God's mission for the church

What is the mission of the church? This episode of the Radically Christian Bible Study Podcast tackles that crucial question. The discussion explores the common tendency for Christians to focus solely on replicating New Testament patterns of church life, while neglecting the larger theological framework of God’s mission. Wes McAdams and Steve Cloer delve into the biblical concept of God as a “missionary God” who sends his people to partner in redeeming a broken world, and how this should reshape the church’s identity and approach to ministry.

Missional theology can transform the way we view everything from Sunday morning worship to our daily lives and interactions. Wes and Steve encourage listeners to reconsider their understanding of the church’s role and calling, moving beyond mere religious obligations to embrace a holistic, kingdom-centered mission. The conversation also touches on practical challenges and opportunities that arise when the church seeks to engage its local community and context.

The guest, Steve Cloer, is an assistant professor of ministry at Harding School of Theology and the director of the Doctor of Ministry program. With extensive experience in urban congregational ministry, Steve brings a unique perspective on the importance of the church’s presence and witness in cities and neighborhoods. His insights challenge listeners to consider how they can more faithfully and effectively participate in God’s mission, wherever they may be.

Links and Resources

Transcript (Credit: Beth Tabor)

Have you ever thought of God as a missionary? Have you ever thought of yourself as a missionary? Well, hopefully, you will after today’s podcast. Today I’m visiting with my friend, Steve Cloer, who’s an assistant professor of ministry at Harding School of Theology. Steve also directs the Doctor of Ministry program. He lives in Memphis, Tennessee, and in the fall of 2024, he’s going to begin leading a new initiative for Harding called the Center for Church and City Engagement. 

Before we begin that Bible study and conversation, I want to read from 2 Corinthians 5, starting in verse 17. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” 

I hope you enjoy this conversation and I hope it helps all of us learn to love like Jesus.

WES: Steve Cloer, welcome to the podcast, Brother.

STEVE: Thank you. It’s an honor to be with you.

WES: It’s been good to reconnect with you a little bit over the last couple months or so. You and I knew each other way back there before I had kids, I think, probably before you had kids. Did y’all have kids when we taught together?

STEVE: I think we didn’t have kids, either. Way back there, almost 20 years ago, maybe.

WES: Yeah, we taught Bible class at church camp together in New Mexico at Blue Haven. And do you guys still go to Blue Haven? 

STEVE: We still do. We go out fifth session to Camp Blue Haven, and it’s a joy. It’s a highlight of our year for our family.

WES: Us, too. We go to the first session, so, yeah, it’s fantastic. Well, I’ve been an admirer of your work for a long time, Brother. You do such great work, and I’d love for you to just kind of give us an introduction to what you have been doing most recently and then what you’re going to be doing as things transition a little bit. 

STEVE: Okay, sure. And thanks again, Wes, for inviting me on. So for 15 years I was the preacher at the Southside Church of Christ in Fort Worth, Texas, from 2006 to 2021. And Southside is a congregation located just south of downtown Fort Worth in the heart of the city, and we worked there and had a really good season of ministry. And then, in 2021, we transitioned to Memphis, Tennessee for me to work at Harding School of Theology, and so I’m an assistant professor of ministry here. I teach in the master’s programs. I teach courses in mission, leadership, and ministry, and then I also direct the Doctor of Ministry program. 

And there’s significant change going on here at Harding as the School of Theology is being relocated to Searcy, Arkansas, and so my role is changing slightly because I’m going to be staying in Memphis, and so I’m going to keep directing the Doctor of Ministry program and continue to be on faculty and teach somewhat, but I’m also going to be directing a new center for Harding that’s called Harding University Center for Church and City Engagement. And so the goal of this center is to provide resources and experiences and training for church leaders, as well as Harding students, to help them engage the city for the mission of God, so I’m excited about the future with that.

WES: That’s fantastic. I’m excited about that, too. And as we go, you may mention some of the other stuff that you’ll be working on, you know, as this becomes a reality. But you used the word “mission,” and I’ve listened to a few lessons that you’ve taught and I’ve read some articles that you’ve written, and that tends to be something that you talk a lot about, missional theology being ‑‑ what is the phrase that you use? 

STEVE: A missional catalyst.

