The Actual Mission of “Missions”

What are missions? What is mission work?

It can be a buzz word of sorts in Christian circles. Local missions, foreign missions, “mission minded”, “mission trips”, etc. I, for one, am someone who likes to define the terms when getting into explaining things, anything. We live in a world of so much information that the waters have certainly been muddied.

This makes communication in a postmodern world difficult and unprofitable sometimes, actually many times. There should be a clear understanding of what we mean by our use of any given word, but, someone else may use the VERY SAME word, but mean something else by it. So, let’s define the terms upfront as we think about the topic of “missions.”

What exactly is “the mission” or what are “missions?”

As we think about the New Testament, who do we speak of most, or think about first when we think of missions? Who is the first to pop into your mind? Is it Peter, James or John? Maybe, but I’d have to say probably not. Most people would automatically think. Paul of course. Why is this?

We know that Paul is most remembered as “the missionary” because there is much in the NT about his missionary journeys. But it is important that we remember that he was also the Apostle to the gentiles. The other Apostles pretty much stayed ministering to the Jews, their same people group. While Paul went out to the Gentiles, people different from himself, in places away from his own home, to places where people looked different and spoke different languages and believed different things. They had a different worldview and culture.

The other Apostles pretty much stayed around people who were like themselves, believed the same things, shared the same culture and language. We have to admit that there is definitely a different element about Paul’s mission to the Gentiles, in comparison to the way the Gospel was preached to the Jews in Jerulsalem. Paul crosses cultural lines with the Gospel. He went to the “ethnos” he went to the nations, to other people who were not like him.

In what is known as the Great Commission found in Matthew 28:18 – 20, Jesus says the following:

“Jesus came near and said to them, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations (ethnos), baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.””

Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the ἔθνος…
Original Word: ἔθνος
Transliteration: ethnos
Phonetic Spelling: (eth’-nos)
Definition: a race, a nation, the nations
This word can mean:
a race, people, nation; the nations, Gentiles (non Jews).

The Great Commission, in this text, is the “mission” that we as Christians refer to when we talk about “missions.” But in light of the clear command of Christ here, are we using this term correctly? Oftentimes I think we don’t. I must say first of all that I believe that most people have the best of intentions, and I certainly commend their willingness to serve. Nothing but love and respect for them there.

But the mission is to literally take the Gospel and make disciples of people from other nations. Ours too, of course, but not just ours. I don’t think the Scriptures give us the luxury of an “either or” approach when it comes to missions. Each local church should strive to be involved in Gospel proclamation at home and overseas. Whether it be in going, sending, supporting, praying, whatever. But involved and committed, in both local ministry and foreign missions to the best of their ability. Understanding that He who has all authority in heaven and on earth was not just giving a suggestion. It wasn’t a beggar’s plea, but a King’s command to His people!

In foreign missions, the call is to reach and make Christ followers of people who are unlike ourselves. Crossing geographical, ethnolinguistic and cultural boundaries. It could be said that what many call “local missions” is actually evangelism, and/or some other type of ministry. But according to the command, actual missions would be evangelism and discipleship in a different cultural context than your own.

That definition could certainly be broadened, but for now let’s say that at a minimum, missions, as we see in Scripture, is crossing cultural barriers with the Gospel. Some may not see that as significant. But I would argue that it is very important that we make such a distinction. We must define the terms.

I say this only because when we use terms like local missions, we refer to activities that aren’t really missional. We actually are only doing “local missions” if we are crosssing those cultural barriers in your own area or hometown. If you are in a predominantly white church or community, and are reaching nearby populations of Hispanics, Indians, Asians etc., I’d consider that actually doing “local missions.” But anything else …is, well, something else.

It may be benevolence…. good. We must show mercy and help the needy, as we ourselves have been shown mercy.

It may be evangelism…..absolutely essential. We must preach the Gospel everywhere. But this usually plays out most naturally where we live and in the surrounding area with people that are involved in our daily life.

Disaster relief…amen. We should come to the rescue of those in need and suffering. This is not only the right thing to do, but it also opens us up to new opportunities to share the Gospel with people who are not in our immediate circle of influence and are in need of hope.
In no way am I trying to downplay the importance of these ministries, and important acts of Christian service. But this is not local missions, it’s another kind of good and necessary local ministry.

If we don’t make this distinction, we can fail in at least this area of our calling as Christians. Because if we call something missions that is not missions, we will THINK we are doing what we are called to do, when in fact we are only doing part of what we should be doing (commanded to do). Why? Because we have been calling it something else that it really is not. That’s why defining the terms is so important here.

We are called to evangelize the surrounding community. But the church is also called to the nations (ethos). We can do that through equipping or through going ourselves. We may do that through sending and that means commitment, funding and communication. But when the church does that, and a person takes the gospel across cultural lines, for the purpose of making disciples….then the church has participated in “missions” in the most biblical sense.

What we do know is that mission work is definitely the work of the local church, it is the will of God, and it is the way that God has ordained to call people from every tribe, tongue and nation unto Himself while making His name great among the nations! God is calling a people unto Himself, Christ is building His church, preparing His bride and has invited us into this work. All who name the name of Christ. What an honor it is to serve our King in this way! What kindness, to bring former rebels into His family as sons and daughters, allow us to serve Him in this holy work. Let us understand it not as a sacrifice, but a privilege.

This idea of missions overseas also necessitates a support system. An important partnership between the local church (and other supporting churches), the missionary and the “Epaphroditus.” That fellow soldier and worker, that messenger and minister to the missionary’s need.

I will unpack some of what that partnership looks like in the next article using an example from the book of Philippians.

Grace and peace.
Written by Antonio Salgado Jr.

“I give thanks to my God for every remembrance of you, always praying with joy for all of you in my every prayer, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.” – Philippians 1:3-5

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