Right now many theologians, pastors, and church consultants define the chief and the sole purpose of the church to be about missions. This emphasis is also highlighted in what is now called “missional living.” In short, the whole point of the Christian life and the life of the church is to simply witness to Jesus Christ.
Consider what John Piper, a well-known Baptist preacher and author from my neck of the woods (Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, MN), recently had to say about this at one of his popular conferences. The snippets of his message (below) have been neatly packed into a short motivational video on YouTube as well as at: http://www.vergenetwork.org/2012/01/06/john-piper-go-video/:
The unwasted life is the life that puts Christ on display as supremely valuable…
The need of the nations who do not know the name of Jesus is an immeasurable need. It’s an infinite need. 2.6 billion people live in unreached people groups…
It seems to be woven into the very fabric of our consumer culture that we move toward comfort, toward security, toward ease, toward safety, away from stress, away from trouble, away from danger, and it ought to be exactly the opposite!
They are provocative words. And by my eyes, they’re also a bit inflammatory. But that’s what good motivational speakers do, right? They incite our consciences by portraying their desired point in dramatic fashion. (To get the full effect you do need to watch the video.)
But when the music is silenced, the drama removed, and the sentences examined, what remains? I have my thoughts. I’ll summarize them with two words: Irresponsible theology. I’m not saying he’s all wrong. But they do portray the purpose of the church and the Christian life in a limited, and from my perspective, irresponsible way.
But this is the debate of our time isn’t it? What is the purpose of the church? What’s the purpose of our Christian lives?
Time and again people are told they “don’t get it.” Time and again people in the pews are told they are a bunch of self-centered, self serving people who only think of themselves. And so what are they to do? If the purpose of the church is to be missional, they’re told to get off their butts, stop thinking about themselves, stop wasting their lives, and tell someone about the good news of Jesus.
If we use Piper’s theology, they’re “wasting” their lives when they struggle with their sin and “fail to put Christ on display as supremely valuable.” To use Piper’s theology, they add to their sins when they’re “disobedient” and care more about the challenges of their own daily life than about “zealously” giving witness to Christ. To use Piper’s theology, they don’t believe rightly if they think about God without a “missionary theology.”
I realize I’m not giving Piper a full and fair shake by this. (However, a fuller examination of his theology would show I’m not that far off). But here’s my point. I believe that those who feel they have finally discovered the real mission of the church and are now self-declared “zealous” missionaries (while others of us are not), irresponsibly portray the theology and mission of the church when they reduce it to a demand to be missional.
Our theology is much broader and much deeper than that. And, if we are being honest, (at least from a Lutheran perspective), our theology does not begin with missionaries. It begins with Christ. And He did not first send; He first forgave.
Please do not misunderstand. I am for missions! I am for reaching the lost! (This past month I spent over 30 hours with just one unchurched couple—providing groceries, transportation, and shelter, in addition to teaching, praying, and blessing in the name of Christ.) But I am first for understanding the Gospel rightly so that I can not only reach the lost, but so that I can also reach “the found.”
Believers have an “immeasurable need” for the Gospel just the same as those who have not yet received it. Sinners don’t stop being sinners. And when theologies are developed that start with “sending missionaries” rather than with the sent Son of God who came to bring the forgiveness of sins, there is a stark reconstitution of the church’s theology and purpose.
Yes, sinners who are self-centered, self serving people need to repent. But they also then need the Gospel! Not a demand to be missional. Not a guilt trip that says they are wasting their lives. For it is the Gospel itself that will bring them to share it’s joys with others. Not guilt ridden demands.
We can do better than that. Lutherans in particular have to do better than that. Our theology demands it. We cannot let our theology go to waste. We need to be honest and responsible with our theology. We have to stop settling for the latest version of someone else’s theology and start being honest about our own.
As always, I invite your collegial and constructive comments as we seek to dialogue about what it means to be a 21st century Lutheran who “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).