“For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God” (1 Peter 1:23)
I have noticed there has been a growth in the gardening industry of late. Christians are planting roots into local communities by beginning community gardens and teaching horticultural skills. Churches and Christian organisations are making substantial financial commitments into establishing these beds of vegetation. In fact, no fewer than 3 Pastors have asked me about this phenomenon over the past month.
Such ventures sound like a great idea. They can encourage people to think creatively about sustainable food, they may foster relationships among local people, and impart practical skills. But should we call these activities mission? Should we understand these program as growing God’s Kingdom?
Starting a community garden could well be an expression of Christlike love and may exhibit some of the qualities of God’s Kingdom to our neighbourhood. These activities may articulate an interest in our neighbours and an intent to serve our communities. They may create relationships from which we will share the Gospel and see local churches growing. However, at least in some instances, the soil isn’t producing a harvest for God’s Kingdom because Christians are planting with stones, not seeds. The problem lies when these activities are pursued in the place of evangelism and when we develop these ministries instead of cultivating the local church.
We mustn’t neglect peoples’ material needs. God’s love for us in Christ Jesus should be displayed in every aspect of our lives, and yet the Bible gives a clear vision for what God’s mission is about and the Bible gives the Church clear mandates for how this mission is to be fulfilled.
There is a substantial theological argument supporting the thesis that mission should be understood as evangelism: speaking, explaining, proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Whether we understand the biblical categories of mission to be speaking exclusively or primarily about evangelism, the imperative to preach Christ crucified, to call for repentance and faith in Christ, and seeing (new) Christians joining a local church is at the core of God’s purposes in the world.
If Jesus promised, “I will build my church”, why would Christians decline from joining in this task, or suggest that it is optional?
If Jesus calls on people to repent and believe the good news, how can we conclude that this is no longer central to our task?
The Great Commission places intentional Gospel telling front and center,
“Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 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, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
The book of Acts is a record of the Gospel being preached, men and women being saved, and Churches being planted.
As the Apostle Paul explains to the Romans,
“If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. 11 As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” 12 For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, 13 for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
14 How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”” (Romans 10:9-15)
We repeatedly discover that the Church is God’s given means through which he will display his purposes to the world,
“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, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Eph 3:11-13)
I suspect the shift that we are seeing from evangelism to community work and from church to community results from several factors. For example:
- Planting a garden is more socially accepted than planting a church. The former is easier when it comes to gaining council approval, local funding, and people warm to the idea.
- We look for immediate results. Church planting is a long term, patient work with no guarantees of immediate fruit whereas a garden bed or community program is tangible.
- Poor teaching on ecclesiology has resulted in breeding unhealthy churches and therefore a lack of confidence in churches.
- Cultural pressures have diminished our view of God and removed the Bible’s portrait of sinful humanity. Another problem is how too many Christian no longer believe in sin and in a God who judges nor believe that personal repentance and faith in Jesus Christ is necessary.
- Confidence in God’s word has taken a beating through the exegetical and hermeneutical minefields laid down by Christian liberalism, who keep telling us that the Bible can’t surely mean what it says.
I attended a denominational workshop several years ago where the speaker was encouraging attendees to think about mission. It soon became apparent that his shtick was, “mission today depends on finding ‘new and innovative methods’”, and that verbal proclamation wasn’t one of them. When I asked a question about evangelism, the response given was, “I guess one might think about that as an option”. In other words, evangelism was not a necessary component for participating in God’s mission. At the very least this demonstrates a deficient theology of the Gospel.
If the biblical pattern is to preach the Gospel and plant Churches, why push these tasks to the periphery and instead focus on gardening or cafes or teaching life skills to kids? Again, I’m not dismissing these activities; I think they can wonderful ways to serve others and to show people God’s love. They may well serve as part of what we do as Christians, but let’s not pretend it is mission, unless we are also using these ministries to create conversations about Christ or as a jumping off point to begin a Christianity Explored course or reading the Bible 1-1.
As Ed Stetzer famously quipped, “feed the poor and if necessary use food!” Of course, he was responding the famous saying that is falsely attributed to Francis of Assisi, “preaching the Gospel, and if necessary use words”.
I suspect mission has joined the growing list of words that are becoming meaningless due to the loose ways Christians have been applying it. A 1000 people might sit in a room and mention mission and everyone will shout, ‘Amen’. The problem is, we’ve either defined mission so broadly as to make the term redundant or because of reluctance to deem any activity as not conforming to God’s mission, we avoid defining it all together.
My contention is this: if we view mission without Gospel proclamation and without view to building Christ’s Church, we have strayed a long way from the vision God has revealed in his word. Even worse, these ministries cease to be good works and become stumbling blocks to the Gospel.
For the third time, I am not saying that it’s a mistake for Churches or Christians to create ministries in their communities that provide services or helps. I say if it’s a constructive way to love neighbours in your area, go for it. May we not give up on doing good works and loving our neighbours in all manner of ways, but let us not blur our vision of what God’s Kingdom is about by taking our eyes off God’s word and believing what God has spoken about his mission in the world.
In the parable of the sower, the Lord Jesus tells us the secret of the Kingdom,
“The farmer sows the word… Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.”
Surely we can trust God to produce a great harvest, even in this age of skepticism in which we find ourselves today. Our role in mission is to obediently plant His seed (the Gospel) and to keep asking the Lord of the harvest to make it grow, for the good and salvation of people and for glory of Christ.
By all means, plant potatoes, peas, carrots, and pumpkin seed but please don’t neglect the seed that is the word of God, the only word that gives life to sinners.