The Mission of the Church: An Ecclesiological Question

We were pleased to host Christopher J.H. Wright at Southeastern Seminary last week as he delivered the annual Page Lectures. His theme for the lectures was “The Bible and the Mission of God,” which is an important and somewhat controversial topic among evangelicals. His two lectures were titled “Reading the Whole Bible for Mission: What Happens When We do?” and “God, Israel, and the Nations: The Old Testament and Christian Mission.” Both of his excellent lectures can be viewed on the multimedia page of the SEBTS website.

Wright is a prolific Old Testament scholar and missional theologian. He is the author of a couple of very important books on mission titled The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (IVP Academic, 2006) and The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission (Zondervan, 2010). In those books, Wright lays out a holistic understanding of mission that is rooted in the Bible’s grand narrative and that results in the final redemption of the cosmos. The church participates in God’s mission by proclaiming the good news of God’s salvation in Christ through word and deed in every sphere of life. In many ways, this view of mission is a continuation of the position advocated by John Stott in his classic book Christian Mission in the Modern World (IVP, 1975) and articulated by the Lausanne movement through the Lausanne Covenant (1974), Manila Manifesto (1989), and Cape Town Commitment (2011). (Stott was the principle author of the Lausanne Covenant, while Wright was the principle author of the Cape Town Commitment.)

Recently, Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert have offered a friendly critique of this understanding of mission in their book What is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission (Crossway, 2011). DeYoung and Gilbert are hesitant to define mission too broadly, preferring to focus on verbal proclamation of the gospel. They argue that Christians can and should engage in social justice ministries, but they don’t necessarily see this as being as crucial as evangelism. I may be misreading them, but I think they’re arguing that deeds complement gospel proclamation, but deeds aren’t mission in and of themselves in the same way as proclamation. While affirming a grand narrative reading of Scripture, DeYoung and Gilbert want to be clear that we not confuse what God and God alone does in his mission and what the church has been tasked with in her mission.

I’m going to go ahead and say what everyone already knows, but in my circles is mostly whispered in hushed tones. The aforementioned books (and many others I haven’t referenced) represent a massive debate among evangelicals that has simmered below the surface for several years and is just now coming to light, in part because of the publication and responses to What is the Mission of the Church? It is, for the most part, a friendly debate among substantially like-minded brothers-that’s the good part. But when it comes to the question of mission, there are at least two different tendencies present among inerrantist, non-Arminian, complementarian evangelicals, and these tendencies have the potential to become out-and-out factions. All you have to do is read Ed Stetzer’s review of What is the Mission of the Church?, the responses to Stetzer’s review, and the responses to those responses to see that there is at least the potential for significant controversy.

For my part, I’m not interested in offering a substantive review of the relevant books; plenty of folks have already done so, and from a variety of perspectives. Rather, I want to raise an ecclesiological question that I’ve been mulling over since I read What is the Mission of the Church? a couple of months ago (I’ve previously read Stott, Wright, and several of the other authors whom DeYoung and Gilbert critique). To what degree are representatives of the different tendencies talking past each other because they mean different things when they use the word church? To say it another way, to what degree is this a debate between folks who prioritize the church universal versus those who prioritize local churches?

Many representative voices of the “holistic mission” tendency are either Anglican (Stott, Wright) or intentionally non-denominational (the Lausanne movement). This stands in contrast to DeYoung and Gilbert, who are Reformed and Southern Baptist, respectively. As a general rule, Anglicans and interdenominational and/or parachurch evangelicals are referring to the wider body of Christ when they use the word church, whereas Baptists and at least some Reformed Christians are typically speaking of particular congregations when they use the term. Both believe in both the church universal and local churches, of course, but the primary emphasis tends to be on one or the other.

