A Light to the Nations


There is a growing body of literature about the missional church, but the word missional is often defined in competing ways with little attempt to ground it deeply in Scripture. In A Light to the Nations, Michael Goheen unpacks the missional identity of the church by tracing the role God’s people are called to play in the biblical story. Goheen examines the historical, theological, and biblical foundations of missional ecclesiology, showing that the church’s identity can be understood only when its role is articulated in the context of the whole biblical story–not just the New Testament. He shows that the Old Testament is essential to understanding the church’s missional identity. Goheen also explores practical outworkings and implications and offers field-tested suggestions, putting Lesslie Newbigin’s missionary ecclesiology to work in shaping the contemporary church. The book is written at a level easily accessible to students in missions, pastoral, worldview, and theology courses as well as pastors, church leaders, and all readers interested in the missional church.

Table of Contents


1. The Church’s Identity and Role: Whose Story? Which Images?
2. God Forms Israel as a Missional People
3. Israel Embodies Its Missional Role and Identity amid the Nations
4. Jesus Gathers an Eschatological People to Take Up Their Missional Calling
5. The Death and Resurrection of Jesus and the Church’s Missional Identity
6. The Missional Church in the New Testament Story
7. New Testament Images of the Missional Church
8. The Missional Church in the Biblical Story—A Summary
9. What Might This Look Like Today?

For Further Reading
Subject Index
Scripture Index


My primary concern in this book is to analyze the missional identity of the church by tracing its role in the biblical story. A plethora of books on missional ecclesiology has appeared in the last couple of decades. These books vary in quality, but even in the best there is little sustained biblical-theological and exegetical work. Moreover, to the degree that the authors make forays into Scripture, the Old Testament has been conspicuously neglected. I have written this book to fill this gap.

My primary audience is theological students, as well as pastors and leaders in the church. But this book is not intended for the pragmatic and impatient pastor looking for quick-fix strategies. It is scriptural and narrative theological work struggling with our biblical identity and role in the original historical context. It is not a technical book but will demand more than a reader seeking fast answers may be willing to invest. My hope is that, on the one hand, scholars will find its substance sufficient to engage them and that, on the other, the serious layperson can read this book with profit. The reader has a right to know the context out of which this book emerges. At least five factors from my background shape this book. The first is my doctoral dissertation on Lesslie Newbigin’s missionary ecclesiology. I spent the better part of a decade attempting to get into Newbigin’s skin to understand his view of the church. My understanding of the missional church is deeply indebted to him, and this will be especially clear in the last chapter when I discuss contemporary implications.

The second major factor is several yearlong doctoral seminars on biblical, historical, and ecumenical ecclesiology that I took with George Vandervelde more than twenty years ago. Reading through what has been said by biblical scholars and theologians throughout church history as well as current ecumenical thinkers, along with George’s infectious love for the church and his keen theological mind, kindled in me a newfound love for ecclesiology that has been invaluable in laying a foundation for my continued thinking on the church.

A third significant influence on this book is my past and ongoing pastoral experience. I spent the first seven years of my professional life after seminary as a church planter and then a pastor. Even though my primary paycheck no longer comes from the local congregation but now, for almost two decades, from an academic institution, I have never been able to shake myself loose from the ministry of the Word. Just as I was finishing my dissertation on Newbigin, I was invited to take a part-time position as a minister of preaching in a struggling and shrinking urban church in Hamilton, Ontario. What spurred me to accept the invitation were these questions: Although missional church looks good in theology, in the classroom, and in the study, would it work in the urban congregation? And more specifically, would it work in an established, older congregation shaped in another era? I had once heard Jürgen Moltmann say humorously in a small meeting on missional church in Paris something like the following: “We all know what the missional church is. But the real question is what do we do with all these other established institutions called ‘church’?” Indeed, could an older institutional church take on missional coloring?

I worked with two colleagues, and we saw dramatic transformation and growth as the Spirit worked in this established urban congregation and it increasingly acquired a missional identity. When I left after six years for another academic post on the other side of the country, in British Columbia, I thought that my formal ecclesiastical service was over. But it was not to be.

I am now working as a part-time minister of preaching in a congregation in the greater Vancouver area. This pastoral experience and work with gifted missional leaders, all in the midst of committed congregations where the gospel is alive, has refined much of my theological insight on missional church. So, while much of what follows is an attempt to provide solid biblical-theological girders for the notion of missional church, it is shaped by preaching and concrete pastoral experience in attempting to put this notion into practice. The horizon of the local congregation is never far from my exegetical and theological work.