WES: Okay. There you go. So that idea of the church and ministers being on mission is something that is incredibly important to you, and I was reading an article that you wrote. It’s called “The Missional Catalyst: Reimagining the Role of the Minister,” and here’s one of the quotes you said. I think that it will resonate with listeners. You said, “One of the deficiencies in the discussion of church leadership roles has been an absence of a theology of the mission of God. For restorationists, specifically those of us in churches of Christ, the focus has often been on the duplication of New Testament patterns. We determine what the early church did and then discern how to replicate in the present.” 

And so, so much of our focus, when we talk about ecclesiology or we talk about what is the church ‑‑ we’ve focused on this idea of, well, let’s figure out how to do Sunday morning worship. Let’s figure out how the church should be organized, elders and ministers and these kinds of roles, but there hasn’t been a lot on missional theology. So what is the mission of God, and what does that look like when a church really understands and is on mission?

STEVE: Yeah, sure, I can talk about that. Yeah, I think, you know, one of our challenges has been, when we focus on ecclesiology and we focus on, as you mentioned, just, you know, the forms and the patterns, we forget the larger theological framework that the church is situated within, and that framework starts with God and just who God is and what does God care about. And when we talk about the mission of God, we’re talking about the purpose of God, the purposes of God. What is it that God wants to do in the world, and then how do we fit into that? And at the very heart of who God is is that he is a missionary God, that he is a God who sends. And all throughout Scripture we see God sending, and then ultimately sending himself in the person of Jesus Christ. And in the Gospel of John, for example, over 40 times Jesus refers to himself as the one whom the Father sent, so there’s an element there within the very Godhead itself of God being a sending God. 

And so, if God is a missionary God, then at the core of who we are as his people is that we are to be a missionary people who are joining God in his mission for the world. And what is his mission? His mission, to put it succinctly, from my perspective, would be that he wants to redeem a broken world and he wants to make all things new, to restore all things both in heaven and on earth, to bring them together as one, and how we understand that mission is really tied to how we understand the gospel, and my understanding of the gospel is that the gospel is the good news that God is taking all the broken pieces of our world, putting them back together through Jesus Christ. 

And a scripture that’s really shaped my thinking on this is Ephesians 1. I’ll just read this. Ephesians 1:10, where it says, regarding his plan ‑‑ it’s talking about God’s plan, regarding his “plan of the fullness of the times to bring all things together in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth.” And, to me, that’s the essence of the good news, is God is bringing everything together in Christ through the cross and the resurrection and then the enthronement of Christ, that all things are being brought back together. So then the mission of God is to bring that about, and so if God is a missionary God and his mission is to restore all things or to redeem a broken world, then, as a church, our identity must be found in that. 

And so, in missional theology, like a key buzz phrase that’s often used is that it’s not that the church has a mission, but it’s that God’s mission has a church. And so you think about that, it’s a complete reframing. A lot of times when we think about mission, we think about action. We think about something that we’re doing, but, actually, mission is an attribute. It’s not an action; it’s an attribute of God. And so if this is at the very essence of who God is, to restore a broken world, then at the very essence of who we are as a church, as his people, is to restore a broken world, as well. And so we find a sense of identity within the mission of God that I think reshapes and reframes leadership roles. It reshapes and reframes just the way we think about church life. It just kind of reshapes everything. 

The illustration I like to use about this is, you know, when you go to a Christian college, nobody can major in love. Like there’s nobody who’s majoring in love, although that would be a good way maybe to get a date or something, like, hey, I’m majoring in love or whatever. Nobody majors in love. We don’t have ‑‑ typically, we don’t have love deacons at our church or love ministries, and the reason why we don’t is because we would say, well, that’s what every person is supposed to do. Every Christian is ‑‑ that’s how they know that we are his disciples, if we love one another, and that’s because God is love. Well, I would argue it’s the same way with mission. It’s not just for certain specialists to do mission. It’s that we are all a missionary people because we are serving a missionary God, that they all go together and it’s the very identity and essence of who we are.