One reason I think this ecclesiological difference might factor into the mission debate is because, to my understanding at least, both tendencies are in about 95% agreement about what Christians ought to be doing. Both affirm, unequivocally, verbal proclamation of the gospel as the center of mission. Both agree that Christians should do justice and love mercy. Both advocate Christian cultural engagement. In other words, everybody agrees that both word and deed is part and parcel of faithful Christian living. And yet, we have this disagreement. Is it at least possible that Wright (to name just one example) is arguing that Christians in general-the church-should be about X & Y, while DeYoung and Gilbert are arguing that local congregations-the church-may engage in X & Y in different ways and to varying degrees? This seems to be the case to me.

By raising this question, I’m by no means minimizing real differences that are present within the various positions. It’s clear that there is a spectrum of evangelical opinions regarding the church’s mission, though again, I think the differences might seem at least somewhat wider than is really the case. But if we are to work toward any sort of consensus-and avoid factionalism-then we need to understand why different folks land where they do on this issue. I’m convinced ecclesiology has been under-discussed in reviews and other discussions of the key books on the topic. Perhaps as we ask what the church’s mission is, we would do well to be clear what we mean by the word church.

(Update: I’ve just learned that Collin Hansen wrote on a related topic yesterday for The Gospel Coalition.)

John Stott (1921-2011): Model Missional Pastor-Theologian

Yesterday, John Stott died at the age of ninety. Stott was one of a handful of men who helped bring about an evangelical renaissance in North America and the British Isles during the middle years of the twentieth century. Of that generation of giants, Billy Graham and J. I. Packer are the only two who haven’t yet departed to be with their Lord.

Numerous tributes have already been written about Stott; no doubt many more will follow. By God’s grace, he accomplished much for the kingdom during his long life. In this post, I want to focus on one aspect of Stott’s ministry that I hope continues to be replicated among my peers who are serving in pastoral ministry. John Stott was an exemplary model of a missional pastor-theologian.

Unlike his friend Packer, Stott never served as a professor in a theological college or seminary. Stott was a Church of England clergyman who served for thirty years on the pastoral staff of All Souls Church, Langham Place, London. He became a model for consecutive expository preaching, and along with his older contemporary (and sometimes rival) Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Stott helped bring about a renewed interest in expositional preaching among evangelicals. His ministry was also marked by a healthy marriage of intentional evangelism and cultural engagement, along with a burden that the gospel be preached to the uttermost parts of the earth. These emphases are reflected in the many books Stott wrote and the ministries he launched in the years following his retirement from full-time pastoral ministry.

Stott was a prolific author who wrote or edited fifty-two books and contributed hundreds of articles to other books and periodicals. Among his better-known books are numerous biblical commentaries, each of which evidence the fruit of his own expositional preaching ministry. Most of his commentaries were published in IVP’s widely used The Bible Speaks Today series; Stott edited the New Testament volumes. Along similar lines, he also wrote an excellent preaching textbook, Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today (Eerdmans, 1982). No serious preacher of God’s Word should leave this book unread.

One of his most influential books is Christian Mission in the Modern World, first published in 1975. In 1974, Billy Graham convened a meeting of 2700 evangelical leaders in Lausanne, Switzerland for an International Conference on World Evangelization. Stott delivered a plenary address and chaired the committee that drafted the Lausanne Covenant, one of the most important documents produced by evangelicals in the past half century (read Stott’s commentary on the Lausanne Covenant). Christian Mission in the Modern World further expounds upon the vision of the Lausanne Covenant by arguing for a vision of missions that weds bold proclamation and sacrificial service, the Great Commission and the Great Commandment.

Stott continued to be a leading advocate of global missions in the years following his retirement in 1975. For example, he founded Langham Partnership International, known as John Stott Ministries in the USA. Langham Partnership is a ministry devoted to serving Christians in the Majority World through training pastors in expositional preaching, translating and distributing evangelical literature, and providing scholarships for gifted Christian scholars to pursue advanced theological training. He also continued to link missions with Christ-centered cultural engagement, especially through the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, which Stott founded in 1982.

