The Nature and Mission of the Church

Author’s Note:
This is the first post in a small series on the nature and mission of the church.

IntroductionNational Cathedral interior

The nature of the church and its mission are directly related to each other. Its nature influences its mission. However, the church’s mission is not only for those who are called to be missionaries—all Christians are called as missionaries. If the children of God deny this to be true, then it can be said that the church ceases to be the church.

In search of the definition of the nature of the church, the question that must be answered is “who is Christ?” In the answer to this question we will find the answer to the question “what is the nature of the church?” Karl Barth says that the church is the body of Christ that exists in Him externally.[1]

The nature and mission of the church

The New Testament speaks of the relationship between Jesus and the church in various ways: “the church is the body—Christ is the head; the church is the bride—Christ is the bridegroom; the church is a servant—Christ is the Lord; the church is the company of the redeemed—Christ is the redeemer.”[2]

According to Volf, “It is the presence of Christ that makes the church to be the church. If Christ is not present, a group of people may look like a church, sing like a church, preach like a church, even heal the sick like a church, but is not going to be a church. But if Christ is present among the people, you’ve got the church.”[3]

Also what must be taken into consideration is the role of the Holy Spirit in the nature of the church. Jesus Christ was “annointed by the Spirit” and empowered by Him, “who Christ was and what Christ did were shaped by the Spirit.”[4]

On top of this, we know that Jesus poured out the Spirit on His disciples and as a result, “the church was born out of the womb of the Spirit.”[5] Hence Volf defines the church as follows: “The church is the continuation of Christ’s anointing by the spirit.”[6]

Understanding the definition of the church in this way helps us with the understanding of its mission, because the nature of the church and its mission become “intertwined.”[7] According to Volf, Jesus empowered by the Spirit preached the kingdom of God. Jesus poured out the Spirit on the disciples and they, empowered, continued preaching the kingdom of God; the church continues this mission today.[8]

Dodds gives six considerations when thinking about the nature of the church and its mission. First, the church’s mission is related to the fact that salvation has been made accessible to all nations.[9]

Second, he cites Bosch in saying that the church exists because of its mission. In other words, the church does not come before the mission, but rather the other way around–mission before the church.[10] He goes on to write that the church owes its existence to the work of Christ on the cross and the continued work of the Holy Spirit in the reconciliation of man to God.[11]

Third, according to Dodds, the church reflects the nature of God by its members living in a community of love with each other and God. This puts the church at the very center of God’s mission by representing the relationship between man and God. Dodds writes that the church “reveals authentic humanity and points towards humanity’s origin, purpose, and destiny.”[12]

Fourth, Dodds writes that the “church exists for God and for the world because Christ lived and lives for his father and for the world.”[13] Dodds cites Karl Barth when he says that only when the church reaches out to the world “beyond itself” is the church the true church of Jesus Christ.[14]

Fifth, the church has moved forward in history and continues to move forward, advancing the Gospel “to the ends of the earth.[15]

Sixth, mission is the natural response of the church because of what Christ has done on the cross. Christ died to redeem the lost; those who have been redeemed make up the church, which is the body of Christ. Christ is the head of the church (the body).

Dodds writes that “mission is the natural result of the church’s passion and love for Christ. If Christ means everything to the church (cf. Phil. 3:7-11), then it is reasonable to conclude that evangelism (one aspect of mission) is inevitable, for out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45).”[16]

So far it has been established that the church’s nature is missionary. However, the church cannot be reduced to only missions. The church also exists to worship God and to fellowship with Him. Not everything that the church does is missions.

Inside the church there is preaching and teaching of the Word of God, praying, counseling and worshipping. None of these things are expressly missionary in nature.[17] Instead, they serve as ways to fellowship with God and to grow as Christians.

A Christian is to be fruitful and as a result, because the church is made up of those who have been redeemed, it too must be fruitful.[18] A church that intentionally ceases to be missional separates themselves from God and from eternal life.[19] Dodds argues that “God is love” and ”if a church forsakes its vocation to love, then it is in real danger of breaking fellowship with the God who is carrying out his mission of love to the world.”[20]

He goes on to write that the “church’s missionary nature determines the nature of its members. All Christians are missionaries because all have been called and sent by God to express his love for the world.”[21] Crum, in his article, cites Michael Green when he writes that missionaries in the early church were ordinary people, and missions was done by all: ministers, missionaries, philosophers, theologians, and by men and women who chatted with friends and family about the Gospel.[22]

[1] Maurice B. Schepers “The work of the Holy Spirit : Karl Barth on the nature of the Church.” Theological Studies 23 no 4 December 1962, p 629.

[2] Miroslav Volf “The nature of the church.” Evangelical Review of Theology 26 no 1 January 2002, p 68-75.

[3] Ibid., 68.

[4] Ibid., 69.

[5] Ibid., 69.

[6] Ibid., 69.

[7] Ibid., 69.

[8] Ibid., 71.

[9] Adam Dodds “The centrality of the church’s missionary nature: theological reflections and practical implications.” Missiology 40 no 4 October 2012, p 394.

[10] Ibid., 394.

[11] Ibid., 394.

[12] Ibid., 394.

[13] Ibid., 395.

[14] Ibid., 394.

[15] Ibid., 395.

[16] Ibid., 395

[17] Ibid., 396.

[18] Ibid., 402.

[19] Ibid., 399.

[20] Ibid., 399.

[21] Ibid., 400.

[22] Winston F. Crum “The mission of the church in the New Testament and patristic writings.” Missiology 12 no 1 January 1984, p 82.


About Peter van Brussel

Peter is the Director of For His Glory Prison Ministry. Peter holds a BA in Pastoral Studies from Southwestern College, a MA in Theological Studies, and a M.Div. from Liberty University. Peter is married to Niki, and has two children. He has been saved by grace and seeks to share the Gospel with those who have been forgotten.
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