Guest Column: What Is the Mission of the Church?
Dr. Glenn Packiam is an associate senior pastor at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, and lead pastor of one of its eight congregations, New Life Downtown. A Senior Fellow at Barna Group, a visiting fellow at St. John’s College at Durham University, and an adjunct professor at Denver Seminary, Glenn is the author of several books.
This blog represents his opinions, interwoven with new Barna data fielded for his latest work, The Resilient Pastor.
What is the mission of the Church? We can hardly agree on the answer. It seems to be another thing that divides us. And in the past few years, there have been plenty of things to divide over.
In January of 2021, 54 percent of America’s pastors said pastors in their city were “not really” or “not at all” unified. It’s hard enough to be going through a complex set of crises—to list a few, COVID-19, political idolatry and racial hostility—but it’s even harder when each crisis creates division and confusion.
In many other times of difficulty, Christians have rallied around each other. Both national crises—like 9/11—or church-specific crises—the moral failure of the founding pastor over 15 years ago as well as the shooting that happened on our campus after an 11am service over 14 years ago—come to mind. Each crisis was a catalyst for coming together. People worshipped, prayed, served and gave sacrificially. Everyone knew it was a time for solidarity.
What has made the past few years particularly challenging is that these crises have not led to our coming together but rather our coming apart.
Divided by Mission?
It is against this backdrop of division and tension that we see an old split over the mission of the Church in a new light.
For more than a century, the Protestant church in America has struggled to agree on its central mission in the world. In the early 1900s, pastors and theologians such as Walter Rauschenbusch advocated a view of sin that was social and material and thus a vision of salvation that was as well. But because of the tendency of such voices to also reject pillars of creedal orthodoxy, their reading of the gospel came to be viewed as liberal.
Such critiques were not without merit. But the reaction created an opposite error. Theological conservatives came to focus on atonement, honing in on personal sin and God’s forgiveness. For all the good things that came from the emphasis on personal faith and repentance, the unintended consequence was how that emphasis was framed as being over and against any social or material dimension of the gospel. Thus, to confess Jesus as the only way to the Father or to stress the need for repentance or to believe in the atoning death of Christ on the cross.
In a recent study conducted by Barna for The Resilient Pastor, we discovered that the split in priorities falls along broad denominational lines. When asked to rank a list of missional priorities, U.S. pastors list church priorities in this order: Sharing the gospel with non-Christians locally (72%), local poverty (58%) and caring for the elderly and widows (53%). But a closer analysis reveals a deeper divide.
Over four in five mainline church pastors (86%) rank local poverty most highly as their church’s missional priority compared to half of non-mainline church pastors (48%). Meanwhile, sharing the gospel with non-Christians locally was the top priority for 83 percent of non-mainline pastors compared to 37 percent of mainline pastors.
Given this data, what possible path forward exists for the Church?
Our starting point has to be Jesus. The mission of Jesus is how the mission of God took on flesh. And the mission of God is to put his world back together, to return shalom to the cosmos—a world made whole, a world that is flourishing and filled with the glory of God.
How does God bring shalom to the world? Through righteousness and justice.
The psalmist said that righteousness and justice are the foundation of God’s throne. The reign of God rests on his righteousness and justice and results in the shalom of the world. We might say that the mission of God is to extend the reign of God—the Kingdom of God—in the world.
As the Messiah, Jesus is the Kingdom-bringer. He announced and inaugurated the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. In the ministry of Jesus, we see the embodiment of righteousness and justice—healing the sick, restoring the outcast, forgiving sins and suffering in our place for our unrighteousness and injustice.
But it does not stop there. Luke, who records Jesus announcing a sort of missional manifesto in Luke 4, also wrote the Book of Acts in which we see the story of the Church running parallel to the story of Jesus. Just as Jesus was the “anointed one” (Christos in Greek), so the followers of Jesus are called “little anointed ones” (Christians; see Acts 11:26). That means that the mission of God continues through the people of God by the power of the Spirit of God. Now that we have been put back together, we can join Jesus in His work of putting the world back together. As N.T. Wright often says, justice is done by the justified.
The Church becomes not simply the agents of the mission, but the embodiment of the mission in their life together. This is why the unity of the Church is itself part of the mission of the Church. The Church is to be a Kingdom community, a model of what it looks like when Jesus is King: a place where the hungry are fed, the sick are healed and cared for, walls of division are broken down, and more.
The mission of the Church is the mission of Jesus empowered by the Spirit and embodied in its life as a community. The church is where the reign of God is expressed, announced, and extended outward into the world.
If ever there were a time to recover a Kingdom vision of mission, it is now.
If the unity of the church is itself part of the mission of the church, then it is worth returning to the challenge of disunity mentioned at the start. There are, of course, other threats to the unity of the church—the differing definitions of racism (only 33 percent of white Christians think there is a race problem in America compared with 82 percent of Black Christians), the syncretism of nationalism (73 percent of pastors are at least somewhat concerned about “Christian nationalism”), and more.
But unity does not happen by focusing on it. It flows from a shared identity in Christ. And it is shaped by a shared mission, the mission of Christ.
Feature image by Chichi Onyekanne on Unsplash.