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The Mission of God's PeopleA Biblical Theology of the Church's Mission
ZondervanCopyright © 2010 Langham Partnership International
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWHO ARE WE AND WHAT ARE WE HERE FOR?
MISSION OR MISSIONS?
The title of the book, The Mission of God's People, immediately sends a question to the top of the queue. It is a question of definition: What pops into our mind when we see or hear the word "mission"? Perhaps we are more familiar with it in the form "missions", which usually brings to mind all the cross-cultural missionary work of the churches we are familiar with. We think of missionary societies, of evangelistic and church-planting missions, of long-term career missionaries or short-term missions, and of global networks of such agencies and individuals, like the Lausanne Movement.
All of these images have in common the notion of sending and being sent. That sense, of course, lies at the Latin root of the word mission itself, and is very appropriate. And very biblical too. There is no doubt that the Bible shows God sending many people "on a mission from God", and the missionary movement in the book of Acts begins with a church responding to that divine impulse by sending Paul and Barnabas out on their first missionary journey.
But recognizing that mission has at its heart a sense of sending and being sent only raises another question: sent to do what? The Bible tells us that God did send many people. But the range of things for which people were sent is staggeringly broad. "Sending" language is used in all the following stories. Joseph was sent (unwittingly at first) to be in a position to save lives in a famine (Gen. 45:7). Moses was sent (unwillingly at first) to deliver people from oppression and exploitation (Ex. 3:10). Elijah was sent to influence the course of international politics (1 Kings 19:15-18). Jeremiah was sent to proclaim God's Word (e.g., Jer. 1:7). Jesus claimed the words of Isaiah that he was sent to preach good news, to proclaim freedom, to give sight for the blind, and to offer release from oppression (Lk 4:16-19; cf. Isa. 61:1).
The disciples were sent to preach and demonstrate the delivering and healing power of the reign of God (Matt. 10:5-8). As apostles they were sent to make disciples, baptize and teach (Matt. 28:18-20). Jesus sent them into the world in the same way that the Father had sent him, which raises a lot of interesting questions and challenges (John 17:18; 20:21). Paul and Barnabas were sent with famine relief (Acts 11:27-30). Later they were sent for evangelism and church planting (Acts 13:1-3). Titus was sent to ensure trustworthy and transparent financial administration (2 Cor. 8:16-24). Later he was sent for competent church administration (Titus 1:5). Apollos was sent as a skilled Bible teacher for church nurture (Acts 18:27-28). Many unnamed brothers and sisters were sent out as itinerant teachers for the sake of the truth of the gospel (3 John 5-8).
So, even if we agree that the concept of sending and being sent lies at the heart of mission, there is a broad range of biblically sanctioned activities that people may be sent by God to do, including famine relief, action for justice, preaching, evangelism, teaching, healing and administration. Yet when we use the words "missions" and "missionaries", we tend to think mainly of evangelistic activity. What will our biblical theology have to say to that? We will think about this more in chapter 12.
Another common usage of the word "mission", however, is a sense of purpose or goal-orientation. Even in the secular world we talk about organizations having a "corporate mission", which may well be summed up in a pithy "mission statement". So to ask the question, "What is the mission of God's people?" is really to ask, "For what purpose do those who call themselves the people of God actually exist? What are we here on earth for?"
But to answer that we have to go one step further back and ask, Whose mission is it anyway? And of course, the answer to that has to be-it is the mission of God. God himself has a mission. God has a purpose and goal for his whole creation . Paul called this the "whole will [plan] of God" (Acts 20:27; cf. Eph. 1:9-10). And as part of that divine mission, God has called into existence a people to participate with God in the accomplishment of that mission. All our mission flows from the prior mission of God. And that, as we will see, is broad indeed. "Mission arises from the heart of God himself, and is communicated from his heart to ours. Mission is the global outreach of the global people of a global God."
Singular And Plural
That broad definition allows us to include many different missions within the category of mission. Perhaps the easiest way I can explain the difference that I perceive between talking about mission (singular) and missions (plural) is to use analogies from other human activities.
