A Review of What is the Mission of the Church? by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert

The more I think about this book, the more I like it.  What is the Mission of the Church? by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert gets at the heart of a very pertinent discussion that urgently needs to take place on a larger scale in the church today.  The title of the book is the question that DeYoung and Gilbert want to answer: What is the Mission of the Church?  They are trying to understand what should be the primary focus of the church. Is it evangelism in the classical sense, proclamation of the Gospel and discipleship, or is it kingdom building through social justice and mercy ministries? Could it possibly be a combination of both?  There has been a large swing in recent years for churches to support any social ministry they can conceive of or come in contact with.  Everything from planting trees in the park, to digging water wells in Africa, and participating in undercover sex trade sting operations.  Much of this type of ministry has been cased in the language of ‘social justice’ and has often been embraced by the younger generation of Christians.  So much so, that to not participate in some sort of ‘social justice’ ministry can be considered un-Christian at times by some.  Much of the social justice movement has economic overtones and other times it concerns oppression of various stripes.  DeYoung and Gilbert set out to find the answer to their question by finding an exegetical grounding for common evangelical words such as mission , Gospel, Kingdom, social justice and shalom.

If you in your twenties or thirties you know what a big deal the issue of mission and social justice is in the church.  I have long wanted to write about a Biblical understanding of mission and social justice, but I think DeYoung and Gilbert’s book is a great starting place for the discussion.  Several years ago I attended a breakout session at the Gospel Coalition with DeYoung and Gilbert and they worked through a handful of their exegetical sections in the book proposing the proclamation of the Gospel as the primary mission of the church.  During the session I was saddened to see many people leaving seemingly either bored by the biblical work these guys were doing (which is fairly cumbersome at times) or not buying their proposal because of social and emotional convictions.  I want to encourage you if you are on either side of the fence of this debate, DeYoung and Gilbert’s book does a great job at defining what the mission of the church should be about.  If you are all about the proclamation of the Gospel, you will see a place for loving your neighbor.  If you are all about social justice, you will see that the proclamation of the Gospel with words needs to be front and center in the mission of the church.  Over the next few paragraphs I would like to hit several highlights of the book without wading through all the great exegesis DeYoung and Gilbert.  Finally I would like to offer one critique on chapter three.

DeYoung and Gilbert define the mission of the church as follows: “The mission of the church is to go into the world and make disciples by declaring the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit and gathering these disciples into churches, that they might worship the Lord and obey His commands now and in eternity to the glory of God the Father” (62).  They come to this conclusion through carefully argued texts.  They go on to expand the idea of Gospel into a “wide angle” Gospel and a “zoom lens” Gospel (94).  These aspects of the Gospel are rooted in the overall story of the Bible that finds its climax in the advent of Christ and His work on the cross.  This language is very similar to what Matt Chandler uses in his book, The Explicit Gospel.  Chandler talks about a “Gospel in the sky” and a “Gospel on the ground;” all part of the same Gospel focusing on different aspects.  DeYoung and Gilbert go on to rename these categories of “wide angle” and “zoom lens” the “Gospel of the Kingdom” and the “Gospel of the Cross” showing how “the Gospel of the cross is the fountainhead of the gospel of the kingdom” (108).  The “The Gospel of the Kingdom” understands God work of subjecting all things to Himself as we wait for the day he will remake the world where the Gospel of the cross focuses on Christ’s atoning work that is the entrance requirement for those that will be a part of God’s kingdom.  Without including ourselves in the salvation Christ accomplished on the cross we will never enter the kingdom of God.