A fourth factor that has shaped this book is the opportunity I have had to teach this material to students at both a graduate and an undergraduate level for several decades. For most of my academic career I have taught in smaller Christian undergraduate colleges that require one to teach quite broadly. Teaching numerous subjects in mission has helped me to refine various aspects of ecclesiology. But my teaching has also stretched into biblical theology and worldview. Teaching biblical theology deepened my commitment to mission as I recognized the centrality of a missional hermeneutic to the biblical story. Teaching worldview enabled me to struggle with questions of relating the gospel to culture and of the church’s mission in public life. I have also had opportunities to teach this material at a graduate level and continue to do so at Regent College, Vancouver. The material of this book has been shaped by those courses and the writing and research that emerged, along with the privilege of teaching hundreds, if not thousands, of very fine students at Dordt College, Redeemer University College, Trinity Western University, Calvin Theological Seminary, McMaster Divinity School, Wheaton College, and Regent College.

The final influence on this book that should be mentioned is the opportunity I have had to present material on missional church to pastors in many different confessional traditions and in many different locations around the world. Pastors are often justly impatient with ivory-tower theology. But sometimes church leaders are too practical and too quickly impatient with necessary theological reflection. Yet speaking to and dialoguing with pastors about this material has kept me from spinning out a theology that doesn’t touch the ground. Along the way I have incorporated many good insights from these leaders. Thus it will be clear that I come to this book as a missiologist and as a pastor. I am not first of all a biblical scholar, nor is my primary audience biblical scholars. Although this book will engage the world of biblical scholarship, I have not entered into many critical questions that lie below the text. I have leaned on the exegetical conclusions of many fine biblical scholars whom I trust. I am writing for pastors, theological students, and educated church members who want to be faithful to the gospel as the people of God.

A website has been created to accompany this book that provides more resources on God’s mission and the mission of the church: www.missionworldview.com.

It remains for me at the end of this preface to thank those that have contributed in one way or another to this book. I think first of two men whose influence on this topic was most significant but who are now with the Lord: Lesslie Newbigin and George Vandervelde. I occupy the Geneva Chair of Religious and Worldview Studies, which is governed by a board called the Geneva Society, and I am deeply grateful to these men and women for their time in giving direction to my work. They generously granted me a full year sabbatical during the 2008 calendar year, during which time much of this book was written. Along with the Geneva Society, I am thankful for Pieter and Fran Vanderpol and the Oikodome Foundation, whose continuing vision for Christian scholarship leads them to fund the Geneva Chair. Jim Kinney and his colleagues at Baker Academic have been very helpful as usual. I am thankful for my wife, Marnie, who is always supportive of my work and always enters into it fully with me. I am also grateful for the association and sometimes friendship with other scholars whom I consider fellow travellers on this same road, who have shaped my thinking through conversations (sometimes in faraway places) and writing. I think here of Darrell Guder, Jurgens Hendricks, George Hunsberger, David Kettle, Alan Roxburgh, Wilbert Shenk, Craig Van Gelder, and Chris Wright. A number of people have taken the time to read this manuscript and have offered helpful comments. David Fairchild and Drew Goodmanson, Kaleo Church, San Diego, California; Andrew Zantingh and Tim Sheridan, First Christian Reformed Church and New Hope Christian Reformed Church, Hamilton, Ontario; David Groen, New West Christian Reformed Church, Burnaby, British Columbia; Tyler Johnson, East Valley Bible Church, Phoenix, Arizona; Johannes Schouten, Nelson Avenue Church, Burnaby, British Columbia; Mark Glanville, Tregear Presbyterian Church, Sydney, Australia; Howard McPhee, Springdale Christian Reformed Church, Bradford, Ontario; and George Hunsberger, Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan. They have made many valuable suggestions that have helped the book. Unfortunately, I was unable to incorporate some suggestions that would have made this a better book because of limited time or ability. It is a delight to be able to say further that David Groen and Mark Glanville are not only pastoral colleagues but fine sons-in-law.

I want to express my appreciation to Doug and Karey Loney. Doug has been a good friend and an invaluable colleague who has now generously shared his writing gifts on three books. Both Doug and Karey read the manuscript and helped me to express myself more clearly with their editing, and the manuscript is much better because of their sacrificial work. I have been deeply blessed by being part of the congregations of First Christian Reformed Church, Hamilton, Ontario, and New West Christian Reformed Church, Burnaby, British Columbia. Serving and being part of these wonderful communities has taught me much about what the New Testament teaches about church. The love and generosity, as well as the commitment to God’s mission in Canada, of so many in these churches have nurtured me.

