Mission Drift

On the first official date with my (now) wife, we had finished eating at a restaurant and decided to drive around the city we were in. I didn’t really know the city that well so we just headed off in the direction of the downtown area. Once downtown, I made a turn and just started heading down the road. I saw a man on the side of the street trying to wave me down, but I thought to myself, “That guy is crazy.” Then I saw the headlights approaching. I quickly realized that I was heading the wrong way down a one way street! I quickly pulled over and from there, just hung my head. I thought I had blown it! On my first date. Thankfully, Heather was very gracious and we were able to turn around without any harm coming to us (or our budding relationship)

Heading in the wrong direction is not just something that a lovestruck college student might do on a date, however. It can also happen to organizations. The phenomenon of an organization beginning with one stated purpose but then moving on to some other purpose is called mission drift. Mission drift is not always intentional, hence the “drift” part. Sometimes organizations can just get so distracted by multiple exciting opportunities to pursue that they lose focus on their core competency and original reason for why they exist. Mission drift affects business, non-profits, and yes, even churches. 

Probably the most well-known recent example of mission drift in churches is found in the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the early 20th Century. Mainline churches, like the PCUSA, began drifting from a belief in the inerrancy and infallibility of the Scriptures. They sought to accommodate “modern” ideas of science and Enlightenment ideals, like an evaluation of human reason and rejection of divine revelation. Some modernists even rejected the resurrection of Jesus. The mainline churches then became more concerned with the social issues of their day rather than proclaiming the need for repentance and belief in Jesus as Savior. As you might imagine, many other historically orthodox doctrines of the Christian faith began to be rejected, such as the reality of Hell and the need to find salvation in Christ alone. 

The departure of the mainline churches from the gospel should be a warning to all churches that mission drift can indeed happen. Even the Bible itself is very concerned about mission drift. The apostle Paul repeatedly charged his protegee Timothy to protect the mission of the church. He tells Timothy to “guard what has been entrusted to [him],” that is, the gospel (1 Timothy 6:20). In another letter, Paul tells Timothy to “guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you” (2 Timothy 1:14). Timothy is to defend the gospel and make sure the church stays on course with its mission. But how should Timothy go about protecting the church’s mission? Paul tells him that he must invest in the next generation of leaders! “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses,” Paul writes, “Entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2). Therefore, as church leaders today, we must be very careful to protect the mission of the church and invest in younger leaders who will carry on the legacy of the church’s mission beyond us. 

What is the mission of the church?

Knowing the mission of the church first comes from knowing the gospel. The gospel changes who we are, giving us a new identity of being “in Christ.” God brings us from being alienated from Christ and outside of the covenant promises, to being an adopted child of God, built up into a holy dwelling place (Eph 2:11-22). Knowing our identity in Christ then changes what we do. It is a mistake to get this backwards. Our culture these days is so performance-driven that often we can unconsciously adopt a worldly way of thinking by grounding our identity in achievement or performance. But that is not who you are. Who you are is in Christ. One of the messages of the gospel is, “I do nothing productive, and yet I am utterly loved.” We derive value from Christ, not our performance. 

Yet God still graciously invites us as his church to participate in his mission. From the very beginning of Genesis, God set in motion a plan to renew and restore all things through a Savior (Gen 3:15). Amazingly, God uses people to accomplish his divine plan. From Abraham, to Moses, to David, and even to us, God passes on the responsibility of his mission to his people. Just as Jesus was sent by the Father to accomplish the mission, so now, Jesus sends us out on his mission, representing him to the world (John 20:21). 

Our Mission: Make Disciples 

Mhe mission of a church is best summarized as “to make disciples.” Because Jesus explicitly commissions the disciples to make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). Furthermore, we see in Scripture that the idea of “making disciples” is simple enough to keep the church laser-focused, but expansive enough to encompass the wide range of biblical material. The first priority of a church is to proclaim the gospel. Jesus told the disciples they would be “witnesses” and proclaiming forgiveness of sin (Luke 24:45-47; Acts 1:8). There is no Christianity without proclaiming the gospel. The gospel itself is an expansive thing, but in a nutshell it is the declaration of good news that life with God is available through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The gospel is needed, however, because we are sinners. And so, the response to the gospel must be for people to repent of their sin and believe in Jesus. 

The life of a disciple is one of growth, however. As disciples, we cannot be content with staying where we are either as individuals or as a church. We must grow in Christlikeness (Romans 8:28-29). Moreover, disciples are also ambassadors of Christ to the world. They serve those in need and must be zealous for “good works” (Acts 6:1-7; Titus 2:14). 

It’s also not enough to have a definition inside the head of the church leaders. As pastors, it is our responsibility to make sure we state the mission and create a common language for discussing the mission of the church. Having common language is so important because it gets everyone on the same page, pulling in the same direction for the church. It also clears up and prevents misunderstandings. Therefore, we desire to have a common and agreed vocabulary for LBC so that we can all know exactly what we’re talking about. Many of these definitions have been adapted from the book DiscipleSHIFT by Jim Putman and Bobby Harrington. Here are a few key terms we need to agree upon:

  • Disciples: Disciples are followers of Jesus being changed by Jesus on mission for Jesus.
  • Discipleship: Discipleship is the process of growth for believers. When we are born again, we should mature from spiritual infants to spiritual parents. 
  • Making Disciples: Making disciples means helping others follow Jesus. The method we follow for making disciples is sharing our lives and sharing God’s word.

How “Mission” Functions in the Life of LBC

So much confusion exists around the mission of the church today that a few years ago two authors even wrote a book entitled, What is the Mission of the Church? Some would say that the mission of the church is to proclaim Christ in word and deed. Therefore, the church must be about gospel proclamation and serving the poor or meeting real needs in the world. Others would argue that the church’s primary mission is the proclamation of the gospel and building up of the saints. Others would argue that the church exists to attempt to change the culture through political means. 

I believe the mission of “making disciples” is both simple enough for people to easily grasp yet comprehensive enough to unite the often disparate definitions of the church’s mission. Making disciples is both an individual reality (each of us is to make disciples who make disciples of Jesus) and a corporate reality (the church as a whole works to equip people to make disciples). People become disciples by repenting of sin and placing their faith in the Lord Jesus. Therefore, proclaiming the gospel with words is absolutely essential. There is no disciple-making without it. But disciples then live out the life God intends in the world, working for justice and righteousness, meeting real needs, and showing mercy to those who need it.  Because the mission of the church is anchored to Scripture and Christ’s word, the mission of LBC will not change over the years. Whether in one year or in 100 years, the goal remains the same: make disciples who make disciples of Jesus.  

Knowing exactly what our mission is the first step to preventing mission drift. Stoic philosopher Seneca deftly said, “Without a ruler to do it against you won’t make the crooked straight.” In other words, you need some standard to measure your work against. For the church, it is its mission. When we know our mission, we can make sure that we are staying aligned with the mission. Besides knowing the mission and defining it biblically, there are other things we can do to keep from drifting. But before getting into that, in the next couple of posts I want to explore some of the main “drifters” that exist today which can get the church off course.

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