What is mission all about?

The Grove Evangelism series is taking a slight change of direction by incorporating thinking about mission into its agenda of practical evangelism, working in partnership with CMS. As part of this, the latest title is an exploration of mission and evangelism from a theological perspective. It is written by Tim Naish, who teaches at Ripon College Cuddesdon, having himself had a range of mission experience. Tim begins with an exploration of biblical terms—starting by noting that ‘mission’ is not one of them!

Broadly speaking, there are two ways of beginning to explore the meanings of words: their derivation and history, or their present use. One reasonable place for Christians to start down the former path is with the Bible. However, looking at three representative modern English translations, we nd the word ‘mission’ only once in each: in the NRSV and NIV at Acts 12.25, and in the New Jerusalem Bible at Acts 20.24. In all three cases it translates the Greek word diakonia (elsewhere usually rendered as ‘ministry’ or ‘service’).

So if the word is not itself biblical, one possible next step is to ask whether the concepts associated with its derivation are represented in Scripture. The ‘word’ mission in English derives from the Latin noun missio, for which the least controversial single-word translation is ‘sending.’ And yes, there is plenty of sending in the Bible, especially in the New Testament. There, we find two common Greek verbs for ‘send’ which equate to the Latin verb of which missio is the noun form: namely pemp? and apostell?. These are both widely used and are especially important in the Gospel of John. Apostell? is also very significant for Paul—you can see that the English word ‘apostle’ derives from it. However, neither is used in the form of a noun that quite equates to ‘mission.’

Nonetheless, we can start to ask how adequate the notion of ‘sending’ is as a basis for clarifying what we mean by mission. Jesus ‘sends’ (apostell?) both the twelve in Luke 9.2 and the seventy (or seventy-two) in Luke 10.1. The end of Matthew’s gospel, often called the ‘Great Commission,’ does not use either sending verb, though Jesus’ injunction to ‘Go on your way and baptize…’ seems to imply it. In John, the sending verbs are applied primarily to Jesus himself, although disciples are also in some cases ‘sent.’ A good candidate for the clearest instance of the establishment of Christian sending is when Jesus hands on his own ‘sentness’ to his followers after his resurrection in John 20.21—‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’

This verse and many others do convey a strong sense of the sending both of Jesus and of his followers. And this is true especially of Saul of Tarsus, for whom the conviction that he is apostolos, a ‘sent one,’ seems central to his new identity in Christ as Paul (Rom 1.1 etc). We need to be aware that Paul in his le ers, perhaps rather surprisingly, does not use the noun or the verbs of sending, in any significant way, of other Christians. Nonetheless, it is something of this New Testament sense that followers of Jesus Christ are people who have been sent that has come to be crystallized in English over the last three hundred years or so in the word ‘mission’ in Christian vocabulary.

Tim then explores some of the key ideas in contemporary thinking about mission, including of course the notion of missio Dei, the conviction that mission is something that first is an activity of God, and then only derivatively an activity of Christians or the church. This has a significant impact on how we understand the goal of mission.

What missio Dei is emphasizing is that the church is a secondary goal in God’s longing. The primary goal is what Jesus in the first three gospels means by ‘the kingdom.’ And we might add that it also comes close to what the fourth gospel means by ‘life’ (or ‘life in all its fullness’). God has a purpose, which is the kingdom, or heaven, or life, or salvation, or (to use biblical phrases rather than single words), ‘the reconciliation of all things’ (cf Col 1.20), or ‘the creation itself being set free from its bondage to decay and obtaining the freedom of the glory of the children of God’ (cf Rom 8.21). The church is brought into being through Jesus the Christ as a step towards that goal.

It follows that when Christian mission is construed, as it often is, as ‘work to expand the church’ (there are many other similar ways of putting it), there is an element to that which is justi ed, but also a great danger. This danger is when we see the expansion primarily in institutional terms, as though what God is interested in is more people within the churches’ orbit (what is often half-jokingly referred to as ‘bums on pews’). If on the other hand we mean by ‘the expansion of the church’ more people catching the vision of a transformed way of being, then we may be justified, so long as we are clear that this way of being is what God longs for all that he has made. In many of Jesus’ characteristic words and attitudes in the gospels there are reminders to us of the dangers of too great a focus on the church: ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven…’ (Matt 7.21).

Tim then goes on to explore the importance of Trinitarian thinking in mission—but manages to avoid some of the simplistic assumptions, and instead sees how this offers a holistic and relational approach to mission. The third area explored here is the Five Marks of Mission that grew from discussion in the Anglican Consultative Council. But the most distinctive aspect of Tim’s study here is when he moves on to look at the place of evangelism in mission—and the fact that (contrary to erroneous memes about St Francis not needing to use words!) evangelism is a vital and essential part of mission.

Within the total pattern of engagement with the world around us, which is our mission (because it is God’s mission), the word ‘evangelism’ expresses the dimensions of our being, doing and speaking that specifically explain and account for our life in terms of our faith in Jesus Christ. Because ‘explaining and accounting for’ are primarily verbal activities, in defining evangelism the ‘speaking’ element tends to come to the fore, over and above the ‘being and doing.’ But one intention of my argument to this point is to make clear that there is an integrity to discipleship that warns against thinking too simply of ‘evangelism’ as words and ‘mission’ as action and being.

