What Is the Church’s Mission?

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There are few tasks more urgent than for the church to reflect on the nature of its mission and to formulate a clear understanding of its task in the world today. As Paul wrote, “There I do not run like someone running aimlessly. I do not fight like a boxer beating the air” (1 Cor 9:26). I developed the following 12 theses as a humble contribution to the ongoing conversation on this topic.


(1) The church’s mission-in both belief and practice-should be grounded in the biblical theology of mission. This requires sustained reflection on the biblical teaching on mission in both Testaments; an awareness of the complexities involved in apprehending such a biblical theology of mission; and the adoption of a humble stance toward Scripture as the church’s sole legitimate source of divine revelation and thus of the church’s understanding of its mission.

(2) Reflection on the church’s mission should be predicated upon the affirmation of the full and sole authority of Scripture. Unless the church’s convictions regarding its mission and the strategies it devises on the basis of these beliefs are completely committed and surrendered to the authority of Scripture, the purity of the church’s thought and practice with regard to its mission will be compromised, and thinking derived from the social sciences will inevitably leaven the dough of its missiology.

(3) The church’s mission should be conceived primarily in terms of the church’s faithfulness and responsiveness to the missionary mandate given by the Lord Jesus Christ as recorded in Scripture. If the church is to engage in mission as prompted by God’s initiative in Christ (as is surely the case), then the church’s mission is to be conceived as essentially responsive and representational in nature. There is no need to “rise above” or “go beyond” Scripture in the church’s beliefs and practice of its mission.

(4) The church’s understanding of its mission should be hermeneutically sound. This requires the consideration of facts such as that while the Synoptics focus on Jesus’ teaching on the “kingdom of God,” John speaks instead of “eternal life.” This seems to caution against elevating the “kingdom of God” as the only paradigm by which the church’s mission is to be understood. Also, Paul emphasizes the centrality of the gospel (e.g. Rom 1:1-2, 16-17) and provides teaching on the church as the body of Christ, on spiritual gifts, and on the proper organization of the church including qualifications for its leaders (Rom 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12-14; and the Prison and Pastoral Epistles).

(5) The church’s mission is to be conceived ultimately in theocentric rather than anthropocentric terms. Mission is part of the church’s obedience to God, just as dying on the cross for the sins of the world was part of the sent Son’s obedience to his sender, God the Father (see, e.g., John 17:4; 19:30). Thus the gospel and its abiding truth and relevance for lost sinners should be the primary point of reference as the church engages in its mission rather than human need and the contemporary cultural, political, economic, and social contexts.

(6) The church’s mission, properly and biblically conceived, is to be trinitarian in its orientation, but not at the expense of neglecting the distinct roles of the three persons within the Godhead. The church’s mission is to be prompted by God the Father’s initiative, to proceed on the basis of Christ’s redemptive mission and commission, and to be empowered by the Holy Spirit. In this sense, there is no dichotomy between the church’s mission being Trinitarian and Christocentric-it is to be both.

(7) The contemporary context of the church’s mission, while important, ought not to override the church’s commitment to the authority of Scripture, its need to be grounded in the biblical theology of mission, and the understanding of its task in terms of faithfulness to the gospel. Once context and experience are put on par with Scripture, the former in fact take precedence, and Scripture’s authority is undermined, with the inevitable result that the gospel’s integrity is compromised.

(8) The church is the God-ordained agent of his mission in this world today. Just as it is in Christ that God has chosen to center his salvation-historical program, Christ is the head of his body, the church. As Paul writes, “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession-to the praise of his glory” (Eph 1:13-14). Paul’s desire is that “to him [God] be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (Eph 3:21).

(9) The way in which the kingdom of God is extended in this world today is through regenerate believers acting out their Christian faith in their God-assigned spheres of life: the church, their families, their workplace, the societies in which they live (Eph 5:18-6:9; 1 Pet 2:13-3:7). This realization precludes both an over-realized eschatology and an other-worldly escapism or heroism that has the effect of bypassing the primary God-ordained familial and social structures in this life.

