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Getting Our Priorities Straight
By Ed Stetzer
If in your travels you have ever passed by another country’s embassy, you may see people standing guard, usually in uniform and with their national flag. Those soldiers and the ambassador they guard inside are living, breathing representations of their own country living sent lives in a foreign land. Their task is to represent their home country and its interests while in that land.
In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul refers to himself as an ambassador. It is an appropriate description of all Christians. The local church is, in function, an embassy of Heaven, and its people are to be ambassadors living sent lives—living, breathing representations of the King and His kingdom. As a member of a local church, you are involved in the missional task of making the invisible kingdom break through into the visible—to proclaim that the King reigns and is reconciling the world to Himself (5:19). The function of these embassies (churches) and the ambassadors within their walls (Christians) is to propagate the good news of the King and the kingdom we represent. In our case this does not simply mean that we go and do good for the city (though it includes that). It does not simply mean that we serve the poor (though it includes that, too). Paul considers a proclamation element central to our ambassadorships:
“We are ambassadors for Christ; certain that God is appealing through us. We plead on Christ’s behalf, ‘Be reconciled to God’” (5:20, CSB).
Justice and evangelism—gospel demonstration and proclamation— are not two sides of the same coin, which implies that for one to function, the other must be hidden. Instead they are inextricably held together—the “two big rocks” of Jesus’ mission: serving the hurting and saving the lost. Like a forged steel alloy created from combining carbon and iron, serving and saving forge a complete—and like the forged alloy, a stronger—witness to the world. Hiding gospel proclamation in order to foreground gospel demonstration weakens both.
While justice and evangelism go hand in hand, they must work together. Paul is careful to ask the rhetorical question “How will people hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14). Jesus is at work in the world, but He is not at work in the world salvifically without His Church and without gospel proclamation. This is why missio Dei births missio ecclesiae, and the Church joins Jesus on His mission to make disciples among the nations. The Church is given “the keys of the kingdom” to participate in mission with God (Matthew 16:19). The justice brought about and advocated for by the Church testifies to the goodness of the King but people must know in which King’s name such good work is being done. As the Christmas hymn tells us, it is “in His name [that] all oppression shall cease.”
I mentioned previously how, metaphorically speaking, the mission of God has two big rocks. As goes the well-known illustration, if you place a bunch of small rocks in a bucket first, the two big rocks won’t fit. But if you put the big rocks in first, the small rocks fit around it. So it is with mission—the two big rocks in the mission of Jesus are serving the hurting and saving the lost: demonstration and proclamation. Countless smaller rocks surround them. This helps us remember we need to prioritize gospel proclamation (which includes global missions) and gospel demonstration (also part of global mission) in the life of the Church if we would really join Jesus on His mission. The Church may do other things that are considered part of the mission, but those two things are central to the mission. They are central to the mission of the Church because they are central to the mission of Jesus. If we do not find a way to prioritize evangelism—in particular, global evangelism—we lose that emphasis.
It would be reckless for us not to recognize and learn from the mistakes of those who lost missions in the name of mission just a century before us. Recent history sounds a warning.
The beginning of the last century was marked by the kingdom of God movement that eventually neglected gospel proclamation to become what we now call the “social gospel.” It happened again following the International Missionary Conference at Willingen (1952). Mission thinkers and practitioners strayed from cross-cultural evangelism and the emphasis on church planting and favored a mission of doing good in the name of doing good rather than in the name of Jesus. H. H. Rosin notes that soon after the term missio Dei appeared for the first time in modern theological writing, following this conference, it began to shift in meaning from God’s missionary work through the Church to God’s larger work in the world. Many of those who embraced this view of mission concluded that since God is at work in the world. He no longer needs His Church for mission. While history doesn’t repeat itself, it can certainly rhyme, and we must be careful not to make similar mistakes.
Recently, I contributed a chapter to a book called Conversations on When Everything is Missions: Rediscovering the Mission of the Church. You will find part two above. You can read part one here.
The full book is available for purchase here. In addition to the chapter from myself, you will find contributions from other leaders, such as Dr. David Platt and J.D. Payne.
Source: Getting Our Priorities Straight