I’ve been on a quest lately to trace the roots of the words we use when talking about mission. You know, like the difference between “mission” and “missions.” I’ve written quite a bit about my frustration with poorly-defined, extrabiblical words like “reach” (as in, “reaching the unreached”) and “complete” (as in, “We can complete the Great Commission in our lifetime!”).
Another such word is “missionary.” Obviously, a missionary is someone who has a mission. Being rooted in Latin, the word itself is not found in scripture, but we do see the term apostle (meaning “sent-one”) used in multiple ways that inform our understanding of missionary. In every use, it conveys a sense of sent-ness under the authority of the sender.
What I’ve found is the widespread conflation of three related uses of apostle: the New Testament office of Apostle with missionary gifting and the role of missionary.
The Apostles were the original Twelve disciples of Jesus minus Judas, plus his replacement Matthias, and also Paul. Because they had spent lots of time with Jesus, they were established by the early church as authorities on Christ’s teachings. Of course, these Apostles all died long ago, so we depend on the Scriptures (the New Testament being largely written by Apostles) as our authority on Christ’s teachings.
The “apostolic gifting” is something that is mentioned in Paul’s outline of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 and in Ephesians 4. Paul doesn’t define these gifts, but he does mention in Ephesians 4:12 that they exist “ for the training of the saints in the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ.” Today, apostolic gifting is commonly understood to be that God-given desire and ability to cross cultures and start ministry in new places.
It’s important to note that while the gifts included in Paul’s list–apostle, prophets, evangelists, teachers, and preachers–are not necessarily given to all believers, the resulting activity of these gifts are expected to be practiced by all of God’s people in some form or another. All Christians should regularly share their faith (evangelism), teach the scriptures (teaching), and proclaim truth (preaching) in some fashion.
Which brings us to the last but most common use of the word, apostle; the role of missionary. Missionaries are those who have been sent out on mission. Regardless of your gifting, if you’ve been sent, you are a missionary. Paul demonstrates this understanding of the word “apostle” by using it to refer to people who neither walked with Jesus (Titus, Epaphriditus, Andronicus, Junia) nor had the gifting of apostle (Barnabas). In Scripture, we find multiple instances of Christ commissioning His people on His mission.
- “As the Father has sent me, I also send you.” John 20:21
- “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 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, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:19-20
- “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8
Of course, you may not be a very good missionary (which is to be expected when leaders in the missions community keep telling you that only those who travel to faraway people are, in fact, missionaries). In this case, you would do well to seek out someone with apostolic gifting. Follow them around for a while. Ask them questions. Learn from them.
God’s mission is too important to be left to the professionals. As God’s people, we have all been sent.
So mission will not end when the last of the people groups is reached. We are not sent because of the temporary need in the world (which is indeed great!) because God is a sending God and He is glorified in our obedience. We must recognize that mission is the very nature of God and the basis of our relationship to Him. Mission isn’t a task to be finished, it’s our identity in Christ.
E. Goodman, The Anthropological Approach to Missions
Mission did not begin with the the Great Commission, nor with our modernistic interpretation of people groups in the 1970′s. Mission is the movement of God. It will not end when all the “unreached” have been “reached,” or when the “unengaged” have been “engaged” (and none of those words are biblical). No, mission will end when we are gathered around the throne, worshiping at the foot of the Most High God.
“Unfortunately, there is a danger that in the expression, “the whole church taking the whole gospel to the whole world” turns the church into nothing more than a delivery mechanism for the message. All that matters is “getting the job done”– preferably as soon as possible. And sadly, there are some forms of missionary strategy and rhetoric that strongly give that impression.
“The Bible, in stark contrast, is passionately concerned about what kind of people they are who claim to be the people of God. If our mission is to share good news, we need to be good news people. If we preach a gospel of transformation, we need to show some evidence of what transformation looks like.”
The Mission of God’s People
Every time I dip my toe into the social media stream I’m faced with it: Christians fixated on sin. They complain about the evils of American culture. They wring their hands over encroachments on our rights. They decry rampant moral decay. “It’s bad out there!” they shout. “We’re losing ground!” they warn. Of course, they’re right. The world, including the United States of America, is hopelessly lost without Jesus.
Unfortunately, complaining about your mission field is an especially unmissionary thing to do. It shows that there are still many influential American Christian leaders who mistakenly see themselves as “at home” rather than in the sinful, gospel-impoverished, ends of the earth.
