The Mission of God: A Faithful but Contextual Participation

I’m excited to be helping Mission Alive relaunch their blog. This blog is part of a larger social-media effort that also includes a monthly webinar called Innovative Church Conversations and a podcast called Discipleship Conversations.

My excitement stems from my belief in the cause for which Mission Alive exists, the mission of God. I’ve had an association with Mission Alive for more than a decade now. I fondly recall my wife and I having breakfast with Dr. Gailyn VanRheenen and his wife Becky, hearing about the beginnings of Mission Alive. Several years later I helped with a church planting team that Mission Alive was helping and then eight years ago I participated in the Mission Alive Renew cohort for leading church renewal.

Although I serve as a pastor with a church that is nearly seventy years old, I believe there is a need for planting new churches. Likewise, I also believe there is a need for equipping leaders who will help local churches live on mission with God. That’s why I’m helping Mission Alive.

Of course, I will boldly say that neither the church nor her leaders should ever forget that when we speak of mission, we are talking about the mission of God — not our mission. As Christopher J. H. Wright has said, “it is not so much the case that God has a mission for his church in the world but that God has a church for his mission in the world” (The Mission of God, p 62). 

Recognizing that it is the mission of God rather than our mission raises some questions. What does it mean to participate in the mission of God? How do local churches participate in the mission of God? How does participating in the mission of God shape the task of church planting? How does participating in the mission of God shape the task of leading? You probably have a few other questions too. One thing for sure is that there are not any easy answers to the questions before us.

As most people know, the landscape of North American culture has and continues to shift in major ways. We can’t even speak of one culture because there are a multiplicity of sub-cultures that differ from city to city, region to region. Even within any given metropolitan area there are many sub-cultures. So we can forget any one-size-fits-all approach to our participation in the mission of God. Rather than embracing a homogeneous approach, I want to suggest that the answer to our questions begins with the Bible and particularly the hermeneutics of how we read the Bible.

When we read the Bible, we’re reading a story. In short, the story gives us an account of how God is redeeming and restoring the life he has created, with a past, present, and future. We learn of what God has accomplished in the past to understand how that bears upon the present and will come to complete fulfillment in the future.

Although every aspect of the story is important, the plot draws our attention to Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God. The Bible, then, offers us a narrative that is Christ-Centered and Kingdom-Oriented (or Christologically-Centered and Eschatologically-Oriented). Reading the story as people who are part of the story serves forms us as followers of Jesus living under the reign of God. Herein is the key to our participation in the mission of God: We are are learning to live as a coherent reflection of the life Jesus lived and the incoming kingdom of God he proclaimed as good news (cf. Mk 1:14-15). 

So as I like to remind people, we are the Bible that people will first read. What story will they read? Our calling is to live the story of the gospel in such a manner that when words become necessary, they are merely offering an explanation of what is already seen. In other words, the churches we plant and lead as well as our very own lives as church leaders must be embodiment of the gospel. Underscore that too because one of the unfortunate obstacles between the gospel and culture is the reality of too many scandals with churches and church leaders, where there has been a failure to embody the gospel.

However, as important as faithfully embodying the gospel is, the plethora of different cultures among the North American landscape will require innovation as well. If we don’t pay attention to the culture we live among, we may faithfully embody the gospel but do so in a manner that talks past the local community.

To some Christian, the word innovation raise concerns. Are we now just deciding to make it up as we go along, doing whatever is trendy and even edgy? The answer to that is a big “No!” 

What I mean by innovation involves what actors and musicians call improvisation. With the Bible as our story, we become actors within the story (Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God, p. 140). Except the script for our particular scene — how we are to embody the gospel within our local context — is missing and now will require some improvisation. It would be redundant, meaningless, and eventually boring if we just repeated everything in the previous scene because that is what was done before. In lieu of that, we want to improvise in a manner that makes sense for our scene but also remains coherent with the plot of the story told within scripture.

It’s like playing in a jazz band. The story of the Bible provides us with the key, tempo, time signature, and even the chord structure. If some of the musicians were to play in a different key, tempo, time, and chord changes, the music would sound terrible and turn away the listeners. So instead, all the musicians play within the structure given. One the other hand, imagine if the musicians just began playing the same seven or eight notes over and over again in the same pattern and same emotion. The song would lose meaning and lose the interest of the listeners. But if the musicians were to improvise, they would still play coherently with the music piece they are given but do so in a manner that makes sense at every bar in the music. So it is with participating in the mission of God. We follow Jesus Christ as people living under the kingdom of God but it requires both faithfulness to and contextualization of the gospel we read about in the biblical story. That is how we participate with God to, as the purpose of Mission Alive states, “bring about the holistic transformation of marginalized communities through starting and renewing innovative churches that address the most challenging issues faced by their neighbors.” To that end is what the relaunch of the Mission Alive blog will serve.

~ K. Rex Butts, D.Min

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K. Rex Butts serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE. He holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura and together they have three children.

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