For the last two and a half decades, I have had the privilege to work with several fine colleagues in pastoral ministry. I am grateful for what I have learned about missionalchurch from each of these men. In my first pastorate I worked for a short time with Howard McPhee, who was also an early mentor and from whom I learned much, including something of what it means to preach Christ. During my seven years in Hamilton, I labored with two very gifted men, Andrew Zantingh and Tim Sheridan. Andrew has a keen sense of what mission means for the structures, worship, discipleship, leadership, and, in general, the internal life of the congregation. Tim’s ability to understand the urban setting, to recognize its needs, to network for diaconal purposes, and to build unity among churches for the sake of God’s mission are a gift to the church. In Burnaby it has been a joy to work with David Groen, who is committed to the difficult task of developing youth and young adult ministries in a missional way. For a short time God provided Peter Sinia, a gifted pastor and administrator, as my colleague in Burnaby, and most recently I have begun to enjoy pastoral collegiality with another senior pastor who is committed to a missional vision, Andrew Beunk. To these dear and dedicated pastoral colleagues in the ministry of giving leadership to a missional church I dedicate this book.


Based on the whole biblical narrative, this book is a powerful presentation of what it takes for a missional church in the twenty-first century to be ‘A Light to the Nations.’ It is both compelling and persuasive!

- Gerald H. Anderson, director emeritus, Overseas Ministries Study Center, New Haven, CT

In the face of the weakened ecclesiology of a church mired in a postmodern, consumeristic, entertainment-oriented morass, Michael Goheen in A Light to the Nations masterfully calls his readers to a renewed missional imagination. Goheen traces the missional theme through Scripture, enabling us to see that his vision is not really new but the rediscovery of the robust, missional ecclesiology that has always characterized the people of God at their best. Goheen leads us into an expansive vision of what it means to be God’s called, eschatological people embodying the new creation. If you long to understand what it really means to be a missional church, not as a simple slogan but as our deepest identity, then this book is the indispensable road map. I heartily recommend it!

- Timothy C. Tennent, president and professor of world Christianity, Asbury Theological Seminary

Like a skillfully constructed symphony, the main theme of A Light to the Nations is announced in the first two chapters. Succeeding movements trace the triumphs and failures of God’s missional people in the Old and New Testaments. The final two chapters reprise the theme, showing its indispensable importance for the people of God today. Michael Goheen effectively blends careful scholarship and passion for full-bodied participation in God’s mission today.

- Wilbert R. Shenk, senior professor, Fuller Graduate School of Intercultural Studies

The contemporary discussion of the ‘missional church’ has rapidly expanded and generated a confusing range of published treatments. Here is a book, however, that stands out from the crowd and merits careful attention. Michael Goheen’s A Light to the Nations is a much-needed and well-crafted basic text for the biblical study of the missional church. Based on careful reading and interpretation of an impressive range of biblical scholars, Goheen’s book engages the scholarly voices that merit serious interaction, lays out the major themes of a biblical theology of the missional church, and offers an integrative approach that will stimulate further investigation. Certainly it will become a staple of college and seminary syllabi dealing with the church and its mission. Pastors, congregations, and mission agencies will find in this book biblical orientation for faithfulmission in a time of rapid and challenging change.

- Darrell L. Guder, Henry Winters Luce Professor of Missional and Ecumenical Theology, Princeton Theological Seminary

Goheen expertly traces the continuities of and developments in the Bible’s grand story of the people of God, showing that at every stage God’s people exist for the sake of God’s mission to all the peoples of the world. Here is the biblical depth needed for the contemporary church’s reflection on and practice of its missional identity.

- Richard Bauckham, emeritus professor, New Testament studies, University of St. Andrews, Scotland; senior scholar, Ridley Hall, Cambridge

It is so encouraging to see the revived interest in missional interpretation of the Bible flourishing and bearing fruit. This marvelous book by Mike Goheen moves the discipline significantly forward. It roots our understanding of the church’s role and mission in the whole of the Scriptures, showing how formative the Old Testament was for Jesus and his New Testament followers and remains for us. The nourishing meat of rich biblical reflection is sandwiched between a historical analysis of the cultural roots of the contemporary church and a challenging conclusion as to how a church today can be truly missional and biblical. This is biblical theology in the service of the mission of God through God’s people for the sake of God’s world.

