Servant & Witness: John Stott and the DIFW Mission

Several weeks ago I sat down to coffee with my friend Dr. Bill Wright. “It helps to define exactly what the problem is,” he said to me as we discussed his work at the Colorado Trust. “From there, you can more clearly see potential solutions.” In his work at the Colorado Trust, they have a laser-focus on health equity, and have focused even further on inequality amongst diverse populations in Colorado. As I drove away in the car, I thought, “How would I answer that question for DIFW? What exactly is the problem we’re trying to solve?”

As I put the keys in the ignition, my mind stretched back to a presentation I gave at our vision event in late October 2014. I mentioned John Stott (1921-2011), the former Anglican Rector of All Souls Church in London and the principal framer of the Lausanne Covenant. Michael Cromartie said of his influence on Protestants in the 20th century, “ If Evangelical Protestants believed in a pope, the man they would pick is John Stott.”

In his slim classic Christian Mission in the Modern World, Stott asked a similar question to mine: What exactly is the Christian mission? What has God sent the Church into the world to do? If we can answer this, thought Stott, we can choose proper priorities to focus the Church’s time, resources and energy. And if I could clearly answer this question about the Church’s own mission, I could answer my question: What exactly are we at DIFW sent to accomplish? 

In typical lucid prose, Stott frames the debate by placing two extreme views of Christian mission on the table: one camp says that evangelism and winning souls is all God is concerned about; the other says social justice is mission, even if it’s not the Church doing it. All that matters is social renewal. But are these the fullness of God’s own mission - the purpose for which he’s sent His Son (and then his Church) into the world?

To answer these questions, Stott first goes to the Great Commission, “Go…and make disciples….baptizing them…and teaching them” (Matt 28:19-20). Here, the emphasis Jesus gives to his followers is clearly on preaching, teaching and making disciples. Clear enough. Right?

No. Here Stott makes a surprising turn. Although earlier in his life he would have seen “mission” solely in terms of evangelism, he now says “The actual Commission itself must be understood to include social as well as evangelistic responsibility, lest we are to be guilty of distorting the words of Jesus.” Both evangelism and social action are a part of mission, like two sides of the same coin. Why? What have we missed?

For Stott, the crucial form of the Great Commission has been handed down to us not in the Gospel of Matthew but in the Gospel of John. “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you” (John 20:21). How was Jesus sent by the Father into the world? At the core, Jesus was sent into the world as a servant.  “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many,” (Mark 10:45). “I am among you as one who serves," (Luke 22:27). Even though in Daniel’s apocalyptic vision the Son of Man would receive dominion and be served by all peoples (Daniel 7:14), Jesus humbled himself and took on the nature of a servant (Philippians 2:5-8), giving of himself for the sake of others.

Jesus certainly came declaring the kingdom of God and preaching the good news. There’s no debate here. But he also fed hungry mouths, washed dirty feet, comforted the sad, and healed the sick. Jesus was both a witness and a servant; his mission was both one of words and deeds. Declaring the good news and showing it with your actions are forever inseparable for those "sent" by the Father.

Maybe, says Stott, we’ve made too much of the Great Commission. Don’t misunderstand me, says Stott, “I believe in the Lord’s Commission to make discipleship of all nations.” But this was not the primary (or only) commandment Jesus gave his disciples. Here we must turn to the Great Commandment. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself,” (Matthew 22:37-38).

Stott writes, “There [Jesus] insisted that in God’s vocabulary our neighbor includes our enemy, and that to love means to ‘do good,’ that is, to give ourselves actively and constructively to serve our neighbor’s welfare.”

What does this have to do with work, or the mission of DIFW? Stott concludes that if mission includes both evangelistic and social responsibility, work is at the heart of Christian mission. Listen to this:

“I begin with vocation, by which I mean a Christian’s life work. We often give the impression that if a young Christian man is really keen for Christ he will undoubtedly become a foreign missionary, that if he is not quite as keen as that he will stay at home and become a pastor…[But] it seems to me urgent to gain a truer perspective of vocation.

“Jesus Christ calls all his disciples to “ministry,” that is, to service. He himself is the Servant par excellence, and he calls us to be servants too. This much is certain: if we are Christians we must spend our lives in the service of God and man. The only difference between us lies in the nature of the service we are called to render.

“Some are indeed called to be missionaries, evangelists, or pastors, and others to the great professions of law, education, medicine and the social sciences. But others are called to commerce, to industry and farming, to accountancy and banking, to local government or parliament, and to the mass media, while there are still many women who find their vocation in homemaking and parenthood without pursuing an independent career as well.

“In all these spheres, and many others besides, it is possible for Christians to interpret their life work Christianly, and to see it neither as a necessary evil (necessary, that is, for survival), nor even as a useful place in which to evangelize or make money for evangelism, but as their Christian vocation, as the way Christ has called them to spend their lives in his service.” 

As soon as I read this, I had a “Eureka” moment. Vocation cannot simply be a side topic that so many ministries treat merely as a way to feel good about what we’re already doing in jobs we otherwise find dull.  And work can neither be all important - making it an idol through an unending pursuit of success; nor can it be nothing to us - just an empty way to make money which amounts to little more than trading dollars for hours.

After reading Stott’s chapter on mission, I had two major conclusions about the nature of work in light of Christian mission:

(1) Work is the greatest opportunity many of us have for loving our neighbors as ourselves. Building sewage systems, creating businesses, teaching graduate students, caring for the elderly, establishing order through the legal system, cleaning toys off the living room floor – this is neighborly love and a key component of mission. It’s at work that we often see our greatest opportunities to serve the public good by using our talents and skills to serve others.

(2) Work is the context for disciple-making and verbal proclamation of the gospel of grace. Here we can make “the manifold wisdom of God” known to all through a thorough-verbal bathing of our mind, heart and workplaces with the Divine Word. Surely not all of our work activities will be merely opportunities for sharing the good news. But as able, his Word shapes our motivation for our work and spills out of our lips as a cup overflows with living water. And in so doing, his Word brings home a harvest of righteousness.

So, what is the problem DIFW is trying to solve? Here it is, as clear as I can put it:

The Two Key Problems DIFW Is Trying to Solve

1. The majority of the world doesn’t know Christ, and knowledge of His name and truth are not found in public nor in the industries of our modern Western culture.

Solution - We prepare witnesses to Christ in all of human life by helping men and women understand their work in light of the Christian faith. We educate and change thinking in order to shape language which witnesses to the gospel of grace and universal Lordship of the Lamb (Rev. 12:11).

2. The world is filled with desperate social, environmental, spiritual and cultural problems, ranging from jobs and justice to idols and empty hearts.

Solution - We prepare servants of Christ through daily work, and offer principles, knowledge, tangible stories, and human networks that enable them to better serve others in their organizations, communities, and professions.  We prepare the Body of Christ for works of service (Eph. 4:12).

UNDERSTANDING our work in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ manifests in public WITNESS and sacrificial SERVICE. 

Here we stand. Here we join the Apostle Paul who was commissioned by Jesus the Resurrected Lord himself with these words:  “Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen and will see of me,” (Acts 26:16).