The Church and Mission: Three Compelling Statements

Here are three statements that I have returned to recently in my thinking about the church and its mission. Each is saying similar things with distinct emphasis. What do you think about these statements? What do you think about the relationship between the church and its mission?

Vincent Donovan, a missionary to the Masai in Tanzania in the mid-twentieth century, in his book Christianity Rediscovered:

Mission is the meaning of the church….The church exists only insofar as it carries Christ to the world….The idea of church without mission is an absurdity.

William Temple, archbishop of Canterbury in the early twentieth century:

The church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.

Paul Borden in his book, Direct Hit:

Healthy congregations are defined by sacrifice… They exist more for those who are currently not part of the group than for those who comprise the current congregation.

What do you think?

T. S. Eliot, excerpt from “Choruses from ‘The Rock'”, Il [Poetry for Ordinary Time]

I’ve enjoyed posting poetry series themed around the Christian year in the past couple of years (see “Poetry for Lent” and “Poetry for Easter“). I will continue that with a series called “Poetry for Ordinary Time.” Ordinary time includes two sections of the church year between Christmastide and Lent and Easter and Advent. The word “ordinary” here derives from the word ordinal by which the weeks are counted. Still, ordinary time does serve an opportunity to embrace the ordinary spaces and places of our lives, and the themes of the poems will express this.

Here is an excerpt from the second part of T. S. Eliot’s poem Choruses from ‘The Rock’Thomas Stearns Eliot is probably the most famous twentieth-century English-language poet, renowned for his groundbreaking work typified in poems like “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1911) and The Wasteland (1922). Eliot was born in the United States but resided in England for most of his adult life.



Of all that was done in the past, you eat the fruit, either rotten or ripe. 
And the Church must be forever building, and always decaying, and always being restored. 
For every ill deed in the past we suffer the consequence: 
For sloth, for avarice, gluttony, neglect of the Word of GOD,
For pride, for lechery, treachery, for every act of sin.
And of all that was done that was good, you have the inheritance. 
For good and ill deeds belong to a man alone, when he stands alone on the other side of death, 
But here upon earth you have the reward of the good and ill that was done by those who have gone before you. 
And all that is ill you may repair if you walk together in humble repentance, expiating the sins of your fathers; 
And all that was good you must fight to keep with hearts as devoted as those of your fathers who fought to gain it. 
The Church must be forever building, for it is forever decaying within and attacked from without; 
For this is the law of life; and you must remember that while there is time of prosperity 
The people will neglect the Temple, and in time of adversity they will decry it. 

What life have you if you have not life together? 
There is no life that is not in community, 
And no community not lived in praise of GOD. 
Even the anchorite who meditates alone, 
For whom the days and nights repeat the praise of GOD, 
Prays for the Church, the Body of Christ incarnate. 
And now you live dispersed on ribbon roads, 
And no man knows or cares who is his neighbour 
Unless his neighbour makes too much disturbance, 
But all dash to and fro in motor cars, 
Familiar with the roads and settled nowhere. 
Nor does the family even move about together, 
But every son would have his motor cycle, 
And daughters ride away on casual pillions. 

Much to cast down, much to build, much to restore; 
Let the work not delay, time and the arm not waste; 
Let the clay be dug from the pit, let the saw cut the stone, 
Let the fire not be quenched in the forge. 


Previous poems in this series:

5 Must-Read Statements on the Church

It’s no secret that one of my favorite theologians of all time is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His book Life Together is, in my opinion, the best book written on the nature of true community in the church. It is a must-read for many reasons, but one of the most important is the way that Bonhoeffer directly deals with something all of us face with the church: disillusionment. If you have not experienced disillusionment at some point in your involvement with the church, then you probably have not been that involved. At a time when people struggled with living their faith individually and together, when the church was rent apart by conflicting allegiances and hypocrisy, Bonhoeffer stepped forward to train young pastors to serve Christ’s church.

Here are 5 must-read statements on the Church by Bonhoeffer from Life Together. I hope you find them as challenging and encouraging as I have over the years:

  • “Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves. By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world.” [26-27]
  • “Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.” [27]
  • “Thus the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and Deed which really binds us together – the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ.” [28]
  • “If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is not great experience, not discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ.” [29]
  • “A pastor should not complain about his congregation, certainly never to other people, but also not to God. A congregation has not been entrusted to him in order that he should become its accuser before God and men….Let him pray God for an understanding of his own failure and his particular sin, and pray that he may not wrong his brethren. Let him, in consciousness of his own guilt, make intercession for his brethren.” [29-30]

[These quotations are taken from John W. Doberstein’s classic translation of Life Together. A more recent translation with thorough annotations and a helpful introduction is found in Volume 5 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works.]

