A vigorous conversation is happening today around the question, “What is the mission of the church?” A few weeks ago, Tim Keller addressed the topic in this blog post on the Redeemer City to City website. In the article Keller puts the conversation under the banner of two related topics: the mission of the church and the relationship between Christ and culture. He lays out the perceived division between those in the “Two-Kingdoms” view and the “Cultural Transformationalist” view while proposing there is a “slow convergence” happening between the two groups.
An interesting part of the blog post is that Keller places the conversation among young leaders with “Reformed and evangelical convictions.” I am a young leader with “Reformed and evangelical convictions” and I run in circles where these conversations are loud. Therefore, I would like to offer my thoughts on Keller’s post and maybe add another vantage point to the conversation.
The Bible speaks to the need of the older generation passing down the faith to the younger generation. I once heard it said that if the older generation preaches a message that they fail to robustly live out, the young generation will not attack their parent’s behaviors as much as they will their beliefs. I really sense this is what happened in much of North American evangelicalism. Children of the late 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s watched their parents participate in a dualistic, pragmatic Christianity that emphasized the individual over the communal and cultural. As many of these kids came of age they asked why their parents never talked about vocation, the poor, world development, consumerism, and the growing realities of pluralism. A large group of this generation wanted a different type of Christianity. Simply speaking, the reaction of this generation fueled the emergent church movement and the young, restless, Reformed movement.
The emergent church brand wanted a faith that had feet, in contrast to a Christianity that seemed simplistic and content with personal salvation. They epitomize the generation who concluded the beliefs of their parents led to their lack of behavior. Rather than being critical of the depth of their parent’s beliefs they went after the content of their beliefs. The result of this approach has led to what many are saying is just a new form of old liberalism.
The other group, the “Young, Restless, Reformed” movement grew out of pragmatic Christianity that made church growth and “your best life now” the target. This group was ripe for the message of a big God in the heavens who does whatever He pleases (Psalm 115:3). The message of men like John Piper fell like water on parched ground to a generation who had been reared in pragmatic Christianity.
The context in which all of this has been taking place is a very different context than that of 20-35 years ago. Today the World Wide Web is the primary portal of communication; we are in contact with the whole world’s problems like never before. Globalization is bringing the nations into our cities, neighborhoods, and living rooms. The questions being asked today are not the questions asked in 1985. Globalization was not nearly as big an issue in the 80’s as it is today. Technology and transportation are creating a context never before seen in world history. Therefore young Christians are forced to ask the question, “What does the gospel’s influence on this culture look like?” This question raises other questions about the nature of the gospel and the mission of the church, just as it has in every generation before it.
Our context is new but the issues are not. John Stott wrote Christian Mission in the Modern World in 1975 and it is being rediscovered by those who were not born until the 1980’s as if it were written for such a time as this. Church history going back long before Stott shows that many within this generation are near-sighted. We young ones could learn a bunch from our predecessors. Yet our living predecessors need to remember moments like this can be the greatest opportunities for the church to be purified and pruned. Stott was arguing for a wholistic gospel that addressed physical as well as spiritual problems. He along with many others moved the Western Church forward in substantial ways.
I think today’s conversations are somewhat a rehashing of old conversations. It is exciting because those conversations need to be engaged to ensure faithfulness to the gospel and clarity of calling for the church. But I also think the context and questions being brought up today are calling the church into a more comprehensive gospel than many before promoted. It is not just a gospel that heals the spiritual and physical but one that heals nations. The true gospel addresses how faith relates to our work, how Christians should respond to undocumented immigrants and Muslim migrants, it addresses America’s culture of mass consumption; it speaks to the way cultures should and should not develop. The Bible reveals how cosmic distortions lead to cultural idolatry and how individuals appropriate that in their personal lives.
The gospel the church proclaims is the power that brings salvation to the whole world. Therefore the mission of the church is the discipling of nations. We need to disciple individuals, families, and we have to disciple at the level of culture as well. Cultures are the conglomeration of all aspects of society so we need to care about all aspects. If we are to love our neighbor as ourselves then we have to realize that culture shapes them for good or evil. Let’s shape them for good and remember only God is good (Mark 10:18).
– Tyler Johnson
For the past ten years, Tyler has worked on college campuses, arranged church partnerships, led community initiatives, and established a city-wide church network that seeks to raise up transformational leaders in the city of Phoenix. He currently is a part of the Leadership Team at Redemption Church in Phoenix, Arizona, as well as the Director of the Surge Network. He is married to Hayley and they have three children: Braden, Yale, and Lucianna. Tyler serves on the board of directors of Disciple Nations Alliance.