How to Think about the Christian Mission

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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”—Matt. 28:18–20

When Christians think about missions, their minds often drift oversees and across borders to short-term mission efforts or long-term missionaries. The church contributes to these missionary efforts by providing people or resources. Today, people are beginning to recognize that there is more work to be done at the local level. Here, the local church contributes to missions in a different way. When Christians want to talk about local missions as a way for the church to exist in the world, they use the word missional.

Yet, the word missional often creates some anxiety. Some churches imagine that a local mission requires a new way to do church. I remember my days at seminary meeting students who hoped to one day become church planters. They wanted to be pastors who started new churches within the United States. In lunch discussions, different viewpoints often came up on how to be missional. I can’t begin to tell you some of the hopeful, interesting, crazy, innovative, and sometimes awful ideas students would throw around during lunch hour.

The question missional folks are asking is a good one: How can the church carry out the Great Commission within its own neighborhood? Ed Stetzer, in “What is a Missional Church?” demystifies the concept, explaining some of the key ideas framed in a document called the “Missional Manifesto.” A few years ago, a group of like-minded thinkers—Tim Keller, Alan Hirsch, Linda Bergquist, J.D. Greear, Dan Kimball, Eric Mason, Craig Ott, Philip Nation, and Brad Andrews—collaborated to draft this statement. The document frames a way of thinking about missions that helps to orient the church’s role in God’s mission. The preamble captures the intent of the document:

God is a sending God, a missionary God, who has called His people, the church, to be missionary agents of His love and glory. The concept missional epitomizes this idea. This manifesto seeks to serve the church by clarifying its calling and helping it theologically understand and practically live out God’s mission in the world today. Although it is frequently stated “God’s church has a mission,” according to missional theology, a more accurate expression is “God’s mission has a church” (Ephesians 3:7-13).

In his blog Ed Stetzer explains that to be missional is a way of relating God’s people to God’s mission. What is insightful is how he describes the church’s relationship to missions. It’s not that the church has a mission, but that God’s mission has a church:

The term “missional” is effective in describing the relationship between the calling of God’s people and God’s mission. While it’s common for people to say, “The church has a mission,” a better way to talk about mission is “God’s mission has a church” (Ephesians 3:7–13). God’s mission is the starting place for understanding the church and its mission. God has placed mission in the DNA of the church.

Stetzer, in “What is the Missional Church?” and the “Missional Manifesto (MM),” teaches what it means to be missional (MM, sec. 9) and briefly refers to Matthew 28:18–20 in the section on disciple-making (MM, sec.7). I want to add two points that I think follow from an ordinary reading of Matthew 28:18–20 that amplify what the “Missional Manifesto” teaches.

1. God’s mission advances through ordinary church ministry.

In Matthew 28:18–20, Jesus commissioned the apostles and tasked them with making disciples. Their job was simple: baptize and teach. This is the church’s ordinary work that continues through the work of ordinary pastors and elders. Consider this for a moment: as the church faithfully performs the same routines week in and week out—preaching, teaching, public worship, prayer, baptizing, administering the Lord’s Supper—the Great Commission is advanced. The church, just by being faithful to the simple tasks, takes a place at the center of missions. When churches preach the gospel, they advance God’s mission to make disciples. This doesn’t excuse ordinary church goers from participation in missions, but it provides the context.

2. Ordinary Christians participate in the church’s local mission.

Beyond attending church, believers can be missional by speaking the gospel, sharing what they heard in a sermon, reading the Bible with people, or inviting someone to church. This happens as Christians, in the words of the “Missional Manifesto,” “live out the implications of their faith in business, the arts, in politics, the academy, the home, and in all of life.” All this is really ordinary. A lot of people do it all the time without realizing it. As ordinary Christians—in their ordinary lives—talk about Jesus and the gospel, they participate in God’s mission.

Instead of being some new idea, being missional might actually recover a very old, very protestant, and very evangelical idea. Being missional honors the local church as a major contributor to missions, and honors Christians as well by showing that their ordinary lives have a place in God’s mission.

Photo of Silverio Gonzalez

Silverio Gonzalez

Silverio Gonzalez is a husband, father, and staff writer at Core Christianity. He earned his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his Master of Divinity from Westminster Seminary California. 

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