I spoke at the 2011 Desiring God National Conference. The next five posts are from my talk, which is now in the book Finish the Mission.
Modern Christians, particularly of the Western world, seem to trend toward one of two paths when they are talking about God’s mission. Either they will set off down a “sent-ness” path by emphasizing the church as being sent and what it means to be missional, or they will go down a “nations” path by emphasizing the church as the one sending around the world. While these two paths are not incompatible, they seem too often to be followed in divergent directions. The reason for this is that they often focus on different parts of the missio Dei. Yet, I think by exploring the commissions of Jesus, we get a better picture of God’s mission–we understand more clearly our missiology.
In the past century there has been a tremendous amount written on missiology. But as I write on missiology in this chapter, I do so because I believe there is still more that needs to be said, and this conversation is necessary for the health and growth of the church. I would take another step and suggest that the church today desperately needs to remain engaged in this conversation. A proper theological diet needs a healthy portion of missiology. And perhaps the best way to do so is by examining the commissions of Jesus.
In this chapter, I will focus on all four of the commissions of Jesus. We will examine what it means to be a missional, missions-minded, gospel-centered, Spirit-empowered church from the four commissions of Jesus, so that his name and his fame would be more widely known.
WE ARE SENT – a sending focus
The church is a sent people, and the sending focus of God’s people is captured in the Gospel of John. In John 20, after the resurrection, Jesus appears in the flesh to his disciples. In the first commission of Jesus, beginning in verse 19 John writes:
“In the evening of that first day of the week, the disciples were gathered together with the doors locked because of their fear of the Jews. Then Jesus came, stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!” Having said this, He showed them His hands and His side. So the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.”
And he says to them again in verse 21 (note the key phrase):
Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.”
Jesus is both sent and the sender. Readers are forced to make a hermeneutic decision. Is Jesus’ command to his disciples also applicable to us? Certainly, when you look at the commissions of Jesus, there have been times in the history of the church when Christians have said, “No, that just applies to those who heard the voice of Jesus in the first century.” But hopefully we will move beyond this limited application of Scripture and recognize that when Jesus speaks to his disciples here, at this moment, his command also applies to us. Jesus is both the Sent One, and the Sender of his people. Consequently, the church is, as the body of Christ, both a sent and a sending people.
We are sent on mission. But what does that mean? Am I now a missionary? Am I missional? And here’s where our language requires clarification.
Defining mission might seem at first to be a relatively simple task. But, as you start, you see that there are challenges in defining the term mission. In 2010, David Hesselgrave and I edited a book on missiology, MissionShift. The first third of the book is dedicated to defining and describing the terms mission, missions, missional, missio Dei, and missionary. Charles Van Engen, Keith Eitel, Enoch Wan, Darrell L. Guder, Andreas Köstenberger and I interact and respond to one another regarding how we define and/or described mission. It was a fascinating conversation. In my chapter, I conclude, “we need… a ‘cohesive, consistent, focused, theologically deep, missiologically broad, contextually appropriate, and praxeologically effective, evangelical missiology.'” Indeed, we need a clear understanding of mission.
The word mission comes from a Latin word meaning “to send.” That does not necessarily help us fully define what mission is biblically. Being sent and sending are major themes in the story of Scripture, but limiting our definition to the sending actions of God limits our view of mission in some significant ways. First, sending alone does not entail other important, mission-centered themes in the biblical stories. Second, broadening how we speak of mission also helps us to locate our actions in God’s grand plan for history, so this allows us to acknowledge that sending is always for a purpose. Avery Willis, an author and missiologist (recently deceased), describes mission in such eschatological terms. Willis says:
By mission I mean the total redemptive purpose of God to establish his kingdom. Missions, on the other hand, [as contrasted with mission] is the activity of God’s people the church to proclaim and to demonstrate the kingdom of God in the world.
Willis goes on to clarify the difference between mission and missionaries, saying, “Missionaries are set apart by God and the church to cross natural and cultural barriers with the gospel.” Mission, therefore, is conceived as the total redemptive purpose of God to establish his kingdom, and missionaries are those agents who carry out God’s redemptive purposes through the church in a variety of contexts.