Understanding ‘kingdom’ in this debate is crucial important.  DeYoung and Gilbert do a great job showing through careful exegesis that it is not our job to build the kingdom of God; it is God’s job to build His kingdom.  They define the kingdom of God as “the redemptive reign of God over His people” (119).  Furthermore they have this to say about the kingdom, “…understanding that ’kingdom’ is a dynamic relational word rather than a geographic one keeps us from thinking that ‘extending the kingdom of God’ is the right way to describe planting trees or delivering hot meals to the homeless.  Sometimes people talk as if by renovating a city park or turning a housing slum into affordable, livable apartments, we are extending God’s reign over that park or that neighborhood.  We’re bringing order from chaos…Rather it is defined relationally and dynamically; it exists where knees and hearts bow to the King and submit to Him.  And therefore you cannot ‘expand the kingdom’ by bringing peace and order and justice to a certain area of the world.  Good deeds are good, but they don’t broaden the borders of the kingdom.  The only way the kingdom of God –the redemptive rule of God – is extended is when He brings another sinner to renounce sin and self-righteousness and bow his knee to King Jesus” (121).

In chapters six and seven DeYoung walk through the most interesting part of the social justice debate.  In chapter six they lay exegetical groundwork for making sense of social justice, and then provide application in chapter seven.  If you read nothing else in this book, you need to read these chapters.  DeYoung and Gilbert come to a Biblical definition of what social justice is in the Bible after working through a myriad of texts.  They understand the Bible to teach “no fraud, no favoritism, help for the weak, and freely giving as we have abundantly received” to be the social justice it speaks about (171).  In contrast it is not “alleviation of poverty” (175), “not making outcomes the way we think they should be” (146), not embracing abundance nor asceticism as virtuous in their own right (179), and not feeling guilty about not addressing every problem in the world.  One of the most refreshing principals offered in chapter seven is the idea moral proximity, “the closer the need, the greater the moral obligation to help” (183).  DeYoung and Gilbert root this principal in Galatians 6:10 where Paul wants to do good to everyone as he has opportunity.

Finally, DeYoung and Gilbert find Shalom (peace) for this world in the new heavens and new earth that will be remade through Christ.  It is this redeemed world that we should place our hope in.  It is this world that we should usher people into through the Gospel of Christ.  DeYoung and Gilbert have a fascinating discussion of the continuity and discontinuity that might exist between our world and the new heavens and new earth finding that it is God who will bring about this new world, not us.  They come full circle in their discussion landing back on Gospel proclamation as found in the Great Commission to be the mission of the church.  DeYoung and Gilbert remind us that “we are not called to bring a broken planet back to its created glory.  But we are to call broken people back to their Creator” (248).

I only have one critique to offer on DeYoung and Gilbert’s book.  In chapter three they walk through the story of the Bible.  Now I think every Christian should be able to do this at some level.  We have to know the overall story and be able to articulate it.  However, DeYoung and Gilbert seem to propose a center to the story that I don’t think is quite right.  They say the question driving the entire Biblical narrative is “How [can] sinful people [] live in the presence of a righteous God?” (69).  While this is a theme that the Bible does deal with, I don’t think it is the center.  Rather it seems to be closer to a story of God redeeming a people for Himself.  There has been a lot of scholarly debate on what the center of the Biblical narrative is, something akin to physics’ quest for unifying theory, but no one has seemed to completely win the day on a center for the Bible.  Several of my professors at Southern Seminary have written books on possible centers, Peter Gentry says it is Kingdom through Covenant and Jim Hamilton says it is God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment.  I tend to lean toward the later, yet they all are in encompassed in God’s revelation of His redemptive work in the person of Christ.  I don’t know if it was DeYoung and Gilbert’s intention to propose a center, but I think they have missed the mark.

What is the Mission of the Church? ends in a fascinating way.  The last chapter is a fictitious, though all to familiar conversation between a fired up, motivated, fairly radical church planter and a seasoned pastor.  There conversation includes all the topics above cased in popular language.  With this conversation, I saw my own sin; how I have often thought about the mission of the church in unbiblical and unhealthy ways.  Maybe you will find yourself in that conversation too.  There is so much good exegesis and thoughtful discussion in this book that I have barely even brushed the surface of the discussion. I highly encourage you to read this book.  It is a conversation that needs to be had in our churches and this is a great, exegetically sound, place to start.

DeYoung, Kevin and Greg Gilbert, What is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011. 283 pp.
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