Thursday, December 13, 2012

What Is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission, by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert


Pastors Kevin DeYoung (Just Do Something) and Greg Gilbert (What Is the Gospel?) team up to address a major question among Christians: Just what is the mission of the church, anyway? Along the way, DeYoung and Gilbert address a board spectrum of 'missional' teachings and examine biblical teaching on the Kingdom of God, social justice,  and church ministry.

If you've read much of DeYoung or Gilbert's work (to say nothing of D.A. Carson, Matt Chandler, and Michael Horton, all of whom wrote blurbs for the back cover), you probably have a pretty good idea of what they think the mission of the church is. (Hint: If you guessed the Great Commission, you are correct.) What's new here is their attempt to engage with those who embrace a gospel of the Kingdom or who tend to elevate social justice to the church's primary mission.

The book has received some criticism from Ed Stetzer, who claims, among other things, that DeYoung and Gilbert essentially didn't do their homework in preparation for writing this book. I am not up enough on the missional movement (in any of its many forms) to know whether he is correct. It certainly seems fair to say that reading a relatively small number of books in missiology is not necessarily adequate to equip an author to competently represent the missional movement or engage with it in a meaningful sense. If you're going to convince people that they are wrong and you are right, you need to make sure you know what they actually think. The argument is that missional folks feel misrepresented by the book, and if you don't think an author is accurately representing your beliefs, you are unlikely to be swayed by his arguments--he is, after all, arguing against a position you don't actually hold.

To be fair, sometimes DeYoung and Gilbert are not accusing the missional movement of holding particular beliefs. So, in their discussion of the gospel, they articulate a very helpful wide-lens-zoom-lens metaphor: the cross is always the center, and some folks are zoomed in on it, and others zoom out for a wider-angle shot that encompasses things like the Kingdom and whatnot. But whatever the gospel is, it must necessarily include the cross. It may include more, but never less--and the cross must always be central. Some of the responses I've seen seem to think that this metaphor is DeYoung and Gilbert's way of accusing the missional/Kingdom movement of removing the cross from the gospel, and they are incensed. But I got the impression that DeYoung and Gilbert were not chastising here, but rather seeking common ground: 'You extol the Kingdom effects of the gospel, and I focus on the cross, but we both agree that the cross is central, yes?' This is a common rhetorical technique, and it seems like some readers misconstrued what was meant to be a conciliatory section of the book.

Similarly, some critics take issue with what they perceive as the de-emphasis of good works. Again, this is not an entirely fair critique. DeYoung and Gilbert's point appears to be that the primary mission of the church is to preach the gospel and make disciples, and everything else the church does should facilitate that goal. And I don't think the critics are really arguing with that. Their response is essentially 'but good works and social justice do facilitate that goal!' Which is both true and in no way an indictment of DeYoung and Gilbert. They argue not against good works, but for the proper place of good works--that is, in service of the gospel that has the power to save souls.

Then, too, many critics fail to appreciate DeYoung and Gilbert's distinction between the church as an institution and the church as an organism (that is, the people of God). The people of God absolutely have an obligation to love their neighbors and seek justice, and in that sense, it is a mission of the church because it is part of the marching orders for believers. What DeYoung and Gilbert take issue with is whether the church institution is responsible for social justice, such that it is failing in its mission if it doesn't engage with those issues. And I think they make a good point. A good church can--but does not have to (another key distinction for DeYoung and Gilbert)--implement social justice programs. So the church's obligation with regard to social justice are yes and no--as individual disciples, yes, but perhaps not as an institution.

As you can see above, a lot of the criticisms of the book are really just examples of people arguing past each other--thinking they are disagreeing when in fact they are in (substantial) agreement. Nonetheless, some of the critiques are valid. This does feel like a book written primarily to those who already agree with DeYoung and Gilbert. I have no idea whether it would persuade the 'opposition,' but I suspect not (not that there's really 'opposition' here, but you know what I mean).

Part of the problem is the confusion behind the purpose of the book itself. The title seems indicate an objective study of missiology. And maybe DeYoung and Gilbert would maintain that the book is precisely that. But in reality, the book was designed to address a particular danger: the elevation of social justice above the proclamation of the gospel. DeYoung and Gilbert want churches to keep the main thing the main thing, and not get so hopped up and maxed out on programs and good works that they forget to preach the gospel of a God who died to save sinners. They themselves admit that this is a 'corrective' book--it's written to counter a particular trend, and books like that are necessarily less than mere objective treatises. I suspect this is also the reason for their particular form of preparation--they are not trying to accurately describe the missional movement in all its complexity. They merely did a (fairly random) survey of some of the literature and are now highlighting some of the problem trends that they've seen. Which is not the same thing as writing the definitive book on the mission of the church (which, to be fair, I don't think DeYoung and Gilbert ever intended to do--but the title seems to have led several critics to the conclusion that the book was intended to be a treatise, and they have criticized it accordingly).

A few additional critiques of my own:

DeYoung and Gilbert talk a lot about their theory of useful social policies--for example, the benefit of making people work for stuff rather than just giving them handouts. This discussion was, I think, more political than biblical. At any rate, a discussion of the effectiveness of various kinds of 'social justice' activities does not belong in a book about whether social justice activities are part of the mission of the church. It's an unnecessary rabbit trail that ends up sounding partisan and detracting from the credibility of their overall argument.

The epilogue is an extremely random fictional account of a conversation between a young missional pastor and an older 'regular' pastor. I have no idea what this was supposed to accomplish or why it was included. Perhaps it is a nod to readers who learn better through examples and stories than through principles and theory, but it felt extremely awkward and out-of-place. And long. We got the whole (fictional) backstory of the (fictional) missional pastor, as well as his long, drawn out (fictional) conversation with the (fictional) other pastor and the other pastor's (fictional) advice to him. Is it an example of how missional and ... non-missional folks should interact (i.e., with respect and humility)? I don't know. All I know is, I did not like it, and I did not feel like it contributed anything to the book. And if I were missional, I might be a little resentful of being cast in the 'young, naive-but-enthusiastic' pastor getting advice from the older, wiser pastor who just so happens to support DeYoung and Gilbert's position.

I listened to the audiobook, which was available as a free download from last month and is narrated by Adam Verner. Verner did a decent enough job, and certainly sounded earnest, but I think a slightly gentler delivery may have helped convey the humble tone that was, I think, intended.

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