The gospel demands and creates a community, and we call this community “the church.” And in the church, community is paramount as is the mission from which it can’t be separated. But community and mission are two words that everyone and no one understands, which is why in these posts we’re taking so much time with definition. Because once again, what the church is should determine what it does, and how it organizes what it does. If we don’t work on that is, what we do will suffer in ways we’ll probably never see. So today we’re going to continue exploring the definition of church as gospel communities on mission.
In some ways “community” serves as a synonym for “church,” so what specifically does it mean here? For our purposes it refers to our shared distinct identity and internal way of life – in other words, who we are as a group and how we interact with one another. And “mission” refers to our interaction with and calling in relation to folks outside the church. In the language of Hugh Halter and Matt Smay, these make up the modalic and sodalic modes of the church, respectively. Or in their simpler way of putting it, the church as a community gathered around the gospel and scattered out into the surrounding culture.
I want to further flesh out the community circle by reflecting on the idea of holiness. One of the Bible’s most frequent terms for the church is hagioi which means “saints” or “holy ones” or “holy people.” Essentially “holy” means set apart. It refers to people or objects that are separated from normal purposes for the sake of special, often religious or “sacred,” purposes. Think about your favorite hat or dress, the one you only wear on special occasions. You wouldn’t wear it to work on the yard or even for a normal day at the office. It is set apart from these uses for something special.
So how does this work in relation to an entire community? In my mind the best phrases for getting our ideas around this are “alternative community” or “contrast society.” I’m not sure where they originated, but like most folks I think about the “counterculture” movement of the 60s and 70s that most of us associate with tyedye and sticking it to the man. Their ideal was the creation of a distinct community that embodied a different and presumably better way of life than the wider world around them.
Of course this is just a parody of what God always intended for his people. After he rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt he defined them as a “kingdom of priests” and a “holy nation” (Ex 19.6). By obeying God’s laws they were called to show the rest of the world what humanity was supposed to look like all along. They were to become a portrait of what life looks like when God is honored as king; and what is more, they were actually the vehicle for God’s presence to reach out to others.
What does this mean for us? It means we are called to embody a different way of life based on the gospel truth that Jesus is Lord. The rest of the world lives the way they do because they honor someone or something else as lord. So we are different. We don’t hoard wealth but give to the poor. We only have sex with our spouses, and we stay married even when marriage stinks. We love not only our friends but our enemies as well. (That’s the idea, anyway.) By the power of God’s Spirit within and among us, we are to offer a contrast or an alternative to the ways of the world, and we invite and call others to join us.
Within this “set apart” community we are being formed as disciples of Jesus. Discipleship defines the positive content of holiness, that which we set apart to or for, the specific kind of “alternative” we are offering. We are liberated from the death-dealing ways of the world to the life-giving way of Jesus. This way both reveals and is defined by looking back to God’s original intent for humanity, and ahead to God’s promised future for the world, of which we are a preview. This is where “spiritual formation” comes in along with things like spiritual disciplines, soul care, and a life of virtue. And it is with these things – always centered on the priority of God’s action in the gospel – in mind that we gather for worship, proclamation, teaching, prayer, laughter and food. We devote our gifts and resources to the building up of the body and the meeting of internal “family” needs. We play our part. We take care of each other. We do life together.
And out of this life together emerges mission.
Actually it’s not enough to say that mission emerges out of this life together, just as it’s not enough to say that mission is the ultimate purpose for community. The relationship between community and mission can’t be dissected so easily, and it defies the language of causation or means and end. Suffice it to say that each is central to the other and neither is itself without the other. Community is central to mission and mission is not mission without community. Mission is central to community and community is not community without mission. There is no Acts 2 without Acts 1, and Acts 1 is incomplete without Acts 2 (as well as Acts 8!).
But it’s helpful to distinguish the two, even if only to see both more clearly. And mission refers specifically to the life of the community extended outward to bless the world and call others toward obedience to the gospel. We are the body of Christ, sent out to do for the world what Jesus did for Israel – embody the way of God’s kingdom as an incarnational witness to truth.
We could break this down any number of ways. First of all we must remember that mission isn’t something we do in addition to work, family, and play. I fight for the term “missional” in part because it guards against the faulty idea that service is a project or task. We approach all of life as mission, which begins in our homes and at our workplaces. If you’re a painter or lawyer or engineer, your calling is to be a good painter or lawyer or engineer for the glory of God. We engage these “places” that are already woven into the rhythm of our lives missional; we pay attention, we listen, we expose needs and injustices, meeting the former and seeking to redress the latter. In one word, we serve. And through all this we remain always ready to explain the reason for our hope as well as the work it inspires, inviting everyone everywhere to join right in! And in all this we’re simply doing all we can to make disciples of all nations, which is of course exactly what Jesus told us to do.