WES: Man, I love that. And as you were talking, it occurred to me how many sort of theological points we could talk about. Ecclesiology, for those that don’t know, just the study of the church, or eschatology, the study of, you know, where’s all of this heading, what is this all going towards, what’s the end ‑‑ so much of that seems so heady and theoretical, but it’s so incredibly practical. If we think that God’s intention for us is just to sit here, be good, do church well until we die, and then we get to be whisked off to this ethereal realm in the sky, and that’s the end goal, that’s going to change the way, in very practical terms, we live out our life. It’s gonna change whether or not we see ourselves as being people on mission. But if we see ourselves as being recruited into the family of God ‑‑ not just the family of God, but the kingdom of God, and that we are a part of a kingdom, and that kingdom has a purpose ‑‑ and I love the way you said that this is an attribute, an aspect of who God is in that he is a missional God. I’ve never really thought of it that way before, and you could go all the way back to the creation, I suppose. In God’s creation of human beings to rule and reign with him, that this has always been God’s intention, to partner with humanity to do this great thing, and then, of course, sin got us off track, so I love that idea of putting the world back together.  

As you kind of framed it, you know, that there’s been a lack of understanding of mission ‑‑ I don’t want to get you in too much trouble, but I just finished listening to the lesson that you did at Prestoncrest a few weeks ago, and it was so good, and one of the things that you touched on was the things that we’re doing that actually undermine the mission in the community. You were specifically talking about how we reach people that are spiritual but not religious, or the religious “nones.” They’re sort of interested in spiritual things. They feel fine about their eternal destiny, but they just are not interested in church and these kinds of things, but the church is actually ‑‑ because we’re not being missional, I’m afraid sometimes we’re doing things that undermine some of the mission that we ought to be on. If you don’t mind expounding on some of those, what are some of the things that we might be unintentionally doing that’s actually getting in the way of being on a mission?

STEVE: Yeah, I mean, there are several things I can mention. One that immediately comes to my mind is sometimes we fail to recognize that God is at work in our world and in people’s lives to bring them to him. There’s a lot of talk these days about how we are functioning in an emerging secular paradigm, what some people refer to as the immanent frame, where we just don’t really see God active in our lives on a daily basis or in our societies, that we just kind of do everything on our own power and own ability and our own ingenuity, and sometimes that’s the way we think as Christians. We just kind of think, you know, God’s maybe at work in the church building when we’re there on Sundays, but then he’s not really at work the rest of our week, and I think that’s a big deficit. I think we need to have a spiritual perspective. God is a missionary God, and God is, right now, working in this world to convict people of sin, to open their hearts to him. He’s trying to put this broken world back together in Jesus. And so if we can have a heart that’s open to that and, like you said, willing to partner with God in that, we might be surprised at what we find. 

And so, as an example, just like in church services on Sunday morning, sometimes we approach that very selfishly. “Okay, I’m going. I’m kind of doing my good work and going to worship the Lord.” Maybe we could take a step back and say, “Okay, who is the Lord bringing this morning, and are we ready to receive them?” Because it could be that there’s someone who is meekly coming into the auditorium because they felt a sense of calling or that God’s been working on their heart and they’ve made this effort. And what are they going to find when they get there? Are they going to find people who are more interested in, you know, what are they going to eat for lunch, or are they going to find people ready to invite them into a community? A lot of times people who are spiritual but not religious, people who would check “None” on a religious affiliation survey ‑‑ a lot of times they’ve been to church. It’s not that they haven’t ever been to a worship service; it’s just that when they go, they haven’t been well received a lot of times.

And so that’s just one example of having a spiritual expectation, that as we come together on Sundays, who is the Lord bringing us, and are we praying about that? Are we ready to receive that? And then ‑‑ and that’s just on Sundays. We could talk about Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, you know, when we’re at school or a school activity or when we’re getting our oil changed or when we’re going ‑‑ running an errand at the grocery store. You know, who is God putting in our path? Who is God working on? When we’re waiting at the airport, could we have spiritual conversations then? All of that ‑‑ I mean, that’s just one example. If we create this spiritual expectation to recognize God is at work in this world and he’s working in people’s lives because he’s a missionary God, can I have a heart that’s open and eyes to see what he sees and seek to join in with him in his mission? 

WES: Yeah. I can’t tell you how many times I have had conversations with members of either this congregation where I preach now or congregations where I’ve been before and, specifically, it comes up a lot when a parent has a gay child and is afraid what might happen if they invite them to come to worship with them. The parent holds a traditional Christian sexual ethic, doesn’t believe that what their child is doing is right, but wants them to know Jesus, wants them to come to know Jesus, and they want them to experience their church family the same way they experience their church family. They want them to see this is a wonderful place and these people will love you and these people will not shun you, will not look down their nose at you, but they’re afraid. Will that happen? I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked that kind of question. Will I be judged? Will I be kicked out? Will I be whatever? And I want to say no, because that’s been my experience, that no, people are incredible. They’re welcoming. They’ll love you. 

