The mission of a going church for a coming Lord

The critical need to operate on the basis of a clear sense of mission

Zebron Masukume Ncube, D.Min., is associate professor of religion, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

The Adventist Church sees itself fulfilling a unique role, that of proclaiming the imminence of Christ's return in the context of the Three Angels' Messages.

We are a waiting and working people, confident that we have a message to proclaim and a method with which to proclaim it.

Nevertheless, in a radically changing world, we must keep pace with the trends unfolding around us. We must constantly fine tune our self-understanding. Yet no matter what our updating and methodology becomes, we must never lose sight of what our mission is. Different places and different circumstances require different approaches and methods, but we must keep vividly in mind just who we are and why we are here. In short, mission is foundational. We lose everything when we lose a clear sense of identity and mission.

Mission is imperative

The verity that underlies Jesus' words to His disciples in Matthew 28:18-20 is that mission is essential. 1 Jesus mandated a clear mission on the basis of His universal authority. For that reason, any form of neglect, negation, or territorial restriction to the mission of the Christian church contradicts the marching orders of Jesus. Note that the commission is preceded by the enunciation and establishment of universal authority by Jesus. After all, "mission is the summons of the Lordship of Jesus."2

Scholars agree that the Greek word matheteusate, "make disciples," is the principal verb in the Great Commission. The other accompanying words, "having gone,"3 "baptizing," and "teaching"4 are modal participles subordinated to "make disciples." They describe the making of disciples through teaching (a process) and baptizing (a one time event). The difficulty here is to have a single verb that makes a better translation of matheteusate.

According to Broadus, the verb "disciple" was used in classical literature. While it has not found its way into popular versions, "it may be used in religious discourse with great advantage."5 Thus the mission of the church is to disciple people.

Matthew 28:18-20 offers the only instance the term "make disciples" is used in the imperative mood. Its basic intent is to signify a permanent relationship with Jesus. The mission of the disciples was to enlist people into a relationship with Jesus. The bottom line is that the disciple bears the yoke, submits to the teachings and requirements of the Master, and simply follows Him.

According to Gerald West, the central axis of the New Testament is discipleship. He states that "the theme of 'discipleship' provides us with an interpretive key for our reading of the various texts in the New Testament. Even texts which appear to have no direct discussion of discipleship can be read in the light of this theme."6

Jesus does not demand the impossible; thus discipleship is both a necessity7 and a possibility. Anything short of this is a negation of the gospel itself.

Jesus' imperative to His disciples, and thus the disciples' imperative mission is simply to make disciples. To have clarity of mission and to carry out that mission is imperative.

Mission is contextual

But as an imperative, mission must be relevant to situation. For Adventists, three key biblical passages supply a point of departure for the contextual under standing of our mission: Matthew 28:16- 20, Acts 1:4-8, and Revelation 14:6-12. These passages assert that the gospel must go to all nations. "Every nation" (Rev. 14:6,7) underscores the universality and importance of the message.8 Any form of exclusive regionalism, sectarian ism, and racial or tribal exclusion is a contradiction to the essence of Christian mission.

The task of the church is to take the gospel to all cultures, which means there is no such thing as a prefabricated approach that will work everywhere. Bruce Moyer once remarked that "the McDonald approach to evangelism no longer works."9 There is no such thing as one mode for everyone. The church must cultivate tolerance as we debate issues. We are all finite beings trying to understand God's ways in every part of our human societies.

The quality of the presence of the church in every part of the world is crucial. The church should take the attitude of humility, courage, and servanthood. It should be a wounded healer. 10 In humility and transparency it must experience the hurts of the world around it and bring healing through the gospel. Jesus provided an incarnational model for mission (see Heb. 13:12,13). He became our Brother; He suffered and died for the world outside the gate. He did not recoil from the hurts of society. The church too must go outside the gate and face the threats of a complex world with a mes sage of healing. The church is the salt of the earth and the light to the world (Matt. 5:13-16). This implies being involved with God's creation.

Mission is Christ-centered

Jesus Himself is the gospel we preach. Ellen G. White spoke about Christ-centered preaching.11 The "I Am" sayings of Jesus (John 6:35,48; 10:9,14; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1) provide us with a door of hope for this Christ-centered, Christ-sourced mission. These sayings endorse Jesus as the content of the gospel and thus of mission. Tooke is on target when he suggests a paradigm for evangelism12 that emphasizes the transcendence, the immanence, and the deliverance of Jesus.

The mere mention of the name of Jesus is neither the message nor the mission of the church. Christ must be presented as key in answering the questions people ask. He who is "the way, the truth, and the life" meets the essence of hum an need.

