The Church Exists to Change the Subject
By now many of us are comfortably familiar with the commission we receive from our Lord at the end of Matthew 28: “disciple the nations by baptizing them in my name and teaching to obey my commands.” Long and frequent exposure to this command can cause us to interpret it as a “missionary text” in the international, over-seas sense of the term. That way, as long as we tithe (or at least give) to a church with a decent missions budget, we can comfort ourselves that those who were called to “go” have in fact gone, and we are privileged to be part of a people who so faithfully discharge the Great Commission.
There certainly are some things about which Jesus is jealous that His church walk in confident assurance – like His initiation, application and preservation of our very great salvation! I do not believe, however, that so narrowly defining the field of vision in Matthew 28 that only our vocational, overseas missionaries remain in view is one of those “comfort ye my people” kind of things. In fact, most of the church in America needs a fresh and discomforting encounter with the raw and life-encompassing authority of these words. For my part, I know I certainly do.
A way I have been helped to hear again the call of Matthew 28 is to put it in these words: The Church Exists to Change the Subject. (I read this phrase in Michael Horton’s new book Christless Christianity.) That is what it means and that is what it takes to disciple (so they are formed by a new master), to baptize (so they walk in a new life), and to teach (so they obey a new authority) the nations we are surrounded by every day – it takes a bold willingness to change the subject.
We have all been part of churches who refuse this path. They prefer to see their role as joining the conversations of a depraved and degenerating culture in the hopes of discovering some redemptive segue in the midst of that God-ignoring and Christ-rejecting context. So we have “entertainment” churches who sacrifice the power of the Word of God for the promise of images, gizmos and relevance. We have “corporate” churches driven by executives more excited about leveraging the principles in Good to Great than proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We have “therapeutic” churches, filling up their empathy quotient by using Scripture to massage the self-image of their congregation rather than getting small together under the great and sovereign God of Scripture who invites us into the joy of making much of Him. We have “activist” churches who invest their energy alleviating short-term suffering, which, as noble as that is, should be seen as hatefully near-sighted when it causes them to abandon the alleviation of long-term (eternal!) suffering only the biblical Gospel provides.
As promising and exciting as these approaches first appear (and who isn’t excited when we tap into a niche in the church growth market!), whether we have tried them personally or corporately we all arrive at the eventual realization: when it comes to the claims of Christ and the conversations of culture, we can’t get there from here! We can’t get to what our world so desperately needs by starting with what they think they lack. We can’t tell them what they desperately need to hear by starting with what they want to talk about. We want to know them, yes! We want to love them, yes! We care about who they and and how they think, yes! But ultimately, the only conversation that can achieve the discipline, newness, and obedience of the Great Commission is one that is willing to change the subject.
And the endlessly fascinating Subject to which we must devote our life and direct their attention is none other than the God-Man. Here is how Calvin described his subject-changing work in Geneva, “to place Christ before the view such as He is with all His blessings, that His excellence may be truly perceived.” This is our commission wherever and everywhere we are – to devote our life and direct all attention to the authoritative, ever-present excellencies of Christ.