Mission and Strategy
Let’s recall our four governing questions:
Which values are central to the Christian life and which are peripheral?
Which central values are internal to the Church only and which should Christians promote in the society at large?
How should individuals and churches promote them?
Where is there room for disagreement?
So far, I have addressed the first three. Then, in the previous chapter, I took a bit of a detour to lay some groundwork for the final question. That groundwork was a more detailed and more personal assessment of the ways my white evangelical Christian community has turned peripheral issues into central issues. I called them idols, and by calling them idols, I have most certainly raised the ire of many evangelicals. Many of my brothers and sisters in evangelicalism consider one or more of them central issues. They are hot-button topics and have already divided me from many people in my own tradition. But if Christians are supposed to be united as the one Body of Christ, should we allow these issues to divide us? Was it proper for me to bring up such divisive issues in such a divisive way? Isn’t the mission of the church to get people saved and not deal with all these politics and matters of opinion? This is our final question:
Where is there room for disagreement?
I think it will help us to understand the difference between the Church’s overall mission and an individual church’s strategy. In my view, there is no room for disagreement over the mission of the Church, but there is a great deal of room for differences over any specific church’s strategy.
Now, it’s understandable that every church will have different words in whatever it calls its mission statement or a slightly different understanding of its mission in the world, but no authentically New Testament church would disagree that essential mission of the church can be encompassed by the two passages we call “The Great Commandment” and “The Great Commission.”
In Matthew’s account, these two concepts are recorded like this:
The Great Commandment
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Matthew 22:37-40 NIV
The Great Commission
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Matthew 28:19-20 NIV
The central components of the mission of the church are loving God, loving people, sharing the gospel, and developing disciples (followers) to do the same. All the other instructions Jesus gave—to live in purity, to be salt and light in the world, to care for the weak, to speak out against hypocrisy, and more—fall under the umbrella of these two. However, it would be wrong of any church or any Christian to accept these two basic statements only in principle without ever letting them form the core of their actual behavior. A church cannot embrace a mission that says, “Love your neighbor as yourself” if that church isn’t actually doing anything to love their neighbors. A church that isn’t being salt and light is failing in its calling to make disciples who look like Jesus. Therefore, even though these two passages form the foundation of any Christian’s and any church’s understanding of its mission, the mission of that church cannot stop with a doctrinal understanding of those passages. Each church must adopt a strategy regarding these statements of mission, and that strategy must encompass all that I have covered so far—a gospel that is both accurate and transformative, an activism that properly represents Christ to the world, and a discipleship that tears down earthly idols and all allegiances that fight against our allegiance to Christ. Because strategy is intrinsically contextual, it will be different for different churches and different individual Christians, but strategy that doesn’t address our mission or its intrinsic components is bad strategy. What we need is a thorough way of assessing our strategy in light of our mission with guidance on how to apply it differently in different contexts.
Early on in the book of Acts it becomes clear that certain aspects of the life of the church were open to the judgment of the early leaders. They developed practical strategies regarding the selection of new leaders, caring for the poor in their congregations, responding to persecution, welcoming Gentiles and more.
Consider the problem of selecting a replacement for Judas:
Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.”
Acts 1:21-22 NIV
Nothing in Jesus’ teaching gave any guidelines regarding how to replace Judas. They simply came up with their own strategy and acted on it.
We see it again in Acts 6:
In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”
Acts 6:1-4 NIV
Again, there was no guidance given by Jesus regarding how they should make sure Jewish widows and Grecian widows were treated equitably. They knew that equity was important, and that was based on all they had been taught, but they had to come up with their own implementation strategy to make it happen.
Then, as we already have seen in Acts 15, the leaders of the church collectively developed a strategy for how to welcome Gentiles into the faith even though doing so was violating the existing value system (circumcision) of many Christians. Their strategy for the Gentiles discarded circumcision, but included a recommendation against eating food sacrificed to idols. That was a sensible strategy for the time, but it clearly wasn’t universal because much later Paul taught people that eating food sacrificed to idols was no big deal!
Furthermore, at the end of Acts 15, Paul and Barnabas have a disagreement not about the need to disciple people or to spread the gospel but about which of those two things they would do next—which strategy they should employ. Paul wanted to get back on the road, spreading the gospel far and wide, but Barnabas wanted to get back to discipling one specific person. They both had the same mission to make disciples who looked like Jesus, but the strategies were incompatible. As a result, they went in different directions, and we now praise God for Barnabas’ transformative work in the life of John Mark as well as the amazing work he did through the subsequent missions work of Paul. Without the different strategies, one of those two things might never have happened.
