It was a broad question but I asked it insistently and I kept asking it of others too. It was driven from my own struggles with feeling purposeless and searching for a career path and future plan. I could have picked something out of my bag of things that seemed fun, but I really felt a need to have a reason for my choices instead of a random frantic search for fulfillment. I also believe that God is working intentionally in the world and that the Grand Narrative that we see played out through scripture tells of His work. He works in different ways at different times too - I am a part of the Church, set in place by God to do His work on earth in this period of history. What is that purpose and work? If I could find clarity on that then I could fit my life to this purpose in one small way.
I found most people answered my question about the purpose of the church something along the lines of missions or evangelism, which I found myself pushing back against quite strongly. Despite or perhaps because of growing up in a community of missionaries, I felt like this was one-sided. Is the purpose of all believers in this era the Great Commission - a command given to the disciples? It's even a debate as to whether it applies only to the disciples or also to the rest of the church as history progressed? It's a few verses in the midst of a massive Bible, and yet we say it is our central purpose?
I was unsatisfied, and in my discussions I happened upon a new book by Christopher Wright called The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible's Grand Narrative. The title was exactly what I was looking for, and I asked for it for Christmas. That was two years ago. Hah. Lets just say that while this book completely transformed my thinking, it was not an easy nearly 600 page slog! It's really for scholars, and to Wright's credit he doesn't simply say what he thinks. He walks intensively particularly through the Old Testament, which is really nice considering usually we only address the New Testament when it comes to the purpose of the Church. His book is very comprehensive. So... sometimes I wished I was reading a summary. :) Nonetheless, now that I'm finally finished, I can look back in awe at the scripture I've read through about God's mission in the world.
It turns out that Christopher Wright's motivation for studying and writing this book was somewhat similar to my own in some ways:
It was a question about the validity of using a missiological framework as a hermeneutical approach to reading the Bible. Is it possible, is it legitimate, is it helpful for Christians to read the whole Bible from the angle of mission? The immediate challenge that bounced back was: it all depends on whose mission you mean. If by "mission" we are thinking of "missions," and the great and laudable efforts of cross cultural missionaries, then we would be struggling to defend an affirmative answer to the first question. While our human missionary endeavor can find ample justification and explicit textual imperative in the Bible, it would be a distorted and exaggerated hermeneutic, in my view, that tried to argue that the whole Bible was "about" mission in the narrowly defined sense of human missionary activities.I agreed with him there (in the first chapter) so I eagerly read on and was thrilled by paragraphs like this one:
The Bible renders and reveals to us the God whose creative and redemptive work is permeated from beginning to end with God's own great mission, his purposeful, sovereign intentionality. All mission or missions which we initiate, or into which we invest our own vocation, gifts and energies, flow from the prior and larger reality of the mission of God. God is on a mission, and we, in that wonderful phrase of Paul, are "co-workers with God"....I was really struck by the presence throughout scripture, from Adam to Abraham through the Covenants with Israel, through the Psalms, the Prophets... everywhere is the strong revelation of a God who has created a people to know Him and be His. There is this driving purpose of God for humanity to be in a knowing relationship with Himself. The consistency of this message and the universality of it (not just to Israel, though Israel was chosen for an intimate covenant relationship) was really striking to me.
You are my witnesses, declares the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me, and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me. I, even I, am the Lord, and apart from me there is no savior. I have revealed and saved and proclaimed - I, and not some foreign god among you. You are my witnesses," declares the Lord, "that I am God." - Isaiah 43: 10-12Wright says:
Yahweh presents himself as the God who will to be known. This self-communicating drive is involved in everything God does in creation, revelation, salvation and judgment. Human beings therefore are summoned to know Yahweh as God, on the clear assumption that they can know him and that God wills that they should know him.
When we grasp that the whole Bible constitutes the coherent revelation of the mission of God, when we see this as the key that unlocks the driving purposefulness of the whole grand narrative, then we find our whole worldview impacted by this vision. So what does it mean to live out this story? Here is The Story, the grand universal narrative that stretches from creation to the new creation, and accounts for everything in between. This is The Story that tells us where we have come from, how we got to be here, who we are, why the world is in the mess it is, how it can be (and has been) changed, and where we are ultimately going... It is the story of the mission of God, of this God and no other.
Now such an understanding of the mission of God as the very heartbeat of all reality, all creation, all history and all that yet lies ahead of us generates a distinctive worldview that is radically and transformingly God-centered. This worldview, constituted by putting the mission of God at the very center of all existence, is disturbingly subversive and it uncomfortably relativizes one's own place in the great scheme of things.
We ask, "Where does God fit into the story of my life?" when the real question is where does my little life fit into this great story of God's mission. ....
We want to be driven by a purpose that has been tailored just right for our own individual lives... when we should be seeing the purpose of all life, including our own, wrapped up in the great mission of God for the whole of creation. ....
We argue about what can legitimately be included in the misison God expects from the church, when we should ask what kind of church God expects for his mission. ...
I'm summarizing Wright's thoughts and my reactions in a big way, but I find myself using the phrase "the mission of God" a lot these days. It has given me peace with evangelical missions as well. Sometimes the motivations we have are bad - when we wish to see numerical results, emotional highs, salvation experiences, or personal respect and fulfillment. However, when missions is for the purpose of God's mission - of telling of this God who calls all people to Himself through Jesus.... that is the grand mission of the Church, and knowing God is the fulfillment of our humanity itself.
It helps me reorient my life, and my response to church and Christians. What is my purpose? Well, it's quite flexible, as long as it participates in this grand Mission of God.
It turns out Christopher Wright is about to put out a new book that may summarize his thoughts a little better and a little more manageably than The Mission of God does, and it also deals more with the New Testament. It's called The Mission of God's People: A Biblical Theology of the Church's Mission. I really loved Wright's work and thinking, and it sounds like this will be a more manageable summary. Ya'll should read it!