Mistaking the Tares for the Wheat? The Five Marks of Mission, Ministry Planning, and the Future of the Church

One of Jesus’ most interesting parables is that of the wheat and the tares. While that parable does many things, one of them is to illustrate that we live in a world of saints and sinners, light and shade, good and evil, and that it is sometimes very difficult to tell whether you are reaping a harvest of golden wheat, or a gathering a blight of weeds.

Recently, in a context of numerical decline, the traditional churches of Britain have been engaging in their own work of reaping: closing some churches while better resourcing others. Central to this work has been a new focus on mission, and in particular, on the Five Marks of Mission. 

The Church of Scotland and the Church of England have both formally adopted the Five Marks of Mission as core principles for their strategic planning. These Marks developed over a number of decades, and only recently, some commentators were foreseeing their disappearance. This did not happen, however, and they have now become central to current – and controversial – attempts to unite, link or close down ‘weak’ congregations, and pivot to a new mission-focussed form of Church.

For readers who aren’t sure what these Marks are, here they are:

The mission of the Church is the mission of Christ

  1. To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
  2. To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
  3. To respond to human need by loving service
  4. To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation
  5. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth

While the Marks are winning growing acceptance and use within churches, when we turn to analyse them, multiple questions arise:

  • Is this everything the church should be doing?
  • How do these marks relate to what most churches do on Sundays?
  • Which mark or marks are the most important, or are they all equal?
  • If churches don’t meet these marks, does this mean they are failures, or not ‘real’ churches?

These aren’t just abstract questions. Up and down the UK, church leaders and members are struggling with new planning systems that reward congregations that meet these Marks and effectively punish those that do not. As such, the truth or otherwise of the Five Marks matters. Indeed, their use may be one of the most important developments in the traditional denominations of Britain this century.

I want to argue three things in this post:

  1. The Five Marks are a good summary of missional activity
  2. The Five Marks do not describe everything the Church should be doing
  3. We need a better intellectual and practical integration between the missional activity desired in the Five Marks and the traditional activities of the Church

Point One: The Five Marks are a good summary of missional activity.

In Mission in Contemporary Scotland, Chapters 1 and 7 to 9 explain why God’s mission to re-create the universe and make it into a new creation mission cannot be reduced to only one kind of activity.  It is now widely accepted by Christians in the UK that mission cannot be fully equated with either to service or evangelism, but must be holistic, encompassing the full material and bodily reality of human life. Mainstream evangelicals have long come to accept that Scripture commands service, the challenging of political and social evils, and – increasingly – care for creation. This acceptance is illustrated by the work of evangelical bible scholar and missiologist Christopher Wright, who has not only published two widely-read books on mission but was invited to edit mission works by John Stott, and has now produced a book on the Five Marks. This acceptance is also seen in the work of Tearfund, JustLove, the Evangelical Alliance and other evangelical groups, who all accept the importance of holistic mission. 

This growing acceptance is also seen in more liberal or moderate circles. While liberals and moderates have sometimes been uneasy with public professions of faith and with evangelism, the decline of the institutional church has compelled them to take seriously the importance of faith formation and new approaches to ministry and mission. It is this new reality that has compelled the traditionally liberal and moderate Church of Scotland and Church of England to adopt the Five Marks – including the evangelistic and discipleship Marks – even in the face of a sometimes vocal minority, who whether for theological, liturgical or political reasons resent a new emphasis on evangelism.

Nevertheless, there are some caveats to be made here, caveats that lead to the second and third points I want to make. First, while the Marks are a good summary of holistic missional activity, they do not tell us what the relation is between these activities. Is it really true that creation care is as important an activity for the Church as preaching, or serving people’s material and emotional needs? If there is some kind of hierarchy at work, what is it?

While this problem concerns the relation between the Marks and their prioritisation, there is another problem concerning their purpose and scope. Were the Marks intended to describe everything the Church does? Can we, in fact, reduce everything the Church does to ‘mission’? And if we can’t, how do we relate the preaching, sacraments and worship of the Church to the activities of the Five Marks?

Point Two: the Five Marks do not describe everything the Church should be doing

While it is understandable in a context of decline that Church leaders should suddenly prioritise mission, this cannot be done at the total expense of the worship, teaching, and sacraments of the Church. The reason is simple: without teaching, sacraments and worship, there is no church to engage in mission. While people who have grown up in the Church might not realise it, there is nothing ‘natural’ or ‘given’ about the Church. Christianity is unnatural, fighting as it does against the selfishness, narcissism, pettiness, conflict and delusion that is innate to fallen human beings, and on fine show in our contemporary world. In order for Church communities to be sustained, they need regular exposure to the presence and power of God, a presence and power that is at its most intensive in *true* teaching, worship and sacramental life. The Church is a creation of the Word, an effect of the ongoing ministry of Christ to conform us to his likeness, and begin his new creation in the midst of the old. Without worship, teaching and sacraments, the Church will soon cease to exist.