The thread that runs through and unites is one of transformation. This is God’s desire. The transformation is both personal and more than personal. It has been too common to put all the emphasis on one or the other: some parts of the church have argued (explicitly or otherwise) that all our effort has to be put on changing individual hearts, souls and lives, because only when a life is changed can it begin to make a wider difference; others have argued that all our energy has to go into social engagement because only when contexts are changed can lives begin to be transformed…

What helps us towards a unity of vision that holds together our desires to see both individual lives and the life of society transformed? Above all, thinking, speaking of and practising mission in ways that remain focused on God’s ultimate desire and goal, however we choose to express that. For example, the reconciliation of all things in Christ, the kingdom of God, that all should be saved, a new heaven and a new earth. (The theological word for this is an eschatological focus.) Keeping this focus is hard. It is painfully easy when the church is struggling with numbers or finances (or both) to see our goal as the strengthening—or just the survival—of the institution. We fail to see the wood for the trees.

Tim’s final section is on missional engagement and contextualisation, and the relation of mission to worship. This booklet gives an excellent overview of the key issues, and so I think will become a standard introduction to those beginning to study theology for ministry. But it is written in such an accessible way that I think it ought to become standard reading for all those involved in (lay) leadership in the local church—it connects different aspects of mission and evangelism in such helpful ways. Buy a copy for every member of your PCC, church council or leadership team! (And don’t be put off by the word ‘theological’!)

Copies of Mission and Evangelism: a theological introduction can be ordered for £3.95 post-free (for UK delivery) from the Grove web site.

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8 thoughts on “What is mission all about?”

  1. In many of Jesus’ characteristic words and attitudes in the gospels there are reminders to us of the dangers of too great a focus on the church: ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven…’

    Really? A warning about focusing on the church too much? The church hadn’t been established.

    Of course it’s a mistake to think our role is maintaining an institution, but we’ll only make that mistake if we have a weak ecclesiology. The solution is to think about the church more, (and more clearly), not less.

    I don’t understand the view that opposes church and mission, as though emphasising one somehow weakens the other. Of course the goal is the Kingdom, and the church is the signpost and the foretaste. If we want the Kingdom to come, don’t we need the most visible signpost and the sweetest foretaste?

    • Thanks Bill. We need to note that ‘church’ means for us something different from ‘church’ in the NT; ekklesia was about the gathering of citizens (Greek) or the ‘congregation’ of Israel (Hebrew qohel). Institutional overtones come later.

      I would agree with your poetic exhortation about visible signposts and sweetest foretastes (a lovely phrase!) but too often the goal of mission is seen as *only* about reversing numerical decline of the institution…

  2. I’m always interested in how little Paul says about evangelism or proclamation, as something that the recipients of his letters should do. They are told to be, to love, to rejoice, to be steadfast etc, but almost never to be verbal witnesses. He seems to think that’s his job, for which they should pray!

    • That’s an interesting observation! I would want to put that alongside the evidence of Acts that Christians spoke about their faith wherever they went, and Peter’s encouragement to ‘always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in you.’

      Perhaps they didn’t need encouraging to speak because they already did it..?!

  3. I teach at Redcliffe College (a college focusing on mission) and applaud Ian’s blog. Its not easy to condense such important issues down and yet do justice to the whole

    I want to pick up on the place of Proclamation that Penelope raises above. Again, its not and either/or situation. I’ve sat in interagency mission strategy meetings where a speaker said “acts of mercy are a distraction to what we are trying to say.” On the other hand we have people saying “preach the Gospel, and use words if you have to”. Both are half truths. In all we say and do, we should be looking to help God’s kingdom unfold here on earth. How can we not speak and do?

    My understanding is that the Greek word “koinonia” that we so coyly translate as “fellowship” (a jargon word only found in churches and of no earthly use outside of that, [Tolkein excepted]), would have been used in Paul’s day to mean “business partnership”. (Ian, I’d be interested to know your take on this thought). Of course, most businesses were family businesses headed by the father with extended family involved. This senses of being on family business in all we say and do, for me, captures what we are about. What business doesn’t tell people about itself? What business doesn’t deliver on what it says. God’s business does both.

    • Colin, thanks. Yes, I would agree with you that koinonia has a much stronger sense than we allow for it.

      Hope you can make good use of the booklet in teaching—it seems to me to be an excellent primer….

  4. What fascinated me increasingly as we used the sending out of the seventy (two) in Luke at every diocesan meeting in our recent vacancy in see was that jesus didn’t say “stock up your backpacks and go out and offer the villages your hospitality” but the exact opposite in some ways — “go out with no backpack and receive the villages’ hospitality. Should it not be forthcoming, maintain your clarity about the kingdom and move on.. Implications?

    • Alan, yes quite right. Two challenging elements: first, allow those you preach to to serve you in practical ways; second, tell them clearly that if they do not respond, they face the judgement of God.


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