If the ecclesiocentric view of the church's mission tends to focus on the building and maintenance of the church then a proper theocentric view rightly focuses the church on the mission of God or missio Dei.
For the church to be a relevant instrument and faithful witness of the gospel, especially in the wake of Christendom's collapse; we must recover this God-centered understanding of the church's mission. The "mission" of the church is not reducible to simply maintaining the institutional church; it is not a program of the church, and it is not an activity that only occurs on foreign fields. The church is a body of people who are called together and sent by God into the world to represent His rule and reign: the kingdom of God. The church exists for the mission of God and not for itself!
My friend and pastor of Church of the King in Corpus Christi, Dave Lescalleet describes the in-breaking reign of God well when he says:
There is a great conversation in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings where Samwise is talking to Gandalf and he asks Gandalf a great question: "Will everything sad come untrue?" The Kingdom message is that Christ (because of his death and resurrection) is setting things right again - making everything sad come untrue.
In essence, the church bears witness to the in-breaking reign of God and serves as the instrument by which God is making "everything sad come untrue." There is an optimism that should naturally flow from the perspective that "our God reigns." (cf. Isaiah 52:7) Sadly, this optimism is, in my estimation, largely missing from the Evangelical church in America. Many Christians seem to live and think as if Christ has been overcome by the world rather than vice versa. (cf. John 16:33) Or that the gates of hell do indeed prevail against the church. Perhaps by recovering the biblical mission of the Church as participation in God's unrelenting reign; we can, once again, be a people who live as more than those who are simply surviving!
So, understanding that the church is not the kingdom of God but rather its ambassador; how does the church represent the mission of God in the world? The biblical narrative seems to outline a three-fold approach. One, the church demonstrates the reign of God within a distinct community; Two, the church serves the world by doing justice and meeting human needs through compassion and mercy thereby setting things right, and three; the church proclaims the message of the risen Christ as the only means by which one may enter the kingdom of God.
Given that "service" and "proclamation" are fairly self-explanatory, I want to focus on what I believe is both the church's greatest weakness and her greatest challenge: Demonstrating the reign of God within a distinct community. Because as George Hunsberger put it, "Before the church is called to do or say anything, it is called and sent to be a unique community of those who live under the reign of God." In a radically individualistic America, this may be the church's greatest obstacle to the missio Dei.
Jesus' invitation is to "enter the kingdom of God." Practically, this means that we are saved out of our individual isolation and alienation and into the community of faith. Recall that the Great Commission given by Jesus was to "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit..." (Matt. 28:19) Jesus is stressing the conversion of individuals through relationships (i.e. make disciples) followed by their being joined to the Body of Christ through baptism. There is a "corporateness" to the kingdom message.
Paul stresses that the Gentiles who were once alienated from "the commonwealth of Israel" (God's covenant people) have been brought near "by the blood of Christ" that "he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross." (Eph. 2:12, 13, 15) There is a corporate sense to God's redemptive plan that carries forward from national Israel to form a new covenant people (the church) out of both the Jew and Gentile into the new Israel.
At the conclusion of chapter two Paul writes, "Built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit." (Eph. 2:20-22) Again, the emphasis is on the corporate nature of God's redemptive plan.
One commentator writes: "The last verse…reminds the readers of the enormous privilege that they are part of this whole construction. They are incorporated in the building, the one universal church, which God makes his dwelling by the Spirit. And they are incorporated in it precisely by union with Christ, in whom all things are being brought into the cosmic harmony and peace enabled by reconciliation inaugurated at the cross."
This community is not merely the social gathering of a people with common values but rather a people who display proof of God's redemptive work in the world. This "proof" flows forth from converted individuals whose transformation is authenticated through their interaction with each other. This community, the church, is intended to bear testimony to the restoration of fellowship with God and each other—a community of self-sacrificing love and support that stands in stark contrast to the fallen world. Jesus himself established this as the authenticating fact of our faith when he said "By this all people will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." (John 13:35) Was this not the preeminent testimony of the first century church in which "they had all things in common?"
As Americans, we enter the church with nearly overpowering individualistic inclinations. We come with and cling to "expectations" and demands that are centered on ourselves. We want people to talk to us but we are unwilling to talk to strangers. We have a myriad of personal preferences that we impose on the church about worship styles, music and the like. We grade the pastor on whether or not he has met our needs through his sermon. And we certainly aren't interested in anyone getting in our business! We don't humbly submit to one another. We argue and divide over inconsequential issues. We attack those outside our theological framework and we rarely listen to those with whom we disagree. Often our attitudes and actions toward each other are shameful and bring disgrace on the name of Christ.
We simply do not fulfill this essential part of God's mission because we fail to demonstrate the reign of God within this authenticating community. If we don't get this right, our service will remain indistinguishable from any other and our proclamation of the risen Christ will appear shallow and without basis. If we want to be faithful witnesses to the King who has come and is coming again; we must repent of our self-centered individualism that thwarts the authenticating community of God's people and humbly submit to one another. Make it so, Lord!
S. Michael Craven is the President of the Center for Christ & Culture, a ministry of discipleship and Church renewal that works to equip Christians with an intelligent, thoroughly Christian and missional approach to culture. For more information on the Center for Christ & Culture, additional resources, and other works by S. Michael Craven visit: www.battlefortruth.org