For many Christians in the church today the term “missions” brings to mind fuzzy images of Caucasian Christians entering into jungles to give the Gospel to the unreached tribal peoples who live therein.
Mission isn’t something that the majority of Christians see themselves as being involved in apart from the occasional donation they might give to their church’s mission fund; instead, they see mission as the vocation of the few specially called individuals who dedicated their lives to taking the Gospel to unreached peoples. This is an unfortunate view to have of missions and a view that the church needs to work to correct.
If the church is to correct this it must first properly define mission and convey an understanding of its relation to the Gospel, afterwhich it can analyze how mission has been approached throughout history whether for good or bad, learning from those lessons and bringing into the church a more holistic missional theology such that all those who locate themselves within the body of Christ will understand their role in the mission of God.
A Biblical, Gospel-Centered Foundation of Mission
Along with the misconception that mission is a “West to the rest” endeavor for the specially called, there is the further misconception that mission – and indeed evangelism as a whole – is something that was started in the New Testament, when in fact “the source of world missionary activity is rooted in God’s call to the nation of Israel in the Old Testament.”
If the church is to gain a Biblically based and Gospel-centered theology and vision of mission, it must first understand what exactly mission is and where it began; this requires the Christian look to the Old Testament.
The concept of mission in the Old Testament goes as far back as Genesis. In Genesis God connects his blessing of Abram and of making Abram into a great nation with the good of the entire world. Abram is blessed by God “so that you will be a blessing” and “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” This theme is made clear again in Exodus 7:5 where it is stated that one goal of God’s actions in the exodus narrative was that “the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.” A key point of the Exodus then is that “in his mighty acts of salvation for his own people God makes himself known to the other nations.”
God’s actions towards His people are never for His people alone but also for the rest of the world, for “when God graciously saves his people, it is not only for their own sake; it is also for the sake of others.”
This key theme of the Old Testament – that God’s acts of salvation are God’s means of making himself known to the nations – is central for understanding mission because it both provides the Biblical foundation for mission as well as its Gospel center.
Firstly, this theme highlights the fact that mission is primarily God’s doing, that mission is primarily derived from God. As inspired by Karl Barth and articulated by David Bosch, this theme finds its outworking in the idea of the missio Dei, of God the Father sending the Son and the Holy Spirit, and all three sending the church; God is thus recognized as a missionary God, where the church is an instrument for that mission.
Indeed, the church is essentially missional and “mission is essentially ecclesial.” The result of this is a focus on the ecclesial nature of missions and the missional nature of the church, the two go hand in hand, with God’s hand being the one wielding them. They go hand in hand because the church is the visible incarnation of the kingdom of God on earth; He makes himself known not just for its own sake, but to expand His kingdom.
The church in this context is not merely a church building or the group of people that meet in that building, but is the entire body of Christ, the kingdom of God, all professing Christians.
Mission should therefore be seen primarily as the mission of the Triune God working through the instrument of his people – the church – to the end of blessing the nations and making Himself known to them via His acts of salvation to His people for the purpose of expanding his kingdom.
The greatest of these missional acts of salvation came in the form of Christ’s death on the cross, and it is through this that the missio Dei builds upon its Old Testament foundations to incorporate the message of the Gospel.
The Gospel is central to mission and mission is central to the Gospel, with the Gospel being the supreme message and means of God making Himself known to and blessing the world. God works through his people the church to achieve His missional ends and does so in two methods, via centripetal and centrifugal mission; that is, by the church drawing others into the fellowship through the witness of their lives and by actively expanding the church, both which serve to make the church into a “light for the nations,” or as Timothy Tennent puts it: “Missionaries are both bearers of a message and embodiments of that message.” The first of these is the practice of what Francis Schaeffer calls “an observable love” before “a watching world.”
By living a life of love toward God and neighbor, the church draws outsiders towards it. But the church is not merely meant to attract others to it, it is also meant to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” In breaking down this command it can be seen that it involves an outward thrust of ‘going’, that this going involves making disciples – a task that necessarily entails the spread of the Gospel message – and baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit, which is an act that necessarily involves the expansion of the church.
The way this works itself out practically for missions today must be analyzed, but it is helpful to first look at the ways which mission has been approached throughout Christian history and glean what lessons can be learned from those examples.
Mission Throughout History
Christian mission has been approached in a variety of ways by a variety of groups over the history of the faith and these approaches have had positive and negative qualities. In the earliest church mission based on the attractiveness of the local congregation and the individual Christian community. These were a group of people who differed from their culture in attractive ways such that “the exemplary moral lives of ordinary Christians stood out against the rampant immorality of Rome.”
After a few hundred years Christianity found itself accepted by the Roman empire, eventually even becoming the official religion of the empire, thereby ushering the long era known as Christendom.
As the church gained the power which came with being the official religion of the empire its focus shifted from one of missions to one of maintaining power; as the official cultural religion the need of standing out against the culture and of spreading the Gospel was seemingly lost.
In spite of this loss, Christendom did help to shape the cultural life of Europe for the better and when the monastic movements came about they worked to spread the Gospel message to the ‘barbarian’ people and also brought back some of the godly living which had attracted earlier cultures to the faith; their missional function was therefore not entirely intentional, but the way they lived their life made them attractive to those around them.
Around this same time but further to the East the Eastern Orthodox church took a different approach to missions, an approach which focused almost exclusively on the literal expansion of the church.
