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What is the Mission of Missions? Part 1

By Joel James | 02.02.16 | The Expositors Blog

    What is missions?

    Missions is your ecclesiology armed with a passport.

    Whether a missionary gets there by plane, ship, canoe, or walking over a mountain through a dripping rainforest, missions is about a good biblical church sending a gifted, qualified person to do the same thing—to reproduce that biblical church—somewhere else.

    The goal, of course, is not to export “Americanity” to another continent, but rather to bless other people with those things that actually make a biblical church. In its irreducible form, a church is a group of people called out to glorify God. It starts through the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It continues nurtured and nourished by the preaching of God’s Word.  It grows in sanctification by the Spirit; it does the one anothers; it tells others about Christ; and it looks for Christ’s return. In God’s wisdom, those things are supra-cultural. A Western missionary might need to leave his PowerPoint presentation and comfortable, carpeted, air-conditioned auditorium behind when he hikes over the mountain to a remote village, but the important things—the biblical things—transfer directly and immediately into any culture.

    In the past, the majority of theologically conservative missionaries were sent out to do church planting, leadership training, and Bible translation. No longer. Today a growing percentage of new missionaries are being sent to focus on social relief, with the church and the gospel tacked on as something of theological addendum. In fact, in my twenty years in Africa, I’ve seen a major shift in evangelical missions away from what I call “book of Acts missions” toward social reform projects or social action missions.

    It’s no surprise. The influential voices dominating the evangelical conversation about the church and about missions today are promoting a new kind of mission: shalom, social justice, or the gospel of good deeds and human flourishing. And it appears that the new generation of evangelicals—the Young, Restless, and Reformed—has bought in, enthusiastically embracing social upliftment as their central missions strategy. Most of the resulting evangelical missionaries value the church and the gospel, but in many cases, they seem to view the church primarily as a platform from which to run their favorite relief project. As a missionary who has served the Lord on the pointy end of the spear for two decades, I have a significant concern about these changes taking place on the handgrip end of the spear. 

    Let me state my concern as clearly as I can: The NT apostles were the Christ-appointed and Christ-trained interpreters of Jesus’ Great Commission, yet it appears to me that how the apostles defined and enacted Jesus’ commission to reach the world is often being ignored by evangelicals in their rush toward social action missions.

    I believe that the book of Acts and its commentaries—the NT epistles—should rigorously and definitively shape our approach to missions. While no one would say that Acts is absolutely prescriptive in regard to missions, it is certainly must be considered to be more than merely descriptive. In short, how the apostles interpreted Jesus’ Great Commission is an authoritative interpretation. After all, they are the foundation of the church according to Ephesians 2:20; therefore, they provide a timeless and definitive interpretation of Christ’s commission. What they did in the book of Acts lays out for us the lane markers for the church’s missions efforts in any era. However, as evangelical churches shift from proclamation-oriented missions to social-action missions, I wonder if we aren’t running diagonally across the track rather than straight down our lane.

    The current tug-of-war between proclamation-oriented missions and social-action missions is not new. However, in recent years key voices in evangelicalism have enthusiastically promoted social action missions, including prominent evangelicals such as John Stott and Tim Keller. In fact, John Stott has for decades urged the church to make social action and evangelism equal, fifty-fifty partners in the fulfilling of the Great Commission. Years ago, Stott wrote, “They are like the two blades of a pair of scissors or the two wings of a bird.  This partnership is clearly seen in the public ministry of Jesus who not only preached the gospel but fed the hungry and healed the sick.” More recently, Tim Keller has played a key role in promoting social action. Peter Naylor sums up Keller’s view this way: “Keller’s main thesis is that the church has a twofold mission in this world: (1) to preach the gospel and (2) to do justice, which involves social and cultural transformation and renewal” (Engaging With Keller, 137).

    It’s a dicey line that Stott and Keller have drawn for the church to walk. In essence, they are saying, “We’re going to keep the gospel the main thing and focus the church on social reformation; in fact, in a sense, social action is the gospel too.” In theory, it’s a noble blend of word and deed. Naturally, however, the further one pushes, the closer one gets to the place where social involvement ceases to be distinctly Christian—what is the Christian way to dig a well?—and at some point social involvement might even start to supplant that which is distinctly Christian. 

    In the 1990s, Stott acknowledged the danger of his dual emphasis: “The main fear of my critics seems to be that missionaries will be sidetracked” (The Contemporary Christian, 342). In fact, I believe that this fear is a perfectly valid one, and has been repeatedly proven to be so. Today, many churches and missions committees barely seem aware of the distinction between missionaries who focus on social action and missionaries who focus on Bible translation, theological training, church planting, and gospel proclamation. In part 2 of this series, I will begin to summarize my concerns with this trend.

    Joel James has served as the pastor-teacher of Grace Fellowship in Pretoria, South Africa since February 1995. This series was adapted from Joel James and Brian Biedebach, “Regaining Our Focus: A Response to the Social Action Trend in Evangelical Missions,” MSJ 25, no. 1 (Spring 2014): 29-50.

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