The Church and Its Missional Vocation

Michael W. Goheen

When the Argentinian mission leader René Padilla addressed the important Lausanne Assembly in 1974, he said there is “no use in taking for granted that we all agree on the Gospel that has been entrusted to us.” He believed the gospel had been truncated in various ways as it had been coopted by various idolatrous cultural spirits. He continues: “The greatest need of the church today is the recovery of the full Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ” (“Evangelism and the World,” in Let the Earth Hear His Voice: International Congress on World Evangelization, Lausanne, Switzerland [Minneapolis: World Wide Publications, 1975], 144). His concern was that the gospel had been watered down in two different ways by the ecumenical and evangelical traditions, and that this was deeply harmful to the missional vocation of the church. The ecumenical tradition had reduced the gospel to the social message of Jesus and consequently had diminished mission to action for mercy and justice. The evangelical tradition had narrowed the gospel to eternal salvation in heaven after death and thus had confined mission to evangelism. Both had something of the good news of Scripture, but both had severely diluted the gospel. This certainly had harmful consequences for mission. But it also disfigures the very nature of the Christian faith!

The Storied Good News

Where does one start to elaborate the good news in the Bible? Books on the subject show different starting points, and that origin always impacts the conclusions. Do we start with (parts of) Rom 1–4, which the Reformers found so precious when they recovered obscured dimensions of the gospel? Do we start with 1 Cor 15:1–9, where Paul states explicitly that he is articulating the gospel? Paul was an apostle of Jesus the Messiah and was articulating and expressing the gospel of Jesus he had received. Therefore, I believe we need to start with the proclamation of the good news by Jesus the Christ himself.

He opens his public ministry, as recorded in the Gospel of Mark, with these words: “After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1:14–15) Jesus does not stop to expand on what he means by the kingdom. Why? Because Jews were familiar with Dan 7 and Isa 40–55, and other prophetic passages that proclaimed a coming kingdom in the future. Jews were waiting for this kingdom to come. They believed they were part of a long story told in the OT that was waiting for a climactic ending. They disagreed on how the ending would come, who would usher it in, how to live until it came, and other questions. But they all believed God would return and bring history to its consummation soon. He would restore his rule over the world and defeat all opposition. And one of the primary images of this goal of universal history was the kingdom of God.

Jews believed God had created the world “very good” and blessed humanity as his image with a rich social and cultural life in the creation. Adam and Eve had opened the gates of sin and ruin with their rebellion against God. God set out on the long road of restoration to heal and renew the whole creation and the entire life of humankind. God had chosen Abraham and his descendants to somehow be a solution to the problem (Gen 12:1–3). He promised them he would restore to them the blessing of creation and then through them that same blessing to all the nations of the earth. On Mt. Sinai God gave Israel their vocation and shows how the Abrahamic covenant would be fulfilled. Israel is to be a priestly kingdom, that is, a kingdom that mediates God’s blessing to the nations in the way priests did the same to the people. They were to be a holy nation that modeled what being truly human looked like—a people restored to the blessing of creation (Exod 19:3–6). This vocation now defined the remaining story of the OT. How would Israel fare in living among the nations as a priestly kingdom and holy nation?

Not well! Over and over again Israel succumbed to pagan idolatry. Instead of being a light to the nations they succumbed to the darkness; instead of being a distinctive people they followed the idols of the nations. And finally, God judged them, and removed them from the land. Now Israel was sitting in exile in need of salvation themselves; the lifeguard God had sent out to save a drowning world was now sinking itself. But they had the promise of the prophets that God would not give up on his intention but would gather them back, renew them, and restore his rule over all creation and human life in and through them. This would be accomplished when God returned to Jerusalem, perhaps by a Messiah but certainly in the power of the Spirit. And so Israel awaited this climactic event.

As they suffered beneath the beastly and oppressive rule of Rome, their hope more and more focused on a Messiah who in the power of the Spirit would destroy Rome—and they seemed to have Daniel on their side (Dan 7:9–14)! So when Jesus announces the good news that the climactic moment of history has arrived—God is breaking into history in power to restore his rule over all of creation and all of human life—the Jews were ready. But Jesus didn’t look like the kind of Messiah who would destroy Rome. He looked more like a rabbi and miracle-worker. Yet the Gospels interpret his mighty deeds as the God’s healing power at work giving windows into the kingdom of God (Luke 7:22). “If I cast out demons by the power of God the kingdom has come upon you” (Matt 12:28).

When Jesus is crucified it seems clear that this could not be the Messiah or the long-awaited kingdom. Rome had crushed him. Yet forty days later Peter, who certainly was one Jew awaiting a violent inauguration of the kingdom (Luke 22:38; John 18:10) and who was utterly confused when Jesus gave himself up to die, proclaims at Pentecost that the last days had arrived (Acts 2:17), ushered in by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (Acts 2:22–36). Paul would be the NT author who would reflect most deeply on the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus as part of this good news of the kingdom. These events were the hinge of cosmic history. The death of Jesus had defeated human sin and all of its evil consequences, the demonic powers, and cultural idolatry. The cross was a second exodus in which the whole creation was liberated from bondage to sin and idolatry. The resurrection of Jesus was the inauguration of the new creation, the kingdom of God that would one day fill the earth. The Spirit now gives this new life in foretaste, in anticipation of the day when God’s rule over his creation would again fill the earth. Until that the day the church is sent out to embody and tell the good news!