The early church is filled with examples like this where strategies are developed for the context and different contexts result in different strategies. Therefore, strategies and emphases can be different for different people and different churches in different contexts. Nevertheless, all of the strategies in the book of Acts are still trying to balance the fundamental values and principles of following Jesus, and therefore, we should keep some guiding principles in mind as we attempt to develop our own strategies in our context today.
First, and most obviously, Christians and churches should employ strategies that recognize and live out the key values taught in Scripture and identified above. A strategy that attempts to advocate for environmental concerns while not addressing human dignity is not a good strategy. Likewise, a strategy that allows a Christian to avoid personal holiness while pursuing an activism goal is not a good strategy.
Second, Christians and churches should be clear about which values are internal and which values should be promoted in the wider world. Any strategy that knowingly or unknowingly attempts to press an internal value upon the broader society is a bad strategy. On the flip side, any strategy that prevents an individual Christian or any church from embracing proper Christian Activism is a bad strategy.
Third, regardless of all other strategic choices, Christians and churches should categorically reject false idols and their doctrines and never allow them to influence their strategy or infect their mission. It’s desperately important that Christians remove the idols and temples from their lives, and therefore, it’s additionally important that we remove them from our strategies. Any infiltration of an idol into our strategy will simultaneously reinforce it to ourselves and our fellow believers while also misrepresent our God to the watching world! Not only do the idols lead us astray from the true God but they also dilute or dissolve our witness to the world of the one true God.
That still leaves a broad swath of room for disagreement over strategic decisions like how to do children’s ministry, how to do music, how to handle staff payments, how to handle building issues and more, but these are all mostly internal strategic decisions. What the evangelical church has been afraid to truly address is the strategy regarding the world around us and our interaction with that world. If our mission is a calling to a uniquely Christian Activism, then we must develop strategies around that calling.
These strategies will also be different for each and every Christian and each and every church. And that’s OK! So long as a church or Christian is striving to live out the mission, honor the key values of Scripture, keep lines of demarcation between what is internal to the church and what is external, and reject the temptation toward idolatry, that church has employed an acceptable strategy. It might not be the most effective or the most desirable, but that doesn’t invalidate it as a God-honoring strategy!
One of the most important realizations about strategy is that strategies are not only contextual to the church but they are also contextual to the moment. In other words, the strategy for today doesn’t need to match the strategy for tomorrow. Specifically, it can be helpful to indicate that in the formation of the strategy itself.
For example, rather than asking the big, bold, and probably impossible to answer question, “What is the best way for our society to elevate human dignity and justice?” consider asking this question: “What is the next way for our society to elevate human dignity and justice?” or even “What is the next way for our church to get involved in the advocacy for human dignity and justice?” In other words, rather than asking a question about what is best, simply ask the question of what could or should be next for you.
This gives individual Christians and the larger church community incredible freedom to intersect with society over politically charged issues.
- What is the next way for our society to address the inequalities of racism as they are displayed in police-inflicted injury?
- What is the next way for our society to advocate for the cause of the unborn and the life of the living?
- What is the next way in our society to elevate truth and beauty and work against the tide of misinformation and vitriol?
- What is the next way for our society to address climate change?
- Who is the next person we should trust in leadership regarding these and other issues?
These questions are not uniquely Christian. They might be asked by anyone and they might be answered by anyone. Nevertheless, we ask them because these are the questions that Christians are uniquely motivated to ask. The world of economic and political power has no reason to ask questions about human dignity, moral integrity, or environmental concern, but as we have seen, these issues have always been fundamentally Christian concerns and therefore, if no one else in the society asks these questions, Christians still must.
Additionally, these questions illustrate by their very wording that they are impermanent. A Christian might answer the question one way this year and a different way next year, and that’s perfectly fine. Two churches or two Christians might disagree over their answers to these questions this year, but next year, they might find alignment. Strategy is fluid and time-bound, and therefore asking the question with that in mind helps us greatly in determining our answers. Christians will disagree over the answers. Again, that’s OK. When it comes to answering these questions, there is a huge space for disagreement, and it need not divide Christians. We can be united over the cause of human dignity and justice in our world even if we disagree over the next course of action to be taken.
But let us continue to ask the questions.
Sometimes, Christians will find large consensus over one of these questions, and when we are so united, we will have significant political power. But we need to remember that political power is not our goal. Our goal should be to answer questions such as these in a way that honors our Savior and then to live out our answers to the best of our ability. And “living them out” in a society that promotes freedom of expression and the democratic process just might involve Christians and churches exercising those freedoms. Running for office or embracing activism just might be the correct strategic decision for a Christian to make even if other Christians would employ different strategies. Each individual Christian and each individual church must ask the question about strategy and come to a decision about it, but we also need to give each other the space to come up with different answers.