We can speak about science (singular), and we have a generic concept in mind . It speaks of the challenge of discovery, experimentation and explanation. It speaks of a method, an ethos, a system of values, certain paradigms that govern scientific enquiry, a certain kind of faith and a strong kind of commitment. Science is a dimension of human life and civilization.
But then there are sciences. When we use the word in the plural, we are speaking of a whole vast range of activities which have scientific aims, methods, criteria and controls. There are physical sciences, with many subdivisions in the exploration of the natural world and our universe. There are social sciences, life sciences, and the like. And then there's the science of economics. And statistics. But let's not stray into science fiction.
My point is, science is a generic word for a whole array of human endeavour that can be characterized as sciences. There is a multitude of activities that can be justly characterized as science, and from time to time scientists themselves argue over whether this or that particular activity is "really science" at all. But (rather like the parts in Paul's description of the body), one legitimate science cannot say to another, "because you are not physics, you are not real science." Nor can one legitimate science say about itself, "because I am not physics, I don't belong to the world of science." There is a universal concept, broadly understood, and there is a multiplicity of embodiments of it in practical life.
One could build the same analogy with regard to art and the arts, or to sport and sports. There are all kinds of artistic and sporting activities, but we know what we mean when we use a generic concept like art or sport to include that variety and multiplicity.
So when I speak of mission, I am thinking of all that God is doing in his great purpose for the whole of creation and all that he calls us to do in cooperation with that purpose. Mission, like science, has a conceptual, generic breadth, and a word like "missional" can be as broad in significance as "scientific". And I would suggest that the word "missionary" should have the same kind of breadth of possibility as the word "scientist". Like the latter, it is a word you have to fill with specific meaning rather than assume or imagine what the said person actually does.
But when I speak of missions, I am thinking of the multitude of activities that God's people can engage in, by means of which they participate in God's mission. And it seems to me there are as many kinds of missions as there are kinds of sciences-probably far more in fact. And in the same way, in the variety of missions God has entrusted to his church as a whole, it is unseemly for one kind of mission to dismiss another out of a superiority complex, or to undervalue itself as "not real mission" out of an inferiority complex. The body image has powerful resonance here too.
That is why I also dislike the old knock-down line that sought to ring-fence the word "mission" for specifically cross-cultural sending of missionaries for evangelism: "If everything is mission, then nothing is mission." It would seem more biblical to say, "If everything is mission ... everything is mission." Clearly, not everything is cross-cultural evangelistic mission, but everything a Christian and a Christian church is, says and does should be missional in its conscious participation in the mission of God in God's world.
Perhaps you have heard of this definition of mission? "World evangelization requires the whole church to take the whole Gospel to the whole world." It comes from the Lausanne Covenant. It is a fine ringing slogan, which actually has even earlier roots. But each of its three phrases leads us into a cluster of questions. It provides a convenient framework to set out some of the issues that our biblical theology of mission will address-though not necessarily in this particular order.
THE WHOLE WORLD
The Whole World As The Goal Of God's Mission
"What's the world coming to?" we sometimes ask when things seem just too much beyond our understanding or control. But it's a good question to ask when we are thinking about the mission of God's people too, for it points us towards a future that ultimately lies in God's hands. As we said above, our mission flows from God's mission, and God's mission is for the sake of his whole world-indeed his whole creation.
So we have to start by seeing ourselves within the great flow of God's mission, and we must make sure that our own missional goals-long term and more immediate-are in line with God's. For that purpose, we need to know the story we are part of, the great story that the Bible tells that encompasses the past and the future.
But how many churches that are keen on mission, or how many mission agencies that pursue their agendas with urgency and zeal pause to think about that great story-where it has come from so far, what shape it has from the whole Bible (not just a few missionary verses), and where it is going? And yet if our mission efforts lose touch with that story or set off on all kinds of tangents from it, we have to ask: Whose mission are we on? Whose agenda are we pursuing?
So our first task in Part 2 will be to gain some necessary orientation by giving attention to the story we are part of if we consider ourselves to be God's people on God's mission. That will be our focus in chapter 2.
