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Recently, as I was walking out of a church after worship, I instinctively visited the missions display. Having spent many years in crosscultural ministry, I was curious to view the scope of the church’s ministry, the nature of its works, and the missionaries with whom it partners. This church particularly encouraged me because it presented its world missions involvement not in some out-of-the-way corner but in a place of high visibility. It serves as a constant reminder to all who enter that this is a church that sends out . . . to world missions.

Something else caught my eye on that table: several different literature pieces featuring coordinated titles declaring, “This is missions . . .” Some presented opportunities for business as missions, others for teaching English, still others for disaster response and medical ministry. Clearly, the intended point behind the creative title is the truth that the Lord uses believers from every walk of life to serve in missions. But the title statement also raises a deeper question that flows from the original: What is missions?

With missions being conceptualized in so many different ways in the church, one thing becomes clear: we need to guard against defining missions so loosely that it becomes meaningless. As one missionary and scholar famously declared, “If everything is mission, nothing is mission.” What, then, is world missions? Though imperfect, I propose my synthesized definition as a starting point:

Missions is the plan and act of God for redeeming and making disciples from every tongue, tribe, people, and nation by sending His people to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, to show them the gracious, redeeming love of a glorious God, and to organize them into biblical, worshiping churches.

A right understanding of world missions holds several key concepts.

First, God is the architect and builder of missions. He has covenantally planned missions from eternity past and, in His sovereign timing, is bringing missions to completion (Eph. 1:4–5; 2 Tim. 1:8–10). Therefore, our missions ministries should reflect His revealed missions plan.

God is the architect and builder of missions. He has covenantally planned missions from eternity past.

Second, from the beginning, the scope of God’s design encompasses the nations. From the establishment of the covenant (Gen. 12; 17) to the consummation of the kingdom (Rev. 22:2), the Lord’s revealed heart is for the world. As the Father said to the Son, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa. 49:6). Therefore, if our missions focus is simply on “home missions” because “there is so much work to be done here,” it is vastly incomplete.

Third, God’s plan for missions is to use His redeemed people to call the nations to faith in Christ and to disciple all who respond. In other words, in the power of the Spirit we serve as instruments in the twin ministries of justification and sanctification—justification by calling people to trust only in Christ and sanctification by teaching people everything Christ has commanded. Sadly, church history is replete with examples of two great missiological errors: focusing on one at the expense of the other, and simply resting in the sovereignty of God as an excuse to do neither.

Fourth, not only are believers commissioned to evangelize and disciple, but they are called to model Christ in both capacities. Every lesson of instruction, every work of mercy, every deed of kindness, and every act of healing flows from—and portrays—the loving heart of God. These portraits adorn the gospel and become avenues to missions.

Last, and what is frequently missing in our missions understanding, is the mandate to gather all believers into worshiping churches. Jesus promised, “I will build my church(Matt. 16:18). Paul declared that “through the church” the manifold wisdom of God will be made known (Eph. 3:10). In other words, Christ’s purpose and our proper goal for missions is not simply to make converts but to make disciples, and not just disciples, but disciples locally gathered into faithful churches where they are biblically instructed and spiritually shepherded. This concept is cemented in Jesus’ commission to believers to go and “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). In context, we understand baptism to be a sacrament of the church as a sign and seal of God’s covenant of grace.

Where do the foregoing points lead us? First, though there are many voices seeking to broaden the scope of missions, let us hold fast the three essentials given by Christ: evangelism, discipleship, and church membership. Second, when we consider all the possible activities of missions, let us not confuse the road with the destination. That destination is the presentation of everyone “complete in Christ” (Col. 1:28, NASB). Third, properly understood, our earthly specialties are not missions in and of themselves, but they serve as bridges to missions. We use them to open doors, just as Jesus used a drink of water with the woman at the well to proclaim the living water. We must be similarly purposeful, realizing that if, for example, in medical ministry we perfectly set a young man’s broken leg but withhold the gospel, his true misery remains. If we give him a crutch but no cross, we have not done missions.

May we all faithfully participate in the Lord’s plan by boldly inviting the lost to faith and the saved to lifelong discipleship in the body of Christ, and may we guard against an alluring yet ultimately watered-down version of missions in which bankrupt souls depart from our presence with renovated buildings, repaired limbs, and perfect accents but having never heard the words of life.

The Mission of God

Motives for World Missions

Keep Reading World Missions and Reformed Theology

From the April 2022 Issue
Apr 2022 Issue