Equipping the Church for the Mission of the Church: Rethinking Ephesians
Introduction: What is the mission of the church?
by Bob Young
This is an important question because the church without a mission cannot equip itself for service or mission. What is the mission of the church? Several biblical answers could be given--fellowship, encouragement, teaching, worship, evangelism, missions. Every church is driven by something. Tradition, finances, programs, personalities, events, seekers, and even buildings can each be the controlling force in a church. For a church to be healthy it must become a church that is driven by God's purposes.
Since the church is the body of Christ on this earth, one possible answer to the question is "to do the will of God." This is the message of the letter to the Ephesians, one of the most ecclesiological (church-centered) books in the New Testament. (Also accurate and less frequently said is the observation that Ephesians is God-centered.) The old three-fold definition of the work of the church was evangelism, edification, and benevolence. I told my students the church should do two things--save people, keep them saved. If one is forced to give only one answer, Ephesians makes clear that the mission of the church is the same as the mission of God. That is, God accomplishes his mission through the church. The mission is salvation. Salvation involves evangelism, missions, saving people, keeping them saved, finding those in need of the gospel, encouraging, sharing, helping, teaching, preaching, fellowship--at the heart of all of these activities is an awareness that the church is about salvation because Christ is about salvation. That is Jesus' reason for coming to this earth, that is his reason for dying, that is the eternal purpose of God.
This process, what we often call evangelism, takes many forms--personal evangelism, conversational evangelism, natural evangelism, missions both domestic and foreign, mass evangelism, local church evangelism. Books have been written with titles such as worship evangelism, small group evangelism.... To say that the mission of the church is salvation or evangelism is not to say how it should be done, only that it MUST be done. Participating with God in his mission is natural among those who are the people of God. We have made it unnatural, but it is natural.
How can one be so bold as to say it MUST be done? The primarily argument is from Scripture. Consider 1 Peter 2:5-10; 1 Thess. 1:6-8. Sharing the saving message of Jesus is natural among those who are the people of God. We have made it unnatural, but it is natural.
After we agree it must be done, then we can ask how it should be done. That is about strategy, is pragmatic, asks about effective methods, and the answer will vary from congregation to congregation. How should this church evangelize? You must decide, explore, test, encourage, pray, even fast.
BodyI. [Eph. 1] The church must hear and accept the REVELATION of its mission. The church must understand itself: this is the self-understanding (teaching or theology) of the church. What is a biblical understanding of the church and its purpose? Understanding God's eternal purpose for the church is the source, the foundation, and the perpetuity of the mission.
Equipping the church for the mission of the church does not begin where we typically begin. Our tendency is to think action. We value accomplishments. We did this, we do that, we will do that, ad infinitum. If the local church is to accomplish its God-given mission, it must begin by understanding itself. The church must know its identity before it can live out its identity. The doing follows the being. This is basic to equipping the church for the mission of the church. This study is designed to lay some foundations: understanding our identity so the church can learn to be the church.
In general, if the local church is to accomplish its God-given mission, it must see four things. These are principles for equipping the church for the mission of the church. They are suggested in the text. These principles involve the church understanding itself, organizing itself to accomplish its purpose, expressing itself with a relevant message, and celebrating what happens when the church is faithful to God's purpose. These have to do with the church's teaching, structure, message, and example.
II. [Eph. 2] The church must understand the REASON for the mission: this is the urgency and importance of the mission. To respond to this urgency, the church must organize itself: this is the structure of the church. What are the structures of the church according to Scripture?
- A. At least two false images of the church must be combatted: the church as a religious club which leads to introverted Christianity, and the church as having primarily a secular mission which leaves to a religionless Christianity. The first leads to spiritual navel gazing and a self-serving, selfish view of the church, consumerism, what can the church do for me, internal service. The latter leads to a social gospel which is the opposite of the religion that binds back together as reflected in Ephesians 2.
- B. A correct, biblical understanding of the church will show at least two major identifiers: the church has been called out of the world to worship/serve God; the church has been sent back into the world to serve the world and to witness to the world concerning God, Christ, and God's eternal purpose for the salvation of the world.
Because this is so, these two marks of the church, its holiness as a separated people, and its commitment to be a presence in the world as an apostolic extension, lead to what Alec Vidler called a "holy worldliness." Paul called it in the world but not of the world.
- C. Jesus Christ models this holy worldliness, and the incarnation is the perfect embodiment of it. The church must understand itself as the very presence of Christ in this world as suggested in the last two verses of Eph. 1.