You mentioned a woman in your class. You were talking about a lady who cut your hair, and you said something along the lines of do we stop and think that somebody like that might be coming to our assembly and we might affect the next five or 10 years of her spiritual journey? And that question was a sobering one. 

STEVE: Yeah, yeah, it is. It is. In that story that I told, I talked about her, that the way she described her religious journey is she said, “I felt a calling to go to church,” and we know where that calling came from. It came from God working in her heart. I mean, she didn’t understand that. She’s not able to articulate that, but she felt a calling to come to worship. And I believe it’s the same way with other people, and just in my experience of congregational ministry at Southside in Fort Worth, I mean, there were many occasions where people walked in our building and God brought them there. I mean, they just came, not knowing exactly what they were gonna find, and I’m always amazed at their courage to walk in the building. 

But as we’re moving into what I would call an emerging secular paradigm, what’s going to be very important for the church is to create a sense of belonging in order for people to believe, and that’s a flip‑flop from the way maybe we’ve traditionally thought about it, is, okay, we try to convince someone to believe in Jesus. Okay. Then we will welcome them into the church. But in a secular paradigm, people are trying to figure things out. A lot of times people who are spiritual but not religious, who are “nones,” they’re just confused and they haven’t had a lot of time to figure things out because maybe they didn’t grow up in a Christian family. They really have no spiritual guidance that’s been given to them. They’re not getting it from the culture surrounding them, and so they’re just ‑‑ they hear stuff, hear bits and pieces, but they’re just kind of confused. It’s gonna take some time to kind of figure all that out, and so creating a space of belonging and say, “Hey, you’re welcome here. We’re all on the same journey together. Maybe I’m a little bit farther down the road than you are, but we’re all on the same journey together of trying to learn about Jesus and to follow him,” so creating that space of belonging, and then, in time, people will come to believe. 

And I think that’s going to be an important shift for churches to make, but I think the way we can make that theologically is to recognize that this is God’s mission, and God’s Spirit is at work in the world to draw people to himself. And so it’s not my mission, it’s not your mission, it’s not even our church’s mission; it’s God’s mission. God’s trying to redeem a broken world, and so I’m just gonna try to be open. I’m gonna plant seeds, I’m gonna try to water them, and I’m gonna trust that God’s gonna bring the increase and I’m gonna have eyes that are open to see what God is doing.

WES: I don’t know how you feel about appropriating the word “missionary,” but I have a tendency to do that. I have a couple of sisters who were, quote‑unquote, “missionaries” in other countries, but I tell them all the time, you know, that’s how I think of myself, and I really think every Christian should think of themselves, as a missionary. And I think it changes the way that we think about politics; it changes the way we think about home. What is home? We can really embrace this idea of being an exile, of being a sojourner, a foreigner living in a foreign land, but also having a mission that I’m here by choice and I’m here on mission and I’m here because God sent me here. I’m not here simply because I just happened to be born in this place or because this is the best country in the world, but because God has sent me here to do his work, to do his mission. And I feel like if Christians across the board, whether they’re in paid ministry or not, would adopt that mentality ‑‑ whether they’re in their hometown or not, would adopt that mentality of being missionaries.

STEVE: I agree with you on several fronts. First and foremost, just the word ‑‑ the word “missionary” just means the one who is sent, or one who is sent, and if we’re a sent people, and if God’s a missionary God, then we are a missionary people. We are sent people, so just, theologically, it makes sense from my perspective. But I think, even in a practical standpoint, historically, when we’ve thought about missionaries, we’ve thought about someone who leaves a Western country, whether that’s America or some other country, and goes across the ocean, maybe to some other continent or to some other location to do church planting or evangelism or that kind of thing, and that’s typically the way we’ve thought about “missionary.” 

