v. The Missional Vocation of the Church (continued)
The final way in which the church participates in the mission of God is as a bearer of it. That is to say, the call of the church is not only to receive God’s mission by faith, nor simply to pre-figure it in its own life, but also to extend that mission to its neighbors and to the whole of creation, in the very particular time in which it finds itself (Matt. 28). In the word we proclaim, our intention is not only to nurture the life of the church, but also to speak to the deepest questions of our time. This means that one of the central theological tasks of the church is to identify and understand the central questions of our own age. In the worship we enact, our intention is to bring joy to God, not only by making Him our highest good, but also by reminding our neighbors that He is their highest good as well. This means that one of the central liturgical tasks of the church is to hold the reality of God and His new kingdom before the eyes of our neighbors. In the welcome we extend, our purpose is not only to heal the loneliness of ourselves and of our brothers and sisters in the church, but also to bear God’s hospitality to our neighbors. This means that one of the central communal tasks of the church is to invite and embrace its neighbors into its life. In the work that we do, our purpose is not only to care for ourselves, but also to bring God’s restorational care to creation. This means that one of the central vocational tasks of the church is to labor to bring God’s redemptive purposes to bear in the callings that God has given us. Thus the calling of God is for the church—through the ordinariness of its life—to not only receive the mission of God, nor to become mere foretastes of it, but also, by the Spirit, to take it up and bear it into the heart of the world.
This vision of the missional vocation of the church helps us to guard against two tendencies that diminish both the meaning of the church and the integrity of its mission.
The first of these tendencies is a church-less mission. By God’s kindness there are many, many of His people in the world who have been enthralled with the beauty of His redemptive mission to the world. They rejoice in it in their hearts, practice it in their homes, instantiate it in their friendships, and pursue it in their vocations. And yet it remains the case that for many of these people—too many—this pursuit of the mission of God is fundamentally detached from the institution of the church. For some, this detachment from the church is rooted in the deeply sad but historically manifest experience that the church—rather than being an instrument of God’s mission—is, in fact, often an obstacle to it. For others, this detachment from the church is less experiential and more deeply ideological—growing out of both the individualism and anti-institutionalism of late modern culture. But for all, the net effect is that the work of the mission of God is understood as something fundamentally distinct from the life of the people of God. The strength of this perspective is that it prioritizes, in a general sense, the purposes of God, and rightly grows impatient with any person or institution that obstructs those purposes. But its weakness is that it fails to see that God’s purposes are inexorably bound to the church; that the church is neither an abstract idea, nor an aggregate of individual redemptive aims, nor a merely utilitarian instrument to be taken up or set aside at will, but the very body of God—united to Him by faith in Jesus Christ, indwelled by His Spirit, and on mission with Him together in the world. And by neglecting this reality, those who embrace a church-less mission inadvertently refuse from God the very gift He has given to bear his purposes into His world.
The second of these tendencies is a mission-less church. God has given the church to the world as a bearer of His mission of love. And by His grace, many churches have, for centuries, taken up this mission with faithfulness and joy. And yet it is now broadly understood that many, many Christian churches—too many—exhibit a life apparently unrelated to the restorational mission of God. They have simply and sadly come to define their lives in some other way. Some, influenced by the paradigm of fortification, have begun to see the work of their church not as mission to the world, but as purity from it. Others, influenced by the irrepressible rationale of the market, seem to see their work fundamentally as the purveyance of religious goods and services. And still others, tragically bereft of anything meaningful to say and of anyone to whom to say it, have come to define their work in the most self-interested manner possible: as the mere preservation of their own institutional past. These churches have forgotten that their identities consist—not in fleeing the culture, nor in satisfying consumers, nor in perpetuating institutional identity—but in participating in the great redemptive mission of God. And as a result, they not only deform the dignity of the church—which has been given such an extraordinary role in this mission—they also hinder the mission itself.
Over and against these reductive ecclesial visions, we must remember that it is by the church that God continues to extend himself through the Spirit to the world. Because of this, we must encourage both those who embrace the church-less mission and those who inhabit the mission-less church to recover the missional vocation of the church.
vi. In Sum
If the church in our time is to be a community of faithful presence, we must—in the midst of all of our various confessional commitments—recover these five theological foundations. Without them, the call to faithful presence will simply remain unintelligible to us. The enduring goodness of creation grounds us in the fact that our work is not elsewhere, but here—among both the spiritual and material dimensions of God’s world in all its particularity at the start of the twenty-first century. The pervasive nature of sin reminds us that this creation has been broken in every respect—not only in the guilty heart, but also in the corrupted world—and that our redemptive responsibility is to engage both of these. The expansive scope of the gospel leads us to remember that Jesus’ intentions for the world are comprehensive in breadth and restorational in nature, calling us to labor for the renewal of every part of creation. The deep meaning of union with Christ reminds us that because of the gospel, we now live in with Christ—sharing in His righteousness, participating in His work, and delighting in His presence. And the missional vocation of the church reminds us that is through the Spirit-shaped people of God that God extends His redemptive mission into the world—and not through some other means.