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  • Writer's pictureBradley Bell

Toward a Better Definition of Missions

Not long ago I had a conversation with the editorial director of one of today’s most highly trafficked Christian websites. I thanked him for all the great content, but asked why there was so little related to global missions. His response?

Honestly, most of the missions writing we receive is so guilt-driven that we can’t use it.

I couldn’t have been more sad. Because it couldn’t have been more true.

Over the years I have spent hours, sometimes days, immersed in missiological content. Occasionally, those days in the office have left me more weary than a five-day Sub-Saharan trek. Why? Because I’ve imbibed so many explicit and implicit ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ that my soul has started to heed them. Later, at the dinner table, when my wife asks, “How was your day?” I stare absently at the wall, obediently recounting to myself how I once again failed to contribute enough to the mission of God.

Let me give you an example. A few years ago I came across an article titled, “Dear Church, Missions is Not For Your Own Discipleship. It’s a pretty typical missions article, providing a biblical basis for missions, some missions history, and the importance of unreached people groups. Ultimately, it addresses common practices in short-term mission trips, many of which truly are legitimate problems. However, consider with me some of the article’s underlying messages:

For centuries, missions was a lifetime and sobering commitment…But suddenly we are living in a world where travel abroad is accessible and easy…Unfortunately, because of the accessibility, and because of our narcissistic culture, these short-term mission trips – and consequently long-term missions have become a “discipleship tool” for the Church.

Do some churches misuse today’s global accessibility? Yes. But what’s the subtle message? Something like this: ‘The good ol’ days of missions has passed, and the church has given in to narcissism.’

Let’s look at another example. The writer continues,

I have heard mission agencies, pastors and parents say, “We pray that our people (or students) will be changed” by going on this trip.  (The prayer factor makes it sound more spiritual.)  Their goal in missions is to make us more “thankful for what we have” and to disciple the short-term missionaries.

Do some people think that being more thankful for what they have is an appropriate response to missions experiences? Yes. But I struggle to hear the argument over the tone of the writing. It says to me, ‘Praying for people to be changed through missions is insignificant; we only do that to sound spiritual anyway.’

Consider this weighty sentence as well:

These millions of people will die and go to Hell unless someone goes to tell them the Gospel.

Do we need to be reminded of the urgent need of unreached people to hear the gospel? Absolutely! But my zeal to set sail was ironically immobilized by this undercurrent: ‘Unless you go and tell people the gospel, they will go to hell and it will be your fault; their salvation depends on you.’

And finally, let me highlight one more quote from the article. The writer offers this important definition:

Missions as a whole is the endeavor to glorify God by obeying the Great Commission by crossing cultures and language to make disciples of all nations.

Does missions include glorifying God by obeying the Great Commission? No doubt about it. But I can’t shake the (likely unintended) subliminal message. It goes, ‘Missions is all about God and lost people, and it has little or nothing to do with you besides being obedient.’

‘What?!’ you might say. ‘Brad, how did you get something like that from a simple definition of missions? You’re putting words in the author’s mouth!’ I confess, it may well be a stretch. But it sure sounds a lot like the title of the article:

Dear Church, missions is not for your own discipleship.

The use of guilt to drive missions motivation is obviously concerning to me. As pastor Jason Seville said, “Where do we get off with such pessimism and discouragement?” However, more grievous to me is the the root from which it all grows. I think it’s a misunderstanding so firmly planted that we could look at a definition of missions like the one above and nod in agreement, all the while failing to see a monstrous hole. What exactly is that hole?

Yes, missions is glorifying God by obeying the Great Commission. But it’s also glorifying God by being conformed to the image of Christ. Just as God’s mission is two-armed, by the Son and through the Spirit, its purpose is also two-fold: the nations’ gospel obedience to Christ and the church’s spiritual formation in Christ. They both bring glory to God. They carry equal significance. They deserve intentional distinction, yet they can’t be separated.

If this were not true, if missions really wasn’t about our own discipleship, I believe God would have chosen to accomplish it entirely on his own. Why use human messengers at all if the sole purpose of his mission is to reach the nations? But instead, he redeems and sends fragile men and women. Why? So that some among the nations will marvel and be saved, but also so that those jars of clay, his bride, will concurrently grow into the fullness of Christ.

If this is true, then it has substantial implications for the practice of missions. But for today, I’d be satisfied with just a little tidying of the language of missions. The church is God’s holy means for fulfilling the mission, and the mission is God’s holy means for maturing the church. As such, there is no need to spew guilt, only gospel.

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