It is important to note here that God has a mission and is on a mission. We find this in the biblical story. God is both sender and sent in Christ. God, the Father, is the source of mission. He sent His Son, who embodies God’s mission and accomplishes it. God’s mission is then extended and applied through the ministry of the Spirit, for it is the spirit calls, equips and empower the people of God. The mission is therefore God’s. He sends to accomplish his mission–the redemption of His whole creation. Jesus consistently spoke of Himself as being “sent” in John’s gospel and subsequently commissioned His disciples for this same purpose (John 17:3, 8, 18, 21, 23, 25). As the “sent” people of God, the church is the instrument of His mission (John 20:21). Missions flows from the mission of God.
So what’s a missionary? Some of you reading this are missionaries (according to Willis’ definition). You cross cultural barriers in Jesus’ name so his fame would be more widely known. In some sense, however, as Charles Spurgeon said, “Every Christian is either a missionary or an imposter.” So, how should we use the term “missionary?”
Let me suggest first an answer that not everyone will agree with. Precision in language is not as important as the emphasis on being sent. So, it is at this point that I like what Spurgeon says. Here, it seems to me that everyone should be able to agree with what he meant. When Spurgeon said, “Every Christian is either a missionary or an impostor,” he was saying that we all are sent by Jesus and are called to live in light of that sending. Christians are called to live on mission.
Second, I prefer to use “missionary” to refer to particular people who pursue a particular calling. While some might say, however, “All Christians are missionaries,” I would not typically phrase it that way. I would emphasis the “sent-ness” of all Christians to live on mission. Missionaries are those with particular ministry and calling to cross cultural barriers to make disciples of Jesus. We live in a pluralistic world, so people used to cross regional and geographical borders to do this. Now, many of us can engage readily in cross-cultural conversations without leaving our own cities. These opportunities will continue to grow.
Even as I more narrowly define missionary, I still think that the first step is to confirm the “sentness” of all disciples.
I (and others) use the term missional to describe a mission-shaped life. Missional is simply the adjectival use of the word mission. In other words, if I’m living a missional life, I’m living a life shaped by God’s mission–which is again simply a Latin-based word centered on the concept of being sent. As we have seen, the root of the word does not give a full picture of living missionally, for “sent-ness” implies purpose.
John 20:21 is ultimately is about God sending and about the fact that we are sent. So to be faithful to this text we focus on mission as sent-ness. Jesus said if you’re a follower of Christ, if you’ve been born again by the power of the gospel, that you are sent. It doesn’t matter what you call it. What matters is that when you’ve encountered God, when you’ve been made new in Christ, and that you stand before God saying “Here I am, Lord. Send me.”
“I thought only missionaries were sent?” you ask. Well, they are. Those who live missionally are sent, too.
“Well, they seem more sent than us. I mean, they get odd clothes. They live in tents. They eat bugs. They are different.”
And after knowing and encouraging vocational missionaries for decades, I can say with certitude that, “Yes, missionaries are different.” But missionaries are not aliens. Their spiritual responsibility for the mission of God is the same as those who live in their hometown for their entire lives. The difference between the missionary and “County Seat First Church” member lies not in their sent-ness, but their context and the ways that they pursue their life of mission.
“As the Father has sent me, so send I you.” God is gracious. He is good. He is merciful. He is holy. God is also a sender. We forget this. He demonstrates it in the Old Testament when God sends Abraham to be blessed and to be a blessing to others. Jonah is sent. God asks the prophet Isaiah, “Who shall I send? Who will go for Us?” Isaiah replied, “Here I am. Send me.”
We could go on and on and on with examples of God sending from Genesis to Malachi. God sends, because he is a sender. God demonstrates his sending nature in the New Testament. As we have seen in John 20:21, Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, so send I you.” The Father, in his sent-ness, begat the same nature in Jesus. Jesus, therefore, also has a nature of sent-ness. As Jesus’ disciples become transformed into the image of Christ, they, in turn, put on his sent-ness.