The Whole World And The Scope Of Our Mission
God's mission, we will find from the Bible, includes the whole of creation. But where does that truth lead us in terms of our mission on earth? Especially, what does it imply for our treatment of that part of creation entrusted to us-planet Earth? It is generally accepted among Christians (and more widely) that we ought to be good stewards of the earth's resources. But do we have a missional responsibility beyond that level of moderately responsible living? We are all conscious of the ecological challenges that face the human race. We may rightly feel confused in the welter of alleged facts and scary projections, not knowing how much is objective reality and how much is the result of media frenzy or political machination. Nobody can seriously doubt that we face enormous global problems, but we may well differ widely over the best way forward from where we seem to have reached.
But is this a matter that should be on the agenda of Christian mission? How does our biblical theology help us address that question? At the very least, one might say, if the goal of God's mission is the new creation that we anticipate from the climax of the Bible's story, then mission in the midst of the story ought to have some place for our response to creation as it is now. Traditionally, however, the concept of mission in Christian circles has been confined to the needs of human beings. So, is ecological concern and action a biblically legitimate missional concern, or merely a contemporary obsession driven by the world's agenda? We will think about that question in chapter 3.
The Whole World As The Arena Of Our Mission
Where does "missionary" work begin and end? We so easily fall into compartmentalized thinking, splitting up our world into different zones. The very word "mission" often comes along with the notion of "the mission field", which normally means "foreign countries out there, but not here at home." This has been a Western way of looking at the world, but it is also found in other parts of the world that now have strong missionary-sending churches. The reality is, of course, as soon as you think seriously about it, that the mission field is everywhere, including your own street-wherever there is ignorance or rejection of the gospel of Jesus Christ .
But another equally damaging false dichotomy is between the so-called sacred and secular realms, and "mission" is located firmly in the first. So mission is something either that specially commissioned Christians manage to do full-time, if they can get enough "support" to do so, or something that other Christians (the vast majority) do in odd moments of time they have to spare from the necessity of having to work for a living. Maybe they can fit "a mission trip" into a vacation, or go on a "church mission" over the weekend.
But what about the rest of life? What about the rest of the "world"-the world of work, the public arena, the world of business, education, politics, medicine, sports, and the like? In what sense is that world the arena of the mission of God's people, and what does such mission consist of? Is it only the moments of evangelistic opportunity in that world, or can our work itself participate in God's mission?
To push the question further, do the people of God have any responsibility to the rest of human society in general beyond the imperative of evangelism? What content do we put into biblical phrases like being a blessing to the nations, or seeking the welfare of the city, or being the salt of the earth or the light of the world, or doing good (one of the commonest expressions used by Paul and Peter)? Do these concepts figure in our biblical theology of mission?
Perhaps this sounds like the hoary and familiar debate about the relationship between evangelism and social action, but I hope that our study of biblical theology in the following chapters will take us beyond the traditional polarizing and prioritizing that, in my opinion, so distorts and pulls apart what God intended to be held together. So even a simple expression like "the whole world", then, raises all kinds of issues for us. It is geographical (all the earth), but it is also ecological, economic, social and political. And we remember too that the Bible speaks about the "end of the world"-though it is not so much an end as a new beginning. So "the whole world" includes time as well as space. The church needs to relate to both. We are sent to the ends of the earth, and we keep going till the end of the world.
THE WHOLE CHURCH
Who Are the People of God?
"The Mission of God's People", announces our title page. Could I not have just used the book's subtitle, "The Church's Mission"? Well, yes perhaps, but only if we have got our biblical theology of the church straight, and that is probably an optimistic assumption. For many Christians, the word "church" takes them back only to the supposed birthday of the church in the book of Acts on the day of Pentecost. But is that a valid perception? When and where did the people of God come into existence, and for what reason? How does the existence and mission of this people relate to the mission of God in and for his world? When did their mission begin, and how and when will it end? Or to put this question another way, how does the mission of the church in the New Testament (that most of us can relate to, since if nothing else we are familiar with the so-called Great Commission and vaguely recall that it comes at the end of a gospel) relate to the identity and history of Old Testament Israel? Did Israel have a "mission", and if so, what was it? Indeed, does the Old Testament have any relevance to Christian mission at all-other than a few popular "call-stories" like Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah (so useful for missionary sermons), and the object lesson of a single reluctant missionary who was embarrassed and angry at his own success (Jonah)?
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