- Christopher J. H. Wright, international director, Langham Partnership International; author, The Mission of God and The Mission of God’s People

The renewed conversations about the ‘mission of God’ have begged for this book to be written! And there is none better equipped to write it than Goheen. His sweeping grasp of the biblical narrative and his pastoral sensitivity to the missional path today’s churches are traveling combine to tell the fascinating story of the people of God so thoroughly embedded in the story of God’s love-borne intentions for the world.

- George R. Hunsberger, professor of missiology, Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan

Named an Outstanding Mission Book of 2011, International Bulletin of Missionary Research

Pastor and professor Michael Goheen argues that modern discussions about missions tend to miss the more comprehensive biblical account of God’s larger mission. . . . Goheen corrects this neglect. And by highlighting the essential role of mission in both the Old and New Testaments, he provides a useful tool for considering current church-world discussions. Goheen helps churches see not only how political engagement follows from their calling to be a blessing to the nations, but also how such engagement requires Christians to remain distinct from their larger culture. . . . A Light to the Nations locates the church’s missional identity in God’s plan to restore all of creation through his covenant people.

- Ryan Messmore, Comment

This is an important book in what it affirms concerning the missional nature of God’s purposes and hence of God’s people. Too many churches are so self-absorbed in ministries and programs that they lose sight of the larger calling of the church to participate in God’s mission to ‘restore all creation and the entirely of human life from the ravages of sin.’ Readers will learn much about the biblical story of God’s purposes in general and about numerous passages that describe God’s mission in particular.

- Eckhard J. Schnabel, Themelios

This thoroughly researched text walks the reader through the biblical narratives in the Old and New Testaments, making extensive use of biblical, exegetical, and theological scholarship…. The result is a remarkably comprehensive and nuanced treatment in a manageable 226 pages of text…. The author provides a corrective to overly individualistic understandings of the Great Commission…. A Light to the Nations will no doubt take its place as a landmark contribution to the missional church literature, worthy of careful study.

- Craig Ott, International Bulletin of Missionary Research

[An] outstanding new book…. Michael Goheen… ‘gets’ what missional is all abouy…. Goheen has a special interest and expertise in the work of Lesslie Newbigin, so the book is full of excellent quotes from this great missionary. I was so thoroughly impressed with this book, I put it on my top 50 list for what seminary students should read nowadays. (I am not sure what the other 49 are, but this is definitely one of them!)

- Nijay Gupta, Crux Sola

Goheen compellingly demonstrates the missional nature of the Church. His stated goal is to fill a gap in missional ecclesiology with a book that is biblical-theological and exegetical. He meets this goal and keeps you reading. This is a text for undergraduate mission classes and pastors and serious lay leaders in the church…. I appreciate that Goheen emphasizes that the Church’s involvement in God’s mission is holistic…. I found his emphasis on the communal nature of the Church refreshing in our increasingly individualistic West.

- Marcus W. Dean, Evangelical Missions Quarterly

A wonderful introduction to the biblical themes that support and guide the missional church. The book displays careful biblical and exegetical scholarship, interaction with a wide range of missiological and biblical sources, and attention to some of the key scholarly voices that examine the nature and mission of the church. A basic biblical theology of the missional church is presented, along with a missional reading and interpretation of Scripture, in a way that combines careful scholarship with an accessible, pastoral style…. [Goheen] has also provided an excellent range of practical implications for local congregations in the final chapter…. This is a very good introduction to the biblical foundations for the missional church. A Light to the Nations is on my list as essential reading for missional ecclesiology…. An indispensable and timely addition to our understanding of a biblical, gospel-centered, missional ecclesiology.

- Graham Hill, Crucible

A commendable contribution…. The organization and structure of the book facilitates clarity and understanding…. There is much I appreciate about Goheen’s work, including his responsible handling of Scripture, cogent articulation of the biblical metanarrative, and keen social and theological analysis of tendencies within certain Christian traditions. He does a masterful job of convincingly explaining and piecing together the various parts of the biblical story… into a cohesive, interrelated whole. Goheen’s work also demonstrates well-informed interaction with an impressive array of biblical, theological, and missiological resources…. It is a valuable addition to the discussion on missional ecclesiology and merits careful consideration. The wide relevance of the topic and the accessible writing style make this book versatile and potentially useful for a fairly wide audience, including interested lay leaders, pastors, and professors. It evinces fine scholarship while incorporating practical, pastoral guidance.

