It has never been more urgent for the PCA to articulate a clear vision of mission—calling all its member churches to obedience to the summons of Christ to reach the nations with the good news of Jesus Christ. We must remain “faithful to the Scriptures, true to the Reformed Faith, and obedient to the Great Commission of Jesus Christ.” Understanding mission with clarity is vital if we are to stay the course and fulfill our calling. Before we outline the mandate given to the church by Christ, allow me to suggest three trends that threaten missional clarity. None are new to the church, but these three continue to distort or distract from the mission entrusted to us.
Threats to Missional Clarity
1. The first threat to missional clarity is what I’ll call aesthetic faddishness. Constrained by the expectations of our ecclesiastical tribe, we too readily insist that unless a church adopts our aesthetic—especially in worship—it simply will not be effective. But in moments of honesty, too many of us must confess that what we are really doing is signaling to the available market-share of Christians in our region that we speak their language, embrace their “vibe,” and thus they will find a ready home among us. For some, being “missional” is less a description of our stance and commitment to the salvation of the unconverted and more a code word designed to summarize our preferred style.
The dangers here are not hard to identify. First, we easily begin to baptize our preferences, allowing us to dismiss others who do not embrace them. Sometimes, affixing the adjective “missional” to our choices is really little more than a mechanism by which to place them beyond debate as the assured and unquestioned conclusions of the culturally savvy. And secondly, having hitched our ecclesiastical wagon to the cultural horse, we discover that we must update our aesthetic constantly in order to keep up with what’s “hot” and what’s not, to the bewilderment of the church and the ridicule of the world.
2. The second threat to missional clarity is doctrinal vagueness. Our motives for mission must be zeal for the glory of God and love for the souls of the lost. When these enflame the heart, Christians become passionate and persistent evangelists. Let us pray that the Lord of the harvest would send many more such laborers. But what use is there in seeking to reach the world if we have no definite message to share? Yet when we ask what the gospel is, a confusing array of answers continues to be given. Perhaps, driven by a concern to make social justice or political activism or cultural transformation part of the core mission of the church we have expanded what we mean by “gospel.” The gospel, we are told, is the good news that “God is making everything new”, or that “in Jesus, God is restoring the shalom of the broken creation”, or that because of the cross “everything sad is coming untrue.” Any or all of these may be true, of course. But since I am unable to tell what any of these means precisely, I can’t be sure. They sound lovely, though.
Doctrinal vagueness, when it comes to the content of the gospel message, imperils souls. We cannot afford to sound an uncertain note. So let us be clear: the gospel is the good news that God has acted in the obedient life, atoning death, and victorious resurrection of Jesus Christ to save sinners. This is the only remedy for the real problem of the human condition—our sin and guilt before God. We must go to the world proclaiming this good news, offering Christ freely, and summoning all people to repentance and faith in him.
Yet I worry that our haziness at this point is actually reflective of a wider trend that finds doctrinal precision at any point uncouth and impolitic. The temptation is real in a culture that regards authority and certainty with ill-disguised suspicion, to adopt a studied air of artful indefiniteness. To be sure, we may still have convictions on an array of important topics, but we have found it useful to appear as if we did not, for fear of being viewed as evangelical knuckle-draggers in the eyes of Christianity’s latest batch of cultured despisers. By such means—in the name of “mission”—the message is (at its heart) obscured or lost altogether.
3. The third threat to missional clarity is moral compromise. Without holiness, no one shall see the Lord (Heb. 12:4). But as Peter points out in his first letter, holiness not only matters before the eyes of the watching Lord, but also before the eyes of the watching world. As sojourners and exiles, we are to abstain from sinful passions. Our conduct is to be such that the world “may see our good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1Pet. 2:11–12). Jesus likewise insists: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to our Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:16).
No faithful minister or elder will fail to admit that making progress in sanctification is hard and we all fail in countless ways to live as we ought. Yet the pressure from the culture, the widespread abuse of Christian liberty as a cloak for vice, the pornography epidemic, the stress of ministry on marriages and children, and a myriad of other pressures make the battle for purity and piety particularly fierce in our day. The fight for holiness has never raged hotter nor have the stakes been higher. Nevertheless, I am persuaded that, ordinarily, there is a connection between growing personal holiness in the leadership of the church and growing fruitfulness in the ministry and mission of the church. Should we compromise morally, our ability to articulate and implement a clear vision for mission will be fatally compromised as well.
What Will Missional Clarity Involve?
Missional clarity must give full recognition to the distinction between the church as an organism and the church as an organization. As organism the church exists in all its members living out their respective vocations in the world. And so, as organism, the church engages rightly in philanthropic endeavors, social justice advocacy, and a myriad of good-neighborly activities informed by our biblical convictions and worldview. But as organization the church has a different mandate. As the kingdom of Jesus Christ made visible in the world, its calling is necessarily and narrowly spiritual. To it, Christ has entrusted the ministry of the Word and the ordinances of gospel worship, the oversight of elders, and the loving administration of discipline. These are the tools given to the church by Christ to prosecute its mission. These describe the parameters of the church’s special expertise. In these, the church discovers its own peculiar role. We preach the Word, we evangelize the nations, we disciple the saints, we worship the triune God. That is all that the church, as organization, is authorized by its King and Head to do.
We must give full recognition to the already-not yet dynamic, so basic to biblical eschatology. Or to put it differently, we must get our expectations right this side of the new creation. While the church can indeed have an effect on culture, especially when its counter-cultural witness is clear and strong, nevertheless, transforming the culture is beyond both the church’s calling and the church’s ability. We cannot “bring in the kingdom,” much less may we participate (here and now) in the final renewal of all things.
No, this side of the new creation, the church must act modestly with reference to the institutions of society. Our business is not with them. Our business is to gather in the elect of God and, by the Word and Spirit, to ready them for the world to come. This is not at all to counsel Christian withdrawal from cultural engagement. Let us go about our callings, working at whatever we do with all our might, not as eye-servants or people pleasers, but as for the Lord (Col. 3:22–23). Let us fulfill our vocations with zeal for the good of our fellow image-bearers, loving our neighbors in Jesus’s name. But let’s set our sights on the true goal of the church’s mission—not making the world a better place (God alone will one day do that)—but the exaltation of Jesus Christ by making disciples of all nations.