In the first part of this series I addressed the changing cultural context in which the contemporary American church exists by contrasting historic Christendom with today's post-Christian culture. I argued that despite the obvious eclipse of Christendom, the American church still largely operates under the old assumptions of Christendom. Practically, this means that we continue to function as if Christianity still occupies a central and influential place in society.
These assumptions have produced a church-centered or ecclesiocentric understanding of our mission. Under the ecclesiocentric model, the church's de facto mission has focused mostly on recruiting "members" through evangelism while "mission" was understood to be a program of the church. The goal or mission really settled on the institutional maintenance of the local church, whose success or failure was inevitably, and I dare say exclusively, measured by the number of members. However, as I pointed out last week, "the church of Jesus Christ is not the purpose or goal of the gospel, but rather its instrument and witness." This brings us to our second question: What exactly is the church's mission?
In order to answer this question, we must first accurately define the gospel or "good news." I say "accurately" because I think many Christians, particularly in our highly individualized culture, have come to view the gospel as simply the personal plan of salvation. The modern emphasis tends toward "fixing the sin problem" in terms that are entirely personal. However, the Scriptures speak in a more comprehensive way that goes beyond the private version of the gospel that we know in the West.
Matthew records the beginning of Jesus' ministry and message with these words, "Jesus began to preach and to say, 'Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.'" (Matt 4:17) In Matthew 24:14 Jesus himself describes the gospel in relation to "the kingdom" when he says "And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world…" Matthew describes Jesus' ministry as follows: "And Jesus went about all Galilee … preaching the gospel of the kingdom…." (4:23) Matthew reiterates this theme again in chapter 9 verse 35 when he writes "Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages … preaching the gospel of the kingdom…" Jesus told his disciples to "preach, saying the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Matt 10:7) Mark writes "after John (the Baptist) was put in prison, Jesus came…preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God. Philip "preached the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Christ." (Acts 8:12) Paul and Barnabas encouraged new believers to "continue in the faith…saying 'We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.'" (14:22) Paul appeared in the synagogue in Ephesus "reasoning and persuading concerning the things of the kingdom of God." (19:8) Paul, writing about his own ministry said, "I have gone preaching the kingdom of God." (20:25) While under house arrest, Paul received many visitors to whom he "testified of the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus…" (28:23,31)
The central aspect of the teaching of Jesus was that concerning the Kingdom of God. Of this there can be no doubt…. Jesus appeared as one who proclaimed the Kingdom; all else in his message and ministry serves a function in relation to that proclamation and derives its meaning from it. (Norman Perrin, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus, p. 54)
Clearly, by Jesus' own words and the testimony of the Apostles, Jesus was preaching the "good news" that through him God's reign has come and is coming. The gospel or "good news" is the fact that in Christ the reign of God is at hand and is now breaking into the world. His kingdom, which has come, continues to come forth and will be fully consummated on the day of Christ's return. This is the good news which offers both a present and future hope to all of God's creation!
This may raise more questions than it answers, most notably "What is the kingdom or reign of God?" A definitive answer to this question is simply not given in Scripture but we are given some insight through the teachings of Jesus. First, Jesus makes clear that the kingdom has come, when speaking to the Pharisees he said "…the kingdom of God has come upon you." (Matt. 12:28) Again, the commission given to the Apostles was to preach that "the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Matt. 10:7) This statement is taken to mean that kingdom of the Messiah, who is the Lord, is now to be set up according to the Scriptures.
Throughout the parables, Jesus uses the preface, "The kingdom of heaven is like…" to describe the character and nature of God's ruling reign, which is now only a foretaste of the world to come. The Old Testament's prophetic forecast of the coming day of God envisions a world characterized by peace, justice, and celebration in which the full prosperity of the people of God living under the covenant of God's demanding care and compassionate rule is realized. The picture given is one of a world full of peace grounded in justice.
In Jesus' very first sermon recorded by Luke, he enters the synagogue in Nazareth where he had been raised and taking the book of Isaiah quotes the following passage:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor. (Luke 4:18, 19)
Upon conclusion he closes the book, sits down and when every eye is "fixed on Him" he says "Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." (Luke 4:21) Jesus is describing the kingdom of God in which all that has resulted from sin and the Fall is being restored. The call upon humanity is to repent of their sins and forsake them that they might enter the kingdom and be saved.
It is the reign of God or this full gospel that the church is sent into the world to bring forth as God's instrument and to which it bears witness in its life and community. The reign of God concerns the whole of creation to include society and culture in which the church demonstrates the reign of God within a distinct community, serves the world through compassion and mercy, and proclaims the risen Christ as the only means by which one may enter the kingdom of God.
Next week we will attempt to finally answer the question: "What is the church's mission?" under a theocentric scenario now that we have broadened our definition of the gospel.
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