March 21, 2020

What is the Mission of the (Inner-City) Church?

Let’s build the Kingdom of God! Let’s transform the community! Let’s impact the city!

These are familiar phrases among Christians, aren’t they? When I first started out on my own church-planting journey twelve years ago, these were common words that came out of my mouth. And they sent me in the wrong direction.

I was a young, idealistic Christian who had a ‘heart for the poor’ and a lot of energy. Our original tagline for our Baltimore mission was: “Reconciling the City of Baltimore with the Kingdom of God.”

Looking back, I can’t help but think: Whew! That sounds like a big job. Don’t get me wrong, we did a lot of good—mentored kids, hosted art programs, painted a school. The thing was, we considered all of it to be our ‘mission’, because we were on God’s mission and it’s God’s mission to make this city a better place––or so we thought.

What’s Our Mission?

After about two years, our energy began to fizzle out. I realized our little group of people looked much more like a friendly band of do-gooders than a church. I realized our product was ‘serving others’ while not necessarily ‘making disciples’ of others. I knew something needed to change. We needed to clarify who we were and what mission we were on. But that led to new questions. Who are we? And what mission are we on?

It was around this time that I began meeting other Christians and pastors who were less idealistic than me, yet seemed more effective and fruitful. One of these pastors gave me a book which had been recently published, called What is the Mission of the Church? by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert. It rocked my little world. It simply made sense.

Here’s a little bit about the book.

What is the Mission of the Church? gives a clear, biblical answer to that very question. What should be a simple question, as it turns out, is quite complex. Churches across the globe spout a vast array of answers to this question, which in many cases has led to confusion and burnout.

Some may think it’s reactionary. I think it’s corrective.

DeYoung and Gilbert know that everything today—from painting fences, to building houses, to digging wells—is being touted as the ‘mission’ of the church. Many Christians have confused ‘being a good neighbor’ and ‘doing good’ as the mission of the church. But is this really our mission?

Dangerous Misunderstanding

The authors know that “bringing the kingdom of God to earth” and “reconciling the city with the kingdom of God” is being displayed as the mission of the church. Simply put, many Christians have confused God’s mission with ours. Only God can bring his kingdom to earth, not us. Reconciling any city with his Kingdom is never our job.

DeYoung and Gilbert are not calling Christians to cease all social ministries. They’re concerned about why we do what we do. They’re concerned that a wrong understanding can lead to utter failure. The authors want to turn the rudder of this massive ship before well-meaning Christians sink into despair and disillusionment.

First, DeYoung and Gilbert define the mission of the church from the Bible, centering their definition around the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18–20). In response to popular catchphrases of our day, they ask: “But what if we are not called to partner with God in all he undertakes? What if the work of salvation, restoration, and re-creation are divine gifts to which we bear witness, rather than works in which we collaborate?” (42).

In other words, the church’s mission is not to do what God is doing. The church’s mission is not to do everything an individual Christian is called to do either. For example, an individual Christian should make a sandwich for their hungry neighbor, but the church itself is not called to fill every hungry belly. The church’s mission is to make disciples. That’s it. And that is huge! Distinguishing between what the church does versus what every disciple should do verses what God is doing matters, hugely.

Second, DeYoung and Gilbert attack the misapplication of ideas. I’ll use “poverty” as an example. Is it the church’s mission to alleviate all poverty? Well, churches should certainly address issues of injustice. We must have a great concern for the poor. However, “the alleviation of poverty is simply not the main storyline of Scripture” (175). Individual Christians work toward the alleviation of all poverty as part of what it means to love their neighbor. God will ultimately alleviate all poverty when Jesus comes again. But the church’s mission is to make disciples––even if those disciples remain poor in this world.

Third, just in case someone decides to throw out all good deeds after reading the book, the authors address why we should do good works. Lest the concerned reader abandon all concern for the poor, DeYoung and Gilbert simply write: “We do good works because they are the fruit of the Spirit’s work in us” (226). While good works are certainly part of loving one’s neighbor––the mission of the church remains: Go into all the world and make disciples.

Crucial Read 

Why you should read this book:

  1. Categories matter. Understanding acts of mercy and justice as “loving one’s neighbor” is not only correct, it also ensures that we will not ignore it, because it’s part of what disciples do.
  2. Avoiding burnout. If we think ‘transforming a city’ or ‘bringing God’s Kingdom to earth’ is our mission, we’re setting ourselves up for failure. Rightly understanding the mission allows us to continue on the mission field even if the neighborhood is still rough after 12 years of ministry.
  3. You should care for the poor. The authors’ argument for caring for the poor is compelling and—ironically—may lead many Christians to more and greater poverty ministry than those who think “caring for the poor” is the mission of the church.
  4. Helps young, zealous church planters. The book can help young church planters (like myself 12 years ago) as they begin their work. This loving correction may save not only their mission statement, but their ministry.

Here’s the crazy thing. Our church does more mercy ministry today than we ever considered when I began. We help people get jobs. Homeless people come to our church and end up moving in with church members. Youth come to the church office for tutoring. Addicts are coming off drugs and renting their own space.

Rightly understanding the mission of the church hasn’t led us to do less ministry, it’s freed us to do more. To preach the gospel. To make disciples. And guess what––when you make disciples, you start loving your neighbors better. When you make disciples, lives change.

So what is the mission of the inner-city church? Answer: same as any church. But our context is different. Our people have different struggles. So ministry will look different. But the mission remains the same.

Church, let’s stay focused on the mission God has given us.

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