The word mission is used today in a plethora of contexts. Diplomats, fighter pilots, and some elementary school teachers refer to their work as a mission. Virtually every business, from auto-parts distributors to fast-food restaurants, possesses an articulated mission statement.
When a word is used so often, fatigue can set in and obscure its meaning altogether. Christian mission is no exception. Stephen Neill, a twentieth-century Anglican bishop and historian of mission, warned, “If everything is mission, nothing is mission.”
Here is a brief primer on Christian mission, including:
- Why we study it
- Who started it
- Where it takes us
Why study mission history
First, examining history, in general, enriches the human experience as we gain an accurate understanding of the past by grasping contexts, causes, changes, and complex developments.[pullquote]
Church history is in fact mission history.[/pullquote]
Second, historian Justo González correctly says that church history is in fact mission history. To appreciate the church’s story through the ages—beyond the history of buildings, traditions, and doctrine—we must evaluate how the gospel has spread across social and cultural boundaries and how the church has taken root among people groups. Grasping the history of Christianity shapes the global church’s consciousness and contributes to a healthy Christian memory. Although a faithful appraisal of mission history will reveal the weaknesses and mistakes of missionaries and even embarrassing developments, it ultimately points to the faithfulness of a missionary God.
Finally, practically speaking, modern mission practitioners who evaluate mission history can learn from the mistakes and the innovations of the past—practices that ought to be rightly abandoned as well as other approaches that might be recovered or emulated today.
The Bible’s first missionary
Mission simply means sending. The first instance of sending in Scripture occurs just after the fall when the living God, acting as the first responder, moves toward the fallen couple and poses the haunting question, “Where are you?” (Gen 3:9). From there, God covers their nakedness and shame with animal skins—a sacrifice that prefigured the redeeming work that Christ would accomplish at the cross.
God is a missionary God. Unsurprisingly, the narrative of Scripture abounds with God’s initiative to send people and groups of people—Abraham, Israel, prophets, Jesus, and the church—to announce his ways, his Messiah, and his message of redemption and reconciliation. Thus, evangelical theologians and missiologists correctly refer to mission as the mission of God.
The greatest mission boundary
Growing up, I assumed that mission work occurred in Haiti or Africa because that’s where the missionaries I knew lived. Going to make disciples of all nations meant getting a passport, a visa, and shots before boarding a plane to travel far away to minister in Jesus’ name. While mission definitely involves crossing borders, the greatest boundary that a missionary navigates is the one between faith and nonfaith. This is true of my encounter with a Muslim friend in Tunisia, a Chinese doctoral student in my North American city, and with my North American next-door neighbor.
While mission can be a monocultural experience, Scripture resounds with the admonition to “Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples” (Ps 96:3). The scope or arena of God’s mission is the whole earth and among all cultural groups. The mission of God in Scripture is framed by God blessing Abram to be a blessing in order that all of the families of the earth would be blessed (Gen 12:1–3). In Galatians, Paul interpreted this blessing as the gospel itself: “Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you’ ” (Gal 3:8).
In Christian mission we must cross boundaries of faith and nonfaith and go to the nations. While a Brazilian pastor faithfully ministers in his church and engages in mission in his community, he still has a responsibility to go about his work in light of the nations—to lead his church in praying for the nations, to send members of his church as missionaries, or to minister to immigrants from the nations in his community.
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This excerpt is adapted from Christian Mission: A Concise, Global History by Ed Smither (Lexham Press, 2019).