Three Views of Missions

I love teaching Missions. As a missions professor, I don’t have to be an expert in Biblical

The Arms of Serampore College founded by Ward,...
The Arms of Serampore College founded by Ward, Marshman & Carey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

The Church on Mission


Acts 13:1-3

1Now in the church that was at Antioch there were certain prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 2As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, “Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3Then, having fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them away.

St. Peter’s Grotto Church in Antioch

Let’s reflect on this short passage. First, let’s deal with some technical issues with the passage.

First, let’s look at the people in the church. It was a very diverse church. Five names are mentioned here. Three of them were definitely Jewish, the other two, we aren’t as sure. But we know that there were many Gentiles in the church.

  • Barnabas: A Jew from the Island of Cyprus. He was a Levite. He was of Greek culture. He was sent to Antioch by the church of Jerusalem to see what was going on there. Great things were happening in Antioch and the church of Jerusalem wanted to understand it better.
  • Paul: A Jew from Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). A former pharisee. Barnabbas went to Paul’s home to recruit him to help in Antioch.
  • Manaen… or Menachen… was Jewish but was a companion, the foster-brother, of Prince (later King) Herod Antipas. That meant that he was raised up in the royal family.
  • Lucius of Cyrene. Roman name, came from Cyrene/ present day Tunisia, in North Africa.
  • Simeon who was called Niger. Some of have suggested that he was also from Cyrene. If that is true, he was the man who carried the cross for Jesus. Simon of Cyrene apparently did become a follower of Christ as well as his family. If this was the case, and the fact that Lucius was from Cyrene, they may have called him Niger, or black because of his coloration. So he may have been African. Not really sure.

Second. the passage says that they were prophets and teachers. Teachers make God’s word clear to the people… it instruct. But what about prophet? In the early church, prophets went from church to church encouraging and admonishing. So that might be the idea. Perhaps these 5 went around to other local churches in this role. Or maybe in this case it simply meant that they preached God’s word… speaking on God’s behalf to God’s people.

Third. The passage says that they were ministering to the Lord and they were fasting. The term we use as ministering is the same word where we get the term liturgy. It implies both worship AND service to God in the church. But what about fasting? Commonly, in the Bible fasting symbolized sorrow– a way of expressing grief. When Nehemiah heard horrible news from home, it said that he prayed, mourned, and fasted. Praying was his mental response. Mourning was his emotional response, and Fasting was his physical response. Head, heart, body. When critics of Jesus complained that His disciples did not fast, Jesus said that they had no need. Since He was with them, it is a time for celebration, not sorrow. However, there is at least one other reason to fast. It symbolized separation from the world. When Jesus spent 40 days with the Father, He symbolically separated Himself from the world by going into the wilderness and by fasting. By symbolicaly separating from the world, they were saying they were prepared to listen to and be guided by God’s Spirit.

So these five were serving God in the church. But they were also seeking God’s guidance… and God spoke to them.

I believe there is a lesson here. God spoke to them when they were seeking guidance from God. But they also were doing God’s work while they were waiting. I have known many people who seem to be doing nothing for God because they are waiting to hear from God what they are supposed to do. I would suggest that these 5 are a better example. Do what you KNOW you should be doing while your are seeking what ELSE you should be doing. Be faithful in the little until God gives you much to be faithful with.

Note here that the message is not to Paul. The message is not to Barnabbas. The message was to the church. “Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Missions isn’t about individuals leaving the church to do things for God. It is about the church being involved in missions. And the church responded.

Then, having fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them away. Almost certainly, this was referring to the entire church, not just the other three… Lucius, Manaen, and Simeon. In Acts 14:27 it speaks of Paul and Barnabbas returning to Antioch and reporting to the entire church, not just the other three.

So what might one gain from this:

1. God has a mission. It is the Spirit of God who initiates the action. I don’t believe that we have to wonder or worry whether God has a mission in Baguio. I don’t believe that we have to wonder or worry whether God has a mission for the Philippines. I don’t believe that we have to wonder or worry whether God has a mission in the world. And I don’t believe that we have to wonder or worry whether God has a mission for your church. God is on a mission and has a mission big enough to involve all.

2. God calls the church to join Him in His mission. Missions is not the job of specialists… missionaries. Missions is not the job of church leaders. Missions is the job of the entire church. God is on mission and invites the entire church to join in it. The church is a body and that body functions properly when each member of that body does its job correctly and faithfully.

3. The church goes on mission when it sends out missionaries. It is interesting to note that in verse 3 it says that the church laid hands on Paul and Barnabas. In the Bible, there are essentially two major reasons for laying hands on a person. One reason was in giving a blessing or gift of some sort. The other reason, frankly the more common reason, was to show a connection or a unity between the individual and the one laying on hands. I believe it’s pretty clear that the second applies here.

When the church laid their hands on Paul and Barnabas, they were saying that as they go on missions, the church goes with them. They are united in mission. They are united in spirit… even if they are separated by distance.

Sadly, in churches today, we don’t tend to do this… when we do lay on hands for missionaries, it tends to be with some idea of commissioning… not really a biblical concept. Then, all too often, the missionary goes away and the church forgets about them. What a shame.

The idea of laying on of hands is that when you go, we are with you. We are supporting you. The ministry you do, wherever you do it is our ministry. And what ministry we do, they are also part of.

Imagine that when a member of our church is going to a distant country, rather than feeling as if we are losing them… we feel that we have gained a new ministry location… wouldn’t that be powerful… wouldn’t that be a profound idea… seeing ministry through the eyes of God.

4. We have a choice. When God told them what to do… the Church of Antioch did not make excuses. They were not powerful… they were a modest church struggling to survive in a huge pagan trading city. Yet, this single church in the city of Antioch… changed the world. Sending out Paul, sending out Barnabbas, sending out John Mark and Silas and Nicholas, and others that we don’t even know. The planted churches all over Asia Minor, Greece, the islands of the Mediterranean, Egypt, Mesopotamia and beyond. It is hard to even imagine what the church would be like today without the church of Antioch. Even today, the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch has millions of members scattered throughout the world, including the Philippines.

We have a choice… but we are all called to respond with “Yes Lord.”