Why Work Is at the Heart of God’s Mission
Almost every Sunday morning at church, as we finish the final songs and benediction (and I prepare to pick up my crew of girls from Sunday School – now four!), I find myself asking the same question: What is the Church sent into the world to do?
This is a question that my friends in pastoral ministry think about often. They do so because it’s so foundational. The “why” of Christian mission, I think, is far less in question: our motivation for ministry is the gospel of Jesus Christ, his atoning death for our sins and his resurrection for our salvation. The free gift of new life in Christ is the spark that ignites the heart of his global people.
But what, then, is the church to do about it? In a previous post, I noted that John Stott, the framer of the Lausanne Covenant and best-selling author, saw a unity between service and witness as central to the church’s mission. Both were at the heart of why God sent Jesus himself into the world.
I recently picked up a book that I hadn’t read in ages that agrees with this view of mission. The authors of The Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (edited by Darrell L. Guder), like Stott, go to the mission of Jesus’ own mission to represent the Kingdom of God. “The church’s own mission,” they write “must take its cues from the way God’s mission unfolded in the sending of Jesus into the world for its salvation.”
They find a three part structure to the church’s own mission: “In Jesus’ way of carrying out God’s mission, we discover that the church is to represent God’s reign as its community, its servant, and its messenger.”
That is, the church is sent:
- first to live under the reign of God as a distinctive, covenant community;
- second the church is to represent “the reign of God by its deeds” and as a “servant to God’s passion for the world’s life;”
- and third it is to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ with words, inviting all people to enter the Kingdom by way of the atoning sacrifice of Christ.
What impressed me about this formulation was just how many other “missional thinkers” and leaders in the 20th century missions movement have seen the same structure:
– In the 1950s, Hans Hoekendijk and Hendrik Kraemer articulate the church’s mission in three parts: kerygma(proclamation), diakonia (service), and koinonia(fellowship)
– In 1961, the New Dehli Assembly of the World Council of Churches organized around the three themes of witness, service and unity
– In 1981, Tom Sine in The Mustard Seed Conspiracy used the themes of “words of love, deeds of love, a life a love” to explain the church’s mission
– The 1972 book Who in the World? presented at Christian Reformed Church conference, organized the church’s mission around truth (message), the life (community) and the way (servant)
My question is this: What if our daily work is the central place that the scattered church (the church throughout the week, Monday through Saturday, cf. 1 Peter 1:1) embodies the gospel in daily living, bears witness to the truth of Christ in all of life, and serves the needs of the world?
What would change if the daily work of men and women was the center point of how all churches understand their own mission to their community?How would this change the church’s preaching, teaching and programming?
I’m not the first person to ask this question. Elton Trueblood, the great 20th century theologian, said in his little-known book The Common Ventures of Life, “A Church which seeks to lift our sagging civilization will preach the principle of vocation in season and out of season. The message is that the world is one, secular and sacred, and that the chief way to serve the Lord is in our daily work.”
Similarly, the great missionary, apologist and theologian Lesslie Newbigin said, “We need to create, above all, possibilities in every congregation for lay people to share with one another the actual experience of their weekday work and seek illumination from the gospel for their secular duty. Only thus shall we begin to bring together what our culture has divided – the private and public. Only thus will the church fulfill its missionary role.”
For Newbigin, in a culture like ours (the modern West, which is a pluralistic society ruled in the public realm by a secular vision of the world), work is the context in which the church bears witness to Christ, the Lord over all of life, OR retreats in the private sphere without a word of hope for the public life of the world.
The obvious tension, at least for me, comes when I attend so many churches. I hear the gospel. Praise God. I hear lots about ministries involving kids, teens, young marrieds, men, women and singles. Again, praise God. And I often hear about “mission activities,” which primarily means volunteering. But where is work?
Where are the efforts to bear witness to Christ in corporate board rooms, public schools or the vast medical complex of late modernity? And where is the equipping of the saints for deep acts of love and service in the manual trades, manufacturing, the service industry or accounting? Is this too, not the opportunity we have to serve? Is this not where all those people listening to our sermons spend their weeks – and their lives?
Let’s not stop volunteering. Don’t get me wrong. We NEED volunteers, and we NEED nonprofits. Society crumbles without those stepping in the gap to care for the poor on a volunteer basis. But isn’t job creation in business (work!) central to economic development, too? Isn’t upholding the rule of law absolutely central to protecting and serving those in need (cf. Gary Haugen’s The Locust Effect). These are all dependent on how we do our work, whether that be of a police officer, lawyer or entrepreneur.
The challenge for the Church in the 21st century, and for the myriad of faithful pastors in North America and beyond, will be whether our vision of mission includes the world of work or overlooks work in its preaching, teaching and programming.
This is the challenge for the Church in a post-Christian society. And this is the call of God, who has sent His covenant community into the world to faithfully live, witness and serve.