When a missionary arrives on the field to make disciples among an African tribe, he doesn’t complain about their lostness. He does something about it by sharing the good news through word and deed. To do anything otherwise would be like complaining about a dead man’s rotting corpse. Sin is the the disease, both the cause and the symptom– and it’s the reason we’ve been sent as agents of God who heals by forgiving.
A few weeks ago, Trevin Wax wrote a post on his blog at The Gospel Coalition about his Observations about Younger Southern Baptists. In it, he wrote:
When I talk with younger Southern Baptists, I get the impression that the landscape has shifted to the point they expect to be a minority. Therefore, the strategy becomes more about preserving space for Christian morality and less about enshrining our views in law. This is a generalization, but I think there’s truth here: Older Southern Baptists are more likely to see the U.S. as Israel. Younger Southern Baptists are more likely to see the U.S. as Babylon. That’s a significant shift, and it leads to a different tone.
This well-written observation of Trevin’s is exactly right, and while he attributes the shift as haven to do with generational differences, it’s really about mission. These “younger” Southern Baptists (and many more from other traditions,) are doing a better job of thinking and acting like missionaries than their forebears. They recognize that as Christians, even if we were the social or political majority, we are necessarily outsiders. When you get this, living on mission becomes obvious. When you don’t, you miss the trees for the forest, the fish for the water; or, in this case, the sinner for the sin.
Of course there is a place for calling sin what it is. There’s a need for the prophetic. But focus solely on sin, and you only reinforce the perception that Christianity is nothing more than a list of things to do and hate. You build an isolationist faith that is contradictory to the nature of our life in the Sent Son.
We are not at home, brothers. It’s time we started acting like it.
Those involved in Christian missions tend to be two-dimensional thinkers. They look at a map, see all of the “unreached people groups,” and then look for ways to reach them. This is, of course, an over-simplified view of how societies group themselves and how transformational information spreads from one group to another.
The generation gap, for example, adds a dimension to mission among people groups. Consider, for a moment, the great distance between generations within any given group of people. Humanity has always noticed a “gap” between older and younger members of society. The old are concerned that the young are disrespectful, irresponsible, and foolish. The young, on the other hand, see the old as closed-minded, controlling, and irrelevant. Technology, globalization, and changing social norms make the gap wider with each new generation. My point is this: what may, at a glance, appear to be one single “people group,” may actually be a deeply divided set of peoples who have only their ancestry in common.
Mission must take the generation gap into consideration. As it turns out, the younger generations of people groups may have much more in common, and may indeed maintain a greater level of shared culture than they do with their own elders.
Of course, generations aren’t the only additional dimensions to mission. New people groups, as I’ve written before, are emerging faster than we can engage established ones. Urban tribes are largely ignored by our current mission strategies, and we haven’t even begun to prepare for ministry among virtual social groups.
The truth is, people are connected meaningfully in multiple ways and at multiple levels. For us to be good missionaries, we must understand this and organize appropriately.
For starters, we need to promote diversity among mission teams. It won’t do to send three young couples and consider a group “engaged.” In order to address the generation gap (and to infuse a bit of wisdom into the situation,) we need many more mature adults on mission. Likewise, we need a diversity of life stages, experience, skills, and spiritual gifting on the teams we send.
We live in a complex world. In order to be good missionaries, we cannot afford a simplistic view of people groups.
If a neighbor were to approach you with an urgent personal message (that your house was on fire, for example), you probably wouldn’t pause to vet the credibility of the person who communicated that message. The urgency of the matter and the risk of not believing the news would far outweigh the desire to consider the trustworthiness of the messenger.
If a handsome gentleman personally delivered a handwritten note warning you of the importance of saving for retirement (let’s put this in the “personal but not urgent” category), you may save the note for later, but you’re not likely to act immediately on this information. For most of us, retirement isn’t a pressing matter, and while you may appreciate the effort that was put into the handwritten note, you just can’t be bothered to think about the future right now.
If a hurried man rushed up to you with a message that was less personal and less urgent (say, that your taxes may increase if this Fall’s ballot measure passes), you’re much more likely to be dismissive of that message. Mostly because your brain is full of more pressing matters at the moment, but also because who is this guy, anyway?
In these situations, the recipient’s understanding and acceptance of the message depends on a number of factors: who the messenger is nature of the message itself, and how the news is delivered.
When it comes to evangelism, Christians tend to focus on these things. We work hard to build and maintain a certain level of credibility so as not to undermine our message. Lately, pastors spend lots of time insuring that their people understand what the message is in the first place. We often concentrate on methodologies that might maximize our effectiveness. This is all well and good; as communicators of the gospel, we should be aware of who we are, what we say, and how we say it.
