Reflections on the Nature of God's Mission for His Church - Part 2 of 3

by Robby Butler

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in the Nov.-Dec. 2008 issue of Mission Frontiers. We are reprinting it here because the insights it brings into the Church's responsibility for the global cause of Christ. Though originally a single piece, we have broken it into three segments in order to fit it into Pulpit Helps.

In this installment, Butler traces through recent history the shifting emphases of Church Mission (which focuses on expanding the Church through evangelism) and Kingdom Mission (which expands Church Mission to include proclaiming God's Kingdom by working against the effects of sin).

Kingdom Mission and Church Mission in the Three Eras

In the updated Perspectives Reader, U.S. Center for World Mission founder Dr. Ralph Winter observes that Evangelicals' perception of what God has empowered them to do influences them toward either Church Mission or Kingdom Mission. Thus missionaries of the first era (1800-1910), during which Evangelicals had influence at all levels of society, complemented their church planting efforts with sweeping efforts to impact the surrounding society. This is in contrast with the Church Mission of the second era (1865-1980), during which Evangelicals had spread widely among the working classes but lost most of their presence in the leadership of society and thus "tended to deemphasize, almost to the point of total exclusion, ideas of social reform."

Kingdom Mission characterized the first era as William Carey and those he inspired carried the influence of the first Evangelical awakening with them to fight infanticide and widow burning while establishing universities and hospitals as an integral part of their strategy to extend the Church. The second awakening in America, still during this first era, "fostered the most extensive positive transformation any country has ever experienced in history."

By Hudson Taylor's day, however, the sending base and most second era missionaries, including Hudson Taylor himself, had shifted from Kingdom Mission to Church Mission. Taylor, for example, called for a thousand missionaries to evangelize all of China by each witnessing to 50 people per day for 1,000 days. So as not to be slowed down, Taylor directed these missionaries not to even establish churches.

In place of Jesus' "gospel of the Kingdom" (Matt. 24:14), the Church Mission of this second era spread a "gospel of salvation" resulting in the shallowness mentioned in last month's article. Affected mission fields, such as most of Christian Africa, have a form of Christianity that has been described as "a mile wide and an inch deep." In this analysis, the third (current) era inherited Church Mission amidst a strong polarization that viewed evangelism and social action as competing priorities rather than essential partners. In arguing against such polarization, Winter asserts that "evangelism in word, if supported by demonstration' in deed, is actually empowered evangelism."

Encouragingly, the growing presence of Evangelicals at leadership levels throughout the world is fueling a recovery of Kingdom Mission, thus bringing increasing effectiveness in the missionary task and reversing the trend toward mission field shallowness.

An increasing number of voices within the Church, such as Rick Warren with his P.E.A.C.E. plan and Luis Bush through Transform World, are advocating Kingdom Mission, although not necessarily by that name.

Does God expect His Church in each generation to glorify Him through and according to the influence and resources He has entrusted to them? If so, then the dramatic increase of Evangelical capacities in recent decades should lift our understanding of God's Kingdom Mission for our day. God may be calling various members of His body to again collaborate in combating slavery and oppression in His name, and in working toward the eradication of malaria and heart disease.

While advocating Kingdom Mission as the most effective path toward completing the missionary task, Winter continues to emphasize the central priority which Kingdom Mission shares with Church Mission: It seems obvious that the highest priority should be to go where the darkness is deepest. That, in turn, means clearly to go to those places where Jesus is not yet known. That, then, means we are still talking about the priority of reaching out to the thousands of remaining "unreached peoples."

Ditches on Both Sides and an Intelligent Opponent

The path toward discipling all nations runs between variants of two major ditches-that of emphazing Church Mission to the exclusion of the larger Kingdom Mission and that of Kingdom Mission without the heart of Church Mission. Too often our adversary, the devil, successfully draws segments of the Church into one of these ditches, often in reaction against an awareness that another segment of the Church has fallen into the opposite ditch.

The Ditches of Church Mission: Transforming Individuals Alone

It is sometimes stated that "transformed individuals will transform society," and that we should thus seek only to transform individuals rather than also seeking to organize efforts to fight evil in society.

Unfortunately many "transformed" individuals have assumed, been taught, or learned from the example of others to make false dichotomies between sacred and secular, as if God were concerned for one and not the other, and between clergy and laity, as if God wants only to involve one and not the other. Such transformed individuals may thus believe that the only thing God cares about is saving souls, and/or that the only people God wants to use are "professional" Christian workers. As a result such individuals excuse themselves from working to change this world, and instead simply seek their own salvation and (perhaps) the salvation of others.

Such individuals have not properly been taught that all of Jesus' disciples are to obey His commands to seek God's Kingdom (Matt. 6:33, Luke 12:31) and to glorify their Father in heaven through their good works done before men (Matt. 5:16). They have not discovered how God is glorified and His Kingdom extended as we follow Jesus' example of "doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil" (Acts 10:38).

We should certainly seek to transform individuals and, as God blesses our efforts, to engage them in obeying all that Jesus commanded. This will lead them, with the Holy Spirit's guidance and empowering, into working with others both to declare and demonstrate God's Kingdom. Meanwhile we who teach must also seek God's guidance and empowering to obey all that Jesus commanded; otherwise our example will contradict our teaching, or our teaching itself will be in error.

Originally appeared in Mission Frontiers, Nov.-Dec. 2008 issue.

Next month, Butler continues his discussion of the "ditches" of mission.

Robby Butler worked for the U.S. Center for World Mission for 24 years and is now developing a movement of believers to seek first God's kingdom through their vocations.

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