For what are we structured? We look at the work of elders, deacons, ministers, teachers. What are we about? What are we trying to do? What do our structures allow, or more accurately, what do our understandings of these structures allow? Do we have a way to accomplish decision making, teaching, internal care, keep the membership numbers up, service, holiness (or worldliness), worship, fellowship, mission, evangelism, salvation? If we cannot accomplish what God wants in our current structuring, how should we restructure. I use the word structure purposefully, because I do not want to suggest we are discussing a change in God's plan which we usually describe as church organization. I am suggesting rather a change in activities, and in how we get activities accomplished. I am suggesting a bottom up model of leadership rather than a top down model, for this is the Jesus model in Luke 22 and its parallels.
Most churches would do well to take a local survey, evaluate themselves, ask what is our identification (self-understanding), and then ask if we are reflecting our identity in our actions. What does our community see in us? What is the identification of our community? Are there bridges over which the gospel can travel into this community from this church? These are questions we do not have time to consider today, but they are often described as questions of church personality, programing, and process.
III. [Eph. 3] The church must understand the RELEVANCE of the mission. The church must willingly express itself with RELEVANCE: this is the message of the church. The message must match the mission. Since the church always, whether it intends to or not, articulates a message, what is the relevant message?
Evangelism is sharing the good news. This means that the news must be right, and when it is shared it must be good. To understand the mission of the church and have a church ready to accomplish that mission, we must understand and define the good news.
In brief summary, the essence of the gospel is Jesus Christ himself.
A more difficult question is this: how can we formulate and communicate this good news in an increasingly pluralistic society? How can we make it resonate, logically, sensibly in a relativistic, post-modern world where objective truth is rejected by most, and difficult to define at best?
I see two extremes: total fixity in which we are in bondage to the words, formulas, gospel stereotypes of the past, and total fluidity in which we are totally at the mercy of our culture and context so that the gospel is at the mercy of marketing, consumerism, and selfishness.
Total fixity emphasized the gospel, revealed by God, received by us, passes on a paradosis, a tradition to be preserved, a paratheke, deposit to be guarded. Such sounds good and is good. Such cannot be discarded, but must be held in tension by the mission of the church.
Total fluidity says the gospel must be contextualized, communicated appropriately to each person in particular situations. Otherwise it is irrelevant. Such sounds good and is good, but must not be used to change the gospel, or fail to declare the whole gospel.
These two concerns must be combined if the church is to willingly express its own identity as the body and voice of Jesus Christ in the message proclaimed.
IV. [Eph. 4] The church must see the RESULT of its mission. The church must be itself: this is the life of the church that lives out God's purpose. What does the church look like in its daily life?
The church is God's new society, the living embodiment of the gospel, the sign of the presence of the kingdom of God, a demonstration of a human community under the gracious rule of God.
When the church is itself in its biblical fulness, the good news is sent forth both visually and verbally--in word and in deed, in word and work.
These four principles suggest four prerequisites for evangelism and missions in the local church:
The invisibility of God is a great problem for faith. The same problem challenges us today as for Thomas in John 20, especially for young people brought up on the scientific method.
- 1. The Revelation of the Mission: provides a biblical theology of church which gives self-understanding, grasping our double identity as holiness in the midst of worldliness.
- 2. The Reason for the Mission: requires biblical structures of the church so our organizational understanding equips us to accomplish our God-given mission to carry the message to the world.
- 3. The Relevance of the Mission: motives a verbal expression by the church to proclaim and articulate the gospel in a way faithful to Scripture and relevant to our contemporary world.
- 4. The Result of the Mission: is a church that morally and spiritually reflects God's intention for the church; the church must be the church, transformed as a community that makes the invisible God visible to the world.
God's solution to the problem of invisibility is that he sent Jesus into the world, and that he is sending the church into the world, to love one another and demonstrate his presence and reality. The church cannot proclaim his love with any degree of integrity if we cannot exhibit that love in our own lives.
The exhibition of that love is the mission of the church, and we must continually work toward that goal, Eph. 4:12ff. We must have the mind and spirit of Jesus to develop a healthy body responsive to the head. This kind of healthy church builds spiritually healthy members who increase the health of the body, the church. God calls us to know that love through the gospel, respond to that love in obedient imitation of Jesus Christ, beginning in our immersion, and continuing in our holiness in an unholy world, and culminating in our influence through the message and life we live. We are love in an unloving world, we are hope in a world without hope, we are life in a world of death, we are truth in a world of lies, we are the presence of Jesus, with the power of Jesus.
I conclude by summarizing a four-fold description of the church as seen in Ephesians:
The church as BODY (Eph. 1:22-23) is the place where the gospel is proclaimed.
The church as MASTERPIECE (Eph. 2:10) is the place where God is at work with his plan for salvation.
The church as BUILDING (Eph. 2:19-21) is the place where God dwells through his spirit.
The church as FAMILY (Eph. 3:14-16) is the place where God's power is at work among us.
May we answer the call to be that church.
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Last updated January 3, 2016