Yet we must acknowledge that part of our problem in Christian communication is the tendency to thrive on slogans. We invite people to "look to Jesus" when neither the eye of the preacher nor that of the listener can see Him. We tell people to "walk with Jesus" without defining what this means. This visual and symbolic language needs to be translated into concrete terms that people can relate to. Theology and preaching go hand in glove. In mission, the abstract language of theology must be transformed to suit the worldview of the people. Johnsson underscores the in separable link between theology and exhortation as the main characteristic of the Epistle to the Hebrews.13 In the same way theological pillars must become the basis for the imperatives of evangelism and mission.

Pickard suggests that the schism be tween evangelists and theologians is unnecessary because they both fall under the discipline of communication. Evangelism is "not a full stop, but a comma" 14 in the process of communication. Theology is the extension of it. Hall also decries the lack of interaction be tween theological scholarship and the churches. There are thousands of theologians, he observes, yet churches are not affected. Scholars seem to write only for one another and for the students to whom they assign their books. 15

In many cultures of the world, Christians resort to religions of culture just because Christ is presented only as an abstract concept. These Christians believe in Jesus but in hard times He is one among many options. I suggest that the task of theology and of homiletics is to communicate the supremacy, the sufficiency, and the servanthood of Jesus. The "greater than" and "better than" sayings about Jesus are a rich source for this approach. The symbols used to define Jesus should be translated into the thought forms of society without changing the meaning or substance of the Christian faith. 16

Mission is Spirit-directed

In the book of Acts, the birth of the apostolic church, its work, and its leadership were the work of the Holy Spirit. The missionary journeys of the apostles were spearheaded by the Holy Spirit. In the Gospels, the Holy Spirit was at work in the life of Christ. As the Holy Spirit was in Christ, He was also involved in the life of the church. As Wells shows, "this intimate association is indispensable to our presentation of Christ in the world today." 17

It is therefore important that any understanding and pursuit of mission by the church should recognize the centrality of the Holy Spirit. The whole church must always be at the disposal of the Holy Spirit. Similarly, the Holy Spirit is always at our disposal, not to be used but to use us. He promotes the mission of the church. As the "supreme resource for the church's life and mission," He "gives power in evangelism as he glorifies Christ." 18 According to Froom, the Holy Spirit makes God's truth a reality in our inmost being. 19

The church will do well to solicit, by prayer, His supremacy over its decision-making processes. We need to constantly be on guard against the Holy Spirit be coming a mere slogan of the church at the beginning and conclusion of its deliberations. He energizes and guides the church all the way from the planning to the implementation of decisions. There fore, no individual or level of the church can claim a monopoly of the Holy Spirit. His presence in the church leads to unity of purpose, selfless motivation, and the vibrant evangelistic life in the church.

Mission is ecclesiastical

Mission is the function of the church on behalf of Jesus Christ. To carry out its mission more effectively, the church must seek to become what Jesus intended it to be, in terms of its being and function.

The founders of the Advent movement struggled with the concept of the church and its mission in the context of Christ's soon coming. They formulated a tripartite construct that highlighted organizational order, doctrinal purity, and effective witness as inseparable elements of the church.20 This has kept the Seventh-day Adventist Church together despite its geographical and numerical expansion. Uncertainty about any of the above elements destabilizes the whole. We may disagree on some details but the basic principles must remain foundational.

In all its challenges the church should take comfort in the words of Jesus:" 'The gates of Hades will not over come it'" (Matt. 16:18, NIV). This verse underscores the stability of the church even when it appears to be ungovernable or divided over some issue. We all must move to the center and maintain the unity of the church. This promise of Jesus also carries the assurance of victory over the enemy. Through its mission, the church is on the offensive while Satan is on the defensive.

The church should always reflect simplicity, community, and evangelistic zeal—the hallmarks of apostolic Christianity. With resilient faith it must withstand threats to its existence. It must adjust to changing historical and cultural situations while preserving the essentials of the message. It is the depository of the message of truth and as such the depository of God's mission on earth.

The evidence of mission

The evidence of mission is disciples who worship, fellowship, and witness. Worship (upreach) is the point of departure for the inreach and outreach life of the church. Anything short of this is legalism, humanism, and secularism. When personal and corporate worship of God dominates the life of the church, the rest of what is done falls into place.

Worship of God must express itself in fellowship and community (Heb. 10:24,25). The idea that one can belong to Jesus and not to the church negates the principle of discipleship. Another misconception is that one can belong to the church without participating in its witness to the world. Discipleship also extends to the matter of stewardship, which includes responsible living and making the earth habitable. All this is evidence that the mission of the church is alive and well.

Mission and method

The methods for accomplishing the mission hinge on three key words: ministry, message, and language. Without the function of these, mission cannot be effected. These are the means to the end in mission.

To achieve its mission, the church must construct a ministry that is shared. Unfortunately ministry tends to be come too sacerdotal. Reliance on those who are on the payroll of the church and the rift between "pastors" and "laity" is unscriptural. Ministry as a method for mission is the function of the whole community of believers.