But there is one important factor in our mission of communicating the Good News that we often overlook. This isn’t a new problem, as even the very early Christians needed to constantly be reminded of it. The funny thing is that in communication, it may very well be the most important factor of all.
The urgency of our message is vital to our communication of it. When we reduce the gospel to something less pressing, we imply that it is less important. “Just give it some thought” we say, as if Christ’s call to repentance were like buying a timeshare in Florida.
Now, to be clear, the urgency in our message isn’t solely based on the fact that Jesus could return at any time. That’s too abstract a thought for most. No, our urgency is based on something that everyone wrestles with every day: time.
Justification in Christ isn’t like a layaway plan, it’s immediate. In this day of instant gratification, why should anyone waste time drifting without life, hope, meaning, and purpose when he can find them in Jesus today?
In communication, there are two important concepts with implications for mission. Translation and transliteration.
Translation is the act of rendering a thought from one language into another. This is done in the delivery of a message from speakers of one language to speakers of another language.
I’ve often given my definition of the mission of God’s people as, “translating the universal, unchanging gospel of Christ into dynamic, fallen, culture.” I think it stands as a good definition and word picture of our efforts in mission.
For a translator to communicate a message across language barriers, he must be fluent in both the language from which the message originates and the language into which the message is being translated. Remember the sign language interpreter for the Nelson Mandela memorial who apparently didn’t know sign language? The deaf could not understand what was said during the service because the translator didn’t actually know sign language and therefore wasn’t able to, well, translate.
Translation requires more than just technical knowledge of both languages. It also requires that the translator be able to think in both languages well enough to communicate meaning in a way that is, um, meaningful. This is why Google Translate doesn’t make Bible translators obsolete– translators look beyond the words of ancient Greek to the meanings of the scriptures.
If the translator is not able to think in both languages, the best he can do is transliterate. Transliteration is the conversion of a word from the alphabet of one language into another. For example, if we were to transliterate the Russian phrase in the image (written in Russian’s cyrillic alphabet), into English, it would become “ya tebya lyublyu.” But this string of letters from the English alphabet are nonsense unless we have some proficiency with the Russian language. We could then translate the phrase into the English language as, “I love you.” (At least I think that’s what it means.)
We do this a lot in Christianity. Transliteration is why the word “angel” brings to mind naked babies with wings rather than royal emissaries. It’s why we call designated stewards in our churches “deacons,” and why no churches are called “First Immersion Church.” We’re left to differentiate between Apostles and apostles. Don’t even get me started on “amen” (the ancient word for “this prayer is over”).
Adopting these words from ancient Greek instead of translating them into English has created several problems for us. Firstly, we’re using words we don’t otherwise use in our everyday language. Secondly, it puts us in the position of having non-academics wrestle over the meaning of words from a language they don’t speak. Thirdly, because we never bothered to translate these words, we put off the burden of translation to those who come after us. Ultimately, these words lose real meaning and become shorthand for a learned sentiment that we’re unable to communicate to outsiders.
If we continue with my definition of the church’s mission as cultural translation of the gospel, we can see that much of what happens in “mission” is actually transliteration of the gospel– technically, we’ve imported Christianity into local “languages and dialects” (or cultures and subcultures), but all we’ve really done is take our words and put them in their alphabets.
Transliteration in mission means planting churches that aren’t connected to the everyday lives of those among whom we minister. Rather than think deeply about the gospel, we force them to depend on us for the meanings behind what we do. Sure we may make disciples in this way, but we only end up putting off the development of truly indigenous believers, instead making confused converts who then have a difficult time relating to their lost friends.
Translation of the gospel into culture is never “finished.” It’s the ongoing work of God’s people. This is the mission of the church. We must fight the temptation to simply transliterate the gospel because it’s more than a string of words; it’s Good News for all men of every tribe, tongue, and nation!
Mission is overcoming distance.
Sin separates people from God. This is a spiritual distance that leaves men, women, and children without hope. The Father overcame this distance by living among us and defeating sin through His life, death, and resurrection. God’s people join His mission in overcoming the spiritual distance by proclaiming the Good News for the nations.
Mission also faces the problem of physical distance. It requires overcoming the geographical barriers that separate God’s people from the rest of the world. How can they call upon Him if they haven’t heard? How will they hear unless someone proclaims? Who will proclaim unless they are sent? In order to make disciples, we must go. Sometimes this means getting on a plane, but opportunities to close the physical distance are all around us. We cannot join God’s mission and stay at home.