(10) There is no true lasting social transformation apart from personal conversion through repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. I believe Enoch Wan is right to stress the indispensable personal and individual nature of faith in Christ and to caution against an overreaction against an unduly individualistic understanding of the biblical teaching on mission. At the same time, it should be acknowledged that mission is the church’s task, not the task of individuals apart from their membership in a given local church.

(11) Human organization does not necessarily entail a lack of acknowledgment of God and his initiative in mission. While this may be, and has been, the case in the history of the church and its mission, it is also true that the opposite of organization is chaos, and the New Testament writings (especially the Book of Acts) indicate that the early church took concerted steps to organize itself to carry out its mission successfully. It appointed and commissioned missionaries; planted networks of churches and set up leaders; and so on.

(12) The church’s task today is to nurture, renew, and plant churches composed of a spiritually regenerate membership and constituted in keeping with the biblical teaching regarding church leadership. This is the unfinished task of the church today, indicated by the open-ended nature of the Book of Acts and mandated by the New Testament commissioning passages. As Jesus said, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matt 24:14; cf. Mark 13:10).


See Christopher J. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2006); Andreas J. Köstenberger, The Missions of Jesus and of the Disciples according to the Fourth Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998); Andreas J. Köstenberger and Peter T. O’Brien, Salvation to the Ends of the Earth: A Biblical Theology of Mission (NSBT 11; Leicester, UK: InterVarsity, 2001); and Eckhard J. Schnabel, Early Christian Mission (2 vols. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2004). See also Andreas J. Köstenberger and Scott R. Swain, Father, Son and Spirit: The Trinity and John’s Gospel (NSBT 24; Leicester, UK: InterVarsity, 2008).


  1. Dr. Köstenberger,
    I appreciate your points for a local church’s role in fulfilling the “mission of the church.”
    I think in regard to points 3, 8, & 9 speaking to the Acts 1:8/MT 28:18-20 part of the work/purpose of the local church, it would be beneficial to speak to the different roles of the church members, namely in speaking to the role of the local church in fulfilling the “ends of the earth” part of the mission of bearing witness to the Gospel: “sent out ones” from local churches.
    This requires a mutual responsibility and unique local church-apostle relationship that most do not understand, don’t think of, or don’t have a need for or opportunity for. Many times the “apostle”/”sent out one” is going through a parachurch missions sending agency, so there is little to no local church in the picture. Many local churches are not conscious of the role of a “sent out one” in the Acts 13:1-5 sense of the term/role, so the local churches are not fulfilling their part of the responsibility/relationship.
    This is a major issue overseas/on the field “sent out ones” are currently dealing with: it is a need to study and understand and follow the biblical model of local churches and apostolic roles/calling in fulfilling the Great Commission, especially in regard to a Great Commission Resurgence.
    Great info, thank you!

  2. I’m commenting way past this page’s original posting.

    Whenever I see the definite article attached to “church,” I pause and wonder if it is really that definite and does not warrant extensive consideration before proceding further.

  3. (9)The way in which the kingdom of God is extended in this world today is through regenerate believers acting out their Christian faith in their God-assigned spheres of life: the church, their families, their workplace, the societies in which they live (Eph 5:18-6:9; 1 Pet 2:13-3:7).
    While I agree with this point I believe that it does not go far enough. Biblical faith must be spread, not only by being acted out, but also by being articulated. I am sure that you would that this is your position as well. Biblical faith must be practiced and proclaimed. It is vital, visual, and verbal. We are commanded to teach the nations by telling them. Too many of us try to walk without the talk. Good job. I appreciate your efforts for the cause of Christ and especially your humility is welcoming criticisms.

  4. Dr. Kostenberger,
    You’ve asked for feedback so I’ll offer what I can, fully acknowledging that you have thought more about this than I have. For most points I agree so the feedback below will be only points where I have questions or possible disagreement.

