At Belfast Bible College, we had the pleasure and privilege of having Chris Wright speak at our Celebration of Studies last Friday and then at a half day conference on “The GREAT COMMISSION: what does it really include?”
Chris was exploring a biblical theology of mission, engaging along the way with contested ideas of mission, and criticisms of his own approach as outlined most fully of course in his magnum opus The Mission of God.
Some notes and observations of the half-day conference: – and these do not therefore represent exactly what Chris said but one person’s interpretation ..
Both terms ‘holistic mission’ and ‘missional’ are useful but both can easily become too anthropocentric – they revolve around ‘us’ and what we must do. They do not in and of themselves resolve the question of what ‘holistic’ and ‘missional’ actually mean – they mean different things to different people.
Based on the Great Commission of Mt 28, Chris unpacked some key themes. The Great Commission if framed within the lordship and presence of God. It is both cosmic (all of creation – See Eph 1:9-10 etc) and Christocentric (based on the Messiah’s saving work).
Mission is God’s activity, not primarily ours. It has both a global scope and cosmic scope. The mission of the church needs to reflect the scope and size of God’s mission.
As a foundation for understanding mission, Chris went to the 5 marks of mission first articulated by the Anglican Communion in the 1980s / 90s. In brief they are:
- Evangelism (proclaim the good news of the kingdom)
- Teaching (teach, baptise and nurture new believers)
- Compassion (respond to human need by loving service)
- Justice (transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation)
- Creation care ( strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth)
All intrinsically flow from the Lordship of Christ
Chris broke these down into 3 themes that he unpacked in turn:
A. BUILDING THE CHURCH
Including 1 and 2: evangelism and teaching
Is a call for people to submit to the lordship of jesus. Gospelizing is proclamation of the good news. Mission work is telling the story of Jesus and its call for response of repentance and faith. Christians are to be baptised in the name of Jesus and are to follow him as Lord, not other gods or idols. The gospel of Jesus is at the heart of all Christian mission.
This is in contrast to some understandings of ‘holistic mission’ where it means everything else apart from evangelism. (see photo). Holistic mission should never be shorthand for social justice or other activity divorced from evangelism.
Neither should it be the case where “mission” becomes just one option in the buffet bar of Christian activity: some are into evangelism, others not .. Rather Chris was arguing for the centrality of the gospel as an integrating centre.
A big obvious reality from Scripture is that teaching is part of the mission of God: Jesus is the Rabbi. Paul the teacher / missionary. The OT is one huge story of theological education (after Andrew Walls). A unravelling teaching programme about God, ethics, identity, holiness, faith, covenant, creation and so on that forms an indispensable platform for understanding the significance of the NT.
[I like to see the whole NT as theological reflection on the OT in light of Jesus]
Chris linked to Paul and Apollos: BOTH were vital in the mission of God. Paul is the evangelist / church planter, Apollos is the teacher. Both are about mission work and extending the lordship of Christ in the world. Therefore both evangelism and teaching are part of the Great Commission
(including theological education – the challenge for theological education is to ask how much is it intrinsically missional?; how are teaching and modules serving God’s mission in the world?)
For Pastors, weekly preaching is part of the Great Commission. It is not some sort of ‘secondary’ task to mission / evangelism.
This does NOT diminish the necessity of global cross cultural mission .. but traditional ‘mission work’ does not summarise or represent the true scope of the Great Commission.
B. SERVING SOCIETY: COMPASSION AND JUSTICE
Chris put compassion and justice under the heading of ‘Serving Society’.
To the objection that “Is this really part of the Great Commission?” he argued how each is naturally linked to the Lordship of Christ. Jesus commands and actions to show compassion on the poor only echoes texts like Deut.10.12-19 and God’s desire for compassion and justice. When God is “godding’ – he is by default with the weak poor and needy. This is who God is and what he does. Likewise, Jesus’ in Matthew describes what true obedience to God looks like – and it is not to neglect the weighty matters of the Torah – issues like justice (see Micah 6.8). His disciples are to be “the light of the world” – meaning people whose attractive deeds shine with goodness and mercy. Like in Isaiah 58:7-8 where light is good deeds done in the name of the Lord. Just as Israel was to be a nation of light and justice, so Jesus’ new community of the kingdom is to be a renewed community of the King – the light of the world.
