The Centrifugal Mission of the Church

outreachHow should the church live, move, and have its mission?

In him we live and move and have our being
— Acts 17:28 —

 Just before this verse, Paul makes an important point about God’s relationship with the nations. He writes, “He made . . . every nation . . . to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.”

The theological truth Paul posits is that God upholds the universe and directs the ways of history, and he establishes the boundaries of nations. Even with the back-and-forth of disputed territories, God is the determiner of the “allotted periods and boundaries.” Set in the context of redemptive history, this means that God dealt only with Israel for two millennia. Paul calls this “the times of ignorance” (v. 30). It was a time when the nations were without God’s law (Ps 147:19–20) and had to feel their way towards him, if they could.

Such was the wreckage after the fall. Adam’s sin led the human race into disobedience (Rom 5:18–19) and death (Eph 2:1–3). With no natural power to seek God (Rom 3:10–23), the nations were utterly lost, without hope and without God in the world (Eph 2:11–13). Yet, in his love, God initiated a course of action that would bring salvation to the world.

In Genesis 12, God chose Abraham to be the source of blessing for the world. Through God’s promise to him, God would bring an offspring to bless the world (Gal 3:16). Yet, in sending his Son there was and has continued to be confusion about how the nations would come to receive the blessing of God.

Here’s what I mean: In Israel, the confusion was a theological problem—how can an uncircumcised Gentile be saved? Today, it is a methodological problem—should we focus our mission on bringing people to church? Or should we go to them?

A Different Day, A Different Way

In his helpful little book, Bible and Mission, Richard Bauckham makes the distinction between centripetal missions and centrifugal missions. He points out that in the Old Testament, there was primarily a “come and see” mentality. While Israel had the status of being a priestly nation, who were to introduce the nations to God, the old covenant provided little freedom to reach the unclean nations. Before the new covenant, the foreigners who were saved had to come to Israel. Israel did little to go to them. Jonah’s “mission trip” was the exception, not the rule; and even his rebellion reflected Israel’s missionary torpor.

In the New Testament, things changed. Whereas in Israel the call was to “come and see,” now the Spirit moved the church to “go and tell.” In Acts, Jesus sends his disciples from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. Throughout the book, the aim is not Jerusalem, but the nations. Whereas the temple was the center of Israel’s faith, now Christ’s temple is spreading out into the world (Eph 2:19 – 22). Therefore, the motion of the church has changed. God’s people are now filled with the Spirit and commissioned to reach the lost—Jew and Gentile alike.

A New Spirit Requires a New Direction

Long story short, the New Testament church is commissioned to take the gospel to the lost. While there may be cultures where the gospel has so permeated society (e.g., America in the early to mid-1900s), churches can simply call people to come, most churches face the task of going to the lost.

This was the case in 1st century Judea, and this is the case in 21st century America. To fulfill Christ’s mission, we cannot wait for people to come to us. Nor can we spend most of our time finding ways to lure them into the church. We must go to them with the powerful message of the gospel.

While the New Testament puts great emphasis on local churches loving one another (John 13:34–35), such internal love cannot be the only thing we employ to reach the lost. As Isaiah foretold long ago, we must go to them if we are to see the nations come into the city of Zion (66:18–20).

Indeed, the church is to be an incubator of God’s love so that road weary witnesses might be reenergized as ministers of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:14). Our calling is to be an army of ambassadors (v. 20), who lay down our lives to reach the lost.

Because we have the Spirit of Christ, we have a different strategy and a new direction. Ours is not primarily a message of “come and see,” burdening the man dead in sin to make the first move. Rather, as men whom the Lord has sought, we are to be a people who live and move and have our mission reaching out to others, displaying in our centrifugal outreach the very love that we proclaim in the gospel we preach.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss