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Dispelling the myths & defining the task

By Mike Thornton.

Today we know more about the world than ever before. World issues are presented to us every day; children do projects on world issues at school; Fair Trade products are in the news and on our supermarket shelves; our televisions, radios and newspapers ‘show and tell’ to a degree that we can know more about far flung places and its people than we do about our neighbours. Online vehicles such as YouTube and Skype enable us to interact with people around the world in ‘real-time’. With this understanding and public interest, why then is world mission support and engagement in decline in our churches in the UK?

The reasons are legion and complex. The world is in a time of unprecedented and rapid change and so is the church – which is popularly renowned for its reluctance to accommodate change. What future is there for Christian mission to a staggering array of cultures and subculture in this fast changing world?

I propose that we look to build an understanding, and therefore a platform for action to reverse this trend, based on two foundations:

First, the Church needs to relate to the whole world biblically. Our church culture on world mission is linked to a recognition, but little understanding of, the Great Commission:

And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age." Matthew 28:18-20 (NRSV)

This is most commonly understood as Jesus’ final command (which it is), but less often in the context of it being a culmination of the whole revelation of a great rescue plan for human beings and our world, based on the character of God. This is God’s world, He made it and cares for it. We are to care for it, too, as God’s stewards, and we need to communicate the message of rescue and restoration to people everywhere. Even Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world, set his own mission in this context: to proclaim good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. It is the character of the God we love that should motivate us to reach out in love to our world. It is playing our part in his mission to the whole world. This is something that the church is starting to rediscover.

There has been a remarkable escalation in the use of the word mission both among Christians and in the secular environment of the Western world over the last couple of decades. Setting aside the secular adoption of the term, there has clearly been a broadening of the concept within the nomenclature of the church. Certainly until the sixteenth century, the Latin missio (from which we derive mission) was reserved for use with reference to the doctrine of the Trinity, for the sending of the Son by the Father, and the Holy Spirit by the Father and the Son, the missio Dei. Clearly mission was seen to be related to the doctrine of God rather than the doctrine of the Church, something which J G Davies, his 1966 publication, Worship and Mission, advocates as correctly still being the case today._ Yet while more recently there has been a subtle but nevertheless decisive shift back to an understanding of mission being primarily God’s mission, during the intervening centuries, mission was understood in a variety of ways. It was the Jesuits who first coined it in terms of the spread of the Christian faith among people who were not members of the Catholic Church.

The term mission which they adopted presupposes a sender, a person or persons sent by the sender, those to whom one is sent, and an assignment. Such terminology suggests that the one sending has the authority so to do. It is here that the biblical references cited at the beginning of this essay are used to argue that it is God who is the sender and he has indisputable authority to send people to execute his will. However, there are inherent difficulties which may arise, and indeed in the course of the last 200 years of ‘modern missions’ have indeed arisen, out of this shift in understanding:

First, mission can become defined by its object, the people to who the missionary is sent, or a geographical area. Here imperialism can arise - introducing people from the East and South to the blessings and privileges of the Christian West, rather than the subject of the mission who is the missionary God.

Second, mission can be defined by its targeted results rather than by its subject - the movement of God towards people. Such results can sometimes be interpreted primarily in soteriological terms – as saving souls or saving people from eternal damnation, it is very individualistic in focus rather than focusing on the purpose of God as the redemption of creation and so promoting the process of renewal and bringing into being a new creation. Mission is also often perceived in ecclesiastical terms: as the expansion of the Church and often a specific denomination, a form of proselytism which is accompanied by a very narrow view of who is and who is not a Christian. Sometimes mission is also seen as a form of protectionism against the forces of secularisation, a declaration of position with no possible room for any meaningful dialogue with those outside one particular worldview.

All these views of mission have led to a fairly circumscribed set of meanings for the term._ Such connotations attached to the word mission lead to a rather limited popular understanding of mission, even, or perhaps especially, within the local Church. In the last two hundred years of ‘modern missions’, mission has often simply been equated with evangelism, and the terms used interchangeably, often with a lack of depth to any understanding of the nature and scope of evangelism either. The Lausanne Covenant helps us by defining evangelism as:

... the proclamation of the historical, biblical Christ as Saviour and Lord, with a view to persuading people to come to him personally and be reconciled to God._

Newbigin advocates such a view, calling the gospel message an open secret which is to be proclaimed to all the world by those to whom it has been entrusted._

Evangelism is, by necessity, a more restricted word than mission, yet even here it is not to be misunderstood by merely equating proclamation with preaching. Sugden_ suggests there is a social dimension to evangelism and an evangelistic dimension to social action and social service, whereas Stott_ would differentiate the two, but claim that they are inseparably intertwined in mission. For Stott, to include anything more than these two elements would lead to all and nothing being missiological. He would exclude worship, for instance, from the missionary task. Others disagree and view mission more comprehensively, seeing it holistically. For example, Bosch advocates not delineating mission too sharply or too self-confidently as:

Ultimately, mission remains undefinable; it should never be incarcerated in the narrow confines of our own predilections. The most we can hope for is to formulate some approximations of what mission is all about._

Bearing in mind that the context in which he pens those words are his magisterial tome on the subject, they deserve some further consideration. Bosch’s interim definition sees evangelism as an essential dimension of mission.

His definition is more developed and helpful when placed in a local Church context:

Evangelism is the proclamation of salvation in Christ to those who do not believe in him, calling them to repentance and conversion, announcing forgiveness of sin, and inviting them to become living members of Christ’s earthly community and to begin a life of service to others in the power of the Holy Spirit._

Bosch fleshes out his holistic view of mission in a very compelling way by adding further dimensions. For him, Christian mission gives expression to the dynamic relationship between God and the world, particularly portrayed in and through the covenant people of Israel and then supremely through Jesus Christ. This is God’s self-communication. The Church participates in God’s mission to the world through a universal gospel, and this begins, not through the universal proclamation of the gospel, but the universality of the gospel it proclaims. The missionary task is as coherent, broad and deep as the need and exigencies of human life and has been formulated as the whole Church bringing the whole gospel to the whole world. He goes on to posit that this whole gospel is to affect the personal, social and material spheres of human life as well as the spiritual as people live in a series of integrated relationships wherein one area cannot be divorced from another anthropologically or sociologically. Implicitly then we may conclude that they cannot be divorced christologically either. Indeed, this must be concluded from his affirmation that mission is God’s yes to the world, although he is surprisingly restrictive in seeing this primarily in socio-political action through the efforts of the Liberation Theology in action today, to the exclusion of Charismatic or Pentecostal movement which has also had great missional effect.

As Bosch affirms, mission is also God’s no to the world – it is an engagement with the world which includes Christian opposition to it. This is supported in the so-called Sermon on the Mount with the injunction to be salt and light, salt being God’s no to the world, to arrest moral decay, and light, his yes, expressed through evangelism (Matthew 5.13-16).

Yet all of this is provisional as it is an act of faith. The church-in-mission may be described in terms of a sign that is a pointer, an example or model, and a sacrament in the sense of mediation or representation or anticipation. It is not identical with God’s reign yet not unrelated to it either. The church-in-mission seeks to faithfully articulate the missio Dei as it lives in the tension of having been called out of the world and sent into the world.

This considered definition of mission is helpful in dispelling the myths which have grown up around the term mission and so help us to define the task today. Clearly the concept of the missio Dei is essential to this understanding.

Nazir-Ali suggests that the missio Dei, the mission of God to the world, began at Creation as this was the start of God’s engagement with the world. Yet importantly he develops the theme:

The missio Dei then is not just about the Love of God bringing Creation into existence. It must also be about the redemption, restoration and, indeed, further development of human being and the world at large. The restoration is not to be seen, in either case, as a return to some primaeval perfection but rather to a wholeness which makes further development possible... A God who communicates is central to the Bible’s presentation of the missio Dei.

The reality that mission is holistic and not restricted to evangelism alone has been a concept adopted by many modern mission agencies. International development has been seen as an important task for the Christian engaging in God’s mission today. Indeed, some agencies primary focus has become such development – the provision of education and healthcare for instance. While this is an expression of God’s love for his world and his people, it is only part of his story and his hope for his world. In John 6, the Bread of Life discourse, Jesus clearly provides for the physical needs of the people, but goes on to say that this is not his full intention: he also wants to provide for the spiritual nourishment.

A mix of development and evangelism is surely the holistic mission that we see God himself revealing to us in Jesus. This is the mission he invites us to participate in today. But how do we engage the local church in this?

There is clearly a need for some organisational reordering! This is not, I hope, shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic, but effectively organising ourselves to enable more Christians engage in God’s mission to the world. We have seen a transition from missionary societies to mission agencies over the last twenty years or so. This has facilitated people supporting particular projects rather the all embracing missionary society and has seen mission become task-orientated rather than mission family orientated where you became part of a close spiritual family – for life.

This has had its pros and cons but I will not rehearse them here, as we are moving towards a new model for mission, one of “world consultancies”. Looking ahead to the next twenty years, I suspect churches will look for partners to help them develop and deliver their response to a world in need; churches will look for partners to help them fulfil their world mission mandate. This will be a more service-orientated approach.

Mission agencies will need to be positioned to provide this support to local churches and be able to provide training in the church’s context, be it for leaders and/or members of our congregations. Increasingly, local churches are seeking to follow this up with the opportunity to engage in world mission – both by partnering Christian nationals working in their own countries and by ‘going’ – by taking part as a volunteer on a mission trip with a choice of tasks from painting a dormitory for released slave women to teaching in a school in the bush, and even to teaching pastors or preaching in local churches.

Many churches are looking for such partnerships and equally mission agencies are waking up to this new opportunity to inspire a new generation to engage with God’s world using their own gifts, skills and resources. Perhaps we are learning to take the whole gospel to the whole world once again and the decline in mission support and engagement is in the process of being reversed…

Quotations and further reading

Davies, J.G., Worship and Mission, SCM Press, 1966

See Bosch, D.J., Transforming Mission, p.1 - for comprehensive list of ways the term has been used since the Jesuits first coined it.

Lausanne Covenant, paragraph 4.

Newbigin, L., The Open Secret, p. 37

Sugden, C., Evangelism and the Poor

Stott, J., Christian mission in the modern world & Issues Facing Christians Today

Bosch, D.J., Transforming Mission, p 11

Bosch, D.J., Transforming Mission, p 10

As pointed out by Shenk in Mission in Bold Humility, chapter 7.

Nazir-Ali, M., From Everywhere to Everywhere, p. 10

Mike Thornton

Baptist minister

Ministry Today

You are reading Dispelling the myths and defining the task by Mike Thornton, part of Issue 61 of Ministry Today, published in August 2014.

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