- Michael Hakmin Lee, Trinity Journal

This book offers much promise. For one thing, Goheen’s focus on ecclesiology as foundational to understanding mission today makes sense biblically and theologically…. For another, the book’s exposition on diaspora resonates with current missiological scholarship…. Goheen draws from his experience as a pastor, and his biblical, exegetical, and theological acumen lends credence to the quality of this book. Moreover, the author’s scholarship is decisively all-embracing. Goheen draws ideas from a broad spectrum of scholars…. Many will find [this book] a fascinating scholarly work that speaks to the current concerns of today’s missional church. In simple and contemporary fashion, Goheen succeeds in making God’s redemptive plan accessible even to readers with no prior theological training.”

- Tereso C. Casiño, Great Commission Research Journal

This book is free from unrealistic idealism. Instead Goheen shares from his own experience in several places how a church over time can become missional…. This is an extremely worthwhile book. It will help us to re-examine everything we do in church and in our daily lives.

- Greg Goswell, New Life

A Light to the Nations is vitally important for scholars and pastors alike for a number of reasons. First, Goheen is careful in his attention to the biblical narrative. He does not rush to conclusions but grounds his description of the missional identity of the church in a mostly comprehensive reading of the biblical story. Second, Goheen aptly combines scholarship and pastoral sensitivity by having both an eye toward the biblical text and an ability to apply it to the contemporary church. Finally, Goheen offers a number of correctives to today’s sometimes individualistic, colonial, dualistic ideas about ecclesiology and mission. His picture of the church and of mission as communal, attractional, and comprehensive is at times refreshing and necessary…. [This book is] important and in many ways groundbreaking. [Goheen] has firmly rooted the missional identity of the contemporary church in the biblical narrative of God’s people, a daunting task, but one that he deftly completes. It should be read and engaged by any who want to understand the biblical theological foundation for the purpose and mission of God’s people to be a light to the nations.

- Matthew Y. Emerson, Southwestern Journal of Theology

The concept of mission has too often been shaped by 19th century assumptions: mission is a matter of geography, it is a cross-cultural activity done by a select few individuals; some are called to mission, others are not. This book exposes these erroneous views and places mission in the context of Israel and the church. It provides a whistle-stop overview of ‘the missional impulse in the biblical narrative.’. . . Far too many missional books neglect the Old Testament; Goheen does much here to redress the imbalance…. One of the many strengths of this book is that, in developing the missional identity of the church, it stresses the continuity and discontinuity with Old Testament Israel…. [It] brilliantly develops the missional perspective of the body of Christ…. This book is inspiring and insightful–it should be required reading, not only for those with an interest in missional studies, but for all those who take the lordship of Christ seriously.

- Steve Bishop, Koers Journal

Without a doubt, this work is a fine contribution to ecclesiology and missiology, and pastors and students of both fields would profit greatly from reading it…. A Light to the Nations is an eye-opening and significant work on how the biblical narrative of mission must shape the identity and essence of the church if the church of today is to be true and relevant at all.

- Francis M. Macatengay, Mission Studies

A Light to the Nations is a great corrective to much of the missional talk of the day. It puts the meat on the bones of any weak theology of mission. The greatest strength of the book is its truly biblical theology approach as it begins with the concept as originated with Israel and Abraham…. This a book of solid biblical theology of missions.

- Teresa Chai, Asian Journal of Pentecostal Studies

A Light to the Nations is an elegant and powerful missional ecclesiology, which would serve well as reading for several types of audiences. First, it would make an illuminating companion text in a systematic theology course. While many systematic ecclesiology texts focus on the tasks of the church, this book focuses on the missional nature of the church. Second, it would serve well as a text in a course on Christian mission. While many mission texts focus exclusively on international missions, or on pragmatics, or on the social sciences, this text provides a unified and coherent biblical theology to undergird the church on her mission. The most practical thing in the world (for a mission class) is a biblical theology of mission that provides the starting point, the trajectory, and the parameters for the tasks of mission. Third, the book stands on its own feet as a contribution to the field of biblical theology, furthering the author’s contributions in previous books such as The Drama of Scripture. Finally, the book makes a stimulating discussion piece for pastors, elders, and thoughtful laypeople who are thinking through the church’s missional calling. This book is strongly recommended.

- Bruce Ashford, Southeastern Theological Review


Translation into Korean (Seoul, SK: The Blessed People Publishing Co., 2012)

Translation into Portuguese (São Paulo, Brazil: Edições Vida Nova, 2014)

Translation into Chinese (Enoch Communications, forthcoming)

Translation into Spanish (Tampa: Editorial Doulos, forthcoming)