Survey your local Christian bookstore or blog, and you’ll see different, overlapping, and sometimes contradictory definitions of terms like mission, missions, missional, and missionary from church and ministry leaders—voices otherwise aligned with one another theologically.
“Every Christian is either a missionary or an imposter,” Charles Spurgeon once said. Most agree with the quote at face value, but few are willing to dig deeper. While it is true that all believers have a role to play in the Great Commission, if every ministry activity is “missions,” then ultimately, nothing is.
I’ve written previously on common faulty views of evangelism. I believe we need to be asking similar questions about missions. What is missions? Better yet: what isn’t missions?
There are five aspects of the church’s work in the world that are frequently—and mistakenly—conflated with the missionary task. In surveying this list, let us humbly consider if we have been guilty of downgrading the biblical definition of missions in our own teaching, preaching, writing, and living.
1. Crossing Cultures
Missions inevitably involves crossing a cultural chasm, whether great or small, linguistic or socioeconomic. But simply shifting one’s ministry or work into a new language or cultural setting does not suffice to christen one’s activity “missions.” What do I mean?
A good example of this would be a church program focusing on teaching English as a second language (TESL). Providing English classes can be a great relational bridge-builder with expats and refugees, leading to evangelism and eventual church-planting efforts. But an English program alone isn’t truly missional unless intentional evangelism and disciple-making is occurring, with the goal of long-term church planting or strengthening. This is true regardless of how many immigrants are now visiting your church property on a weekly basis who wouldn’t have been there otherwise.
I draw my definition of missions largely from the Pauline model set forward in Romans 15:19-21. Unless one is taking specific steps in preaching the gospel, making disciples, and multiplying the number of capably-led churches, the mere act of crossing cultures does not constitute missions in this apostolic sense.
Crossing into a new culture is the first step of the missionary task, but it isn’t the only step.
2. Crossing Borders
We often settle for a definition of missions that is purely geographic. Many churches tend to equate member relocation with missionary sending.
I recently hear the story of one church that “commissioned” a few of its members to join another nearby congregation. These members called themselves “missionaries” for one reason only—so that they could return to the home church and vote during congregational meetings. Apart from this, these members weren’t truly operating as missionaries at all.
This might seem like an extreme case, but we’re often tempted to do the same thing in our own settings—for instance, when a college student decides to study abroad for a semester, a businessman is relocated to Asia for a year, or a family chooses to spend six months in Mexico to facilitate an adoption. Should the church pray for such travelers and encourage them to seek disciple-making opportunities? Absolutely. Might God lead many of them to join established missionary teams? Without a doubt. But these individuals should not be automatically considered missionaries. In each of these situations, it’s tempting to celebrate such people as missionaries, but we can only do so if their ministry work is clearly and biblically defined.
The Great Commission begins with “go,” but not all who “go” across borders of land or sea are missionaries. If pastors and church leaders leave out the rest of Jesus’ words (“disciple all nations”), we risk compromising the uniqueness of pioneer missions.
3. Mercy Ministry
Another pitfall common to today’s churches is to equate the alleviation of physical needs with the work of the Great Commission.
While there is a clear difference between verbal proclamation of the good news and acts of mercy performed in Jesus’ name, for whatever reason, when such deeds are performed overseas, we lose sight of the distinction and label it all “missions.”
When the gospel invades cultures dominated by poverty, injustice, or other significant forms of need, holistic ministry does result. As disciples are won to Christ, they obey everything Jesus commanded (cf. Matthew 28:20), including his instructions concerning care for the needy and biblical reformation of sin-influenced laws and economic structures. Missionary hospitals, orphanages, and other such efforts have been key platforms for ministry throughout modern missionary movements.
But simply digging a well in West Africa and doing no more is no more an inherently missional than helping your next-door neighbor tap into the city water line. Unless mercy ministry is purposefully integrated with gospel proclamation, compassion ministry itself does not constitute our global mandate. Sadly, many short-term ministry efforts amount more to poverty tourism than pioneer missions.
The other day, I spent about a half-hour on the phone speaking with a missionary in Honduras whose heart was broken for the discipleship of the indigenous mountain villagers in his region.
For years, he had observed the revolving door of short-term teams entering his community, holding an evangelistic rally, claiming hundreds of converts, and hopping on a plane home. Within weeks, these supposed converts were nowhere to be seen. There was no meaningful follow-up and no assimilation of new professing believers into stable church bodies.
My suspicion is that anyone reading this article could relate a dozen stories of their own along similar lines.
Although evangelism is indispensable to missions, success in missions cannot stop at mass-scale moments of “decision.” In Romans 15, Paul defines his calling as not merely consisting of the evangelization of individuals (an inexhaustible task); rather, he emphasizes the establishment of elder-led churches as beachheads to continue the work of ministry. Even seeing numbers of genuine conversions is not the goal of missions—the goal is mature, disciple-making disciples coming to exist where there were few or none beforehand.
Without a clear commitment to long-term impact, shotgun evangelistic outreaches fall short of the robust definition of mission exemplified in the New Testament.
5. Cultural Transformation
Culture is religion externalized. So, whenever the gospel is believed and obeyed at a mass scale in a society, that society is sure to change.
For the last two millennia, wherever conversionary missionary efforts have taken root, cultures have been reshaped. Consider, for instance, the outlawing of sati through the efforts of William Carey—a kingdom victory born out of a clear conviction that Jesus not only saves but also commands the obedience of the nations.
Young evangelicals are growingly suspicious of the dualism latent in many churches (“earth bad, heaven good”). Many are beginning to recognize that the kingdom of God is both not yet and, in an intense sense, here already through the reign of Christ in the church through his gospel. This world is not just a sinking ship; it is being saved (cf. John 3:17), so we’re called to both preach to its passengers and polish its brass.
But whenever there’s a course correction in the church, our tendency is to overcorrect. Sustained, societal gospel impact promotes common-grace and human flourishing, but social impact is not the purpose of the cross. Aware of this, we cannot confuse the fruit of the gospel with its root. When we do so, we lose both. As C.S. Lewis remarked in The Joyful Christian: “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.”
My purpose here is that you would be the cynic in the room the next time missions comes up at your church meeting. The last thing we need to do is justify inactivity in the name of discernment. Rather, I am calling for measured, missional discernment. God is more than able to draw straight lines with crooked sticks and bless even our most ill-defined activities, but our definitions still matter.
Our ministry structures will only endure if we lay the right foundations. Our definition of missions must be fenced, not to keep people away, but to protect its value.
Let’s talk about missions with precision, so that we can do missions with excellence.
Editor’s Note: Interested in missions? Take your next step here. This article was originally posted July 5, 2019.