As a young Christian lad, it was easy to be inspired by stories of William Carey, one of the first western missionaries to India, often seen as a pioneer of the modern Christian missionary movement.
It wasn’t just his desire to bring the good news about Jesus to people who might otherwise not hear it. I was also struck by his work as a translator and publisher – of the Bible, yes, but of Indian literature, grammars, and dictionaries too. He also campaigned for agriculture reform, introduced savings banks to tackle the lending of money at excessive interest, founded dozens of schools for boys and girls of all castes, started a newspaper, pioneered lending libraries, and more besides. All of these activities I could see as flowing out of his faith in Christ.
But it was all something that happened ‘over there’, not ‘over here’. And it was about what someone else was called to do, not what I might be able to do. It has taken some shifts in my own understanding to see mission as being ‘from everywhere to everywhere’ and as involving every one of God’s people, in every situation of life.
Where do we start? Right where we are.
Our Missional Context
In their book, Everyday Church, Tim Chester and Steve Timmis invite us to imagine that we wake up one day to discover we’re missionaries in a foreign land, where the language, culture, worldview, and values are unfamiliar to us. In such circumstances, we’d have to get to know the people and their customs. More than just learning a new language in order to communicate, we’d want to be able to connect with people at a relational level. We’d need to explore how the Bible and its message of good news interacts with the outlook and way of life of our friends and neighbours.
But here’s the thing: this is the context in which we find ourselves! We are in a ‘missionary’ situation, with the need to take on the posture and practices of missionaries in order to engage others with the good news about Jesus.
In part, then, being a missionary follower of Jesus involves understanding the context in which we live. This includes the macro context in which the church no longer has a privileged place in society, where religion has been reduced to the private realm, where God is viewed as a personal lifestyle choice. But it also includes any number of micro contexts, the places we find ourselves every day – this workplace, this family, this street, this neighbourhood, this town. And we get to know the people in those places – their stories, their values, their worldview, the things they hold dear. For it’s only as we do so that we’ll be able to use the language and categories of our culture in a way that presents Christ as the one who subverts but also supremely fulfils the fundamental commitments and aspirations of the culture.
We do this not by cutting ourselves off from our neighbours or colleagues, but by living out something of our missional identity as those sent by God himself.
The Missional God
For yes, we are sent. Except that it’s all too easy to focus on the ‘command’ element of the commission passages in the gospels without noticing the promises which accompany them, promises which reflect God’s amazing plan for the world.
Mission doesn’t start with Christ’s commission to ‘make disciples of all nations’ (Matthew 28:19). It has always been God’s mission to bless all nations. We see it in his original design for creation, in his promises to Abraham, and his calling of Israel – later reiterated through the servant figure in Isaiah who is chosen to be a light to the nations (Isaiah 43:10; 49:5-6). So it is that Jesus tells his disciples after his resurrection that the Scriptures promise not only that the Messiah would suffer and die and rise again, but that repentance and forgiveness of sins would be preached in his name to all nations (Luke 24:45-48). The biblical story both points to Christ as the one who stands at the centre of it and nurtures the missional identity of the disciples as they take their place ‘as witnesses of these things’ in the forward movement of that story, God’s ongoing plan for the world.
This is the unfinished story Luke starts to tell in Acts, which begins with a restatement of the disciples as Jesus’ witnesses. Here too, Acts 1:8 – ‘you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’ – is not a command so much as a declaration, a promise even. In line with Isaiah’s prophecy, they are God’s ‘witnesses’, the servant community who will bring the message of salvation not just to Israel but to the ‘ends of the earth’.
For us too, our mission is an extension of God’s mission, and being witnesses is less an assignment and more an identity – the overflow of the gift of grace to us and, amazingly, the means by which God reaches others.
A Missional People
All of this suggests that mission is not an optional activity we do, or that some of us do, but an integral part of what it means to belong to the body of Christ, a people who exist for the sake of the world.
It’s in this light that we best understand how the life and ministry of the local church fit into God’s mission. Like the rhythm of breathing in and out, our ‘gathering’ and ‘scattering’ go together. One of the outcomes of our participation in the practices of the gathered church – in worship and fellowship, in prayer and preaching, in bread and wine – is to be formed and equipped to be God’s scattered people on our everyday frontlines, the multiple spheres and arenas in which we live and work.
It’s precisely in those sorts of places that Christians through the centuries have evangelised others, in a way that’s organic and relational, which extends over time, which may nudge someone towards Christ through any number of mini-decisions. But the mandate to make disciples means not only bringing people to faith but nurturing their growth in relationship with God and others, and teaching them obedience to Jesus in every area of life. And this is exactly as it should be, for the gospel is the announcement of God’s kingly rule over all things. ‘Your God reigns’, declares the herald of Isaiah (52:7), redeeming men and women, yes, but also restoring all creation.
Seen this way, evangelism is not a ‘bolt on’ Christian activity, but is organically connected to the whole of life – a fusion of presence and proclamation, the message of our lips matching the message of our lives – the outflowing of who we are in Christ, equipped and sent by him as witnesses in his ongoing mission to the world.
Tim Chester, Mission Matters: Love Says Go (IVP, 2015).
With a focus on world mission, the book unfolds in four parts, looking at the God of mission, the story of mission, the scope of mission, and the challenges of mission.
Michael W. Goheen, Introducing Christian Mission Today: Scripture, History and Issues (IVP, 2014).
A large but accessible textbook, which provides a great introduction to key concepts and conversations in mission.
Christopher J.H. Wright, The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission (Zondervan, 2010).
Sees mission as the all-encompassing purpose of God to restore creation – which embraces all that his people are called to be and do in the world.