Well, there’s more churches of Christ in Nigeria than there are in the United States right now. There’s getting ready to be more churches of Christ in Ghana than there are in America right now, and the global South quickly has become kind of the majority of the church, and so I think we need to reframe that and not think about missionaries as people coming from America to go somewhere else. I think the way you’re describing it is better and healthier. And, actually, what missiologists are moving towards is to think about mission as something that’s done from everywhere to everywhere. It’s not from West to non‑West countries. It’s from everywhere to everywhere. So still we’re going to send out people from America to other places, but other places are going to send people to America, and it’s from everywhere to everywhere. And so, in the same way, in every town that I’m in, I’m a missionary in that town because mission is from everywhere to everywhere, so I think that’s a helpful way of thinking about it. 

And then maybe like a third piece to this would be a sense of calling. You know, what is the reason that I’m alive? Is the reason that I’m alive so that I can pursue life, liberty, and happiness? That’s what our American society tells us. But I think scripture calls us to something deeper and higher and wider and broader and gives us a sense of calling and vocation that is bound up in this grand mission, this redemptive mission of God. And I think every single one of us, every person, has to figure that out for themselves. What is my piece in this grand story of God? And it’s not simply just to earn as much money as I can earn and buy as much stuff as I can buy. It’s to participate in God’s mission in the world in some way, shape, form, or fashion. And some of that will be through being a paid minister ‑‑ and we need more of those ‑‑ but it’s going to be through other means, as well, and I think that’s the critical part. I can be a missionary wherever I am as I am participating in that sense of calling that comes from the mission of God in the world.

WES: Yeah. Well, specific to you and your calling in the world, it seems like so much of your personal ministry has been in cities. You were in Fort Worth for a long time and now in the Memphis area, and I suppose ‑‑ I don’t know. I’m guessing that you probably had the opportunity to leave Memphis and go to Searcy when the school moved there, but you’re choosing to stay in the Memphis area, I assume, and so I think that that city must mean a lot to you. So what is it about cities? What is it about that urban environment that you feel, theologically or philosophically, that that’s where you need to be?

STEVE: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think maybe two ways to answer that, one personally and then one theologically. So personally, I grew up in a small town, Searcy, Arkansas, you know, 10‑, 15,000 was the size of our town at the time, and a very good experience. Loved growing up there, very nurturing environment. Grew up within the Harding community. Was there, got married to my wife, Lindsay, right after we graduated from Harding University. We lived there one more year while she got her master’s. So the first 23 years of my life was in a small town, and then I moved to Memphis, Tennessee to get my Master’s of Divinity at Harding School of Theology. And so for three years I lived in Memphis, and it was just kind of like a wake‑up call in many ways as I saw racial tension that I had not experienced growing up. I saw the effects of poverty that I hadn’t really witnessed as much. I worked on a secular college campus at the University of Memphis, and I just was kind of shown a lot of the complexities within a city, a big city, a large city. I worshiped at the time at Highland Street Church of Christ, which Harold Shank was the preacher at that time, and they were very ‑‑ had a vision for the city, and that really influenced me, as well. 

So then, from there, I moved to Fort Worth, and originally, I wanted to get outside of the, quote‑unquote, “Bible Belt,” but when I visited the urban core of Fort Worth, I realized this really isn’t the Bible Belt where I am in the center of the city, and that drew me there. And Southside was a church that had committed to staying in the urban neighborhood and wanting to reach out to the neighborhood, and so we launched into that and felt that sense of calling. We moved into the neighborhood of our church building about halfway through my ministry and just really got connected within the urban environment. Again, eyes opened to things through that, seeing the inequities that often are very stark in a city. Inequity is everywhere, but sometimes they’re very stark in a big city. Our kids went to the public school in elementary, and the public school they went to for a period of time was academically failing, and I just saw the lack of advocacy for that school in the whole public school system and how the school was kind of written off and things like that. And so I just saw a lot of dynamics that are present in a city that really spoke to me. 

Well, I moved to Memphis, Tennessee. The neighborhood that I was in in Fort Worth had a poverty rate of maybe 18 to 19 percent, which is pretty high, especially for Fort Worth, but the whole city of Memphis has a poverty rate of 20 percent. The whole city does. And certain neighborhoods have a poverty rate of 30 percent, so one out of every three kids in Memphis are in poverty, so just a very high poverty element. And, you know, that starts to ‑‑ if we’re a people who are redeeming a broken world, if we’re called to join God in that, that pulls you there. So I think just that personal journey that I’ve been on has impacted me, and we came back to Memphis because I wanted to train leaders at Harding in an urban environment to go do some of the things that I was doing at Southside. That was my sense of call here, and I didn’t feel released from that call even when the school of theology was moving to Searcy and, thankfully, Harding has worked it out to where I can keep doing that, so that would be kind of a personal answer to that question. 