The Weekend Wanderer: 19 September 2020

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.


JI Packer politics“J.I. Packer: The Bible’s Guide for Christian Activism” – When Jim Packer passed away last month, we lost one of our greatest voices in world evangelicalism. Thankfully, Packer wrote so widely that we can still learn from his insights. Christianity Today unearthed a jewel of an essay by Packer from 1985 on how Christian faith relates to the public sphere. His words feel just as relevant today as ever.


Jamal- Dominique Hopkins“Preach What You Practice” – Here in an ongoing series called “Race Set Before Us,” Jamal-Dominique Hopkins reflects on the life and legacy of Paul King Jewett as an example of Christian leadership during this divided time. “Jewett, a renowned moral theologian, possessed a passion for promoting racial solidarity. He attended a predominantly black church, mentored black students at Fuller, became the first white board member of the National Negro Evangelical Association (currently known as the National Black Evangelical Association). He also attended the March on Washington in 1963 and the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.”


Winding river“What Kind of Turning Point?: History is an unpredictable thing. Respect it.” – I first encountered the work of Mark Noll while I was an undergraduate student at Wheaton College and he had just published his important book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Noll, a wise historian of Christianity and more particularly an expert on the history of evangelicalism, has a thing or two to say about making predictions about what lies ahead of us. Drawing on the work of Bruce Hindmarsh and James Davison Hunter, Noll’s wise words in Comment are well worth reading.


Barna Race Today“White Christians Have Become Even Less Motivated to Address Racial Injustice” – From Barna: “As of the July 2020 survey, practicing Christians—self-identified Christians who say their faith is very important in their lives and have attended a worship service within the past month—are no more likely to acknowledge racial injustice (43% ‘definitely’) than they were the previous summer. There is actually a significant increase in the percentage of practicing Christians who say race is ‘not at all’ a problem in the U.S. (19%, up from 11% in 2019). Among self-identified Christians alone, a similar significant increase occurs (10% in 2019, 16% in 2020).”


20200828T0945-SYRIA-TURKEY-WATER-1004324-690x450“Christians, others warn Turkey is ‘weaponizing water’ in northeast Syria” – From Crux: “Parts of Syria’s north where Kurds, Christians and Yazidis have practiced religious freedom in recent years are reportedly again under attack by mainly Turkish military and their allied Syrian Islamist fighters. The Syrian Democratic Council, which oversees the autonomous northeast of Syria, condemned Turkey’s cutting off the water supply to the area’s main city, Hassakeh, for nearly four straight weeks. Humanitarian groups have repeatedly accused Turkey of ‘weaponizing water’ since its military takeover of the region in October 2019.”


Battle of Adwa“To understand African Christianity, remember the Battle of Adwa” – Here is Philip Jenkins in The Christian Century reflecting on a key moment in Ethiopia that had great import for modern African Christianity. “The historic relationship between Christianity and imperialism naturally causes grave dilemmas for modern believers. But on at least one celebrated occasion, it was actually a great Christian army that decisively triumphed over empire—and resisted conquest for a generation. Anyone interested in the story of modern African Christianity needs to know about the Battle of Adwa.”


Bible and Rosary“Evangelicals Becoming Catholics: Former CT Editor Mark Galli” – Last week I shared about former Christianity Today editor Mark Galli converting to Catholicism. Ed Stetzer gathers together a series of reflections by various theologians, writers, and thinkers on why evangelicals might make such a move in general, including various authors such as Scott Hahn, Francis Beckwith, Douglas Beaumont, Scot McKnight. Stetzer concludes with his own reflections on Galli’s decision, both in relation to his personal friendship with Galli and as a Baptist who sees both the strengths and weaknesses of evangelicalism.


Music: Yo-Yo Ma, “Bach: Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, Prélude.”

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]

A Prayer for the Church: on displaying God’s wisdom

“His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 3:10)

Lord, how is it that the Church should make known Your wisdom to the rulers and authorities? How weak and stumbling we are! how quick to falter and prone to wander!

Still, Paul affirms this great reality that the Church has a special calling in part to display Your vast wisdom. Certainly this is tied in with the mystery of Christ, which Paul says is “through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promises in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 3:6). This positional reality and the resulting new community of the Church is part of the revelation of God’s wisdom through the Church.

Lord, because of this gracious mystery, please do a work in the Church in our day and time which is a renewing work and a refining work. Help us, Lord, to display the awesome wonder of Your holy wisdom. May You be glorified in us these days so that You will be seen through us, Your people. Give us grace for this today and in days to come.