Stott also taught two generations of Christians about the gospel. His book Basic Christianity, first published in 1969, is considered an evangelical classic. I’ve met several individuals who either came to Christ of were first taught the core beliefs of the Christian faith through this important book. Undoubtedly his most important theological book is his classic The Cross of Christ, first published in 1986. The Cross of Christ is a robust defense of penal substitutionary atonement, a doctrine that Stott well understood is at the heart of the biblical gospel. Stott challenges the ever-popular notion that alternative models of the atonement (some of which are also biblical) should replace the biblical truth that God’s just wrath against human sin was poured out on Jesus Christ when he offered himself as our sinless substitute.

John Stott was by no means perfect. I strongly disagree with his sympathies for annihilationism and I’m not convinced he was right in his famous debate with Lloyd-Jones on the question of whether or not evangelicals should separate from the Church of England (I go back and forth on the latter). Nevertheless, on the whole I believe Stott is an excellent role model for young pastors who desire to wed expositional preaching with a commitment to global missions and cultural engagement. I pray the Lord will raise up a new generation of pastors who will write books, articles, and blog posts that help the church reflect on these issues. There would be no more appropriate way to honor John Stott, a brother who was arguably the most important missional pastor-theologian among evangelicals in the last fifty years. Thank God for his life and ministry.

Engaging Exposition (19): The Work of Exposition: Structuring the Message

Engaging exposition requires the preacher of God’s Word to develop a comprehensive and structured method for moving from his study notes and research to the completed sermon. John Stott says, “the golden rule for sermon outlines is that each text must be allowed to supply its own structure.”* An effective teacher of the Word of God recognizes the wisdom of honoring the substance and structure of the text. What he says should be faithful to the text as well as obvious from the text both to himself and to those he instructs.

I want to suggest ten basic and related steps to follow. These steps will develop and be true to our short definition of expository preaching: “Christ-centered, text-driven, Spirit-led preaching that transforms lives.” They will also be true and develop our more full description of biblical exposition:

Expository preaching is text driven preaching that honors the truth of Scripture as it was given by the Holy Spirit. Its goal is to discover the God-inspired meaning through historical-grammatical-theological investigation and interpretation. By means of engaging and compelling proclamation, the preacher explains, illustrates and applies the meaning of the biblical text in submission to and in the power of the Holy Spirit, preaching Christ for a verdict of changed lives.

1) Let your exegesis drive and determine the structure of your message.

2) Have as many major points as the text naturally demands.

3) Make sure your major points and sub-points clearly and naturally flow out of the text. Be able to see your outline (or movements) in the text.

4) State your points in complete sentences that are application focused connecting them to the sermon title, MIT and MIM.

5) Make your sub-points connect with the major points that they support.

6) Look for the theological truths the text clearly supports and develops.

7) Cover and fill the skeleton outline with the meat and marrow of your exegesis.

8) Add to your expository content the supporting accessories of introduction, conclusion, application and illustrations.

9) As you hone the finished product, make sure there is balance, symmetry and cohesion to the message as a whole.

10) Practice reading your text repeatedly (and out loud), remembering that it is a sin to read God’s Word poorly.

In “A Treatise on Christian Liberty” Martin Luther throws down the gauntlet and gives us some final words in this chapter to guide us and inspire us:

Let us then consider it certain and conclusively established that the soul can do without all things except the Word of God, and that where this is not there is no help for the soul in anything else whatever. But if it has the Word it is rich and lacks nothing, since this Word is the Word of life, of truth, of light, of peace, of righteousness, of salvation, of joy, of liberty, of wisdom, of power, of grace, of glory, and of every blessing beyond our power to estimate.

Preaching the Word of God for the glory of our Savior and the good of His saints – this is an essential component for healthy churches in our day. It is an essential component for healthy churches in any day.

* John R. W. Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 229.rpg online mobile game