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  • Writer's pictureTuezong Xiong

The Sacramental Mission of the Church (Part 2): Practical Implications



Exploring the Practical Implications


Previously, I introduced the role sacraments play in missions and the unfolding narrative of Scripture. I argued there that (1) the church’s mission is a sacramental one: to spread the glory of God to the ends of the earth as priest-kings by calling all peoples into supper-fellowship with God as disciples of Jesus through evangelism and baptism. (2) I did so by tracing the sacramental themes through biblical history, from Adam to Noah, Abraham to Moses, and ultimately Jesus Christ and the church, and (3) in order to help us avoid a common oversight in our missiology: ecclesiology.


In this article, I move into the practical implications of embracing the sacramental mission. Along the way, I will demonstrate the logical and theological relationship between evangelism and the edification of believers, and between short-term missions and long-term missions.


Baptism and Membership Matters


In Christ, the church is a royal priesthood to the nations, inviting others to join the feast of Christ (1 Pet. 2:9). We do so through evangelism, which is essentially sharing the good news that Jesus Christ—by his life, death, and resurrection—has secured a way for a holy God and sinful people to be reconciled. As the church spreads the “light for the knowledge of the glory of God” (2 Cor. 4:6; cf. Matt. 5:14–16), the deeds of the flesh will be exposed as Christians call upon them to renounce “disgraceful, underhanded ways” (2 Cor. 4:2).


Yet, we don't evangelize and then leave the converts out on their own. Apart from exceptional circumstances like the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26–39), we should desire to do what the saints of old did: baptize people into their number (Acts 2:41).[1] Baptism, after all, symbolizes new creation life, qualifies one to be a new covenant priest, and brings a person into the local church.


Local church membership should be restricted to those who can give a credible profession of their faith since it’s the outward expression of one’s inclusion into the universal church. In other words, it’s the corporate and authorized sign by which a church formally affirms a person as a believer. That affirmation should then be protected and nurtured by the ongoing oversight given through membership and the Lord’s Supper. Notice the key words: protect and nurture. Which brings us to the purpose of the Sunday morning gathering. 


The Purpose of Gathering


As the saints regularly gather (Acts 2:42, 46; Heb. 10:24–25), the primary purpose for the gathering is the edification or “the nurturing” of believers (1 Cor. 14:3-5, 17, 26). There is room for evangelism, but it’s not primary in this context. Christians should desire to live seeker-sensitive lives, not desire seeker-sensitive services.


Seeker-sensitive services and pragmatism often go hand-in-hand. The former says that the primary purpose of the gathering of saints is evangelism. The latter suggests that we can determine the rightness or wrongness of something by the results it produces. The former aims to bring in as many people into the church as possible and to calibrate the services to the preferences of unbelievers. The latter assumes that whatever means are used to achieve that end goal is good. Here are some signs that you might be in a seeker-sensitive church:


  • You can belong even if you don’t believe. In other words, you can come in to enjoy the fellowship of the church and have a say in church meetings without the requirements of membership.

  • Your church’s recommended reading list consists primarily of Rick Warren, Craig Groeschel, and Steven Furtick, and its sparring partners include Mark Dever and John MacArthur.

  • Humor-filled sermon series on movies, parenting, marriage, or money management are normal.

  • You hardly hear about sin, the wrath of God, and Christ’s substitutionary death. People are called to “trust in Jesus” but never to “repent of sin.”

  • Your church’s mission and vision statement is something like, “We will do anything to reach people who don't know Christ.”

  • Your church cares more about getting the right state-of-the-art tech gear and theatrics than about getting the right doctrine.


The problem with seeker-sensitive services is that they don’t actually help people grasp what hell is, what pain is, what holiness is, and what the sovereignty of God is. They make the weighty things of the Bible harder to communicate, which in turn will not foster cultural conditions conducive to conversions.


However, when the purpose of the main weekly gathering is the edification of the saints, people will be encouraged to understand and apply the gospel more biblically.[2] What does this look like? The Bible directs and controls every element and aspect of the worship gathering. Biblical exposition becomes the primary diet of the local church. The songs and prayers are rooted in Scripture. The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are rightly administered. The saints worship in an orderly fashion during the gathering because of their reverence for the God of the gathering (Heb. 10:25; 1 Cor. 14:33, 40).


