We need to talk about mission

Mark Gillespie

We have to be careful when we talk about taking God’s word to God’s world.

We know what we mean by mission – but how can we be sure that the person listening does? You won’t find the word ‘mission’ in the Bible so where do we get our understanding of it? 

It probably comes from many sources, some helpful, some less so. Church history conjures up great names like J Hudson Taylor and William Carey, and the Apostle Paul gives us practical models for mission. But to some, ‘mission’ may still have colonial overtones. It cannot be denied that during the 18th and 19th centuries effective missionary endeavour ran parallel to western political and economic expansion. This is historical fact. Of course, at the time the Church in the West had the best resources and the biggest ships and God was able to use these advantages to grow his kingdom. Today, the Church is numerically stronger in the global south and this has huge implications for the way we think about mission. Is it right that mission is still linked to ideas of conquest and control? How do we talk about this?

Perhaps our words need to strip away all of the traditions, trappings and assumptions, focussing on the core message of Matthew 28, ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…’ We no longer need ships to take God’s word to God’s world: our times have given us so many more ways of sharing the good news of Jesus. And we have only the gospel to share.

What remains is the biblical model of mission. It is not the responsibility of one or two from a sending church – it is a task to be shared by the whole believing community. Indeed, the initiative came from God and glorifying him by reaching out to others with his word is what the Church is for. Paul is quite clear about this in his letter to the Philippians. We know that they helped supply Paul with all he needed for his journeys, becoming ‘partners in the gospel’ (Philippians 1:5) as they did so. These weren’t just material needs but spiritual backing (prayer) and priceless encouragement. This relationship means that it’s not just those who ‘go’ that are the missionaries.

So when we talk about mission to one another we need to make our true intentions clear, avoiding jargon, clichés and verbal shorthand. We shouldn't expect new believers to have been equipped with a compete history of mission on conversion.

In his book Transcending Mission Michael Stroope urges us to ‘use longer sentences’. He doesn’t just mean use more words – he means that when we talk about everyone being part of God’s plan for growing his kingdom we don’t assume too much. 

We need make no apologies for talking about mission. What we may need to apologise for is making it complicated.

Mark Gillespie is Crosslinks Communication Manager.