The refrain from an old song says: “Two out of three ain’t bad.” But would this be true for a church, or a Christian, who incorporates 2 out of 3 of the core values: Gospel, Community, Mission?
Consider these thoughts, framed as a mathematical equation:
Gospel + Community – Mission
If we have a Gospel Community, without the mission or ‘sent’ aspect in our DNA, then we become a church that is all about ourselves. We may love the gospel, and love that the good news has impacted our minds, and even desire to live that out with other people like us. But living as ‘sent ones’ to our neighborhood seems too difficult. When this happens a Christian ghetto surrounds the church, and an “us vs them” mentality is created. This misses the entire point of the “go” in Christ’s great commission. (Matthew 28.17-21)
Such communities of believers are often very good at living as gospel families. They take care of each other well: they provide for one anothers’ needs, and they draw very close to one another. But the lack of engagement with the world, and and absence of multiplication, is vividly evident. Sometimes such an inward focus is even worn as a badge of honor, since it may be believed by our isolation we are not being ‘polluted’ by the world.
Such communities usually have a heavy emphasis on bible studies, men’s groups, women’s group, children’s programs, etc. The groups will usually have an “open invitation” to those on the outside. But because they don’t believe they are “sent” to their community, they rarely see disciples made of the un-churched people around them. Numerical growth typically comes from like-minded people moving into their area, or through having children, or stealing the members from other churches that may offer fewer activities or which may be going through some turbulent times. Rarely will they be faced with the general public pushing into the Kingdom, because they never engage general public with the gospel message outside the walls of their church building.
The overall goal is usually to prompt a great understanding of the Word and theology, but it is often intellectually gluttonous and missionally starved… because the reason for the Word and theology is to drive us to glorify God and show us our role in God’s redemptive drama. If it’s not being used towards that end then it’s being misused.
Gospel + Mission – Community
When we have a firm grasp of the gospel and believe we are the ‘sent ones’ of God but don’t prioritize community, we will end up producing disciples in our own image instead of Disciples who follow Jesus. While zeal for God’s glory and His mission may be evident, these new disciples won’t understand that by starving themselves and others of community they wind up distorting the image of Jesus and His gospel message.
Christians who fail to recognize the value of community love online services, video/home church, and church hopping – or may not even gather as a church at all. They like to ride solo, perhaps, because they have been so disappointed in the past with the church and her wrinkles – maybe especially if they have seen a weakness in mission. Such Christians tend to speak highly of their personal relationship with Christ, but end up ignoring Jesus’ instructions of relationships, and clear biblical teaching about church leadership and structure. They miss out on the understanding that the church family is not here to be perfect, but exists as one of God’s tools to make us more like Jesus. In our sins, struggles, and successes, we learn much about ourselves, our communities and our God. If we decide to pursue mission without a community, we can mutate from a “sheep without a shepherd” into shepherds that neglect the flock of God, leaving our communities open for wolves to devour.
Without a community around us, who will call us out on our sin? Who will walk alongside us? Who will aid us in our struggles as fallen humans? In all these things we are not to pursue perfection, but to pursue Jesus who is our perfection. It is through shared experiences of frustrations, faults, and fruitfulness that we are made more like Jesus.
Paul tells us that this comes from the body of Christ and that they will carry our burdens. (Galatians 6) Not only that, but Paul tells us plainly that we cannot tell other members of Christ’s body that we have no need for them. (1 Corinthians 12) Just as our bodies are fallen and become sick with disease, Christ’s body, the church, can likewise suffer sickness and disease. Therefore, when you put your hope in a community of believers, you will be disappointed because they are not perfect. But, just as you don’t discard your biological body when it is weak and broken, neither should we we discard the Body of Christ. Just as we do not disown our biological brothers and sisters when they disappoint us, neither should we disown the family of God.
Someone who has the gospel and mission, but lacks community, will be lacking the power of God. He/She will lack the tool of God’s intended influence in their lives. And, ironically, in the end will really have no mission because he/she will be portraying a distorted gospel. And what happens if people start to follow them? Will they tell their new ‘disciples’ to go away because they don’t need to be in community?
