Dustin Willis/Aaron Coe
I need to state my bias at the beginning of the review. I am a pastor in a congregation of one of the most liberal denominations on the planet. That doesn’t stop me from seeing the value of what Dustin and Aaron talk about in their book Life on a Mission. In this easily readable book filled with anecdotes and challenging question they lay out the truth that in order for us to be part of God’s mission, we need God. We find God through the person of Jesus Christ.
The mission in Life on a Mission is the work of evangelism – telling the world of the Good News that they are loved and forgiven by God. Already, right now, without needing to do anything about it. They get evangelism right too. Narry a single comment about Hell or lost souls, instead they talk about spreading grace and joy, building relationships respecting the culture and the people they meet. It is a work many people in my denomination need to hear. Not that we aren’t believers, but we forget that we must nurture the soul to nurture the person. To follow Jesus is to see people in an entirely different way, not as objects of pity or usefulness, but as the created and beloved children of God – our brothers and sisters, even our enemies (perhaps especially our enemies).
Yet I found a few things made me uncomfortable. The first was the statistics that talk about evangelicals in a way that implies that other denominations are not doing God’s mission too. Some statistics were also misleading. Talking about the number of churches per population of a particular denomination gives a skewed view. For one it ignores that there are other denominations with churches, sometimes too many if we are honest. A more honest way of speaking of churches in respect to population would be to talk about church per claimed membership. In the United Church of Canada that means about 3000 churches for 600,000 members (I’m using very much rounded numbers here.) Meaning we have a church for every 200 members. If you look at the number of people who claim association with the UCC that number might be a church for every 1000. These numbers reflect that we have Anglican, Salvation Army, Pentecostal and more churches in our communities. The reality is that even with all those churches, probably less than twenty percent of the population attends worship on any given Sunday morning. A smaller percentage sees themselves a part of God’s mission to the world.
God’s mission to the world. For Dustin and Aaron it is clearly the mission to make believers in all nations. I have the same problem I always have when I’m presented with this as God’s mission. I want to ask ‘why?’. What are believers for? If creating believers is the only purpose of God’s mission, why did Jesus talk and act in a way that challenged unjust assumptions of the society he lived in? His mission statement in Luke 4:18-19 is
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
He is quoting Isaiah 61 and pointing to something the prophets spend a lot of time saying. Our love for God is shown by how we treat the poor, the lonely, the unwanted. The proof they held up that Israel had wandered far from God was not that attendance at Temple worship decreased. It was that the people on the margins were being pushed further away. News about God wasn’t enough, justice is necessary in this world. Not once did Jesus tell someone that they could wait until they got to the next world to receive either the spiritual blessing of the Gospel or justice in this world.
It isn’t that Life on a Mission is wrong, It isn’t. It is just that they’ve only written half the book. The reason for us to help shape disciples for God is not that God wants more people on his team. It is because those disciples can then pick up on Jesus’ mission statement (we are the body of Christ in this world after all) and challenge the things in this world that stop the poor from hearing good news, the blind from seeing, and the prisoners from being freed. The year of the Lord’s favour was the Jubilee, the Sabbaths of Sabbaths when all debts were forgiven (literal debts!) and land was returned to the family that had relationship with that land. The call is not just to bring people into a spiritual kingdom, but to move that kingdom into the world. That means fighting against principalities and powers for the lives and souls of our neighbours.
It is the split in the Church that is causing us to fail. We put all our efforts into winning souls, or we put all our efforts into fighting for justice. What God wants is both. We win souls so more people may seek justice in this world. We strive for justice for all so that people might ask “Why are you doing this?” and we can answer with confidence that it is the Gospel that calls us.
So read this book. It will get you thinking and give you hope that evangelism is possible; in fact it is the inevitable result of faith. But don’t stop there, wonder how God can use you and the people around you to shape more just society. It isn’t enough (to pick on example from the book) to reach out to young single mothers by helping them with childcare and care for their homes, if we don’t also seek out the reason why all these women are struggling single mothers and try to address that root cause.