Church is the Mission - Colossians 4:2-6
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The Church Christ Builds
The Church and Mission
Let me begin by asking this question: ‘Is the church the primary means for God reaching out to the world with the Gospel? The oft quoted saying of Archbishop William Temple would seem to decide the answer for many when he said: ‘The church is the only club designed specifically for its non-members.’ So almost by definition the church’s reason for being is outreach.
But given the understanding of church as the ‘gathering of God’s people’ which, as we have seen, is the Bible’s understanding of ‘church’ (ecclesia), we might want to pause and think again.
We sometimes talk of the church’s mission. The word ‘mission’ comes from a Latin word (missio) which linked to the Greek word ‘apostello’ which means, ‘to send’. But is it right to think of a congregation/church as being ‘sent’? One writer, John Woodhouse, thinks not. He says, ‘‘The NT does not contain this concept. The apostles are ‘sent’. And one may suppose that evangelists are ‘sent’. Perhaps in some sense all Christians are ‘sent’ (John 20:21). But the ‘church’ as the church is not ‘sent’. Individuals are given to the church, ‘sent’ to the church if you like (Eph. 4:11) and the church sends individuals (Acts 13:3). But we do not find the church with a mission. This is because the NT concept of ‘church’ is not of an institution. All the ‘sending’ has the gathering of God’s people by the gospel as its goal. The gathering, the ‘church’, is not the means to some other goal.’ So whether it is the local church like St John’s or the church in heaven which Christ is building, outreach has the aim of adding people to those congregations. So in this sense the church is the end point of mission with people being incorporated into the Body of Christ. Now this doesn’t mean that the congregation has no part to play in proclaiming the Gospel as we shall see, but it is important that we see the church for what it is- the place where God’s people are gathered and Christ is worshipped.
Now in order for us to get a clearer picture of what God’s mission in the world is and the part we have to play in it, there are a few other things which need to be thought through.
The first is what we can call the Bible’s embarrassing silence. Think of all the things the apostle Paul encourages Christians to do - live lives worthy of their calling, being patient, kind, gentle, forgiving each other (Eph. 4:1ff), not repaying evil for evil, (Rom. 12:17), being subject to governing authorities (Rom 13) and so on. What is striking with Paul’s letters is the absence of any encouragement to evangelise, that is, to actively proclaim the Gospel. Certainly Christians and churches were to be positively involved in the evangelistic process, as we see in his letter to the Philippians who are described as Paul’s partners in the Gospel (1:4), a partnership expressed through prayer and giving and the support of Paul’s co-workers like Timothy and Epaphroditus (Phil: 2:25), but the Philippians themselves are not explicitly exhorted to evangelise. That, at least for evangelicals who emphasise evangelism, is an embarrassing silence. Strange isn’t it?
Secondly, there is the consistent emphasis, namely, the encouragement of godly character and lifestyle. You see this for example in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. He begins by giving thanks for their virtues of faith, hope and love. And he says it is the change in their lives as they have turned away from idols to put their faith in the living God which has been the cause of the Christian message ringing out far and wide (1 Thess. 1:2-10). So there is a connection between lives transformed by the Gospel and other people hearing the Gospel. But the Thessalonian church is not explicitly encouraged to get on with evangelism. Rather what Paul prays for is that ‘the Lord will make their love overflow for each other and everyone else’ (1 Thess. 3:12).
So what is going on?
I want to suggest there are some good reasons why we don’t find the emphasis on evangelism as we might have expected and why there is such an emphasis on living good lives which nonetheless does have a witnessing aspect to it.
The first thing is that evangelism, proclaiming the Gospel with an expected response, appears to be a specialist activity. God himself authorises and sends specific people to do this. And so in his testimony to Cornelius, the apostle Peter speaking of the risen Jesus says in Acts 10:42, ‘He commanded us [the apostles] to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead.’ In Ephesians 4:11, after listing apostles, and prophets, Paul mentions ‘evangelists’ as being Christ’s gifts for the building up of the body of Christ [again the church is the goal of mission]. So it would seem that just as not everyone in the church is called to be a pastor-teacher, not everyone is called to be an evangelist. It is a special gift and maybe office. However, we might also say that just as those within the church who are not pastor/teachers like me and Scott, can nonetheless pastor fellow believers with the Gospel, and so Christians can share the Gospel with unbelievers. How they might do that we shall see in a moment. But the point remains that churches are not sent to evangelise- they are the products of evangelism; and not all Christians are evangelists.
