Musing about mission: what is mission?

“Mission is what the Bible is all about; we could as meaningfully talk of the missional basis of the Bible as of the biblical basis of mission.” Chris Wright

It is quite a claim. Not least because mission isn’t a word that crops up in Scripture; nor is it used in the early church. We might also note that lots of scholarly ink has been spilt trying to decide if the Old Testament has unifying themes, and that’s before we start to think about mission.

That’s not to deny the idea of mission as a hermeneutical lens through which we read the Bible, and as with feminist, liberationist and other readings, recognise the particular context and questions we bring.

The idea that ‘mission is what the Bible is all about’ is a slogan that preaches well, it can be a helpful heuristic device which enables us to consider some big themes in Scripture together. But it has its limits. Chief among them is the question of what we mean by the word ‘mission’.

History

We probably owe our use of mission language to Ignatius do Loyola and the founding of the Jesuits by Pope Paul III. The Jesuits had vows of poverty and chastity, but more importantly they vowed to go anywhere ‘His Holiness’ would order, whether among the faithful or infidels. This obedience was called mission. And this vow to mission was what made Jesuits a frontline force for the catholic church.

Ignatius didn’t invent the word mission though. It comes from the Latin word to send. It had been used for centuries in descriptions of the Trinity and the relations of the divine persons. It was also used to describe certain diplomatic and military activities such as the imperial envoys from Spain.

Mission language came to birth at a time the Portuguese and Spanish were sending ships and expanding territory. Its modern usage has a mix of economics, political domination and catholic religious expansion thrown in, which has caused some in recent years to wonder if the word is irredeemably tainted with colonialist expansion.

Initially protestants avoided the word. Protestants preferring to talk about the propagation of the gospel. Hence Society for Propagation of the Gospel in New England (1649) and Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge. But with William Carey and the founding of BMS it moved into widespread use.

Yet while the word mission might be problematic it’s not useless. It can help us to recognise some overlapping ideas:

Missio Dei

In the last 60 or 70 years talk about the mission of God has become common place though the exact nature of what it means varies. In John 20:21-22 Jesus sends the disciples to continue his ministry, reflecting his own sending as the Son by the Father and suggesting that mission is an attribute of God. This has led to the argument that mission is rooted in God’s initiative and the church is called to organise itself to be an agent of God’s mission to the world. Yet this doesn’t really give much content to the idea of mission, is it anything we think that God would want to do in the world? If mission really is an attribute of God, it needs to be more clearly seen in God’s nature and character, in who God is as Father, Son and Spirit and not just in something God might do.

Sending

A theme that crops up throughout Scripture. God sends Abraham to the promised land, Moses to Pharaoh, the prophets to Israel and so on. In the gospels we see Jesus sending forth the disciples. One could almost argue that to be a disciple is to be a ‘sent one.

Sending in scripture often includes some sort of commission. John the Baptist is sent to bear witness to the true light (John 1). It implies agency, Jesus sends his disciples to heal sick, cast out demons, teach, baptise.

Sending was also about creating community. In John 17 Jesus talks both about sending and unity. Galatians 4 talks of Spirit being sent so we can be adopted into family and cry Abba, Father.

But what does it mean to be sent? Is it about presence and being alongside rather than going to a new place? Or perhaps about the commission to convey something rather than an instruction to travel?

Kingdom of God

The essence of Jesus’ message was that in him the kingdom drew near. The rule and reign of God was here and now (even if it was also future and not yet). This was to be good news to the poor, release to the oppressed. It was to be demonstrated in the love of neighbour and the disciples love for one another. The arrival of the kingdom of God brings justice and reconciliation, shalom and wellbeing.

If we are to think about the mission of God in an ongoing sense, we need to consider issues such justice and reconciliation, care for creation and the things that make for flourishing of communities. How do we see and understand God’s presence and action in the world, particularly in the face of suffering, environmental degradation, and inequality?

Witness

Telling of the goodness of God. Telling people about what Jesus has done in your life. Being a witness is an important part of the NT. In the Old Testament there was a call to nations to come to God and worship him. The NT the call is now for the people of God to go and tell all nations about him.

For Paul it is clear he understood his call to go beyond just being a witness to being a minister who had a priestly duty to proclaim the gospel of God (Romans 15:16) and to preach it in places where Christ was not known. The call wasn’t simply to go around being nice to people but to explain and challenge people to respond to the message of Jesus.

As Lesley Newbiggin said, “mission is those activities directed to the task of bringing into existence an authentic witness to Christ.”

So what?

It is hard to define mission, but it does point us to a variety of themes in Scripture which are all related to the demonstration and explanation of God’s purposes. Our challenge is to keep them in focus. To narrow a focus on say proclaiming the gospel, leads to us not paying attention to the breadth of God’s plans and purpose. On the other hand, if everything is mission then nothing is mission.

Thinking globally. The trend in recent years for the local church to see mission as a vital component of its life and ministry is welcome. It has led local congregations to reach out to their communities and to engage them in fresh ways, serving with foodbanks, debt counselling, wellbeing cafés as well as through activities like Alpha and Christianity Explored. What can be lost in this is the need to cross cultures; both within the UK (reaching out a hand of friendship to those from other countries, partnering with churches in working class communities etc) and across the world to build up churches and the unity of the body of Christ.

 

As with other posts in the musing about mission series, these are notes used to create a discussion which I’ve then converted into sentences for blogging; they don’t nuance every point. At times I try to be provocative, in other moment I try to explain.

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