Such integration of discipleship and acts of compassion and justice are woven though Acts – there was no needy person among them (Acts 4:32-38)
Chris made the often overlooked point here that Paul & Barnabas’s first missionary journey was, contrary to popular assumptions, actually the famine relief visit to Judea as told in Acts 11. Perhaps overlooked because it did not ‘fit’ the popular understanding of ‘mission’ as overseas evangelistic work.
And in a very strong echo of what Bruce Longenecker has exhaustively researched and I posted about here, Chris argued that the ‘remember the poor’ of Galatians 2 is no side issue within Paul’s theology and life. Actually, it is talked about more by Paul than justification by faith. Economic concern for those in need is an integral part of his mission and therefore the Great Commission.
C. CARING FOR CREATION
The third theme of the Great Commission from Mt 28, Chris proposed, is that Jesus is Lord of heaven on earth. This global / cosmic reign of Christ is seen in Colossians 1 where the death of Christ on the cross has a cosmic dimension:
19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
It’s here, Chris said, that evangelicals above all people should be able to integrate things. They are by definition people passionate about Jesus, the cross and the atonement – and should be able to affirm how this saving work of God has universal dimensions. Put another way, discipleship talked about in the Great Commission has the context of being worked out within a creation that God is going to redeem. This has implications for how discipleship is understood.
Evangelicals need a better doctrine of creation. And here Chris linked to familiar texts such as Is 65, Revelation 21-22; Romans 8; Colossians 1. God’s agenda is one of redemption, rescue, restoration – not of destruction or obliteration of the earth. The end game is a new heavens and earth; the New Jerusalem and God’s presence coming down to earth. The creation has a future ..
This all means that our best view of creation is as tenants – with temporary stewardship responsibilities. Creation care now is prophetic action foreshadowing God’s restoration of creation to come. Creation care – a career in the sciences, in environmental work etc – is a legitimate and valued calling of the Great Commission.
‘Mission’ is not done only by missionaries. All of God’s people are to be involved in the mission of God. There is a profound and damaging dualism in much traditional evangelical theology of mission where there is a dichotomy between those who do mission and those who do not. A better way to see things is the church as a body of people who are all on mission, with some at work overseas.
Just as the mission of God is broad in scope, so not everyone can do everything. Some will be missionaries and evangelists, some in creation care, some teachers and preachers, some working for justice and serving those in need.This is not to revert to the ‘buffet bar’ or ‘bag or marbles’ approach to mission where only some do evangelism and others do justice – the lordship of Jesus must be at the centre of all Christian life and witness.
Chris linked to Lesslie Newbigin here in mission best being understood as dimension of the church not as a specific task of the church. In other words, the church exists in mission; and within that existence are many expressions of mission. Just like within Science there are many expressions of the scientific enterprise; or similarly within the Arts.
So, how does this broad framework for understanding the mission of God help you think about your life and work – whatever it is that you do?
Do you find this liberating from old-style dualisms between the sacred and secular?
What do you see as potential weaknesses or dangers of this broad understanding of the Mission of God?
And, reflecting on this more, I wonder if certain jobs ‘fit’ more easily within the 5 marks of mission than others? Chris argued that those at all sorts of work are routinely engaged in ethics and issues that call for justice, truth and rightness and their calling needs to be seen as vocational within the mission of God, just as much as any missionary or pastor involved in ‘spiritual’ work. I agree with this – but do the 5 marks of mission [summarised under ‘Church work’, ‘serving society’ and ‘caring for creation’] still leave out most types of work that most people do day to day?
Yes, if you are a teacher, nurse, counsellor, carer, religious worker, environmental consultant – your work can fairly easily fit in the 3 themes. But I am not sure they really make space for someone working in IT, or accountancy, or business who are not doing church related stuff, nor caring for others pastorally or focused on looking after creation. I guess I wonder if ‘serving society’ needs to move beyond a pastoral focus, to include bringing positive benefit to society – like creating jobs, giving the opportunity for the dignity of work, training people to develop in life skills and experience and so on.
Comments, as ever, welcome.