I think a theological answer is God loves cities. The story of Scripture begins in a garden, but it ends in a city. And I think about the story of Jonah, and he goes to Nineveh. Why does he go to Nineveh? Because God loved Nineveh, a city that had all sorts of problems and issues, and God loved that city and he wanted that city to know him. Or think about the story of Jesus when he comes into Jerusalem and he cries over Jerusalem. I was talking with Harold Shank recently, and he was telling me how he thinks about that story when he goes to like a football game and he sees 50,000 people or 60‑ or 70,000 people all in one location. He thinks, well, what would Jesus do if he was here? And he thinks ‑‑ he said, I think Jesus would probably cry. He would weep over the people just like he wept over Jerusalem. 

So, you know, God cares about cities. He cares about cities because he cares about people, and cities are dense locations where people are. And we live in an urban world. The majority of people live in cities, and that’s just going to continue, so I think God’s heart is always going to have a special place for cities and wanting the gospel to infiltrate every nook and cranny of that city, both personally and also socially and relationally and in every way possible.

WES: Yeah. Well, I can’t help but think that, when I hear your story, how it’s really easy for so many of us ‑‑ and I put myself in that category ‑‑ that I hear some of those things and I think, well, that sounds great, and I agree with that intellectually, but when my neighborhood starts getting more difficult for me to live in, for whatever reason, whether it’s because of crime or because of poverty or because just the socioeconomics of it are changing, whatever it might be, then it becomes really easy, especially people that can afford to do so, to abandon that neighborhood. You even mentioned about Southside, that they chose to stay, like it was a conscious decision to stay rooted in a neighborhood, and then you did the same personally; you’ve chosen to stay.  

And I can’t help but think that, so often, that’s what it comes down to. And it’s a different mentality because, to your point earlier, so much of our American DNA is trained to seek whatever makes for health and prosperity, whatever makes me the most comfortable. I need to live where I’ll be the most comfortable. I need to live where I can have the greatest pursuit of my own happiness rather than the child of God or the citizen of the kingdom of God who says, “I love the people that God loves and I want to be with the people that God is trying to reach, and I’m going to be a part of that.” And that’s not to say ‑‑ obviously, everybody has to be somewhere, which means that they’re not going to be everywhere else. We can only be in one place at a time, but I just can’t help but admire you and appreciate you for having the faith ‑‑ and I mean that in a very different way than most people use “faith” ‑‑ the faith to live out what you believe, because I think that’s exactly what faith is. You don’t have this theoretical thing over here that says, “Hey, it would be great to reach these neighborhoods” or “I’m going to preach about how we need to reach these neighborhoods,” but that you are willing to live there and stay there even if it gets challenging and difficult.

STEVE: Well, thank you. I mean, I appreciate your encouragement and support. I do think you’re right, though, and let me just say, too, everybody has a different sense of calling, and some of us are called to move to Nepal. I have a sister who lives in Nepal. Some of us are called to live in Nepal; some of us are called to live in Memphis or Texas or some other state, and we all have different seasons of life where we can do certain things and other seasons maybe where we can’t do certain things, and so, you know, we all have to kind of sort all that out for ourselves. 

Kind of my thought on that, and I have a little kind of principle in my life, and that is our big decisions affect our small decisions. And so we think about following Jesus. A lot of times we think about following Jesus in our small decisions. Okay, today I want to follow Jesus. I want to be kind to my neighbor. I’m going to, you know, read my Bible regularly. I’m going to pray for people that are hurting. I’m going to serve in this ministry. Today I’m going to try to daily follow Jesus, and that’s good, and that’s what we ought to do, but sometimes we forget that it’s the big decisions of our life that place us in certain contexts where those little decisions are actually lived out. And so those big decisions about where I’m going to live and what I’m going to do and what neighborhood am I going to reside in and what school are my kids going to go to ‑‑ those big decisions are going to shape a lot of those little daily decisions that we’ll have. And so instead of letting our financial security guide our big decisions or instead of letting, you know, what maybe a certain personal preference is guide our big decisions, let’s let the mission of God guide those big decisions and let’s see where we end up, ’cause it could be then our daily decisions are going to look much different than if we let something else guide those big decisions, and so I think that’s important. 