The second thing is that the role of Israel in God’s purposes in the OT provides much of the background for the role of the church in the NT. The people of Israel were called to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Ex.19:6), mediating God’s blessing to the whole earth. The main way they would do this would be by living such a holy life that the surrounding nations couldn’t help but conclude that God was in their midst (Dt.4). And by being different they were to be a light to the nations, a light which attracts (Is. 42:6) like moths to a flame, the main purpose being that God’s salvation ‘may reach to the ends of the earth’ (Is 49:6). In other words, the nation of Israel was to be more like a tractor beam drawing others in to come to know the one true God, rather than by being a propelling force pushing people out. This certainly would involve individuals who would act as guides to those who came seeking- this is the great vision of Zechariah 8:23, ‘This is what the Lord Almighty says: “In those days ten people from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the hem of his robe and say, ‘Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you.’”
But now with the coming of Christ and the pouring out of the Spirit, the geographical focus of the OT of the land of Israel has gone, and instead of the nation Israel being a light, you have gospel communities, churches being lights, made up of people who by their holy lifestyle begin to attract others to Christ. This doesn’t mean there is no proclamation, explaining why Christians are a different and what they believe any more than in the OT the Jews would have been silent if they were asked by non-Jews why they were different, that quote from Zachariah presumes that an explanation will be given.
In fact, Jesus himself in the Sermon on the Mount speaking to his disciples draws on this OT model of Israel to show how his ‘new Israel’, his group of followers, by having a different lifestyle, will result in people giving glory to God as the only explanation for their transformed lives, so Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.’ (Mtt 5:14-1) Both as individuals and as a community of Christ’s followers, we are to be distinct, like a city on a hill, or a light on a stand illuminating dark places, shedding light to give direction to a lost world. Obviously some explanation will be given as to why we are different otherwise how would people know that they are to give glory to God the Father unless they have been told he is the one primarily responsible for the change?
There is one passage which brings both of these together: the work of specialist evangelists and the witness of rank and file believers whose holy lives open up opportunities for sharing the Gospel, Colossians 4:2-4, (quoting from the ESV), ‘Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.’ At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison— ‘that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.’ [Here the church is being asked to cooperate with the specialist evangelists like Paul by prayer]. He then goes on, ‘Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.’ There we have the lifestyle of the Christians in the churches- ‘walking in wisdom’ being mindful of non-Christians, so that when non-Christians enquires about our faith or challenges it, they know how to answer them graciously, which I think involves explaining the Gospel. Do you see? The Gospel leads to changed lives and the formation of Christian churches, which in turn act as communities of light leading to Gospel enquiries and Gospel sharing, which leads to more changed lives, more church growth and so the cycle continues.
This brings us to the joining of practice and proclamation.
We have seen that the goal of mission is the church itself- ‘adding to their number those who are saved’ (Acts 2:47). To further this end God has given his church evangelists. The emphasis in both the Old and New Testaments is for the people of God to be distinct/holy, walking in wisdom and forming communities of light. Changed lives, which will involve acting with love and kindness in the world, provide opportunities to share the Gospel, and so God’s kingdom is extended and Christ is exalted.
So let me mention some practical implications this has for us.
First, since the risen Christ has distributed gifts to his church for the building up of the body of Christ, we should be on the lookout for those gifts and encouraging individuals who show a special giftedness in gospel communication. Just as we recognise and pray for missionaries who engage in Gospel work globally, we should be doing the same in our fellowship locally.
