The Scriptures teach that in Jesus Christ, God is taking his sin-marred creation and redemptively restoring it in every part, until at last all things are made new. This is the missio Dei, the redemptive mission of God to the world. But how does God extend these redemptive purposes? How does He accomplish this mission? The answer to this question—both mysterious and ennobling—is that God intends to accomplish this mission by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Christian church (Matt. 5). The church, that one, holy, catholic, and apostolic community—that is both global in its reach and local in its expression—is the intended instrument for the mission of God.
But how does the church participate in this missio Dei? How can such an ordinary community of men, women, and children take the mission of God and embrace that mission as its own? The answer to this question is manifold, consisting both of the endless series of ordinary decisions as well as the heroic acts of God’s people in time. But in general, the church may be said to participate in the mission of God in three ways.
First, as a recipient of the mission of God. The calling of the church is not to originate the missio Dei, but to receive it: to bring our sin-marred lives to God by faith, and to open ourselves to the restorational power of the gospel of Jesus Christ (Rm. 5). The identity and work of the church are therefore received from God himself: from the Father, who has loved us before time (Eph. 1); from the Son, to whom we are united by faith (Philipp. 1); and from the Spirit, who indwells us with power (Acts 2). This is where the church’s participation in the mission of God begins.
But this is not where it ends. For the church exists not only as a recipient of the mission of God, but also as a foretaste of it. That is to say, the church, in the ordinary work of its common life, becomes—in itself—an embodied anticipation of God’s redemptive intentions for the world. How? First, in our restoration to God through faith in Christ, we become a foretaste of the coming day when at long last God and His people will dwell together, when He will be their God and they will be His people (Rev. 21). In our restoration to ourselves, we become a foretaste of the coming day when the image of God, so battered by sin and death, will be fully and finally restored. In our restoration to one another we become a foretaste of the coming union of the family of God, the day when loneliness and violence will be put away. And in the small and varied creation-restoring acts of our lives, we become foretastes of God’s intentions for the creation itself. Thus the church is rightly understood only insofar as it not only receives the mission of God, but also embodies it in its own spiritual, liturgical, relational, and vocational life. Through these things, the church becomes an hors d’oeuvre of the coming banquet of the new world.
The final way in which the church participates in the mission of God is as a bearer of it. That is to say, the call of the church is not only to receive God’s mission by faith, nor simply to pre-figure it in its own life, but also to extend that mission to its neighbors and to the whole of creation, in the very particular time in which it finds itself (Matt. 28). In the word we proclaim, our intention is not only to nurture the life of the church, but also to speak to the deepest questions of our time. This means that one of the central theological tasks of the church is to identify and understand the central questions of our own age. In the worship we enact, our intention is to bring joy to God, not only by making Him our highest good, but also by reminding our neighbors that He is their highest good as well. This means that one of the central liturgical tasks of the church is to hold the reality of God and His new kingdom before the eyes of our neighbors. In the welcome we extend, our purpose is not only to heal the loneliness of ourselves and of our brothers and sisters in the church, but also to bear God’s hospitality to our neighbors. This means that one of the central communal tasks of the church is to invite and embrace its neighbors into its life. In the work that we do, our purpose is not only to care for ourselves, but also to bring God’s restorational care to creation. This means that one of the central vocational tasks of the church is to labor to bring God’s redemptive purposes to bear in the callings that God has given us. Thus the calling of God is for the church—through the ordinariness of its life—to not only receive the mission of God, nor to become mere foretastes of it, but also, by the Spirit, to take it up and bear it into the heart of the world.
Greg Thompson is the senior pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, and executive director of New City Commons. This post is an excerpt from “The Church in Our Time: Nurturing Congregations of Faithful Presence” (pages 21-22), a white paper written by Thompson. It has been republished with the author’s permission.