    #2 – I wonder where ‘full and sole authority’ leaves us with regard to studying given cultures and thinking about how to particularly engage that culture. When we start discussing ‘strategies’ rather than merely principles, why would it not be appropriate to bring in information outside of Scripture? The fascinating thing to me is that the only strategy that Jesus left was ‘make disciples’ without giving the particulars. Are you saying that, for example, if we are to devise a strategy to reach an Animist culture that it would be inappropriate to understand Animism (apart from the universals of all cultures that are described in Scripture)? Would it be inappropriate to try and understand what it is they believe so that we can more effectively see where the Gospel needs to be brought to bear in their lives? An approach that does not appropriately study a given culture will likely lead to syncretism rather than conversion because it will usually deal with issues from the source culture rather than those that are primary in the destination culture. Maybe I’ve misunderstood you, but this seems to be the way this point is heading.

    #3 – I have some of the similar concerns explained above under #2; especially when you include “and practice.” It is quite possible that you are aiming this point at a certain belief within missiology but it could be misinterpreted in odd ways.

    #5 – Your contrast of “the gospel and its abiding truth and relevance for lost sinners” with “human need” seems to be a false dichotomy to me. Isn’t the fact that you include “lost sinners” in the first part imply that human need is part of the gospel? Maybe you are speaking of a particular type of human need and wanting to avoid a ‘social gospel’, but certainly sin and its consequences are the cause of all human need and it is this particularly these which the gospel is meant to remedy.

    #7 – I’m curious what would constitute putting “context and experience…on par with scripture.” In what way is “the contemporary context important”? And how would you recommend this proceeding without putting it “on par” with Scripture? There seems to be an implicit assumption that “contemporary context” is going to be inherently at odds with Scripture so one must take precedence over the other. If scripture speaks of reality, as things really are, in every culture, then if we understand a contemporary context accurately, the two ought to be complementary rather than in tension.

    #11 – I’m curious how this works out in light of #2 and #3 – Scripture does not give us a full explanation of how we are to organize, so when we organize it will inevitably be influenced by principles outside of Scripture. How does that not contradict #2 & #3 (especially the part about “the practice of mission” – wouldn’t that include organization?)?

    I just want to say again that I agree with most of your points and actually think that we may be in more agreement on the points that I’ve raised. It’s quite possible that I’ve just misunderstood what you’re trying to say. I hope this is valuable feedback for you. If you want to interact on any of these points, please feel free to email me directly.


  5. Dr. Kostenberger,

    I’ve got nothing to add or detract from what you’ve written here. In point 4, though, you mention in passing a distinction between the synoptics’ focus on the KoG and John’s focus on “eternal life.” I would very much be interested to see you deal with those two things in a separate blog, perhaps sort of a compare/contrast or something like that. I think my current understanding of this is that the synoptics and John are both referring to essentially the same thing but with different emphases. A post dealing with this and/or direction to further resources for study would be very beneficial, I think.

    *As an aside: I’m an undergraduate philosophy/biblical studies major at Liberty University and have taken several classes with Dr. Croteau, so we’ve used your materials (esp. in our hermeneutics class last semester) and talked about your work and blog a lot. Croteau’s told us several good stories about his experience working towards his PhD as well. Thank you for your contributions to biblical studies, and I look forward to reading your work for years to come.

  6. This is a great post. I thoroughly enjoy your writing. I’d love to talk to you about contributing to theResurgence.com.

  7. I’m sorry … Mark 16:15-20.

  8. Jesus said it more precisely in Matthew 16:15-20. Why take 12 theses to write out what Jesus already said succintly? And, amazingly, Jesus promised signs to follow, and Matthew confirmed in his last verse that signs did indeed follow them as they remained faithful to the mission. It seems to me that it’s much more common for some to write lots of words about mission today than to just do what Jesus said to do. We’ve got much more intellectual knowledge today than the disciples ever had, and we’re significantly less obedient and, as a result, effective.


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