We might say there is space for different strategies, but we still feel like ours is the only way or the best way, so let’s be specific and recognize at least three general strategies a Christian or church might take.
The Edification Strategy
Taking their cue from passages like this:
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
Ephesians 4:29-32 NIV
Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.
Colossians 4:5-6 NIV
Some churches and some Christians will decide to stay fully silent on these issues nearly all of the time in order to focus on encouragement. They will realize that certain issues are so fraught and so loaded with prejudices and connotations that they will avoid these issues almost always unless the context for addressing them is maximally conducive to “building people up.” In general, they will ignore these issues and use their limited resources to proclaim the most encouraging and winsome aspects of Christianity. They might not directly talk about the Christian idols, but they will avoid any expression of those idols. They might not talk about the problems with political allegiances, but they will avoid any talk that encourages political allegiances. They might not discuss the societal ills of the day, but they will do work that addresses them somehow. Still, when the time is right and the context is one of edification, and the opportunity is at hand, they will make the most of that moment to address issues of human dignity and justice, elevate truth and beauty, address environmental issues, and even discuss the qualifications of potential political leaders.
The Education Strategy
Recognizing that sometimes the truth is hard to hear, and taking their cue from passages like this:
Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses….
Perfume and incense bring joy to the heart, and the pleasantness of a friend springs from their heartfelt advice….
The prudent see danger and take refuge, but the simple keep going and pay the penalty.
Proverbs 27:5-6, 9, 12 NIV
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work…. Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body.
Ephesians 4:14-16, 25 NIV
Some churches and some Christians will decide to take the approach of honest and open internal discipleship and public non-activism. They will recognize that sometimes truth hurts, but it is always good. They will openly discuss controversial matters, sharing their honest answers and welcoming contrary opinions. However, they will not go silent when truth is under attack. They will be unafraid to call sin sin even when that sin is coming from within their own ranks or from their brothers and sisters in the larger body of Christ. They will not shy away from opportunities to speak about the moral issues God desires for all people of all time even in the public sphere and even when it is unpopular. They will in fact encourage people to pursue the truth wherever it may be found, but recognizing their own propensity to error, they will only rarely and cautiously ever advocate any specific action in the public sphere. They will talk about Christian values, both those for the church and those for the world, but they will focus on individual transformation, not any specific public activism.
The Prophetic Strategy
The goal of the prophets of old was never to give information, but to provide a voice of warning and a call for social transformation. Taking their cue from passages like these:
Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.
Isaiah 58:9-10 NIV
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
Matthew 3:7-10 NIV
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
Matthew 25:40 NIV
Some churches and some Christians will decide to take the approach of fluid activism. They will expose the failings of themselves and their Christian brothers and sisters to the light of Scripture calling them to repentance. They will personally and corporately embrace a stance of activism in this world that represents the heart of God for his people and for the wider world. They will answer the preceding questions definitively and promote specific and concrete action. They will promote certain actions for fellow believers and other actions for the wider world, but maintaining humility, they will continually reevaluate their approach in light of the values of Scripture and never lock themselves into a specific political platform or framework.
Any of these strategies or even others might be God’s desire for a particular Christian or particular church, and we should all extend the freedom to each other to adopt the strategy that makes the most sense to them in the context where God has placed them. There is a lot of room for disagreement regarding how we answer the various “political” questions and how we act in response to those answers, but the answers need not divide Christians or make us antagonistic toward each other.
However, as I bring this to a close, I want to point out that two strategic extremes are inappropriate for any Christian or church that has taken the previous lessons to heart.
- On the one hand, churches and Christians that never address these questions in any public way are hiding their light under a bowl and failing to fulfill their mission in the modern world.
- On the other hand, churches and Christians that align themselves fully with a specific political framework and adopt an activist mentality from that perspective are extinguishing the unique light of Christ in them in favor of the whims of the current societal moment.
Our calling in this world is to embrace the gospel deeply into our own personal lives and in the Christian community where we worship, to pursue the Great Commission and the Great Commandment in full view of the world, to live out our Christian values with integrity and authenticity, and to call the world higher to the fundamental principles of God’s Kingdom that always and forever transcend our human differences.
May we, as followers of Jesus, the only true Savior of the world, discard our idols, embrace our mission, and be creatively strategic, using whatever means we can to display the glorious light of our God before a desperately dark world!