Community… Family… the Body… This is necessary for Kingdom building – IF Jesus is the King. Solitude, seclusion and isolation will only build your own kingdom, where you are the king. Such individualism leads right back to the Garden, where Adam and Eve bought into – or bit into – the serpent’s promise that they could be their own gods.
Two points to consider:
- From the very beginning of the Story, we see that God was to be reflected through community, not merely through individuals. When God called Abraham and his family to be the means by which He would renew the world, God used a family, a community of people, to accomplish that end. God’s purpose has always been to fulfill His mission through a family of people.
- Jesus makes clear in John 17 that the best tool we have to engage in mission is the Christian community living together as family. As Leslie Newbigin said many years ago, the church as a community is a “hermeneutic of the Gospel” through which the message of the gospel will become intelligible.
Community + Mission – Gospel
Sadly, some believe – or live as if they believe – that the mission of the Church is merely to exist as communities of ‘sent ones’ working to usher in the Kingdom. They don’t proclaim what I see as the fully developed, Biblical gospel. They embrace only the lowest common denominator… just the fruits of the good news that Jesus can bring people from death to life. The culture loves these kinds of communities because they often care for the broken, the downtrodden, the sick, the poor, the widow and the prisoner. No doubt their acts of service are ones that are needed in our culture. But while they desire to be helpful, and/or ‘relevant’, in their neglect they offer little or no eternal hope. They may put most of us to shame when comparing their good deeds to ours – and most of us would do well to learn from these types of Jesus-followers – so we should not too readily dismiss them. However, such Christians and such churches must learn to embrace the full, theologically sound, Biblical gospel, in order for their communities and mission to reach their full potential.
But here is an important question: Why do such communities of believers do their good works? It is often because of what they understand Jesus has done for them, so that they might have a greater hope. This is commendable. But if they don’t offer that good news to those whom they help they are not really helping. It would be like a cancer survivor going back to the hospital, and instead of giving the cancer patients the cure for their cancer they give them Tylenol to mask the pain.
The gospel mission is NOT trying to replicate what Jesus has done by helping the broken and outcast. Rather, the gospel mission is the showing AND the telling of the good news of all Jesus has already accomplished, and seeing disciples formed by the power of that message. We are NOT to try and be the gospel, we are to tell others of the gospel – the Good News – and then live out the effects and implications of the gospel in our lives. Doing good works without speaking about the good news is like putting a bandaid on a bullet wound.
Without the proclamation of Jesus’ death and resurrection, though some good works seem very pious, they are actually a form of spiritual abuse. If people do not learn to trust the finished and greater work of Jesus for their eternal souls, then any justice done on their behalf is only temporary. It does not usher them into the enjoyment of the New Creation. If a mom fed a child cookies for dinner every night, she would not be caring for her child’s long term health. A child might be happy for the evening because they got cookies, and this happiness might last for years, but overall the mom is abusing the child because she is not giving the child a balanced diet for his well-being.
Doing good works without gospel proclamation will give people a picture of the Kingdom of God without its true substance – and without it’s true King. Such a message is missing true life, the one which comes from partaking in Jesus’ death and resurrection.
This error has historically been an overreaction to the first group, which cares about the gospel and community but not the mission. Many gospel-deficient believers do help the community in many ways, and we can learn from them in this regard. However, removing the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection from our mission is like removing the engine from a car: it may look nice but it won’t take anyone anywhere.
We have to be the people of God, affected by the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection that brings us from death to life, not only in our past and future, but right now in the midst of our sanctification. We have to be so affected by the gospel that we desire to live this out with others whom God has put in His family as our brothers and sisters because of the death of His perfect Son on our behalf. God has always wanted a people for Himself to call “family” that would reflect his image to others. Because of his Son, we can be that family, that People, that lives our lives for his glory to show others what he is like.
We know that we will not live this out perfectly, and we will continually battle our tendency to overemphasize one or two of the components we discussed above the others. However, we do know that we have a perfect One in heaven Who is the gospel; Who made us His Body and gave us the Comforter; Who is the very Power living inside us (in the person of the Holy Spirit) to be the sending force of the church.
May we do this all for the glory of our God. And may our mission in all this be under the authority of the risen Christ, to do what he called us to do: make disciples who make disciples.
My thanks to Seth McBee whose original work I have edited and built upon.