The Missio Dei – What’s Missing in Many Modern Discipleship Books

“Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

~ Matthew 6:10

As long as I’ve been a Christian, I’ve noted two things that believers routinely get riled up about. One is the role of the Spirit vs. the role of the Scriptures. Christians seem to fall off one side of the horse or the other on this issue.

Over the years, I’ve watched countless fruitless Word vs. Spirit debates that descended into noise. They are fruitless because both the Scriptures and the Spirit work together. And what God has joined together shouldn’t be separated. When I watch people debate this issue today, I quickly begin yawning.

In the same way, I’ve watched countless Christians get roped into fruitless outreach vs. inreach debates. Some maintain that the church exists for outreach (these churches tend to have a rather thin and spiritually shallow community life). Others object that the church exists for community (these churches tend to be insular and ingrown).

The outreach vs. inreach debate is fruitless because it virtually always ignores two things. (1) That an authentic church will pass through seasons, and (2) There are four chief aspects of the church’s mission on earth, all of which are vital.

It is the latter that I wish to focus on in this post. I almost broke this post up into two parts, but right or wrong, I decided to keep it all together. It will be easier to share that way. Future posts will be shorter.  

The big sweeping epic of God’s timeless purpose is centered on a bride, a house, a body, and a family. These four elements make up the grand narrative of the Bible. The mission of God—the Missio Dei—is wrapped up with each of them.

God’s mission demands more than a theological head-nod of agreement. It demands practical expression. The Lord wants a people who embody the bride, the house, the body, and the family in every city on this planet.

In this post and the next, we will briefly explore the practical question of what it looks like when a local fellowship of believers fulfills what God is after and His eternal purpose moves from eternity to here.

Communion

As the bride of Christ, the church is called to commune with, love, enthrone, and intimately know the heavenly Bridegroom who indwells her.

Churches that excel in the bridal dimension give time and attention to spiritual fellowship with the Lord. Worship is a priority.

Seeking the Lord, loving Him, communing with Him, and encountering Him are central.

The means of love-filled communion are many: prayer (in all of its forms), meditation (contemplation), worship through song, taking the Lord’s Supper, interacting with the Lord through Scripture, etc.

Such means are not only to be practiced by individual members, but by the church corporately and/or in small groups.

Imagine a church where the members pair off during the week—brothers with brothers and sisters with sisters. They seek the Lord together. Sometimes they will do this in groups of three, four, and more. What are they doing in these groups? They are allowing Christ to love them and they are turning that love back to Him.

They are also learning how to live by divine life. The church lives by the life of Christ. Jesus Christ is the source of the bride’s life. God’s purpose is that Christians live by His indwelling life.

This is something that must be learned and practiced. The bridal dimension of the church makes such living a concrete reality. In fact, this dimension of the church can be seen as the engine that drives all of the church’s activities. It is love from Christ and for Christ that is the church’s motivation, energy, and life.

The bridal dimension of the church is not peripheral. It’s central to the church’s life and mission.

Corporate Display

The church is called to gather together regularly to display God’s life through the ministry of every believer. How? Not by religious services where a few people perform before a passive audience. But in open-participatory meetings where every member of the believing priesthood functions, ministers, and expresses the living God in an open-participatory atmosphere (1 Cor. 14:26; 1 Peter 2:5; Heb. 10:24–25; etc.).

God dwells in every Christian and can inspire any of us to share something that comes from Him with the church. In the first century, every Christian had both the right and the privilege of speaking to the community. This is the practical expression of the New Testament doctrine of the priesthood of all believers.

The open-participatory church meeting was the common gathering of the early church. Its purpose? To edify the entire church and to display, express, and reveal the Lord through the members of the body to principalities and powers in heavenly places (Eph. 3:8–11).

Today, many churches are stuck with only one kind of church service where a few people minister to a largely passive audience.

But such services do not display Christ through the every-member functioning of His body.

Equally so, they don’t display the Headship of Christ, because He is not leading the meeting by His Spirit. Instead, human headship directs what happens, who participates, and when.

I’ve written on this extensively in my book Reimagining Church. Suffice it to say that every church should have a venue for the free-yet orderly functioning of every member of the house of God whereby each Christian offers spiritual sacrifices to God and ministers to the body.

Through such meetings, God in Christ is made visible and the whole church is built up.

This dimension of the church is not peripheral. It’s central to the church’s life and mission.

Community Life

Properly conceived, the church is a colony from heaven that has descended on earth to display the life of God’s kingdom.

By its way of life, its values, and its interpersonal relationships, the church lives as a countercultural outpost of the future kingdom—a kingdom that will eventually fill the whole earth “as the waters cover the sea.”

God’s ultimate purpose is to reconcile the universe under the lordship of Jesus Christ (Col. 1:20; Eph. 1:10). As the community of the King, the church stands in the earth as the masterpiece of that reconciliation and the pilot project of the reconciled universe.

In the church, therefore, the Jewish-Gentile barrier has been demolished, as well as all barriers of race, culture, sex, etc. (Gal. 3:28; Eph. 2:16).

The church lives and acts as the new humanity on earth that reflects the community of the Godhead.

Thus when those in the world see a group of Christians from different cultures and races loving one another, caring for one another, meeting one another’s needs, living against the current trends of this world that give allegiance to other gods instead of to the world’s true Lord, Jesus Christ, they are watching the life of the future kingdom lived out on earth in the present.

As Stanley Grenz once put it, “The church is the pioneer community. It points toward the future God has in store for His creation.”

It is this “kingdom community” that turned the Roman Empire on its ear. Here was a people who possessed joy, who loved one another deeply, who made decisions by consensus, who handled their own problems, who married each other, who met one another’s financial needs, and who buried one another.

