HE CHURCH EXISTS by mission as a fire exists by burning,” theologian Emil Brunner famously said. One might ask Brunner, “How does fire combust in the first place?”
Here is a possible answer. Jesus was a spiritual arsonist: He ignited fires everywhere, and asked whoever followed after Him to keep His messianic fires aflame.
At some point in history, however, entire churches exchanged their birthright of being igniters of His Spirit for a “calling” sadly resulting in questionable theology, predictable programming, an institutional herd mentality, unbridled internal backbiting, and cultural blindness.
There will be no advance of the kingdom of God which does not first encompass authentic personal conversion through repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Authentic personal conversion begins with church leaders.
The primary quest of the church is not to increase membership, build more impressive facilities, open another food pantry, or offer the finest worship services available to its local constituents. Instead, the exaltation of Jesus Christ is primary, remembering Jesus’ words: “And I, when I am lifted up . . . will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32).*
As a new believer, I was, in the words of writer Tommy Tenney, a “God chaser.” I read Jesus’ teachings daily and looked for ways to serve others.
While engaged in street ministry in the red-light district of Hollywood, California, I witnessed great pain and heard stories of people who were willingly and wildly living apart from God. I then encountered my own desolation abroad as a 20-year-old missionary to South Korea. For a brief summer season, far from home for the first time, I was confronted with starvation conditions. On one occasion, I saw a young mother leaving her earthen dwelling in the early morning to bury her infant child who had died in the night. Later that same evening, I read these words from Scripture, “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look around and see” (Lam. 1:12).
In recalling those memories and many others, I ask myself, Do I still have the same clarity of vision and depth of passion I had as a new believer? I share my intimate inner questions about vision and passion because vision and passion are easily corrupted and forgotten (see Rev. 2:4-5).
Identify With Humanity
Jesus’ mission commenced when He identified with humanity (John 1:1-2; Heb. 1:2). So it should be with the mission of the church today. Jesus recognized temptation, hunger, thirst, love, and betrayal at the deepest of extremes. “In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God . . . should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. . . . Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Heb. 2:10, 18). Church advancement today occurs as believers live out the incarnation of Christ in personal, communal, and concrete ways.
Jesus’ identified mission was developed further as He met both the physical and spiritual longings of people. So it should be with the church today. If a person was in need of grace, Jesus offered grace. When a desperate father came to Jesus because his son required healing, Jesus healed him. If people were hungry, Jesus fed them. If clear teaching was needed, Jesus taught. When people expressed an interest in following Him, Jesus extended an invitation.
Any time an individual or congregation responds to the physical, spiritual, individual, or corporate needs before them, the mission of the first-century church is reenacted and replicated.
Do Jesus’ Work
An additional facet of Jesus’ mission was His sending forth His disciples to do the very works He was performing. Jesus’ followers were to be seen as extensions of Himself. So it should be with the church today. Feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the prisoner will provide evidence of a person’s identity as a believer upon Jesus’ glorious return (Matt. 25:31-46).
This notion of doing the works of God was further developed by the apostle Paul. He taught the believers at Corinth and Ephesus that God bestows differing gifts; no one person can do everything. Just as the human body has diverse elements with each serving a different function, so it is with individual lives in the church body (1 Cor. 12:12). In some way, all Christians are called to be witnesses, and all are called to love their neighbors (Matt. 10:32; 22:39).
As a final reminder related to doing the works of God, Jesus prophetically declared, “Whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12). What an encouragement this is!
Spread the Good News
The primary reason Jesus wanted His followers to believe His teaching, follow His example, and do the works He did was that “the world may believe” (John 17:21). The apostle John, as he concluded his Gospel, said its purpose was that “you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:31). This is Jesus’ ultimate goal and mission—belief in Him. So it should be with the mission of every church.
When the church is faithful to the life and teaching of Jesus, preserves the unity of the believers, and is both deliberate and intentional about being immersed in community, it becomes the most powerful force for drawing those who have yet to hear and accept the Good News.
The mission of Christ’s church is advanced when a congregation perceives itself as an instrument of God and thereby acts as an agent of change in the culture where it exists. A church is not set ablaze when believers gather together, but rather when God’s people are dispersed throughout the world throughout the week.
Anticipate Jesus’ Return
One cannot know if the early disciples ever fully understood Jesus’ mission before the coming of the Holy Spirit. Peter’s question to Jesus before our Lord’s ascension and before Pentecost, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6) leads us to think he still did not understand Jesus’ wider understanding of the Kingdom. Peter was still thinking little k. Jesus’ reign goes beyond politics, geography, gender, ethnicity, or denominational preferences.
A short time after Jesus ascends into heaven, Luke records angels from heaven calling out to those gathered, “Men of Galilee . . . why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). This angelic question was a commissioning for the forward movement of what Jesus had begun. The angels were in effect saying, “It’s time to get to work.”
Is today’s church much like the pre-Pentecost men of Galilee who were caught up in star-gazing? Were these pre-Pentecost leaders, like today’s church, more concerned with filling a leadership vacancy (v. 26) than waiting in anticipation for the promised Holy Spirit? The mission of the church today is to be looking for the “bright Morning Star” (Rev. 22:16). Today’s church is called to live in anticipation of Jesus’ second coming. Until Jesus’ coming, the Church is to know she is the empowered bride of Christ, fully capable of doing the works her resurrected Lord prophesied.
Yes, it is time. It is far later than anyone of us can imagine. It is time to carry out, at a deeper level, the mission to which Jesus called us.
*Scriptures are from the New International Version.
Bill Effler, D.Min., is a professor of theology at Lee University.