Christians believe in transformation. After all, we are transformed people.
Individually, when one is regenerated by the Holy Spirit, Paul says that “the old has passed away; behold the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). That’s a radical transformation if there ever was one. But we’re also transformed corporately: “We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18).
And as the “earth is filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14), the effect of these transformed lives on our local communities will have the salt-like effect Jesus expects them to have (cf. Matt. 5:16; 1 Pet. 2:9–12). So it’s every church planter’s dream that they move into an area and grow a church that has a transformative effect on both the lives and also the culture in a given area.
But what does achieving that goal actually entail? Plenty of churches put “transforming the city/culture” in their vision. But I fear there’s a lack of clarity both in terms of what that involves and also how it should be achieved, and such confusion can easily lead a new church plant off-course.
To provide some clarity, I think we need to start with the age-old question of the mission of the church. Should the church see “transforming the culture” as her mission? At the risk of sounding like the class pedant, it depends what we mean by “church” and what we mean by “transform.”
What Do You Mean by ‘Church’?
When it comes to the church and her calling in the world, there’s an important distinction to draw between what Jonathan Leeman calls the church’s “narrow mission” and its “broad mission.” He argues that God “authorizes a church-as-organized-collective one way and a church-as-its-members another way” (40).
The church’s “narrow” mission is to make disciples and citizens of Christ’s kingdom, while her “broad” mission is to be disciples and citizens of his kingdom. This means the church functions in different ways depending on the context. When she is gathered under her leaders and Christ is especially present with his bride (Matt. 18:20), the church’s mission is to preach God’s Word, administer the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and bind and loose on earth what is bound and loosed in heaven (i.e., meaningful membership and discipline).
When scattered in the world, the church’s mission is to live out her distinctive calling as individual disciples, in whichever sphere of life the Lord has ordained. This distinction helps us know our role, because as Leeman points out: “When someone asks me, ‘What is the mission of the church?’ or ‘Is caring for creation church work?’ or ‘Does the church’s work center on words or both words and deeds? . . . [or, I would add, ‘Is the church’s mission to transform the community?’], I need to know whether the questioner means the church as corporate actor or the church as individual members.” (42)
The “church as individual members” must seek to love their neighbor through the service of others, according to their responsibilities. But the “church as corporate actor” is not bound in the same way. She might choose to allocate budget or hire staff to that end, but she isn’t required to do so.
The life of William Wilberforce illustrates well how this distinction works in practice. The transformative cultural effect of Wilberforce’s life and ministry was significant, but his work to abolish the slave trade wasn’t the work of the “church as corporate actor.” It was the work of a Christian in public life who—through his love for God and neighbor—pursued his ministry all the while being dependent on and formed by the local church’s narrower mission.
It’s famously said that when Wilberforce asked John Newton whether he should become a minister, Newton encouraged him to pursue politics instead. This point could be illustrated in millions of examples throughout history, and it highlights the kind of transformation we should hope and pray for in our different spheres of responsibility or influence.
Stay in Your Lane
God has established three basic governments in the world. The first is the family, with responsibility for health, education, and welfare (Eph. 5–6). The second is the civil magistrate, with responsibility for justice (1 Pet. 2:14). The third is the church (as “corporate actor”) with responsibility to minister God’s grace and peace (Matt. 28:18–20). Each has an assigned role, and therefore each should “stay in their lane.”
What I mean is, the family does not administer baptism or the Lord’s Supper. The state does not opine on church discipline. And the church does not declare war. So we want churches to be present at the heart of our communities, but they don’t take responsibility for every aspect of community life. The church teaches how our individual work should be done—honestly, diligently, before the Lord—but it doesn’t do that work itself.
When it comes to the church’s role in “transforming” community or culture, we should see that this happens in the weekly rhythms of the gathering and scattering of church members—coming together each Lord’s Day to be transformed by participating in Word and sacrament, then scattering to labor faithfully and prayerfully in whatever sphere God has deployed them. As in the case of Wilberforce and others like him, the “church as corporate actor” is the engine of personal transformation that drives any culture-transforming efforts of the “church as scattered individuals.”
Only God Transforms
This is the simple, sovereignly ordained rhythm of the Christian life. Thus the posture of the local church should be one of faithful patience.
This posture is incredibly hard in a culture of instant-everything—especially for the activist personalities you usually find in church planters. But God is the one who brings transformation, and we are the ones receiving—in his time, on his terms—a kingdom that cannot be shaken (Heb. 12:28).