This community was living in the presence of the future. It showed the world what the future kingdom of God will look like, when Jesus Christ will be running the entire show.

The church’s allegiance was exclusively given to the new Caesar, the Lord Jesus, and she lived by His rule. As a result, the response by her pagan neighbors was, “Behold, how they love one another!”

We live in a day when the Western church has enshrined rugged individualism and independence. As such, many modern churches are not authentic communities that are embodying the family of God. Instead, they are institutional organizations that operate as a hybrid of General Motors and the Rotary Club.

The spiritual DNA of the church will always lead its members toward authentic, viable community. It will always lead Christians to live a shared life through the Holy Spirit that expresses the life and values of Jesus Christ. In other words, it will live as the family of God.

In this way, the church becomes the visible image of the triune God. By sharing in the communion of the Father and the Son through the Holy Spirit, the church puts God’s love on public display. It becomes His family in the earth in reality.

The family dimension of the church is not peripheral. It’s central to the church’s life and mission.

Commission

When Jesus Christ ascended into heaven, He chose to express Himself through a body to continue His life and ministry on earth. As the body of Christ, the church not only cares for its own, but it also cares for the world that surrounds it. Just as Jesus did while He was on earth.

The pages of history are filled with stories of how the early Christians took care of the poor, stood for those who suffered injustice, and met the needs of those who were dying by famine or plague.

In other words, the early Christian communities cared for their non-Christian neighbors who were suffering.

Not a few times a plague would sweep through a city, and all the pagans left town immediately, leaving their loved ones to die. That included the physicians. But it was the Christians who stayed behind and tended to their needs, sometimes even dying in the process.

One of the Roman emperors, a pagan, publicly lamented that the pagan temples were losing customers because “the Christians not only take care of their own needy, but ours as well!”

The book of Acts and the epistles of Paul, Peter, James, and John abound with examples and exhortations of how the church cared for the world. This particular theme is peppered throughout the New Testament documents. (Quoting all those texts would demand another book.)

In short, the early church understood that she was carrying on the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ. She well understood that He was the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8).

That ministry is enunciated in Luke 4:18–19: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

We meet it again in Acts 10:38, “How God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.”

Throughout His ministry, Jesus showed what the kingdom of God was all about by loving outcasts, befriending the oppressed, healing the sick, cleansing the lepers, caring for the poor, driving out demons, forgiving sins, etc.

If you peel back His miracles, the common denominator underneath them all is that He was alleviating human suffering and showing forth what the future kingdom of God looks like.

When Jesus did His miracles, He was indicating that He was reversing the effects of the curse.

In Jesus’ ministry, a bit of the future had penetrated the present. Jesus embodied the future kingdom of God where human suffering will be eradicated and there will be peace, justice, freedom, and joy.

The church, which is His body in the world, carries on this ministry. It stands on the earth as a sign of the coming kingdom.

The church lives and acts in the reality that Jesus Christ is the Lord of the world today. It lives in the presence of the future … in the already-but-not-yet of the kingdom of God.

For this reason, the church is commissioned to proclaim and embody the kingdom now—to bring a bit of the new creation into the old creation, to bring a piece of heaven into the earth—demonstrating to the world what it will look like when God is calling the shots. In the life of the church, God’s future has already begun.

This dimension of the church’s mission has to do with how she displays the Christ who indwells her to those outside of her. It has to do with how she expresses Christ to the world.

Jesus fulfilled the mission of Israel in His earthly ministry (Gen. 18:18). But since His resurrection, He has commissioned the church to continue that mission.

Hence, the church exists to fulfill Israel’s original calling to be a “blessing to all the nations,” to bring “glad tidings, good news [the gospel] to the poor” and to be a “light to the world” (Gen. 22:18; Isa. 49:6; 52:7).

The church stands in the earth as the new Israel (Gal. 6:16). And she shows forth that the Jesus who walked this earth is the same Christ who has taken up residence within her members.

This dimension of the church is not peripheral. It’s central to the church’s life and mission. 

Summary

So how does a local church carry out the Missio Dei . . . the ageless purpose of God?

Very simply: by loving the Lord Jesus as His bride and learning to live by His indwelling life (communion).

By edifying its members through displaying the Lord Jesus as functioning priests in God’s house and as participating members of Christ’s body (corporate display).

By living a shared life as the family of God, visibly demonstrating what the kingdom of God is like to a broken world (community life).

And by expressing God’s image and exercising His authority in the earth—the very things that the first Adam was charged to do in the garden (commission).

What then is God’s end? What is His grand mission?

It’s to expand the life and love that’s in the Trinitarian Community. It’s to increase the fellowship of the Godhead and reflect it on earth. This is the goal of evangelism. This is the goal of all of the church’s activities.

This is God’s dream, His eternal purpose. To obtain a bride, a house, a family, and a body that is by Him, through Him, and to Him.

The kingdom of God, which is the equivalent of the Lordship of Jesus Christ, is toward that end as well. This ought to give us a new view of the church and of God’s mission for the planet. And that view should lead us to a complete recalibration of how the church expresses herself in the earth.

As I have said elsewhere, God’s ultimate purpose begins in Genesis 1 before the fall, not in Genesis 3 after the fall. Failure to understand this has been the fundamental flaw of evangelicalism and much of the modern day missional movement.

To meet the beating heart of God, we must go back before the fall to discover afresh God’s original intent. Doing so will change everything.

This post is Chapter 27 of From Eternity to Here

Related:

Rethinking Discipleship, Mission, and Church

David Platt: Follow Me

Francis Chan: Multiply

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