What is the nature and mission of the church? This is a huge question, but we can start to answer it by envisioning the church in two ways: as a people who are called out and sent out. Sadly, our focus is often exclusively on being called out, with little attention paid to being sent out. But Christ both calls and sends the church. In order to truly embrace our identity in Christ, we must also embrace His mission.
The English word church is translated from the Greek ecclesia, which literally means “called out.” In the Greek version of the Old Testament, ecclesia was translated from the Hebrew qahal — those called out of the world and into covenant with God. In the New Testament, ecclesia refers to believers in Christ as a unique people and their local assembling together.
In Ephesians 4, Paul highlights various aspects of Christ’s calling out of the church, imploring the Ephesians to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called” (v. 1). First, this calling consists of being members of one body, enlivened by one Spirit, sharing one hope, serving one Lord, holding one faith, experiencing one baptism, and being fathered by one God. Second, this calling demands a pursuit of unity with those who share the call in humility, gentleness, patience, tolerance, and love (vv. 2-6). Third, walking worthy includes each member utilizing Christ’s gifts so the church grows up to be like Christ (vv. 7-16). Finally, walking worthy means casting off the futile thinking of the world, being renewed in mind, and putting on the new self, modeled on God’s love in Christ (vv. 17-32—5:20). Thus, Christ’s call brings forth new life, identity, attitudes, and actions.
However, “called out” does not encompass Christ’s entire word to the church. Rather, He calls the church out of the world to redeem her, and sends her back into the world with the message of redemption. God is on mission to redeem and re-create all things and has co-missioned the church to join Him. In order to truly “walk worthy” of the calling, we must embrace the call to be sent out.1
With striking clarity, Christopher Wright notes, “It is not so much the case that God has a mission for his church in the world, as that God has a church for his mission in the world. Mission was not made for the church; the church was made for mission — God’s mission.”2
We can see God on mission: calling Abram (Genesis 12:1-3), commissioning the Israelites to be a light to the Gentiles (Psalm 67; Isaiah 49), and, chiefly, sending the incarnated Christ (John 1:1-13) and forming the church (Acts 2:7, 8). So integral to Scripture is God’s mission that Darrell Guder says the New Testament’s primary purpose “was the continuing formation of already missional communities for faithful and obedient witness.”3 As the church, our mission derives from God’s mission as “God’s incarnational action in history provides the church the content of its witness and defines how it is to be carried out.”4 What God has done through Christ on earth provides the template for what Christ is doing through the church on earth.
A concentration on only being called out results in a view of salvation focused exclusively on the “savedness of the saved.” However, by acknowledging that Christ also sends out, we avoid this self-centered emphasis on the attaining and maintaining of individual salvation and “the benefits the person receives from the gospel.” Instead we embrace our apostolic mission.
The Greek word apostolos literally means “sent ones.” It refers not only to the twelve apostles but also to all those who would follow Christ and receive His co-missioning to take the gospel into the world, making disciples for Him until the end of the age (Matthew 28:18-20). As the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus sends His disciples (John 20:21). This sending is to complete God’s mission of redemption and re-creation in answer to sin and death.
Ambassadors for Christ
A careful reading of 2 Corinthians 5 illustrates what it means to be sent out by Christ. Paul envisions Christ sending His citizens as ambassadors back to the dark kingdom from which they were redeemed (vv. 14-21; cf. Colossians 1:13, 14). As Christ’s ambassadors, our motivation is love, our evidence is new creation, and our message is reconciliation.
The love that compels mission is not ours but Christ’s (2 Corinthians 5:14). Thus the church is placed in the world on a mission and as a mission, rather than simply being called away from the world as a refuge. Reggie McNeal highlights the contrast:
A refuge approach to ministry involves . . . an approach to culture that attempts to insulate against it, to withdraw, to adopt a sectarian mentality. . . . mission, on the other hand, seeks to interface with culture, to build bridges to the culture for the sake of sharing the heart of God with the people of that culture.5
Those who choose a “withdrawal-reactionary” refuge mentality see God as angry and withdrawn from non-Christians and believe they should be angry and withdrawn as well.6 But Christ’s compelling love transforms us from refuge to mission mentality. We realize God truly loves the world, having already reconciled Himself to the world. All that remains is for them to be reconciled to Him (2 Corinthians 5:18-20; cf. John 3:16).
If love motivates mission, new creation verifies it (2 Corinthians 5:16, 17). “People want to see spiritual power demonstrated by transformed lives expressed in community. . . . Love expressed through community still transforms people and creates an attractive and compelling invitation for others to join up.”7 Thus the new creation community of the church is inherently missional. In a pluralist and relativist world, the gospel at work in the church is compelling evidence where modernistic apologetics are inadequate. In Jesus’ words, the world will know we are His disciples by our love and unity (John 13:35; 17:23).
While love provides the motivation and new creation the evidence, the message of reconciliation still requires skill to communicate in post-Christian culture. “Come-and-get-it evangelism and marketing strategies” are no longer effective in a world disinterested in what is happening at church.8 Missional ministry is not about developing an evangelism program but cultivating an evangelistic heart. From the place of evangelistic love, the message of reconciliation can be effectively shared in both word and deed. Scott Jones reminds us, “To evangelize non-Christian persons without loving them fully is not to evangelize them well. To love non-Christian persons without evangelizing them is not to love them well. Loving God well means loving one’s non-Christian neighbor evangelistically and evangelizing one’s non-Christian neighbor lovingly.”9
Loving in word and deed is a biblically based evangelism model (Matthew 5:14-16; Romans 12; Colossians 4:5, 6; Titus 2; 1 Peter 2:11, 12). Our post-Christendom context calls us back to loving in word and deed as we reenter a world in which Christianity no longer dictates culture. New and varied methods, grounded in Scripture, are needed to connect with our culture. McNeal reminds us that “It was the religious elite who were out of touch with the people. . . . The Pharisees exegeted texts; Jesus exegeted life.”10 We too are called to exegete life in culturally sensitive ways for our postmodern world.
The church is both “called out” and “sent out.” We may not claim one without the other; the gospel of Christ demands both. McNeal puts it bluntly, “God is on a redemptive mission, and those who do not join him disqualify themselves as his true followers. . . . People enter the kingdom of God when their hearts are captured by the heart of God. Then, transformed from the inside out, they become salt and light to help the world taste and see that God is good.”11
As we embrace our identity as the “one body” of Christ, let us remember that Christ not only calls us out of the world but also sends us back in on mission.
- Darrell L. Guder, “Walking Worthily: Missional Leadership After Christendom,” The Princeton Seminary Bulletin Vol. 28, No. 3 (2007), 251-291.
- Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 2007), 62.
- Darrell L. Guder, “The Church as Missional Community,” The Community of the Word: Toward An Evangelical Ecclesiology, ed. Mark Husbands and Daniel J. Treier (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2005), 117.
- Guder, Missional Community, 126.
- Reggie McNeal, A Work of Heart (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2000), 89. Italics mine.
- Ibid., 86.
- McNeal, 87.
- Scott J. Jones, The Evangelistic Love of God & Neighbor (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 21.
- McNeal, 79.
- Ibid., 69.
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