Many in the modern Western Church misconstrue missions and evangelism as simply another program in the church. The academic and secular worlds view missions as imperialistic and condemn missional activities as an imposition of religious beliefs and Western values. The discussion of missions must move away from both modern secular and Christian misconceptions and into the essential understanding that a missional church is at the core of Christian theology. A missional ecclesiology helps Christians understand what it means to be evangelical. Having a better grasp of Christ’s mandate that His Church is to be missional will help Christians comprehend the foundational purpose of the Church.
God’s original intent for the Church
God’s inerrant Scriptures tell a story of how the Lord desired to set apart His early covenant people to make them holy examples of his love and justice. The Bible goes on to explain how God no longer desired to separate the elect from the world, but to send His Church to the nations to share His grace and mercy with the lost through the gospel. The entirety of Scripture attests to a missional ecclesiology.
The covenant of works was ushered in under Adam and outlined in the Pentateuch. Abraham was sent out (Gen. 12) into the world to raise up a nation. As that nation was born and then fled Egypt God focused on strengthening His elect and making them holy. The Law was clearly designed to set Israel apart and draw the world to them instead of sending them into the world (see food law Lev. 11). As God's people grew in faith and prospered the Lord sent them to neighboring nations to show God’s majesty and share His name with other cultures (Ps. 67, Jonah). Still, Israel was kept separate from the world.
Jesus removed the aspects of the Law that had isolated Israel and provided instruction for God’s people. Jesus selected, trained and sent out the 12 Apostles (Luke 9:1-6) to tell of the gospel of Christ. Isak DuPlesis said, “Jesus' action in sending them out at this stage indicates that He wants active participants, not merely passive beholders.” Jesus then mandated His Church to go into the world (Matt. 28:18-20) to disciple, baptize, and teach the lost. Charles Spurgeon said of this passage, “This is the perpetual commission of the Church of Christ; and the great seal of the kingdom attached to it, giving the power to execute it, and guaranteeing its success, is the King’s Assurance of His continual presence with His faithful followers.”
Acts 1:8 is the turning point of covenant theology as before this verse all of God’s people were called to Jerusalem, now God's disciples are mandated to leave Jerusalem and go into the world. Howard Marshal said, “Acts is a book about mission. It is not unfair to take 1:8 as a summary of its contents. The purpose of the Christian Church was to bear witness to Jesus.” The rest of Acts and Paul's letters to the Corinthians sets up a mandate and outline for Christ’s Church to send disciple making disciples into the world and for the Church to care for and encourage those laborers. Romans chapters 1 and 2 then highlight the urgency of a missional ecclesiology by explaining the lost will perish without receiving the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Understanding God’s Scriptures means understanding the systematic approach God had in identifying His people, setting them apart, training them, and then sending them out to disciple the lost. God’s purpose for His Church is missions.
The Western shift toward individual Christianity
As the Christian faith spread, in its early years, from the East to the West the focus of the Church began to shift. Missions stopped being a priority of the Church when Christianity went from being an outlaw faith to being allowed within Western culture.
The me-centered consumer culture of the modern West altered Christianity even further. The focus of the modern Church in the West is now on the care and cultivation of its members. The Church has fundamentally moved away from a body whose purpose is the reaching of the lost with the gospel, into an entity that is centered around the growth and experiences of the individual Christian.
In modern Western Christianity, we have lost sight of the purpose of the Church as outlined in its history and Scriptures. Darrell Guder states, “A reductionist soteriology did generate a reductionist vision of mission and a highly compromised understanding of the purpose of the Church.” The reason the Christian Church exists is to reach the lost where they are, around the corner or across the globe. The motivation for the Church is to spread God’s glory.
Reforming the Church
The Christian Church in the West has gone drastically off course and forgotten its true purpose. It is, however, not too late to correct course and regain the biblically faithful purpose of the Church. It is up to pastors and church leaders to refocus their teaching on a missional ecclesiology and it is incumbent upon disciples of Christ to alter their hearts and live their lives as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1).
The modern evangelical Church is the richest Church in history. Today our Western congregations enjoy a flood of resources. Our churches have theological training, talent, and financial blessings never seen before. We must not assume those resources have been given to the church by God for our safety and comfort, but to spread His gospel around the world and across the street. God outlined in Scripture a plan for his post-ascension Church to exist for the purpose of multiplication and reaching the lost. The purpose of the evangelical Church is to embrace a missional ecclesiology.
Mike Pettengill is an MTW missionary serving in Equatorial Guinea.