Because of this strong church-centeredness the Orthodox church came to equate the expansion of the church with the expansion of the kingdom, thus their missions were almost solely ecclesial; missions could not occur outside the established institutional church.
As Europe began to expand around the world Christendom entered into an age of colonialism. During this period “missions flowed along colonial lines.”
The primary focus was the Christianizing of native peoples (even if by force), and following the Reformation this Christianizing took on a highly individualistic aspect of focusing on the individual faith of each believer over and above institution of the church, specifically on the salvation of souls. On the whole, this created the sort of cross-cultural missions which focused on taking Christianity from the West to the rest of the world.
After hundreds of years of being tied to the ruling groups of Europe, Christianity became almost synonymous with European culture and with European political power. The result of this was a missionary endeavor which sought to transplant European culture onto other parts of the world, to “remake the world in their own image.”
As this era continued the Christian attitude toward missions took a number of different turns as more denominations and theological approaches came onto the scene. Missionary agencies came into being that would attempt to spread the Gospel around the world by preaching the word as well as by working to provide poverty relief and aid with other physical needs. This focus on physical needs grew in certain parts of the church and came to be known as the Social Gospel.
There are many lessons that can be learned from the history of Christian mission – some good and some bad – which can be used to craft a better approach towards mission today. These lessons should not be taken on their own, but should be woven into the Biblically grounded and Gospel-centered understanding of the missio Dei of the Triune God.
The missio Dei involves the Triune God using His people – the church – as His instrument for bringing the world into a knowledge of Himself. This is accomplished both through the centripetal and centrifugal action of God through His church, and it is through this lens that mission today must be undertaken.
First, the Triune God accomplishes His mission through the centripetal action of His church as its members live lives that are attractive to those outside.
This was a strong-point of mission in the early church and of mission in the monastic tradition; indeed, this is the mark of the Christian. This centripetal action is not merely passive, of refraining from doing certain things, but it is also active, of living out the love of God and of neighbor. It is this active aspect of mission that gave strength to the Social Gospel movement; part of the attractiveness of the Christian life is that the work Christians do for societal transformation by helping those who are in need.
This centripetal work therefore consists of living lives in obedience to the will of God, to include both refraining from sin as well as actively working to help the poor and needy.
Second, the Triune God accomplishes His mission through the centrifugal action of His church as its members actively go out and spread the Gospel of the kingdom – and thereby the church – around the world.
Merely avoiding sin and helping the needy is not sufficient for missions, the Gospel and the church should also be present, for it is Gospel that ultimately empowers the Christian to live the life described above and it is within the context of the kingdom – the church – that they are to live it, drawing others into that community.
Christians are called to spread the Gospel of the kingdom, a key part of which is the salvation of souls as highlighted by the Reformation theologians.
This salvation is not an individualistic salvation, but it is salvation into a community, into the kingdom of God, into the church (the body of Christ). With this in mind the Christian cannot focus on getting non-believers to accept Christ without also bringing them into the baptism of the institutional church family, for it is in this family that they are discipled and in which they grow in the faith. The importance of this is twofold.
First, mission is not merely the calling of a handful of exceptional people within the body of Christ, but it is instead the calling of every believer as members of the church. All Christians are called to live missional lives, to live centripetal lives that are are in keeping with God’s commands and which in turn will prove attractive to the outsider.
Second, mission should not be divorced from the church as an institution. It is this ecclesial church-planting focus that the Orthodox so rightly emphasized, for missions and the church are vitally linked. This is not to say that a group such as a missionary agency cannot spread the gospel, but it is not as effective as it could be if it were wedded with the church.
This salvation is furthermore a salvation from one kingdom and into another, which further highlights the reality of the spiritual. While part of missions is working to help the needy materially, this material aspect must be balanced with the spiritual aspect of the kingdom, of the salvation of souls along with the defeat of the kingdom of Satan. One failing of many of the mission endeavors throughout Christian history has been a downplaying of this spiritual reality. Even when they did manage to focus on the salvation of the soul they would often neglect the spiritual warfare.
It is of note here that little has been said of contextualization or of cross-cultural, international mission. The global church has arisen and missions can no longer be seen as a question of how those in post-Christendom Western society can reach the rest of the world.
The message of Christ is spread throughout the world and in turn mission and evangelism are becoming more synonymous.
Mission is a matter of leading lives representative of the Gospel, of spreading the church of the Triune God, and of teaching the Gospel which empowers those lives, which results in the spread of that church, and which results in the salvation of souls in the eschaton. Each group must decide how to incarnate the Gospel into the culture into which they are speaking regardless of whether they are ministering in China, Egypt, Russia, Mexico, Germany, or the United States.
Each mission field has its own cultural barriers and its own contexts that must be taken into account, and Christians cannot suppose that it is merely a matter of accommodating Western Christianity into some other context; to do so is to engage in ethnocentrism. Rather, each group must analyze their context and discern how best to engage the culture in which they minister. When this results in a Western Christian ministering to another culture, special care must be taken while teaching the doctrines of the Gospel and spreading the institutional aspect of the church that the Christian does not attempt to take the stance of superiority, but that they work as servants to the people they minister to, helping them to apply the truths of the Scripture to their native culture.
Whether interculturally or cross-culturally mission is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. As Stan Guthrie comments “There is no one way to ‘do’ missions in the local church, though there are many wrong ways.” It is up to each individual and each missional church body to discern how to apply the gospel to their own culture or to the culture of another, and when applying it to the culture of another they must always seek to do so in servant-hood to those they are ministering.