Whenever somebody asks, “what is the church’s mission?” they’re asking, “how is the local church supposed to act in the world, and why?” It isn’t hard to imagine then that there are so many ways to answer this question because there are so many local churches. In my particular tradition (Queensland Baptist), the church usually functions:
1. As a place for people to come and listen to a sermon for twenty minutes.
2. For people to come and sing to and about God.
3. To catch up with coffee and tea afterwards while eating expired biscuits.
Community engagement varies depending on the church and its theology. Some churches have huge community buildings with swimming pools, cafes, gyms, and sports centres. These churches typically have very little formal “evangelism” with those who come and go in their building, instead relying on relationships and ongoing conversations to perhaps one day influence them towards Jesus and the Kingdom. Other churches (usually smaller) have formal evangelism. They hit the streets, give out Gospel tracts, and awkwardly tell people they’re going to hell. Then there are those churches you hear about only in far-flung corners of the Australian underbelly. The kind that is ruthlessly preaching Jesus and baptising every chance they get and passionately serving their community’s needs.
Recently, as social justice issues such as racism, gender inequality, and climate change have been turned up to eleven, churches, at least in my context, have struggled to engage meaningfully in the question “how is the local church supposed to act in the world, and why?” Some have defaulted to a more insulated view of the church. These people believe that the local church is only supposed to preach, pray, and encourage its members to live out their faith and engage with the community in their own time. In frustration with the first kind of church, other churches passionately leap at every chance they get to engage with social justice issues. They plant trees, feed the hungry, and advocate for human rights. However, this sometimes comes at the expense of telling people about the Kingdom itself. Finally, some people have opted out of the social justice conversation altogether. Instead, they focus on living out a private faith, and you wouldn’t even know that they follow Jesus unless you asked.
As I sit and ponder the entire issue, I can’t help but feel empathy for both sides of the problem. On the one hand, preaching (2 Timothy 2:15), worship (Ephesians 5:19), and the traditional activities that make up our regular Sunday morning services are vital. In fact, it is a passion of mine to recover a fresh sense of the Scriptures, Christ-centered preaching, and sound theology in our local churches. However, traditionally, Christianity has been at the forefront of many social justice problems. In the past, they’ve been among the first to serve those in need in extremely practical ways. Why can’t we have the best of both worlds? It seems to me that good biblical, theological preaching would lead a church to want to care for creation (Genesis 1:26-28), feed the hungry, stand up for injustice, and protect the most vulnerable among (Isaiah 1:17; Micah 6:8) us as we proclaim the Good News (Isaiah 52:7; Romans 10:15).
For me, the Gospel starts in Genesis 1 and ends in Revelation 22. When we talk to people about the Gospel and share Jesus, we try to distil the most essential information so that whoever is listening can walk away with enough to help them follow Him. However, unless the entire biblical narrative informs our understanding of our distilled version of the Gospel, the way we do church will always come out looking a little twisted. I believe that our churches are supposed to look like mini Edens where life and goodness flow. When people enter the doors, they should sense that God walks and dwells with His people (Exodus 29:45; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Revelation 21:3). Not just because there’s good preaching and worship, but because in the mini garden, humanity’s needs are being met, where we’re all one in Christ Jesus (Genesis 1:26; Galatians 3:28), where sickness and the corruption of this world are being tended to, there is no hunger, no thirst (James 5:14; Revelation 21:4), and creation is in harmony with those who are supposed to steward it (Genesis 2; Revelation 21-22).