At Work

What Is the Meaning of Mission in Today’s World?

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It is almost impossible to have a deep discussion on any topic without running into the question, “What do you mean by x,” where x can be almost anything – any concept, any idea, any term. Indeed, it often feels like at least half of all academic discourse consists of simply getting our terms straight, while the other half is working out the implications of whatever definitions we just nailed down.

Discussing Christian life and theology is no different. We can hardly get anywhere without talking at length about what we mean when we use words such as grace, justification, sanctification, and all the rest. For this reason, any effort devoted to clearly and carefully defining such terms is invaluable and should be much appreciated.

One great example of such work is Christian theologian John Stott’s book Christian Mission in the Modern World.

Originally released forty years ago, it was recently republished as Christian Mission in the Modern World: Updated and Expanded, with added reflections from Christopher J.H. Wright, a friend and colleague of Stott. The book seeks to elucidate the meaning of “mission” and four other words commonly associated with it: evangelism, dialogue, salvation, and conversion.

As Stott aptly points out, the words “mission” or “missionary” typically evoke a certain image:

The missionary [is] often caricatured as standing under a palm tree, wearing a pith helmet and declaiming the gospel to a group of ill-clad “natives” sitting respectfully around him on the ground. Thus the traditional image of the missionary [is] of the preacher, and a rather paternalistic kind of preacher at that.

Stott observes that this romantic image of mission implies that the primary, if not exclusive, function of mission is evangelism. However, in the past several decades an alternative view has held that mission should be defined solely as engaging in what is today commonly referred to as social justice – redressing economic disparity, oppression, racial inequality, and other social ills.

Instead of choosing one of these two extremes, Stott suggests we understand mission as a partnership of evangelism and social action:

As partners the two belong to each other and yet are independent of each other. Each stands on its own feet in its own right alongside the other. Neither is a means to the other, or even a manifestation of the other. For each is an end in itself. Both are expressions of unfeigned love. Evangelism and compassionate service belong together in the mission of God.

In formulating this broader understanding of mission Stott draws on the biblical account of the Great Commission. The expression “Great Commission” is usually understood to refer to Jesus’s words in Matthew 28:19-20a:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.

The exclusively evangelistic understanding of mission is derived in large part from these verses.

In the Gospel of John, though, Jesus is also recorded as using more expansive language: “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you” (John 20:21). As Stott rightly points out, Jesus’s ministry was a ministry of word and deed, evangelism and service, not just one or the other. Our own ministry to the world should be the same.

With this great commission in mind, then, Stott suggests we understand mission as “everything the church is sent into the world to do.” That covers a lot more ground than just preaching to the unevangelized overseas. It speaks to you and me right where we are, for if service is a part of mission, then our vocational calling—as manifested in the different careers and jobs we have—is missional. It is not the only part of mission, nor is it the only kind of mission we are called to, but it is certainly mission.

The world is full of Christians who think their ordinary lives are not enough, who dream of really doing something for God. Imagine, if you can, what would happen if they realized that mission—their mission—is not necessarily on the other side of the world. It is right beneath their two feet where they stand and live and work and love.

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