Pondering the Core of the Church's Mission

by Brandon D. Smith

In the newly-released Four Views on the Church's Mission, contributors from different denominational and theological traditions consider the varying aspects of the church's missional calling -- at the local and global levels. The four views are:

  • Soteriological Mission -- Jonathan Leeman
  • Participatory Mission -- Christopher J. H. Wright
  • Contextual Mission -- John R. Franke
  • Sacramental Mission -- Peter J. Leithart

After a brief overview of the views, I want to drill in on a few considerations for Baptist ecclesiology that can be gleaned from each contributor's focus.


Jonathan Leeman argues that the church's primary mission is two-fold: broad (the mission to be disciples in word and deed) and narrow (the mission to make disciples in word ministry like preaching and evangelism) (18-20). To put it another way, the broad mission is for all believers "to image God in everything; to live as just and righteous dominion-enjoying sons of the king" (26); the narrow mission flows from God "giving the church-as-organized-collective an authority that he does not give to every individual member ... to write statements of faith and to preach so as to bind the consciences of their members as well as to add or remove names from the church's membership" (35). In sum, the church's mission is to proclaim the gospel and seek the spiritual salvation and discipleship of individuals.

Christopher Wright focuses less on individual soteriological matters, opting for a more "holistic" approach. Since Satan's kingdom impacts "all dimensions of human life," we should care about the salvation of sinners (of course), but should not forget to care for creation itself, which God also seeks to redeem (75). In sum, the church's mission must focus on the convictions that "the cross must be as central to our social engagement as it is to our evangelism" (76).

John Franke argues that we should look to Pentecost, where "the action of the Spirit ... effectively decenters any particular language or culture with respect to the proclamation of the gospel and the mission of the church. The implication is that no single language or culture is to be viewed as the prime or inseparable conduit of the Spirit's message" (107). Further, he argues that the Bible itself shows a "pluriform character of the gospel," mostly clearly shown in the fact that four different Gospel accounts offer four different perspectives on the life and ministry of Jesus (130). In sum, the church's mission is to embrace the plurality of Christian doctrine and expression, and to commit to focusing on the way in which the gospel and particular cultural contexts come together.

Finally, Peter Leithart most notably wants to offer a corrective to evangelicalism's minimizing of the role of sacraments in the church's mission. Leithart does not want to exclude preaching, evangelism, and other ministries of the church, but instead notes that the New Testament highlights baptism and the Supper as "signs of the eschatological society of the church, effectual signs that make as well as mark that new society" (157). In other words, the church cannot have much of a mission without focusing on the clear practices of the church as described in the New Testament. In sum, the church's mission begins with the sacramental proclamation that "The baptized do not cease to be baptized when they enter their workplace [and] they do not cease to be table companions at the Lamb's feast when they leave church" (176).

What Can We Learn?

Though there is much to say (and much more nuance to these positions), I jotted down a few of my own reflections as a Baptist pastor.

Leeman, being the confessional Baptist that he is, certainly resonated with me. His focus on the broad and narrow mission is a helpful way to describe the soteriological aspects of Christian mission and ministry. Baptist churches focus on various things -- programs, evangelism training, preaching the Bible, creating resident theologians, etc. -- but hardly find a good balance between shaping disciples to reflect Christ in their everyday lives "out there" and taking seriously church membership (theological training, church discipline, community, etc.) "in here."

Wright's contribution overlooked the major piece of local church practice -- particularly the need for covenantal membership and sacramental observance. That said, his "holistic" approach is worth pondering. Because much of conservative Baptist thought has been co-opted by extreme political wariness of "creation care" and "social justice" talk, many of us have forgotten that God's mission is most clearly the redemption of souls, but not without a concern for redeeming all of creation into a new heaven and new earth (Rev. 21-22). However we might feel about "climate change" or "welfare" or other political buzzwords, we cannot ignore the gospel's implications for the plight of our world and our neighbors.

Franke's chapter was the most disappointing, primarily because his proposal collapses easily into theological relativism, and by extension essentially dissolves an objective core orthodoxy, opting for a more subjective approach of a pluralistic gospel-as-cultural-construct. That said, his warning that denominations and theological traditions can become myopic to the point of unnecessary fencing of other groups, classes, races, or mission strategies should be heard.

Leithart's chapter was the most challenging for me. As a Baptist intimately involved with the Center for Baptist Renewal, I probably care more about the sacraments/ordinances than the average Baptist pastor. That concern alone makes Leithart's contribution worth my recommendation. However, he challenged me to continue to dig into the New Testament data and implications, not forgetting how crucial water and wine are to determining who is "in" or "out" of God's kingdom. The sacraments are perhaps the local church's most obvious means to acknowledge of the salvation of individuals (or lack thereof) and thus clearly witness to the world the counter-cultural nature of Christian life and practice. Baptist churches are all over the map in terms of sacramental practices, but a fresh consideration would do us all good.