In doing so, the saints are equipped for the work of ministry (Eph. 4:12) and sent out to call others to repent, believe, wash up, and come to the dinner table.


Short-Term to Long-Term


The same logic applies to mission trips. In short, short-term missions are used in order to support the long-term mission of planting and strengthening local churches. Or, as I’d prefer, baptizing and setting up the table. 


The discussion above on sacraments is absolutely necessary since you can’t plant and strengthen churches if you don’t know what a church is. As Nathan Knight writes: “Ecclesiology can’t be assumed nor should it be considered a distraction to the church planter’s ‘mission.’ It also can’t be a kind of add-on that you insert here and there as you have need. Instead, ecclesiology should inform, instruct, and even excite the mission of planting churches to the glory of God.”[3]


Darren Carlson has written extensively on short-term missions, and a common thread in his writings is a call for missionaries to work with local churches for lasting impact.[4] Because when the short-term mission trip is done, the local Christians will continue living and working there. Our desire should be to serve and partner at the request of and under local church leadership. 


For instance, rather than sending large teams to perform tasks already managed by local ministries, focus on supporting them financially and assisting them in biblical and theological training. For example, a church in Thailand already runs various initiatives such as orphanages, pastor-training schools, and church planting in unreached areas. Instead of sending teams to duplicate their efforts, it's more impactful to provide financial support and training.


Carlson offers some brief ways to make short-term missions more fruitful. (The table is my own synthesis but in line with his articles.) 


Advice for Fruitful Short-Term Trips

Advice

Explanation

Prioritize short-term trips for crisis response.

In situations like natural disasters or sudden influxes of displaced people, long-term workers may need support. Trained workers should be sent to assist, ensuring they complement existing efforts rather than hindering them. Failure to send trained personnel can worsen the situation.

Invest in long-term workers first.

Short-term serves long-term, while long-term creates lasting impact. Focus on sustainable solutions rather than short-term relief.

If you’re building anything without local participation, then in almost every situation, get out.

The thing you’re building will most likely never be used or will be torn down. Most likely, it’s a project created to give short-term teams something to do.

Consider sending smaller groups of experienced, godly, and skilled church members.

Some of the most effective trips involve elder-qualified men and their wives going to encourage missionaries.

If you’re sending teens and college students, send smaller numbers to work with a veteran missionary who wants to disciple them.

The key word for the young short-termers shouldn’t be impact, but rather learning.


Conclusion


I have argued that when we strip missiology of ecclesiology, it ultimately results in a neglect of Christology. Christology, missiology, and ecclesiology must inform each other, and sadly, contemporary evangelical missiology misses this point. By rooting sacraments in missions, it keeps the church from abandoning the gospel and helps us get the logical and theological order right for evangelism and edification, as well as for short-term and long-term missions.


 

Footnotes

  1. Mark Dever, “Baptism in the Context of the Local Church,” in Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, ed. Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, NAC Studies in Bible and Theology (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), 335–39.

  2. See Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, How to Build a Healthy Church: A Practical Guide for Deliberate Leadership, 2nd ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2021), 106, 123, 130.

  3. Nathan Knight, “You Can’t Plant a Church If You Don’t Know What a Church Is,” 9Marks, 19 June 2017, https://www.9marks.org/article/you-cant-plant-a-church-if-you-dont-know-what-a-church-is/.

  4. Darren Carlson, “Celebrating the Short-Term Missions Boom,” The Gospel Coalition, 10 June 2012, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/celebrating-the-short-term-missions-boom/; Darren Carlson, “Toward Better Short-Term Missions,” The Gospel Coalition, 27 June 2012, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/toward-better-short-term-missions/; Darren Carlson, “Why You Should Consider Canceling Your Short-Term Mission Trips,” The Gospel Coalition, 18 June 2012, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/why-you-should-consider-cancelling-your-short-term-mission-trips/; Darren Carlson, “I’d Probably Still Cancel Your Short-Term Mission Trip,” The Gospel Coalition, 12 September 2019, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/still-cancel-short-term-mission-trip/.

 

Tuezong Xiong is the Associate Pastor at Christ Bible Church in Roseville, Minnesota. He received his M.Div. from Bethlehem College and Seminary and writes regularly at tuezongxiong.wordpress.com. He, along with his wife, Pa Kou, resides in Circle Pines with their two sons.

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