Christopher J. H. Wright, in his book, The Mission of God’s People, seeks to answer what he calls a broad question, What do theology and mission have to do with each other? He argues that theology (properly understood and applied) must have missional impact and mission must have sound and defensible theological foundations. That makes sense, but Wright runs into deep trouble when his list of missional impact and mission seems to elevate social justice and ecological sensitivity to quasi-salvific status. He also calls for Christians to be irresistibly attractive to the world, but offers zero counsel of how to be so attractive when people either cannot care less about Jesus or despise you and your savior from the get-go.
Wright is the international director of the Langham Partnership International (John Stott Ministries in the U.S.). The book presents a clear, systematic analysis of who God’s people are and what God’s people are to do. He dives into analysis of the Lord’s call of Abram in Genesis 12:1-3, and argues that God’s people are not only to rejoice in their own salvation, but they are also to bless others as a significant fruit of enjoying their relationship with God.
Wright asks the question, Do the people of God have any responsibility to the rest of human society in general beyond the imperative of evangelism? Of course, his emphatic answer is, Yes, as he affirms the gospel implications on how Christians are to conduct social justice, pursue fair and equal treatment of people groups, properly care for the Earth, represent the Lord to the world and attract people to Him. Christians are to embrace the call to be sent ones into the world and actively pursue the work of being a blessing to each and all nations of the Earth.
Wright properly notes that Christians have suffered, are suffering and will suffer for their faith. At the same time, though, he wonders whether Christians are missing out on the excitement and joy of sharing in the God’s attraction (of other people) by failing to have hearts that are fully committed to the Lord God in practical daily living according to his ways and standards. For our mission begins as we seek to live in that way—a way that enables God to attract outsiders to himself. Wright says that the Bible proclaims the kind of people God’s people are meant to be rather than the kinds of things they are meant to say. He calls it missional magnetism. This magnetism should be so attractive that the world takes note and becomes interested in hearing the great truths and changed lives brought by Jesus Christ. The world will see no reason to pay any attention to our claims about our invisible God if it sees no visible difference between the lives of those who make such claims and those who don’t.
That’s nice. But Wright fails to mention in even the smallest way the implications of life in post-Christian, postmodern North America or post-Christian, postmodern Europe. In the post-Christian culture, almost everyone has already heard of Christ and his followers, have been infested with poisonous reports about Christians or have few interactions with Christians. What they think they know of followers of Christ, they do not like. And they have not the slightest interest in following either the hard-edged ways of Jesus or even his softer ways. They have seen the Christians, and they have decided they want no part of them or Jesus. Wright fails to discuss or even mention the challenges of evangelizing for Christ and living for Christ in such a culture.
In expounding Exodus 19:4-6, Wright argues that Christians must live out their identity as ones who truly have tasted God’s grace and mercy. And live with such attractive obedience of ‘good lives’ that people will be attracted to the God you worship, and whatever they say about you, they will come to glorify him. Or, of course, these same people may completely despise you and seek to ruin you or kill you. Wright’s application of Exodus 19:4-6 may be tenable, but again he fails to discuss how Christians are to live in a post-Christian culture that wants no part of it. And he makes no mention of texts such as Matthew 10:16-25 (sheep among wolves), Matthew 10:34-39 (not peace, but a sword), John 15:18-20 (the world hated me before it hated you), Philippians 1:29 (believe in Christ, suffer for Christ) and 2 Timothy 3:12-13 (to live godly in Christ is to be persecuted).
The question of evangelizing and living in a post-Christian culture is connected with the concept of social justice, as in, Wright says, actual actions that you do, not concepts you reflect on or an ideal that you dream about. Wright’s concept of rightly living the Christian life emphasizes social justice and proper care for the Earth. He places social justice and ecological sensitivity in such prominence that they are, perhaps unwittingly, equated with individual believing on the Lord Jesus Christ and thus gaining eternal life. Wright bemoans the use of animals for food, calling meat-eating within God’s permission but hardly within the Creator’s best pleasure. Even if I accept Wright’s argument, am I then to become a vegan to gain God’s best pleasure? The Scriptures simply do not teach this. They do teach us to have dominion over the Earth and all of its creatures (Genesis 1:26), and that it’s no problem to kill and eat (Acts 10:13). Ecological sensitivity and good works in social justice may lead to opportunities to share the gospel, but salvation is not won by good works in social justice and ecological sensitivity. Wright elevates the two, leading to a confused understanding and a false communication of the core identity of salvation.
Despite that severe error, Wright hits the mark with the implications of personal salvation in Christ: If God blesses you, it is so you can bless others. If God redeems you, it is so you can demonstrate redemptive grace to others. If God loves you, feeds and clothes you, then you should go and do likewise for others. If God brings you into the light of salvation, it is so you can shine with a light that attracts others to the same place. If you enjoy God’s forgiveness, then make sure you forgive others. In this sense, all of our biblical theology should be missional.