Book Review: What is the Mission of the Church by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert

Title: What is the Mission of the Church?
Author: Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert
Publisher: Crossway
Publishing Year: 2011
Pages: 288
My Rating: 5 out of 5 (1 meaning I hated the book, 5 meaning I loved the book)

Maybe you are like me and read Radical by David Platt and got all hyped up on the idea of selling everything and giving it all to build wells in Africa.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that…  But, is that the true mission of the church?  Should social justice be incorporated into our understanding of what it means to fulfill the Great Commission?  What is the mission of the Church?  In my opinion, Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert do a great job of tackling this issue with heart-filled compassion and Scripture-filled argumentation.

According to DeYoung and Gilbert, “The mission of the church is to go into the world and make disciples by declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit and gathering these disciples into churches, that they might worship the Lord and obey his commands now and in eternity to the glory of God the Father.” (pages 67-68)  They make the case that the basic mission of the church is found in the Great Commission.  While ministries of mercy and social justice are legitimate areas of concern (and action) for the church, is not the main task given to us by God.  (Pages 45-48 give five reasons as to why the church should focus on this command and chapter 3 builds an excellent case using the basic outlaying of redemptive history leading to an overall worldview on the matter).

Chapter 5 gives us the needed reminder that the Kingdom of God is not built by men with good intentions but will be built by Christ Himself.  This relieves us of the pressure and actually may result in more works of mercy and generosity.  Pastor Gilbert explains this idea with experiences he once observed:

I (Greg) spent a few years ministering in Washington, DC, and one of the things I noticed there—something that surprised me, in fact—is how often college graduates would come to town thinking they were going to change the world, only to spend three or four years banging their heads against the wall of this present evil age, and finally leave town jaded and discouraged and convinced that it was all hopeless. I think a good deal of that discouragement could have been avoided if they had just come into those jobs with a Bible-informed realism about the age we are all living in. Then they could have worked hard to accomplish good in the  world, rejoiced when victories were won, and yet not been crushed when it turned out that they could not, in fact, fix the world. That would have given them both the motivation to do good and the flinty determination to work even through the strong and persistent opposition of the powers of this world.” (page 145)

Chapter 6 explores several passages used to promote a church-wide crusade for social justice.  Among these passages are:  Leviticus 19:9–18, Leviticus 25 (the year of Jubilee), Isaiah 1, Isaiah 58, Jeremiah 22, Amos 5, Micah 6:8, Matthew 25:31–46, Luke 10:25–37, Luke 16:19–31, 2 Corinthians 8–9, and James 1, 2, 5.  Basically the premise they pose in each of these passages is that the church’s first responsibility is to see to the needs of the poor within its own congregation.  The church is not tasked with righting every social wrong or even to minister to the needs to of the entire community – yet individual members of the church are encouraged to address these issues as they are able.

I found chapter 7 to be the most interesting as the authors pose “Seven Modest Proposals on Social Justice.” (page 192)  Of these seven, three stood out among the rest as especially enlightening and helpful.  First, there was proposal number 3 – “Accept the Complexities of Determining a Biblical Theology of Wealth, Poverty, and Material Possessions.” (page 196)  In this section, the authors wrestle with differing but related concepts concerning a Biblical idea of wealth:

“On the one hand, riches are a blessing from God (as seen in the patriarchs, the Mosaic covenant, Proverbs, and the accounts of the kings in Kings–Chronicles). But on the other hand, there is almost nothing that puts you in more spiritual danger than money (“It is hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven” is how Jesus put it).  On the one hand, Jesus and the prophets had very little positive to say about the rich and sympathized more with the poor.  On the other hand, God put the first man and woman in a paradise of plenty, and the vision of the new heavens and the new earth is a vision of opulence, feasting, and prosperity.” (pages 196-197).

Wealth as a positive blessing from God seems to be overlooked today.  Instead, we are often made to feel guilty over our possessions even if we got them through moral means and hard work.