I think that you’re right, that we can understand that intellectually and in our mind, but then it’s something different for our heart. The biggest inhibitor to a church participating in God’s mission is fear. That’s the biggest inhibitor. And so when a church becomes afraid or when a person becomes afraid, that immediately stops the effort in participating in God’s mission, and so we have to realize Satan’s going to use that. He’s going to try to instill within us fear and worry and anxiety, just like he did with the people of Israel when they were on the cusp of going to the land of Canaan, and they said, “We don’t want to do that anymore.” Why? Because they were afraid. They were fearful. They didn’t want to continue on in God’s mission for them because they were fearful. And so we all wrestle with that, and we have to remember this, that when we are led by the Spirit, the Spirit is always gonna lead us to places that we don’t wanna go when we don’t wanna go there, and that line I got from Evertt Huffard, and that’s true. I mean, Paul wanted to go to Bithynia and the Spirit led him to Macedonia. And I don’t think that’s where he wanted to go, but that’s where God wanted him to go. 

And so we have to be prepared for that, that God may lead our church to a neighborhood, to a group of people, to a certain kind of ministry that makes us feel a little fearful and uncomfortable, but if the Lord is leading us here, we have to trust him and join him and participate with him and trust that God’s gonna bring good out of all of it.

WES: Yeah, for sure. Let’s talk a little bit about some of the challenges of, specifically, ministry in the city, and I think about things like poverty. I think about things like justice. I think about racial reconciliation and city transformation.  Back to the mission of God, if God’s intention is to pick up and put together the broken pieces of this world, what role would you say the church has in that? I think that there’s sort of some extremes where, on the one hand, some people look at it and they think the church ought to be, maybe even first and foremost, political and that we’re out there always pushing a political agenda or certain policies that need to be implemented. On the other hand, I think some people look at it and they agree and they say, “It’s a mess, but I’m overwhelmed. I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Let’s just wait until the Lord comes back to sort it all out.” And then there are other Christians that are sort of in denial, and they say, “Well, you know, it is a mess,” maybe, or “Whatever mess exists only exists because people have made bad decisions, so they just need to stop being bad. We don’t have any responsibility to do anything about that. I wouldn’t help them if I could.” So there’s kind of all sorts of extremes. Where would you say the church ‑‑ if we’re really going to be a church on mission, how do we help make the city a better place?

STEVE: Wow, that’s a good question. There’s so many ways we could go with that, and I wish we had more time to talk about it. The first thing that I would say is we have to recognize that the gospel that we hold to is a holistic and comprehensive gospel. God wants to redeem every part of this world, and we see that in the ministry of Jesus. We can see that in other places in Scripture, as well, where, yes, God wants to forgive people of their sins, but he also wants to help the sick and he wants to feed the hungry and he wants to show mercy to those that are brokenhearted and do justice with those who are in a place of injustice, and so God’s mission is to redeem, reclaim, restore all of that, and I think the more unified around all of those pieces, the better. And so, thinking holistically, in a unity standpoint, Jesus didn’t just do one thing or the other; he was kind of participating in all of it, and, you know, “Your sins are forgiven,” and “Stand up and walk.” I mean, he says the same things at the same time. And so if a church could think that way, I think is maybe a healthy step forward, so kind of a holistic gospel. 

There’s a book I read a couple years ago that talked about how wicked is very complex, and it’s true. There’s a complexity to wickedness, that it infiltrates in many different levels, and so if that’s what we see wickedness being, then the gospel should also be similarly complex, that can meet that complex wickedness, and so I think a holistic gospel does that. So that would be one piece. 

I think a second piece to your question would be ‑‑ maybe a simple thing is we need to get to know our cities. We just need to get to know them, spend time understanding our cities or our neighborhoods and what the challenges are. I think about Acts 17, when Paul was in Athens. And what was the first thing that Paul does when he’s in Athens? Well, it says that he walked around and observed the idols of the city, and, in fact, he references that when he speaks to the Areopagus. He says, “I’ve observed that you’re a very religious people,” so, obviously, he has spent some time walking around and learning about Athens, and that’s built a burden on his heart. That’s why he begins to preach the gospel in Athens because he’s burdened that they’re trapped in all these idols. But then, also, it shows a connecting point. He sees, “Oh, you have this altar to an unknown God. That’s a connecting point by which I can share the good news with you.” 