The method in mission is the mes sage and how it is defined. The doctrines we believe, preach, and teach are not an end in themselves. They are human statements of faith about God. Charles Kraft rightly argues that the ultimate Christian message is a person, Christ, and not what is said about Him.21 Thus, the achievement of mission presupposes the message.

Scripture also strongly suggests that a Christian is a crucial part of the mes sage. Life is an act of worship (Rom. 12:1). Life is a stewardship (Rom. 14:7, 8). The treasure is in earthen vessels (2 Cor. 4:1, 7). Christians are a letter of Christ which people read (2 Cor. 3:2,3). The idea of spiritual gifts (Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:1-11; 14:lff; Eph. 4:8-16) finds its context here. God equips every believer with a particular spiritual tool for achieving His mission. We are the method for mission.

Communication or language forms the other method in mission. James Engel underscores what he calls "audience sovereignty."22 According to Kraft, strangely, we take communication too much for granted.23 It is virtually a universally believed myth that hearing the gospel with one's ears is tantamount to being reached with the gospel. A per son can hear and not understand. It is also a myth that mere preaching (monologue) is God's exclusive means of communicating the gospel. Ellen White said: "My ministering brethren, do not think that the only work you can do, the only way you can labor for souls, is to give discourses. The best work you can do is to teach, to educate. Wherever you can find an opportunity to do so, sit down with some family, and let them ask questions."24

It is a myth that the sermon itself is an effective vehicle for bringing about life or behavior change.25 Monologue is limited because it lacks personal interaction. It is also a myth that there is one best way to communicate the gospel. The theology of spiritual gifts proves this point. Yet we want to duplicate the preaching styles of those who appear to be successful. We can't all be a D. James Kennedy on television, a Billy Graham in public evangelism, an H. M. S. Richards on radio, or a John Wesley in small groups. Situations differ and we need a multiplicity of approaches.

Mission is conclusive

Mission culminates at the second coming of Jesus. Until then we must toil on. A going church for a coming Lord is both looking and working. It is expect ant but also is missioned. While we wait for the return of our Lord, we must work urgently, for the night comes when we shall work no more.

A going church goes by mission. Our mission is to make disciples. We can do this if our mission is imperative, contextual, incarnational, Christ-centered, Spirit-directed, ecclesiastical, productive, methodic, and if it has a clear sense of destiny.

1. Richard R. DeRidder, Discipling the Nations (Grand Rapids, Midi.: Baker, 1977), 185.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid., 184.

4. See David Bosch in Wilbert R. Shenk, ed. Exploring Church Growth (Grand Rapids, Midi.: Eerdmans, 1983), 230.

5. John A. Broadus, Commentary on Matthew (Grand Rapids, Midi.: Kregel, 1990), 593.

6. Gerald O. West, Contextual Bible Study (Pietermaritzburg, South Africa: Cluster Publications, 1993), 39.

7. Broadus, 593.

8. Francis D. Nichol, ed., Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary 7 (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1980), 827.

9. Bruce C. Moyer, interview coverage by Three Angels Broadcasting Network at the General Conference Session, Utrecht, Netherlands, July 3,1995.

10. Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972), passim.

11. Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press" Pub. Assn., 1911), 157.

12. J. V. Tooke, "Toward Contextual Evangelism," Missionalia 2l (August 1993), 135.

13. William G. Johnsson, In Absolute Confidence (Nashville, Tenn.: Southern Pub. Assn., 1979), 136.

14. Stephen K. Pickard, "Evangelism and the Character Of Christian Theology," Missionalia 21 (August 1993), 169.

15. Douglas John Hall, "The Changing North American Context of the Church's Ministry," Currents in Theology and Mission 22 (December, 1995), 413.

16. Frank A. Salomone and Michael Mbabuike, "The Ancient Mind: Inculturation and Resistance," Missionalia 23 (November 1995), 262.

17. David F. Wells, God the Evangelist. How the Holy Spirit Works to Bring Men and Women to Faith (Grand Rapids, Midi.: Eerdmans, 1987), 28.

18. Ibid., 45.

19. LeRoy Edwin Froom, The Coming of the Comforter (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1956), 59.

20. Andrew G. Mustard, "James White and the Development of Seventh-day Adventist Organization, 1844-1881," Ph.D. dissertation, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, 1987,195.

21. Charles H. Kraft, Communication Theory for Christian Witness (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991), 41.

22. James F. Engel, Contemporary Christian Communications: Its Theory and Practice (Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, 1979), 57.

23. Kraft, 25-31.

24. White, Gospel Workers, 193.

25. Kraft, op. cit.


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Zebron Masukume Ncube, D.Min., is associate professor of religion, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

August 2000

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