Is mission a thing?
by John Hall
Is mission a “thing”? In many cases, we use mission in a sentence like we refer to a sport. For example, if we say, “I’m going to play volleyball,” volleyball is used as a noun. In a similar way, someone might say, “I’m going on a mission trip.” Now I’m not great with grammar, but I do recall that in elementary school they learned me that a noun is a person, place, or thing!
Is it inherently wrong to refer to mission as a thing? No, I don’t think that it is, but I do use a certain degree of caution. The caution relates to how well we can explain the word mission. When we say, “I’m going to play volleyball,” there is a common understanding, in Canada, of what that game involves. Most of us who have grown up here played volleyball in school and were taught the rules. The word is filled with meaning. We’ve touched the ball, felt the net, and seen the lines drawn on the court. The game, in our minds, is categorized as a sport.
If someone gave us a basketball and told us to play a game of volleyball, we’d think that they were being ridiculous. We would immediately get the correct ball for the game or move to the correct court and play a game of basketball. Does the average person in our churches have as much knowledge of the meaning contained in the word mission as they do about what it means to play volleyball?
The word mission isn’t found in Scripture in English. We get the word from the Greek word apostolos, which means sent. The word apostolos is used to describe the sending of the Son by the Father, which – from a theological perspective – also includes why the Son is sent. Here is a brief recap: God is a God of love. Before creation, the Father, Son, and Spirit existed in perfect union and perfect love. When God created the earth, he loved it and called it good. Sadly, when sin entered the world, God’s good creation became corrupted and so God’s rescue mission began: to redeem and reconcile all things to God through Jesus (Colossians 1:20). This mission didn’t begin because there was a spill in aisle three; the mission is ingrained in who God is. God is a God of love and our mission must begin with love, just as Jesus’ did, as John 3:16 reminds us: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only son…”
So, when we refer to the word mission in a sentence as a “thing”, we make a massive understatement. When we use the word mission, we are referring to God’s redemptive actions in the world: this is the essence of the Gospel. God’s missionary action is something we’ve been invited to participate in, certainly (2 Corinthians 5: 17-20), but mission is God’s activity, nonetheless.
The amazing missionary and missiologist, Leslie Newbigin, and others have tried to address the reduction of mission to an activity by making a distinction between mission and missions. Michael Goheen, in The Church and its Vocation, describes Newbigin’s position on these two words:
While mission is the total calling of the church to make known the gospel as it participates in God’s mission, missions consists of particular enterprises within the total mission of the church that ‘have the primary intention of bringing into existence a Christian presence in a milieu where previously there was no such presence or where such presence was ineffective.’ Thus, missions remains an essential part of the ongoing mission of the church.
Newbigin’s clarification helps at an academic level, but for the most part I’m still concerned. Two things contribute to my concern. First, I’m concerned that we have lost the sense of the weighty calling of being God’s ambassador people. We are in the Kingdom service of Jesus, which ties back to the mission of the church. Wherever you go, you are an ambassador. As someone has said, you can be a good ambassador or a bad one, but once you’ve been appointed, you’re always an ambassador.
My second concern relates to our idea of where missions takes place. There is still a prevalent belief in many churches that missions take place somewhere else, but not in Canada. If we’re being honest with ourselves, though, I think that Canada is a place where the “Christian presence” is ineffective. By definition, Canada needs the missions activity of the church. However, if our Christian presence has become ineffective, then maybe there’s a bigger problem. Have we lost our understanding of the grandeur and scope of the mission of God? Worse yet, have we lost our fear of God, and an appreciation of how big his love and grace are?
The people of God are invited to participate in God’s mission. This is a big task: nothing short of the redemption and restoration of the cosmos. Mission is not a game, and my hope is that we learn to communicate that in our churches. Newbigin’s words are an appropriate way to end this article. He insists, “It is impossible to stress too strongly that the beginning of mission is not an action of ours, but a presence of a new reality, the presence of the Spirit in power.” Come Spirit, come.
Mission Central is a catalyst that inspires churches to be missional communities and individuals to become mature disciples of Jesus. Visit us at www.missioncentral.ca.
John Hall is the Executive Director of Mission Central and Missions Fest Vancouver.