I love teaching Missions. As a missions professor, I don’t have to be an expert in Biblical
Studies. I don’t have to be an expert in Theology. That’s a shame since Missions should have strong Biblical and Theological underpinnings. Still, it is a bit freeing that expectations of others is low in these areas. Additionally, as a Missions professor, one doesn’t even have to be very knowledgeable in missions, since there is little agreement as to what missions is, and how it is to be done.
Consider the definition of missions, by their focus.
Focus #1. Heathen. Historically, missions was based on the target. William Carey wrote the tract, “An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversions of the Heathens.” That title describes a common view. Missions is conversion of the heathen. Who are the “heathen?” Well, that term is now considered old-fashioned. But it essentially describes people who are not part of a Christian culture (or, perhaps, not part of a Christian or Jewish culture). So the separation between missions and other types of Christian ministry is whether the people group or nation is considered “Christian” or “Heathen.” This view is generally replaced with one of two other choices.
Focus #2. Culture. More recently, the focus is on the culture. If ministry is cross-cultural, then it is missions. If the ministry is not cross-cultural, then it is some other type of ministry (such as evangelism or discipleship). Ministry is divided into E-0 (within the same faith group), E-1 (same “cultural” neighborhood), E-2 (similar but different culture), and E-3 (very different culture). In this, missions is considered to be E-2 or E-3. This is probably the most common understanding of missions.
Focus #3. Church. Another view defines missions in terms of its relationship to the local church. Church ministry could be divided up into three basic categories. Category 1 would be ministry to its own members/congregation. One could call it “Member Care.” Category 2 would be ministry that seeks to bring people from outside of the local church into the same church. One could call it “Church Growth.” Category 3 would be ministry that the local church does outside of itself without the intent of bringing people into its own church. One could call that “Missions.” In this light, missions can be local, regional, national, or international. It can also be same sub-culture, different sub-culture, same culture, or different culture.
I, personally, prefer the third type… a church-based understanding of missions. There are several reasons for this.
A. It is more in line with missions as we see it in the New Testament. Most of us would agree that Paul and Barnabas were missionaries going out on missions. Barnabas was from the Island of Cyprus, living in a Jewish sub-culture in a broader Hellenistic culture. Paul was from Asia Minor, living in a Jewish sub-culture in a broader Hellenistic culture. On their first missionary journey, the first place they went was Cyprus where they first targeted members of the Jewish sub-culture there, and then those in the broader Hellenistic culture. Then they went to Asia Minor where they first targeted members of the Jewish sub-culture there, and then those in the broader Hellenistic culture. From a cultural understanding of missions, it is not clear that Paul and Barnabas were doing missions. However, from a church understanding, they definitely were doing missions.
B. It challenges the theology of “Missionary Call.” For some, that would be a bad thing. But I think that is a good thing. If one reads Acts 13, we find that Paul and Barnabas were not called to missions. Rather, the church was called to send Paul and Barnabas on missions. There is actually little Biblical justification for a separate “Missionary Call” from the normal call for all Christians to follow Christ. Some (almost) violently disagree with this… but there IS little justification for a professional call that goes beyond a general call of all to serve. Generally, even those that strongly believe in a necessary “missionary call” will acknowledge the need for the church to “affirm” that calling. Perhaps it is better to see the church as taking a more active, less passive, role in sending missionaries. Why does this matter? If there is a clear and necessary “Missionary Call,” this implies that there is a “Non-missions Call.” It only makes sense. If a missionary must be called, then most people are called NOT to do missions. If the church sends, then the problem goes away. All churches SHOULD be involved in Member Care, Church Growth, and Missions, and guide it’s members in finding how they can fit into any or all of these roles.
C. It de-professionalizes missions. Missions stops being the work of professionals. It is the job of the church. Obviously, the church needs help by experts and and mobilizing groups… but cannot leave it for “someone else to do.” Of course, there should be a continued role for professional missions… it just stops being something limited to the professionals.
D. It removes some confusions in what is or is not missions. Is diaspora (same culture) missions carried out in a foreign country really missions or no? Is local outreach to a different sub-culture missions or not?
E. Related to what was listed above, if missions is a necessary aspect of church ministry, then the church can’t dump it off on sodality structures (such as mission agencies). Now, when I say this, I am not rejecting sodality structures. They are not unbiblical, and they can be effective. It is just that the church must take responsibility for missions and recognize sodality structures as partners.
F. It can bring a healthier perspective to the missional church movement. This movement has promoted the role of the local church reaching out. But some don’t take cross-cultural or international missions seriously. PERHAPS it would be taken more seriously if it was seen as an integral part of the missional role of the church, not an add-on.
Let’s stop here. Does this matter… how one defines missions? Maybe, maybe not. But generally, an interpretation of missions that leaves it to professionals outside of the church, removes it from the concern of the common membership of churches. That is not healthy.
- William Carey (1761 – 1834): A sample of the Gospel message from the great missionary to India (deovivendiperchristum.wordpress.com)
- Missions vs. Missional? Why We Really Need Both (christianitytoday.com)