Ten years ago an artist drew a caricature of my two older daughters. Caricatures, by definition, exaggerate certain striking features for comic effect. So even though you can still recognize my daughters in that portrait, the caricature fails to capture what they truly look like in three-dimensional life.
I wonder if Christians make the same mistake in relation to God’s mission. Our disagreements about how to join God’s mission often seem to stem from our exaggerations of that mission’s different dimensions. These caricatures do not, thankfully, negate God’s mission. But they do create unnecessary conflict and division that hamper missional effectiveness.
Let’s imagine God’s mission as having three dimensions: communion, community, and commonwealth.
Communion is the dimension that emphasizes God reconciling humanity to himself through Christ’s work on the cross (2 Cor. 5:17–20; Col. 1:21–23). Christians are commissioned as Christ’s ambassadors of this reconciliation, to bring people back into communion or fellowship with our God. Those who emphasize personal evangelism are most at home with this dimension of God’s mission. They remind us that Christians must never lose sight of this calling.
Reconciliation with God, however, is inseparable from reconciliation with one another, as the synodical study God’s Diverse and Unified Family reminds us. In Christ Jesus, God has “destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” between Jews and Gentiles (Eph. 2:13–18). “The point for us is clear: If God himself took away the only division that he had ever made within the human family [Jews and Gentiles], how much more have all other man-made divisions within the human family been taken away” (God’s Diverse and Unified Family, 19–20). Christians who emphasize social activism and justice work rightly see this community-creating dimension as an indispensable part of God’s mission.
Third, God is through Christ reconciling “to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven,” into a cosmic commonwealth of sorts (Col. 1:20). Jesus is the Lord of lords over all things “visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities” (Col. 1:16). Our Reformed tradition has emphasized this dimension, evidenced in our penchant for Christian higher education and other Christian institutions. This commonwealth dimension is famously captured in Abraham Kuyper’s “every square inch” mantra. Creational care and redeeming our cultural institutions and thought patterns are also part of God’s mission.
Conflicts arise when we fail to recognize each dimension’s importance or validity. Instead of working in tandem, we argue over our different conceptions of God’s mission. I do not wish the Christian Reformed Church to reduce the gospel to a so-called “social gospel.” Neither do I want it to narrow Christ’s cosmic reign only to “saving souls.” I certainly hope we do not lose the gifts and strengths of our intellectual and institutional heritage.
For a fully effective mission, I believe we need all three dimensions. To adapt the parable of the sower (Matt. 13:1–23), without the sowing of communion seeds there can surely be no spiritual life. But the work of creating good soil conditions—creating just and loving communities, establishing a God-glorifying commonwealth of ideas and institutions—can only increase the likelihood of spiritual fruitfulness. We can reduce the potential impediments to spiritual growth: the rocky places of broken communities, the thorns of injustice and inequality, and the birds of hostile worldviews that prevent understanding of God’s Word. If we work together rather than against each other, will our missional effectiveness not increase?
I pray that we can see beyond our favorite caricatures of God’s mission and together embrace our shared three-dimensional mission.