4 Views on the Church’s Mission (a book review)

So there I was pretty excited about the upcoming conference with Christopher Wright that I pulled out the only book I owned featuring him. “4 Views on the Church’s Mission” (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017) has Wright and three other authors share their views (and do some theological sparring slash sniping) on what exactly the church is called to do, to be and so on.

A) Summary of the 4 positions

  1. Jonathan Leeman’s esssay focus primarily on sin as the biggest problem of the world, hence the church’s mission is about telling people about their fallenness and how they need to accept Christ as Lord and Saviour. Naturally, this perspective has more or less defined modern Christianity; anyone who’s been a Christian for more than a decade or so will recognise this as the baseline ‘purpose’ of the church i.e. to turn sinners back to Christ.
  2. Chris Wright’s essay, on the other hand (and he’s clearly the ‘big gun’ among the four writers IMO), proffers a full-spectrum Biblical approach to the church’s mission. He covers personal sin, social injustice, care of creation, Christian education, etc. and argues that this is part of what it means to be the people of God within God’s story as told from Old Testament to New. From a breadth and holistic-ness angle, his essay will without doubt appeal to most (younger? newer?) Christians in the community today, especially those looking for more than merely ‘sin and hellfire’ themes from our churches. There is an undeniably contemporary dimension to Wright’s thought (and he’s the only one using diagrams, whatever that implies haha) which, I reckon, will keep many churches engaged fruitfully with the world.
  3. John Franke is the post-modernist among the four. He views the Gospel as some absolute core from which cultural adaptations must and do flow. A big fan of Leslie Newbigin, for Franke, the mission of the church is about translating the Gospel into local cultures and contexts.
  4. Finally, Peter Leithart argues that the church is called to sacramental mission i.e. baptism and the Lord’s supper serve as the core and the power of the church towards producing unity and discipleship. Stricty speaking, if I read Leithart correctly, his objective was to frame social justice issues within sacramental categories i.e. his essay was more about constructing a sacramental theology of missional purpose rather than defining what that mission is (apart from bringing the sacraments to the world).

B) My personal evaluation of the essays

Unsurprisingly, I felt Leeman’s harping on sin sin sin isn’t so much wrong as it’s simply ‘inadequate’. It’s almost as if the church, in this view, has no other thing to talk about. Of course repentance is the first step towards entering the kingdom of God but this same kingdom involves a lot more than that, and I just don’t think folks like Leeman bring this ‘more’ sufficiently out.

Having said that, his essay is interesting as he’s a witty writer happy to use many cute analogies (there’s a delightful one involving his daughter) and phrases (eg, “eschatological wrinkles”, see p. 29 onwards). But, again, when he writes lines like, “The church cannot redeem or transform anything. It can only point to the One who does,” and argues that the church should focus mainly on the “narrow mission” of evangelism, it does feel kinda stale. It’s almost as if folks like Leeman are unaware of how characters like Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, Jr. were powerful precisely in their willingness to go beyond telling people they must be saved from hell.

Likewise with Leithart’s view. I won’t begrudge any missionary or preacher whose ministry revolves around baptism and holy communion; in fact, by all means I think it’s great to recover the wonder and ‘magic’ of the sacraments. However, I see the sacraments to be at best necessary “accompaniments” or even “empowering means” of the church’s mission. I could be wrong, but apart from regular teaching on the sacraments, I can’t see how it helps to shape the church’s way forward (always assuming that going ‘forward’ or going ‘somewhere’ is an accepted way of thinking about church life).

And, despite my post-modern past, I wasn’t very impressed with Franke’s essay. It appears to me that he’s taken a post-modern multi-cultural “frame” and forced the Gospel to refract itself through it. To me there is no question that cultural adaptation of any ancient message is necessary, but I cannot agree with Franke that “plurality characterizes the story of Christianity” (p.129).

Finally, Wright’s essay. Again, I can see many modern Christians who are sensitive and aware of issues in their community and the world immediately resonating with Wright’s message. Sure we can quibble a bit with the details (and Leeman is a good quibbler, Franke not that good; my tiny quibble is that he could try to be more engaging as a writer) but if you’ve always wondered how the church can be more transformative and engaging with the world without coming across as yet another NGO or sacrificing a unique narrative, you gotta read Wright