In his ministry Jesus had gathered the lost sheep of Israel as promised by the prophets (Ezek 36:24–27; Matt 15:24). He had formed them into a community, teaching them how to live out their missional calling as a distinctive people who live and announce the kingdom (Matt 5–7). Following the victory over sin at the cross, the inauguration of the new creation in the resurrection, and the gift of the Spirit to make this new life available in foretaste, Jesus send this gathered community (Matt 28:18–20). They are incorporated into the family of Abraham, now blessed to be a blessing (Gal 3:7–9). They inherit the calling of Israel to be a holy nation and priestly kingdom (1 Pet 2:9–12). They are now sent to the nations, beginning by gathering the remaining Jews in Jerusalem and Judaea, and on to incorporate the Gentiles from Samaria, Asia Minor, Rome, and the end of the earth (Acts 1:8).

The gospel invites repentance and faith, and those who believe that in Jesus God is restoring every corner of the creation and aligns themselves with this enter a big story that began in creation and will reaches its goal in the kingdom. Moreover, that person is summoned to be part of the new humankind that will inhabit the restored creation at the end of history. Until that day they are called to embody that good news with their lives, demonstrate it with their deeds, and announce it with their words. Put simply: Believing the gospel and following Jesus means we are part of the true story of the whole world and called to the holistic mission of making known the gospel of the kingdom. Gospel, story, mission—these belong together if one follows the lead of Scripture. Only in this way can we understand the church and its vocation.

The Good News and the Ecology of Mission

But there is one more aspect to the vocation of God’s people that is essential if we are to understand the church and its vocation: a missionary encounter with culture. Throughout the biblical story God’s people are chosen to be a people who embody the end of history for the sake of the nations. That is its vocation and mission from Abraham to today. In the OT Israel is set as a particular cultural people in the midst of the idolatrous ancient near eastern nations. The Torah or law governs their political, economic, agrarian, social, family lives—indeed, the whole of their cultural life together. God will shape their cultural way of life in the midst of the ancient near eastern peoples to be a light to the nations. But instead of being a light they are overcome by the pagan darkness; instead of being distinctive, showing the rest of the nations what being human is all about, they become like the nations, serving the same death-dealing idols.

When Jesus sends his people in the power of the Spirit to live in the midst of the nations, the problem becomes much more intense (Matt 28:18–20; Acts 15). They are no longer a cultural community with the Torah that provides a fence around them. Rather they are now a non-ethnic, non-geographical, non-cultural community. Perhaps better, they are a multiethnic, multigeographical, multicultural community called to live out the gospel in every part of the world. They now must serve Christ, who is Lord of all of human life, in settings where the worldview that governs life rejects Christ as Lord. The problem is intense; Lesslie Newbigin calls it the “painful tension.” And the book of 1 Peter struggles with how it is possible to live out one grand story in the midst of another. How are God’s people to live out the gospel in the midst of the idolatrous nations of North America, Latin America, Africa, Asia, anywhere?

The missionary calling of God’s people means they are to be “not being conformed to the world” (Rom 12:2; cf. Jas 4.4). It means being a distinctive people who embody God’s creational design for human life amidst and for the sake of the nations. As it relates to all human cultures that serve other gods, it means embracing the good gifts of each culture and rejecting the idolatry that twists them all. It is only as the church embodies the comprehensive life of the kingdom over against cultural idolatry in its gathered and scattered life that the good news it announces will be heard. It is only as the church demonstrates the justice and mercy of the kingdom on behalf of the victims of cultural idolatry that its evangelistic words will carry weight.

We might call this the “ecology of mission.” Ecology is a branch of biology that studies how many different organisms are closely interrelated: To understand one organism you must see how it is embedded in that web of relationships. If we are to understand the missional vocation of the church, we must see it as an ecology of at least four components: gospel, story, mission, and a missionary encounter with culture. One cannot understand any one of those without seeing its integral connection to the other four. The gospel announces that in Jesus the end of universal history is revealed and accomplished, and is now present by the Spirit. The end of cosmic history is the restoration of the whole of creation and entire life of humankind from sin. Believing the good news of the kingdom in Jesus draws us into participation in a story of cosmic and universal dimensions. In that story God’s chosen people have a missional vocation to make known the end of cosmic history. They embody it with their lives, demonstrate it with their deeds, and announce it with their words. They must live out their call to be a distinctive people amidst the idolatrous cultures of the world, negotiating what it means to say “yes” to the cultural good of each context and what it means to say “no” to the way idolatry has twisted it. The vocation of God’s people in every culture means solidarity and separation, affirmative involvement and critical challenge, cultural development and antithesis.

When the missional vocation of the church is put in this context, we see that it is not something peripheral to the Christian faith. It is central to it!

Posted Nov 13, 2019