Observations on the Marks and Mission of the Church

Tim Brister —  March 24, 2013 — 10 Comments

Marks and Mission

Let me begin by saying that I’m a big advocate of both the marks and the mission of the church. In fact, I want to believe we all are. But what I have observed in evangelical life is that those who emphasize the marks of a healthy church are often (not always) weak on the mission, and those who emphasize the mission of the church are often (not always) weak on the marks of a true church.

As I have argued earlier, the marks and mission are not in opposition to one another. Jesus is both the builder (mission) of the church as well as the perfector (marks) of the church. I want to pursue genuine biblical health that will, by virtue of being healthy, be growing and bearing fruit. I also want to pursue fruitfulness that is consistent and a consequence of faithfulness to God’s Word. As Tim Keller puts it, we should evangelize as we edify and edify as we evangelize. Churches should be comprised of disciples of Jesus who have a simultaneous pursuit of God (holiness) and pursuit of man (mission), and these two should not be divorced from one another. Jesus calls us to follow Him (marks of a true disciple), and He will make us fishers of men (mission of a true disciple).

Indeed, when one comes to think about discipleship in relationship to the marks and mission, it is compelling to see how disciple-making merges the two together. What is the mark of a true disciple? Christ-likeness (increasing conformity into His image). What is the mission of a true disciple? To make more disciples of Jesus (by the power of His Spirit and instrumentality of His Word). What kind of new disciples are we seeking to make? True disciples who bear the marks of a genuine, devoted follower of Jesus. It stands to reason then, that a biblical church bearing true marks of health, will consist of disciples not only becoming like Christ but also being used by Christ in His mission.

What troubles me is that often times churches who seek to emphasize numerical growth are very loosely connected or concerned with the marks of a true church. Theology and ecclesiology is reduced to a tool in the pragmatist belt, to be used like a spare tire in cases of emergency, rather than the engine that drives the vehicle. Because the goal is growth, whatever means to secure that goal is deemed appropriate (I think you will see a good bit of this, by the way, in how churches treat Easter).

On the other hand, often times churches who seek biblical depth and health are loosely connected or concerned about the mission of the church. Evangelism, disciple-making, and church planting are not cultivated and celebrated as central to the life and focus of the church. Whereas intentionality exists in expository preaching and the membership process, there is not as much intentionality when it comes to missional engagement and the discipleship process. Because the goal is health, churches can feel justified with missional atrophy so long as the church is valuing purity.

If we believe in the mission, then we must care deeply about ecclesiology, so that we know what God considers to be a church and how it is to be governed. If we believe in a true church, then we must care deeply about mission so that true churches serve the purpose for which we exist in the world. I want both, but I admit that I feel the tension and the breakdown that exists in the evangelical world.

I want to be careful here not to make broad generalizations and stereotype every church that exists. Bear with me as I simply try to elaborate on an observation that I hope will generate substantive discussion and even more importantly, a learning experience so that we as practitioners can have a healthy and robust praxis in our respective local churches.

Am I missing it here? Are my observations off base? What are your thoughts?

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10 responses to Observations on the Marks and Mission of the Church

  1. “If we believe in the mission, then we must care deeply about ecclesiology, so that we know what God considers to be a church and how it is to be governed. If we believe in a true church, then we must care deeply about mission so that true churches serve the purpose for which we exist in the world.”

    These sentences capture my thinking exactly. I find in myself a propensity to slide towards the “pragmatic” lens, and have honestly been corrected this year in that regard. I’m so grateful for the “marks” side of the conversation because it chastens my “mission” driven nature.

    I think one of the critical issues in the public evangelical world is the consistent movement towards argument and denouncement (which seems to be often driven by straw man caricatures) versus a legitimate affirmation and then loving critique.

    When the debate around these two issues remains in the broad sense about “American Evangelicals” rather than engaging with specific people and specific churches, the conversation is too easily divisive.

    I’d love to see the Marks and the Mission folks fight more for one another publicly than they do against one another!

    • Todd,

      I totally agree with this statement, “I think one of the critical issues in the public evangelical world is the consistent movement towards argument and denouncement (which seems to be often driven by straw man caricatures) versus a legitimate affirmation and then loving critique.”

      The point of me making these observations is to call for honest self-assessment and see how those who emphasize other areas can be a helpful encouragement, challenge, and/or critique. I don’t believe those who emphasize the marks are anti-mission and not ingrown as they are perceived to be, and I also don’t believe those who emphasize the mission are all unbridled pragmatists sold out to novelty, trendiness, and man-centered felt needs. And when you sit across the table face to face with someone you likely disagree with or have different convictions, I have found it encouraging to see the heart and devotion of other genuine followers of Jesus who are teachable, humble, and open to learning from others not in their tribe. I want to foster more of that.

  2. Just stopped by to let you know that I find this post very insightful. I have been thinking along these lines for months. I have some ideas which may or may not be good answers, but I want to keep thinking right now.

    Thanks, Tim.

  3. Tim.
    I hear you and agree with your thoughts, and my buddy Todd’s thoughts are spot on as well. I will say this. I thought as I went to a missional church 4 years ago that I was going to have to continually point them back to the scriptures to remind them that we actually have a Bible that guides us, not merely our crafty designs of mission. What I found, and continually find, is that theology is very strong in many missional churches and theology is something they (we) continually go back to, to ensure we are on the mission of God and following in his ways.

    There have been many times where I have changed what I was doing, or been corrected, because of the Scriptures by my missional brothers.

    What I think can sometimes rub some of the “marks of the church” crowd the wrong way is that we can contextualize so much that our theology sounds pretty watered down, or not sound as strong in lingo as some are used to. But, what most are surprised about is when they sit down with us to ask us the “whys” and we take them to the Word. They might not agree, but we still have orthodoxy that supports our orthopraxy.

    Not only that, but hopefully you’ve seen from many if us that we will just ask theological questions in public or wanting direction theologically in public, as we really want to know and aren’t afraid to be publicly corrected or guided to the truth. I guess my point is that I have been shepherded in the missional church on how to also be humble and always a learner.

    Anyways…this is long winded, but since I came from a “marks” church into a “mission” one, figured I’d throw in my two cents.

    • Seth,

      I think that is really helpful bro. I really appreciate the way you and the Soma guys have modeled the identity of a learner and disciple, humbly (and publicly) wrestling with biblical truth and contemporary issues. I think it would be good to get some of the GCM fellas with some of the IX Marks fellas to openly and constructively discuss differences and how both are pursuing biblical ecclesiology and can learn from one another. That would be a conference or training I (and a believe others) would jump on (out of mutual respect and appreciation).

  4. Thought this post was really insightful way to frame the issue. I think we’ve all heard both critiques before, but this is the first time I’ve come across someone putting them across a continuum like this-challenging us to strike the right balance.

    I’ve got friends and people I look up to in both the “marks” and “missional” camps. I find some excellent things to emulate in the best of both camps and some excesses to avoid in both as well. I think a good balance between the two is possible in both traditional and missional-style churches.

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