Kevin DeYoung is very concerned about the church fulfilling its calling to proclaim the gospel. And rightly so: people’s greatest need is for a restored relationship with the God who made them, and that restored relationship will come about only through people hearing the good news and responding with faith. So if a church simply seeks to serve the society and transform the culture, without putting any effort into evangelism, then it has completely lost the plot. Evangelism is essential.
So far so good.
But DeYoung’s method of calling the church not to forsake evangelism is more questionable. His method is to pose the question, “What is the mission of the church?” This was the title of his 2011 book, coauthored by Greg Gilbert, and this was the title of two talks he gave a couple of weeks ago for the Annual Conference of the North West Partnership. (I’ve not read the book, but I have listened to the talks, only the first of which is relevant.)
In order to make the question, “What is the mission of the church?” yield the answer, “Evangelism is really important!” DeYoung needs to use a very specific meaning for the word “church”. “‘Church’ is not simply plural for ‘Christian’” (talk 1, 9:47), but “church” is that local institution that has sacraments, ordinances, officers (i.e., elders and deacons) and structures.
As such, to ask, “What is the mission of the church?” is not to ask, “What does God want me, personally, to do with my life?” or, “What should God’s people do in the world?” Perhaps the most important thing God wants you to do with your life is to give round-the-clock care to your elderly parents. And perhaps your elderly parents are already Christians. Are you neglecting evangelism? Should you let them die of neglect and instead go and be a missionary? No, that’s not what DeYoung is saying. Perhaps you are campaigning tirelessly against human trafficking. Should you give that up and instead become a church planter? Or get a high-paying job so you can give lots of money to support evangelists? No, that’s not what DeYoung is saying either. Rather, he is saying that, when you think of the life of the church not as the sum total of the lives of all the members of the church, but more narrowly as that part of our common life that ought to be concerned with the proclamation of the gospel, then the proclamation of the gospel must be the central priority.
This narrow definition of “church”, and hence of “mission”, causes DeYoung’s temperature to go up when he hears people (such as Chris Wright and John Stott) talking about “church” and “mission” in different ways. For example, if someone said that God’s mission is the renewal of the whole created order, and that the church’s mission is to partner with God in this work of renewal (with evangelism having an important role in that), then alarm bells would go off in DeYoung’s mind. He would be concerned that gospel proclamation is at risk of being pushed to the margins and ultimately neglected, because he think’s the church’s mission in the world is evangelism (with good works having an important role in corroborating the gospel message). I think this is a simple misunderstanding, based on different uses of the words “church” and “mission”. But what a lot of heat is generated when people use words in different ways!
I’ve consciously avoided entering this debate, because it strikes me as being so fruitless. Yes, evangelism matters. Yes, everything else matters too. Now, can we agree about that and move on?