Which brings us to another distance that must be overcome: cultural. Oftentimes, “the nations” are right next door. Yet because of values, language, and worldview, we face difficulty in relating to people who are different. Cultural distance keeps “Unreached People Groups” being names on a list instead of being our friends, coworkers, and neighbors. Our obedience requires that we move beyond “us” and “them” and into discipling relationships.
In Jesus’ time, social distance was the difference between the “woman at the well” and a Samaritan. Today, it’s the difference between seeing people as “Illegals” and recognizing them as “Lost Treasure.” Social distance is crossed when God’s people deliberately move out of the comfort of homogeneity to live among those who do not share our privilege, advantage, means, or perspective.
Mission cannot be done remotely. There is much distance to be overcome. But as God’s sent-out-ones, we must cross spiritual, physical, cultural, and social barriers with the gospel. This is the mission of the church, and if you’re not involved, you’re not a true disciple of Jesus.
Missiology in the first instance is not preoccupied with the question of what the truth is, but with the secondary question of how we are to present that truth about Christ. How are we to speak the truth about Christ in such a way that the gospel is comprehensible to its hearers? I might indicate in this connection that evangelization struggles with the same complexities. For, in the western world today, unchristian opinions and tendencies are certainly beginning to be seen in more audacious and flagrant forms, with the result that the difference between missions and evangelism is shriveling. In both terms, at issue is the demand to preach Christ relevantly and compellingly to people who do not know the one who is the Light of our light and the Life in our lives. The way of posing the issue in missiology is not the same as it is for dogmatic theology. For missiology, it is not about summarizing synthetically the truth of Scripture as that is mirrored in the church’s confession. Nor is it about apologetics, although missiology must often sharply and clearly expose the errors of false religion and ward off all the attacks concentrated against the gospel. But all of this is simply provisional and not yet its actual task. The essential task of missiology is missional. As soon as the church moves from a defensive posture concerning unbelief and superstition and assumes the offensive position of positively proclaiming the gospel, it unavoidably faces the weighty issue of the form in which the gospel must be rendered.”
Bolt, John (2013-06-03). The J. H. Bavinck Reader (p. 116). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
I often hear well-intentioned people equate The Great Commission with the Church’s role in God’s global mission. That is to say, they see “go and make disciples of all nations” as defining the mission of the church today. This view of mission, however, is incomplete. Jesus’ instructions to the 150 or so disciples who were present to watch Him ascend into heaven certainly apply to the church today, but it isn’t the entirety of our mission on this earth.
Let me explain:
Throughout the scriptures, God interacts with humans by sending them to accomplish His purposes. He rarely just pops into human history simply to say hello. He sends His people.
- “Go to the land I will show you” (Genesis 12:1)
- “Go and speak to the house of Israel” (Ezekiel 3:1)
- “Who shall I send? And who will go for us?” (Isaiah 6:9).
- “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you” (Jonah 1:2; 3:1)
- “Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves” (Luke 10:3)
The problem is that God send so often, we have to determine when He was sending all Christians for all times in all places, and when He was simply talking to an individual person. At times, God sent individuals (and sometimes groups) to do specific things in His name. In Luke 10, He sent 72 of His followers ahead of Him. In Luke 19, He commanded a couple disciples to borrow a colt for His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. While we recognize the broader application and meaning of these “commissions,” we don’t necessarily interpret these commands as being universal. The question is this: was Jesus speaking to the universal church when He commanded His disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations?” The answer, of course, is yes. And no.
As Christopher Write points out in “The Mission of God’s People,” there’s little evidence that the Great Commission served as the primary motivator of the early church’s missionary expansion. In fact Jesus’ words in Matthew 28 aren’t referred to again in the New Testament.
So there must have been something else that compelled (and propelled) God’s people to deliberately cross cultures with the gospel. They certainly went out boldly proclaiming Christ– most of the apostles were killed for talking about Jesus.
Wright asserts that the “something else” was the early church’s understanding of who they were as God’s people. The disciples knew God’s story, and the Great Commission was their place in it. We find ourselves in that same story. Our sentness doesn’t just lie in Christ’s commands to go, but in our identity as His body and bride. He sent his disciples, (and sends us) just as the Father had sent Him.
In Christ, we are God’s called-out people who are then sent back into the world. Sent to do what? Yes, to make disciples. But also to be salt and light. To love our neighbors. To make peace. To care for widows and orphans. To build up the church. To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.
We are a people on mission, but we have not only been sent once.