oldid=669215745.

“Persecution in the Early Church - Christianity History Persecution.” Accessed July 29, 2015. http://www.religionfacts.com/christianity/history/persecution.

“Supreme Court Says Yes to Doctor-Assisted Suicide in Specific Cases.” Accessed July 26, 2015. http://www.cbc.ca/1.2947487.

“Trinity Western Law School Accreditation Denial Upheld by Ontario Court.” Accessed July 26, 2015. http://www.cbc.ca/1.3136529.



[1] “Trinity Western Law School Accreditation Denial Upheld by Ontario Court,” accessed July 26, 2015, http://www.cbc.ca/1.3136529.

[2] Adam Liptak, “Supreme Court Ruling Makes Same-Sex Marriage a Right Nationwide,” The New York Times, June 26, 2015, accessed July 26, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/27/us/supreme-court-same-sex-marriage.html.

[3] “Supreme Court Says Yes to Doctor-Assisted Suicide in Specific Cases,” accessed July 26, 2015, http://www.cbc.ca/1.2947487.

[4] These concepts of Scripture, Tradition, Experience and Reason were expressed as part of the Wesleyan Epistemology as presented by: R. Jeffrey Hiatt, “Anthropology For Christian Mission - Class Notes” (Asia Graduate School of Theology, July 21, 2015).

[5] Both Canadian and American Citizenship proceedings require the public reciting of a pledge of allegiance to the nation – Canada: Oath of Citizenship - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oath_of_Citizenship_(Canada)

USA: Oath of Allegiance - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oath_of_Allegiance_(United_States)

[6] It is important to note that theology is constructed by individuals as they seek to understand the message of Scriptures.  Hiebert reminds us that there are three checks against theological error: Scripture itself, the Holy Spirit, and the Church. - Paul G. Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 1994), 30.

[7] Arthur F. Glasser and Charles Edward van. Engen, Announcing the Kingdom: The Story of God’s Mission in the Bible (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2003). 17.

[8] The curse of the serpent in Gen. 3:15 includes the promise that the woman’s offspring will “crush” or “bruise” the serpent’s head.  This is a reference to the eventual work of Jesus on the Cross when Satan (the serpent) was defeated.

[9] Many Christians have improperly paraphrased Jesus’ teaching in John 17 with the familiar slogan, “We are in the world but not of it.”

[10] Similarly Jesus calls his followers to be salt and light in the world stating, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in Heaven.” Mt. 5:13-16

[11] Steven Gertz, “How Do We Know 10 of the Disciples Were Martyred?,” Christian History.com, August 8, 2008, accessed July 29, 2015, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/asktheexpert/sep23.html.

[12] “List of Christian Martyrs,” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, June 29, 2015, accessed July 29, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=List_of_Christian_martyrs&oldid=669215745.

[13] “Persecution in the Early Church - Christianity History Persecution,” accessed July 29, 2015, http://www.religionfacts.com/christianity/history/persecution.

[14] Michael A Rynkiewich, Soul, Self, and Society: A Postmodern Anthropology for Mission in a Postcolonial World (Eugene, Or.: Cascade Books, 2011). 135.

[15] Paul G. Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues, 73.

[16] Ibid.

[17] E. Stanley Jones, The Christ of the Indian Road (United Methodist Publishing House, 1924), 118–120.

[18] Ibid., 166.

[19] Richard Twiss, One Church, Many Tribes (Ventura, Calif: Regal, 2000), 83.

[20] As one example, two of my sons were baptised in public services at the local beach in front of hundreds of community members who were not from the church.  This is truly a public declaration of faith and a testimony to the community.



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