As such – and I say this with a great deal of seriousness – church leaders CANNOT use the Five Marks of Mission as the only benchmark for deciding what is, and what is not, a ‘good’ congregation, or what is needed in a particular area. Focussing only on mission is like focussing on fruit without paying any attention to the tree to which it is attached. The fruit is an effect, an outcome of the health of the tree, which needs fertilising, watering, and pruning. In the same way, we will only have missional churches if we have healthy congregations. Any criteria used in planning must be sophisticated and nuanced enough to pick up not only missional activity but congregational health. Otherwise, the Church may be felling its healthiest congregations, ending up with a basket of summer fruit that wither in the Autumn chill.

Point Three: We need a better intellectual and practical integration between the the Five Marks and the traditional activities of the Church

I am currently involved in a number of inter-connected pieces of work for the Church of Scotland, touching on structures, education and training, mission, and the theological position of the Church. These are complex issues, and it is very easy to loose sight of the forest for the trees, the big picture for all of the individual jigsaw pieces. What I have come to realise increasingly, however, is that much of the organisational confusion and ‘drift’ we see in denominations – I include all denominations in this, not only my own – comes from a basic problem: we do not know what our churches are for. We have lots of ideas about the activities we should be doing form one day to the next, and how to do these well, but much less idea what the overall point of ministry and mission are, and how the Church fulfils this.

For that reason, I would like to propose the following definition of the purpose of the Church: The purpose of the Church is to make people like Jesus, so that they participate in his ministry and become the sign, instrument, and foretaste of the Kingdom.

The order of ideas in this definition is very important.

First, it begins with the ultimate purpose of human life: that we become like Jesus. This related to existing definitions of discipleship, but links the process of becoming like Jesus more firmly to creation, eschatology and the ascended ministry of Christ than discussions of discipleship or the Great Commission normally do. So, who is this Jesus that we are destined to become like? The one who perfectly loves God and neighbour, something he does through perfect worship, perfect obedience, perfect witness, and perfect service. Jesus is not only interested in being a perfect human being himself, however, but, because he is perfect, wants to perfect us. He does this through his ongoing ministry in the Church as our Prophet, Priest and King. He speaks his saving word to us, saves us and heals us, and calls us to follow and obey him. This is how we become like Jesus, and how we become the people he created us to be.

Yet second, as we start to participate in Christ and resemble his humanity, we begin to participate in his ministry. Jesus is the chief minister of the Church, and when the Church acts, it only participates in a ministry that belongs to him. We participate in his ministry to the extent that we individually and corporately, as individual people and as congregations, speak his truth, serve our neighbours, and obey his commands. If we do these things, then we work with Christ to help other people become like him. This is where ministry spills over into mission.

This brings us, third, to mission itself. When the Church participates in Christ’s ministry, and begins to be confirmed to his perfect human likeness, it becomes – as Newbiggin says – the sign, foretaste, and instrument of the new creation. As we witness we evangelise; as we serve we heal and save; as we obey, we order everything within our influence so that it confirms to the law of love that animates the Kingdom of God. 

Mission, then, is a derivative activity in the life of the Church. It is not the first thing the Church should do, but something that happens naturally when people are acted on by Christ in worship, prayer, teaching and the sacraments. It is a fruit of the Spirit, and not the root of the Spirit.

This is just a summary of a new book I am working on, provisionally titled Ministry and Mission: a Vision for the Post-Christian West. I firmly believe that the Church must rediscover its purpose in Christ and the relation between its ministry and mission if it is to have any chance of reaching our neighbours and blessing them. Focussing only on ministry or only on mission could have disastrous consequences for the Church. Likewise, focussing only on what we are doing, and not on the primacy of Christ’s ministry, will leave us demoralised, stressed and racked with anxiety. It is only when we realise that Christ reigns, and is still working in us and our societies, that we can have the confidence to try, and make our churches and communities the best they can be.

The fields are ripe for harvest, and for that reason, it’s never been more important that the workers understand what they are doing, and don’t leave the wheat to rot in the field while reaping a harvest of tares. 

4 thoughts on “Mistaking the Tares for the Wheat? The Five Marks of Mission, Ministry Planning, and the Future of the Church

  1. We find this an exciting beginning to your exploration of the purpose of the church, Liam. Every congregation in Scotland needs to hear this now as we move into a very different future.


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