I think that model is something that could easily be followed. Let’s just get to know our cities. Let’s observe. Let’s talk to people. Let’s listen. Let’s learn what are the longings and the losses of our neighbors. As we do that, we’re gonna feel a burden. We’re gonna feel a burden for our city. While I’m here in Memphis, I want to develop a deep burden for Memphis. Like that’s something that I need to develop just like I felt when I was in Fort Worth, and that’s what we want every Christian or every church to feel, a burden for their neighborhood and their city. 

And then the second part is, as we get to know our city, we’re gonna find entry points, and one local church can’t do everything, and a part of kind of our discernment as a congregation is, okay, where can we put our resources the best? So we can’t do everything, but there is something by which we can make an impact and we can join God in his mission in this place, and I refer to that as missional vocation. We can have a missional vocation. And if I’m just by myself and I don’t know what to do and, you know, maybe a simple place to start is just get to know your neighbors. You know, just get to know the people on your street, in your cul‑de‑sac, the people in your circle. Get to know them, listen to them, learn about them, and just see what God does with that and see if there’s some great opportunity that comes from that by which you can serve that city. And part of that ‑‑ again, that could mean finding ways to proclaim the gospel, teaching scripture, Bible studies, or it could mean doing acts of mercy and justice, or doing them all at the same time. It’s not a one or the other; it’s a package deal, in my perspective, and so finding ways to do that would be important.

WES: Yeah, that is so rich. I’m going to link in the show notes an article that you wrote about just the difference that it would make if Christians would just be good neighbors in their communities. And I thought about the parables that Jesus taught about the nature of the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God didn’t come like other kingdoms did. Every other kingdom arrived on the scene with swords and spears, and it arrived with might and power and political influence and turnover, but the kingdom of God ‑‑ Jesus describes it like a little bit of leaven that’s hidden in the dough. It’s like a seed that’s planted in the ground. It takes time. And if we go in there and plant these seeds and become these people, not just as a project, not just looking at our neighbors as if they’re some sort of project, but that they are our friends, that we love them, that we feel for them what Jesus felt for them. And to your point throughout this whole conversation, it’s theological, it’s incarnational. We are becoming for them what Jesus became for us with our own flesh, and sometimes that means with our own money, with our own life, with our own being, being there for our neighbors and being part of God working through the Spirit to bring change in these communities, and I just can’t help but think, even just that ‑‑ you used the word “send,” and I love that from a missional standpoint, but sometimes the sending is staying, and it’s staying in a neighborhood and just stay there and be the people of God in that neighborhood and be neighbors to your neighbors.

STEVE: Right. Yeah, I like to use the phrase “sent and sending,” and so we send people out. As a church, we should send people out. Yes, let’s keep doing that, but let’s also be sent here now. And so can we be a sent and sending church? I think about the church in Antioch. They were a sent and sending church. They were engaging their neighbors, you know, as the gospel spreads ethnically, but then sending Paul and Barnabas out, too. And so could we have both of those elements? I think it’s really important. 

I appreciate you bringing up the incarnation. I think the incarnation shows us not only that God became man, but God entered a place and he had an address, he had a post office box. Jesus of Nazareth, he grew up in a village, he had neighbors, he had people around him, and we follow that pattern, and so we should be an incarnational people, a placed people, where we say, hey, this city, city of Dallas, city of Memphis, this neighborhood that I live in, this is my place. This is a place where I can try to contextualize the gospel here, embody the gospel here, be a witness for Jesus here. And I think if we can have that mentality, our churches will be vibrant and exciting places to be because we’ll see God working in us, through us, and around us, and it’ll be a place of expectation and joy because we know we’re joining God in this mission and God’s working through us.

WES: Yeah, amen. Steve, I mean this from the bottom of my heart; you make me want to be a better missionary. You inspire me, you convict me, and I so, so appreciate the work that you’re doing in the kingdom, Brother.

STEVE: Well, thank you, Wes. I appreciate you. Appreciate the work you’re doing for the Lord, as well. It’s an honor to spend this time with you.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This