Secondly, we should not separate evangelism from discipleship. The Gospel, ‘evangel’, is not simply the entry point into the Christian faith, it is the means of maturing us in the faith. We are not just looking for decisions for Christ, but disciples of Christ, those who will follow him and stand up for him in an increasingly hostile society. But this is not just a matter of throwing Christians out into the world to fend for themselves, but equipping them so that they know what they believe and why they believe it and how to communicate it. That, in part, is what we do on Sundays and in homegroups. But there is more to it than that, for it is by encountering the risen and ascended Lord Jesus as we meet together that we will be strengthened inwardly for this task. It was John Calvin who rightly said ‘Believers have no greater help than public worship, for by it God raises his own folk upward step by step.’ We meet as a church to worship in order that we are then scattered during the week to witness.
Thirdly, as a church we must have our thoughts and lives conformed to God’s word so that we become transformed so the world notices we are different. Commenting on the Sermon on the Mount, Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones, writes, ‘I have no hesitation…in asserting that the failure of the church to have a greater impact upon the life of men and women in the world today is due entirely to the fact that her own life is not in order…Every revival proves clearly that men and women outside the church become attracted when the church herself begins to function truly as the Christian church, and as individual Christian approximate to the description here given in these Beatitudes. So we must start with ourselves….’ That is right. How can we expect the world to take our faith seriously if we don’t take it seriously, which means the commitment to live it out together as a community. Let me tell you something, the Roman Emperor Julian in the 4th century tried unsuccessfully to reimpose paganism on the Roman Empire. He accounted for his lack of success in these words: ‘Atheism [i.e. the Christian faith] has been especially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through their care for the burial of the dead [that is those who died of disease others wouldn’t touch]. It is a scandal that there is not a single Jew who is a beggar, and that the godless Galileans [Christians] care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.’ The early Christians had social networks with the local communities which enabled them to connect with unbelievers, act in godly ways and so share the Gospel. We are to do the same.
Fourthly, as we meet together, we do need to be aware of the non-believers present and engage in worship in such a way that as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:25, the non-Christian will be able to say ‘God is in their midst’. There should be such a sense of the transcendent presence of God that it can’t be denied. But such awareness extends to being very practical. One writer puts it this way, ‘Every member, regardless of gifts, has an important role to play in the mission of the local church [there he is using ‘mission’ in the sense of ‘task’], if only by extending the warm hand of fellowship and hospitality to those who are coming into the life of the church. The importance of friendliness and friendship cannot be over-stated, as numbers of studies make clear. Not only is it the case that the vast majority of people who come into church from outside do so because of an invitation from a friend, they also only keep coming if they have or can make friends at church.’
If you see someone after the service you don’t know or is maybe standing by themselves, please do talk to them and get to know them- in short, be friendly. We have a number of our international friends we would like to link up with folk for Christmas Day; can you help with that- showing the love of Christ? Because then our practice will give credibility to our profession, this is love in action.
Finally, we should all be partnering in the Gospel by giving financial and prayer support to those doing frontline Gospel work, such as our missionary partners, but also for those of us who, like Timothy, are called to ‘do the work of an evangelist’- that is why it is important to pray for us regularly and give regularly to the NCT. Being a partner in the Gospel will also involve inviting family and friends to regular services as well as special services and events where they will hear the Gospel and encounter Christ-praying for and expecting converts, then welcoming and supporting them within the church family which I know many of you do.
Let me end by giving you an example of the impact the different lifestyle of Christians can have in leading someone to Christ, where there is a great blending of witness by lips and lives. It is the experience of a young man going to college and encountering a group of Christian students. This is what he says: ‘Coming to college was the first time I met committed Christian my own age. To my surprise, they were clearly intelligent people who didn’t seem particularly gullible. So I was intrigued and slightly incredulous that they could believe such fairy tales……One thing that struck me as I looked was the integrity of lifestyle displayed by the Christians. They had better, more real friendships and better attitudes to other people. This is a generalisation, but I didn’t find the hypocrisy that the media are so keen to expose in the established church…..I spent a year asking questions and found consistently that the Christians did not have blind faith but coherent and well-thought-out beliefs……eventually I committed my life to following Jesus.’
How did Jesus put it? , ‘So let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.’
 K.A. Mascord, ‘Equipping the local church for mission’, in Exploring the Missionary Church, (Lancer, 1993), p.143
 Michael green, Some Sneaking Suspicions (IVP), p.19
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