Proposal number five is “Appropriate the Concept of Moral Proximity.” (page 203)  This concept is defined by the authors –

“The principle of moral proximity is pretty straightforward, but it is often overlooked: The closer the need, the greater the moral obligation to help. Moral proximity does not refer to geography, though that can be part of the equation. Moral proximity refers to how connected we are to someone by virtue of familiarity, kinship, space, or time.” (page 203).

They got to explain it further –

“You can see where this is going. The closer the moral proximity, the greater the moral obligation. That is, if a church in Whoville gets struck by lightning and burns down, Greg’s church in Kentucky could help them out, but the obligation is much less than if a church down the street in Louisville goes up in smoke. Likewise, if a man in Lansing loses his job, Kevin could send him a check, but if his brother-in-law on the other side of the world is out of work, he has more of an obligation to help. This doesn’t mean we can be uncaring to everyone but our friends, close relatives, and people next door, but it means that what we ought to do in one situation is what we may do in another. Moral proximity makes obedience possible by reminding us that before Paul said “let us do good to everyone,” he said, “So then, as we have opportunity” (Gal. 6:10).” (page 203)

Finally, proposal six (“Connect Good Intentions with Sound Economics”) gives us an important lesson in economics.

Consequently, the rich do not have to get rich at the expense of the poor. Christians often worry about the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots, but a growing gap does not necessarily mean a growing problem. In the last few decades, both in the United States and around the world, the rich have gotten richer, but the poor have gotten richer too. By one estimate, from 1970 to 2006 poverty fell by 86 percent in South Asia, 73 percent in Latin America, 39 percent in the Middle East, and 20 percent in Africa. Although there is still dire suffering, the overall global trend has been good for the past several decades. The percentage of the world population living in absolute poverty (less than $1 a day) went from 26.8 percent in 1970 to 5.4 percent in 2006.

Because wealth can be created, it is misleading to always speak of wealthy countries (or individuals) “controlling” a certain percentage of wealth or “taking” a certain amount of health-care dollars, as if the rich people raided the cookie jar first and left nothing for the poor people. The biggest consumers of goods and resources are also the most productive creators of jobs and wealth.

Along the same lines, one of the geniuses of capitalism is that it discourages hoarding. This is not to suggest that people are less given to avarice now than they have always been. But whereas in the ancient world the greedy miser might store up excess grain for himself and nobody else (see Luke 12), today the wealthy invest their riches in stocks, or pour their resources into a start-up company, or at least put their money in the bank, which will in turn lend the money to others. There’s little incentive to hide a billion dollars under your mattress or to do nothing with your grain except build bigger barns in which to hoard it. But there is every incentive to put that money to work back in the economy. Even when the wealthy spend their money on things that might offend middle-class sensibilities, their conspicuous consumption is nevertheless providing jobs for the yacht maker, the high-end clothing designer, and the Hummer dealership, not to mention the builder, the landscaper, and the pool maintenance man. (pages 207-208)

In my opinion, the epilogue is what ties this entire book together.  This conclusion features a fictional conversation between two characters.  The first is a preacher’s kid sick of traditional church and now in the midst of a new church plant that he hopes will change the way church is done and in doing so will change the world around him both spiritually and physically.  The second character is an older, more traditional pastor who dispenses the wisdom he has gleaned from decades of ministry experience.  The younger pastor seeks out the advice of the older pastor and what ensues is a beautiful presentation of the major ideas already presented in this book.  This leaves you with an entertaining and memorable way to once again drive home their thoughts.  What a way to end such a deep, theological tome!

I have to admit, I still find myself wrestling through this issue of how committed the church ought to social justice.  While I have not come to a final conclusion, this book has served as an excellent guide to the complexities of this issue.  I’m sure where I finally land on this will have been due to the influence of this book.  I highly recommend it as you too grapple with this issue.

Disclaimer: This book was provided by the publisher for review. I was under no obligation to offer a favorable review.


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