ALBUQUERQUE, NM – Our combined experiences in working with hundreds of churches suggest the confusion is massive, and not just among churchgoers but among pastors and church leaders. A March 2018 Barna survey revealed disturbing evidence: 51 percent of Christians in North America don’t recognize or know of the Great Commission. More alarming, of the 49 percent who say they do (when given five Scripture verses, one of which is the actual passage of Matthew 28) only 37 percent could actually identify it! We believe that if you were to do a quick survey of church leaders and mission-minded people in your church, asking them just a couple of basic questions about the Great Commission, you’d get many different and often conflicting answers.
Jesus told us in Matthew 28:18–20, which we know as the Great Commission, to make disciples of all the nations. Now don’t think nation states, like Germany or Brazil. Think people groups with distinct languages and cultures. The Great Commission, according to Jesus, isn’t just about doing good works in his name—it’s not even about making disciples—but about making disciples of all the nations.
“Today, our ever-broadening definition of missions has led to the idea that every follower of Christ is a missionary.” The priority, then, of our Great Commission task isn’t to just win as many people to Jesus as possible. It’s not simply to do acts of kindness and mercy in his name. It’s to plant the gospel in every nation, tribe, and tongue. Historically, this priority shaped the church’s missions practice and understanding, but today any good deed or altruistic, evangelistic work is often considered missions.
Sharing the gospel with your neighbor who has never heard a clear presentation of the gospel (but could if you’d just cross the street), feeding empty bellies, caring for the homeless and for widows and orphans in places where churches already exist are all important ministries and shouldn’t be neglected, but are they really missions? Today, our ever-broadening definition of missions has led to the idea that every follower of Christ is a missionary.
Does the Bible provide a clear definition for missions given the word isn’t even in the Bible? Can we expect the Bible to tell us what it means?
Eckhard Schnabel is considered one of the world’s leading experts on missions in the New Testament and author of two 1,000-page volumes on early Christian mission, as well as the 500-page work Paul the Missionary (IVP Academic, 2008). He decisively writes, “The argument that the word mission does not occur in the New Testament is incorrect. The Latin verb mittere corresponds to the Greek verb apostellein, which occurs 136 times in the New Testament (97 times in the Gospels, used both for Jesus having been ‘sent’ by God and for the Twelve being ‘sent’ by Jesus).”
Keeping Schnabel’s observations in mind, let’s take a closer look.
Missio Dei translates as “mission of God” and is used to signify all that God does in the world and all that he is doing to accomplish his objective, the complete exaltation of the fame of his name: “I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” (Ps. 46:10 ESV).
Mission has a secular meaning; it often refers to either an underlying purpose (as in the term “mission statement”) or a specific campaign or objective (as in a military or diplomatic mission). But it is also used to define the scope of all that God has given his church to accomplish within the missio Dei. It may include all that God has called the church to do in the world.
Missional—the most modern of the four terms—is an adjective used primarily to distinguish the ministry of the church that happens beyond its four walls, as opposed to caring for its own. Some churches now use the term missional where they may have previously used mission or missions. This term has also been co-opted to describe a specific, progressive style of church that is intentionally outreach-oriented (a missional church or a missional community).
Missions may be used as a synonym, perhaps a clunky or outdated one, for any of the terms above, and our British brothers and sisters are among those who prefer the more graceful term “mission” without necessarily a switch in meaning between the two. But missions also has a narrower meaning. It’s used to refer to the work of the church in reaching across cultural, religious, ethnic and geographic barriers to advance the work of making disciples of all nations.
Missiologist Gary Corwin, in an article “MissionS: Why the ‘S’ Is Still Important,” compares these four terms along with another one: “In addition, establishing churches among those people groups and communities where Christ is least known has been distinguished over the last several decades as what frontier missions is all about.” Despite the overlapping meanings, explains Corwin, each has an important, particular emphasis, and when they’re properly understood, each serves a useful purpose.
The problem arises when the terms are used interchangeably and these unique emphases are lost. As Corwin writes, “To say, for example, that either the missio Dei and the mission of the church is synonymous, or that the mission of the church is all that one needs to focus on or be concerned about, runs the very real risk of simply defining everything as mission.”
Great Commission Focus
We’re unapologetic and ardent activists for a narrow, Great Commission-focused definition of missions that will keep the church on the path of making disciples of all nations. Maintaining a narrow definition of missions will be a more useful tool for the church in fulfilling her mission, and the overall thrust of Scripture readily supports this emphasis.
“Maintaining a narrow definition of missions will be a more useful tool for the church in fulfilling her mission, and the overall thrust of Scripture readily supports this emphasis.” To cross the barriers that missions requires, we must bring significant focus and special emphasis in the church to making disciples resulting in churches. Without this regular and specific emphasis on “making disciples of the nations,” the needs and outreach of the local church will always, quite naturally, receive the greatest attention of our efforts, while the voices of those with no access become a distant memory until next year’s “Missions Sunday.”
A sound, biblical missions definition is crucial to the future of the evangelical church. Defining missions in our relativistic, pluralistic era requires that we be committed to walk the path of God’s redemptive mission, culminating in the collective worship of the Lamb by all nations, peoples, tribes, and tongues. That is the bedrock path of missions to which we, his bride, are called. No matter what process we use to define and carry out missions activity, this is the path our boots must travel if we hope to clear the fog of great confusion about missions and obey Jesus’s Great Commission imperative.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Matthew Ellison is president of Sixteen:Fifteen and Denny Spitters is vice president of church partnership at Pioneers. They co-authored the book When Everything Is Missions.