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Issues in Missions Today: 39.3 ‘Mission is Everything?’

Issues in Missions Today: 39.3 ‘Mission is Everything?’

We come to Point 3 in my list of 20 questionable statements needing clarification in our imaginary ‘Missions 101’ class:

Point 3: ‘Mission is really everything the Church does in ministry.  It is preaching, translating, teaching, church planting, compassion ministries, development work--everything.’

Mission work does, unquestionably, ‘creep’; it easily expands into everything.  In this point, the error appears more immediately obvious than in the previous two points in this basic introduction to themes in missions.  Yet the inability of so many to distinguish between a mission and the mission of the Church is a common problem.  We can turn most anything into a mission, including cleaning out the gutters on an autumn afternoon.  Missionaries, too, get involved in virtually every activity under every name, sometimes so remotely related to the spread of the Church and the Gospel that one wonders how we ever got to this point.

What the mission of the Church is, however, is a different matter.  Just as one tries to bring some clarity to the matter at the congregational level, mission theologians, speaking loosely, sometimes join the debate to confuse matters all the more.  The pressures on everyone are (1) to appreciate everyone’s gifts and contributions to ministry; (2) to encourage good works among and by God’s people; (3) to affirm a holistic mission; and (4) not to let all this distort the original focus in missions as understood from Scripture.  The phrase ‘holistic mission’ is meant to convey what ‘holistic medicine’ does: aid that meets physical, psychological, and spiritual needs.

On the positive side, we might give some attention (in our Missions 101 course) to considerations of (1) ‘calling’ to ministries; (2) ‘gifting’—the church as a body with its Spirit-gifted members; (3) a Biblical definition of ‘the Gospel’; and (4) an historical and theological discussion of mission activities, especially in the Evangelical tradition.  Such topics in the Missions course will have to rely on previous work done by the students in the prerequisite courses already identified: Biblical Theology and two courses in Church History.

A common and accurate response to this third point for the missions course is the statement by Stephen Neill that ‘If everything is mission, then nothing is mission.’[1]  Michael Goheen reminds us of Leslie Newbigin’’s distinction between ‘dimension’ and ‘intention’ in missions in this regard:

Because the Church is the mission there is a missionary dimension of everything that the Church does.  But not everything the Church does has a missionary intention…. An action of the Church in going out beyond the frontiers of its own life to bear witness to Christ as Lord among those who do not know Him, and when the overall intention of that action is that they should be brought from unbelief to faith.[2]

Goheen explains further with an example: worship may have a missional dimension, but witness to unbelievers is not the intention of worship (otherwise, I might add, it fails to be worship and becomes manipulative entertainment—a criticism that might be raised of the seeker-sensitive movement from which Evangelical churches are still recovering).  We might, incidentally, note with this example that an important discussion to have is whether the local church should be missional in ‘dimension’ only or also in ‘intention’—and what that would mean.  I fear that the Anglican Church in North America, formed in response to heresies in the Episcopal Church, is so concerned about right worship, doctrine, and ethics and for establishing itself through church planting in North America that it’s vision for intentional mission in fulfillment of the Great Commission is taking a back seat to the formation of its Evangelical identity.

Newbigin’s explanation entails some further points that need to be drawn out.  One distinction often made in mission circles is that between centripetal (pulling inward) and centrifugal (pushing outward) mission.  The Orthodox Church emphasizes the unity of the Church and the worship of the Church, thus placing an emphasis on centripetal missions.  Israel’s mission among the nations in the Old Testament is often depicted as centripetal.  The book of Acts, on the other hand, tells the story of the early Church in terms of centrifugal missionary activity.  Newbigin’s definition favours a centrifugal understanding: going ‘beyond the frontiers of its own life.’

At least since Lausanne I, an understanding of missions as holistic has dominated.  Holistic missions may be correct (after all, the word is ‘missions,’ not ‘mission’), but those analyzing the matter need to begin by realizing that there is great pressure to assume and affirm it.  In our Missions 101 course, we would want to examine its history and Biblical and theological arguments.  In fact, no student should graduate from any programme of study in an Evangelical college or seminary without an understanding of the remarkable history of the missionary movements in the Evangelical tradition.  In the prerequisite course of Church History 102 in the curriculum developed in these posts, students would have studied holistic, Evangelical mission alongside mass Evangelism movements in different periods from the Clapham community in England to the anti-slavery and prohibition movements in America to Neo-Evangelicalism and the Lausanne statements.  In Missions 101, they could study examples of holistic missions (e.g., the Salvation Army, mission agencies with long-standing, holistic emphases, such as SIM).[3] 

The mission course might also, however, critically examine whether holistic missionary emphases in Evangelicalism also place pressure on the Church to see everything as mission—and therefore nothing as uniquely mission.  The course might further engage questions of Church and society, exploring where the Church’s activism in holistic concerns simply becomes social activism per se.  And the course might valuably explore all this in terms of mission that seeks to make social change through institutions, operations (getting the task done apart from institutions), and intentional communities.[4]

I do not want to dispute this emphasis on holistic missions—or mission as transformation.  The Gospel is ‘good news’ not only because of the message but also because this message has to do with everything.  It is life-transforming.  It cannot be limited to proclamation: evangelism, teaching, and Bible translation.  The new community of God in Christ, the church, is more than a ‘preaching post,’ as someone once described a large, international church in Addis Ababa to me where I, too, used to preach on occasion.  (I had never heard that phrase before, but I have since seen it everywhere as churches understand themselves as a Sunday service first and a community second.)

Yet we must realize that holistic mission cannot—must not—undercut the proclamation of the Gospel that leads to transformed lives and established, mature churches in community after community.  Compassion ministries need to be Christ focussed (and not merely be acts of love without a witness—a point a ministry like Samaritan’s Purse tries to take seriously), and they must not replace or undermine efforts at mobilizing a force of disciple makers (‘make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you,’ Mt. 28.19-20).

True, to use Newbigin’s distinctions, certain activities with a missional dimension, such as compassion ministries, should not become manipulative, exercises of power serving a missional intention.  It is possible to give water in the name of Jesus or an apostle without forcing the faith down someone’s throat as well.  (And true Christian missionary activity is always a matter of witness and winsomeness and never coercive or manipulative behaviour.)  Conversion is never forced, and love is not love if it comes with strings attached.  That said, our various missions, our various activities with missional dimensions, need to cohere with the mission of the Church.  The Church’s missional intention is to bring the Gospel to the nations (Mk. 13.10; Mt. 24.10) that they may know Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2.2), the power of the resurrection (Phl. 3.10), confessing Him as LORD (Rom. 10.9), becoming like Him in their death that they might attain to the resurrection of the dead (Phl. 3.11).[5]

[1] Stephen Neill, Creative Tension (London: Edinburgh House Press, 1959), p. 81.
[2] Michael Goheen, Introducing Christian Mission Today: History and Issues (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), p. 82.
[3] In particular, students could read articles from the journal Transformation, an Evangelical-leaning journal for holistic mission published by the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies.
[4] For these categories, see my ‘Issues Facing Missions Today: 28. Three Models for Ministy.’
[5] A balance in our understanding of missions is important.  As Michael Goheen says, ‘A church that is not evangelizing and is unconcerned about missions to people who have never heard betrays the gospel.  A church that reduces mission to evangelistic activities narrows the scope of the gospel.  And at the same time it removes the full context in which witnessing words should find their place.  Each aspect needs the other.’  Ibid., p. 85.