What We Forget When We Define Missions

Whether we define “mission” broadly or narrowly, we can be so theological that we forget the centrality of loving our neighbors.

The word missions permeates Christian culture in a variety of ways—missions trips, missions field, missions movements. Unfortunately, the common use of the word has muddied the waters regarding its meaning. For the most part, “missions” floats around as a nebulous buzzword associated with good deeds, and, periodically God.

What is missions? It’s difficult to give a neat answer, as the definition overflows into other categories of Christian experience such as discipleship, teaching, multiplication, apologetics. At times, the flexibility of the term has been abused—stretched so thin as to be almost unidentifiable.

Some might say missions is evangelism. Others will equate missions with acts of service. John Stott combined the two: “Evangelism and compassionate service belong together in the mission of God” (Christian Mission in the Modern World, p. 27).

But what about how we express mission? Is church planting a truer form of it than hospital ministry? Is evangelism an isolated practice, or a continuous lifestyle? These questions seem endless, but they don’t need to be.

In all the theological noise, we tend to miss an obvious common denominator throughout the competing definitions of missions: people.

Without people to reach, missions is meaningless. The Great Commission hinges on lost souls who will be made into disciples. This is not a concept from which Christians can graduate and move on. As we join God’s mission, we spend our entire lives learning to prioritize others.

When the theological definition of missions is only discussed from armchairs and pulpits, the priority of people tends to fade into the background. But Jesus came to rescue real people. As he advances God’s kingdom to every tribe, tongue, and nation, his every act is performed with others in mind. If our focus ever diverts from Jesus’ example, then we will disregard our fellow image-bearers.

In life on mission, we seek to glorify God by pursuing the hearts of people, because billions hang in the balance of eternity. Everything else—figures, strategies, initiatives—is only means to an end. After all is said and done, real-live, flesh-and-blood sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, are waiting to experience the saving grace God extends through missions.

Providing real human beings with opportunities to hear of and know Jesus Christ—this is the essence of missions. We cannot forget that missions always points us in the direction of others.