Your Church and Mission: What, How, Why (2)

10 March 2011 by Wes Bredenhof

Revised text of a presentation originally prepared for the Abbotsford Canadian Reformed Church in February 2007.

In the first part we considered the definition of mission and arrived at this:

Mission is the official sending of the church to go and make disciples by preaching and witnessing to the good news of Jesus Christ in all nations through the power of the Holy Spirit.

I want to further comment briefly on three elements of this definition.

First, mission is the official sending of the church.  Jesus Christ sent out his apostles, and we understand from elsewhere in Scripture that those apostles stood as representatives of the entire church.  We can also see that in Matthew 28 when the Lord spoke of his presence “to the very end of the age.”  Those words mean that Christ’s presence outlasted the lives of the apostles.  Consequently, mission belongs with the church.  Through the apostles, the church has been sent out by Jesus Christ.

Second, there is an official task tied into this Great Commission.  In other words, it is closely connected to office.   In our Reformed churches, there are special office bearers who are sent out to be missionary ministers.  With their verbal preaching and witnessing, they are ambassadors and heralds of Jesus Christ.  They are standing in for Christ.  When unbelievers accept them, they are accepting Christ.  When unbelievers reject them, they are rejecting Christ.

However, and this is the third point, that is not to say that believers who are not office bearers cannot be regarded as missionaries under certain conditions.  We confess in Lord’s Day 12 that all believers have a general office which includes being a prophet; and that means confessing the name of Christ.  All believers can and must witness to the good news of their Saviour!  However, when it comes to what we call mission, we should keep things tied as closely as possible to the church.  And so, working under the call and supervision of a church, unordained believers can also legitimately claim the title of missionary.

That brings us to briefly consider the question of whether there is any difference between mission and evangelism.  Traditionally, many Reformed mission scholars have maintained such a distinction.  One such scholar said that evangelism has to do with communicating the Christian faith in Western society, while mission has to do with communicating the gospel in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean.[1] This distinction is certainly not based on any scriptural teaching, it’s just purely practical.  However, with the advent of globalization, this formulation has lost any usefulness.  The peoples and cultures of Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean are now found in the West.  In similar fashion, what used to be called Western society is now more and more distant from the Christian influences which formerly made it unique.  Therefore, it is no longer viable to formulate a distinction between mission and evangelism based on the place where the gospel is being communicated.  If we understand evangelism as the communication of the gospel (the evangel), then evangelism is what the church has been sent to do:  “preaching and witnessing to the good news of Jesus Christ.”  In other words, the mission of the church is evangelism.

The distinction between mission and evangelism is not grounded in Scripture.  The Bible makes no distinction between gospel outreach done in Jerusalem to Jews by Jews and gospel outreach done in Athens to Greeks by Jews.  It is all one and the same gospel outreach.  However, for practical purposes, a distinction could possibly be argued on the basis of office.  Missions is concerned with the preaching and teaching of the gospel – this is normally done by those who are ordained to a preaching and teaching office.  Evangelism is concerned with the gospel-outreach of the general membership of a local congregation.  Yet, there clearly remains an area of overlap between these two areas and that makes it difficult to insist on a rigid separation or distinction.

The Role of the Local Congregation in Mission

Now we come to a consideration of the role of the local congregation in mission.  We already noted that mission is the responsibility of the church.  When we say that, we don’t mean that it is the responsibility of a federation of churches or of some broadly conceived “Church.”  Rather, it is the responsibility of local congregations.  Each church has received the Great Commission from Christ and the church as a whole and the individual members have to carefully consider what they are doing with that commission.

As we do this, there are three possibilities.  We read of two of those possibilities in the beginning of Acts 13.  There we read about the church at Antioch.  In that church there were prophets and teachers.  Through these people, God revealed that he wanted Barnabas and Saul to be sent out as missionaries.  This was not the first time Saul and Barnabas had been sent.  Saul (Paul) was sent out by the church at Jerusalem to Tarsus in Acts 9, though this may have been more of a measure to save his life than to have him preach the gospel.  In Acts 11, the church at Jerusalem sent out Barnabas to Antioch.  Acts 13 simply continues the pattern of a local church sending out men to be missionaries.

Can you think of what the two possibilities are there in that chapter?  We can be senders.    We can be those who stay behind and send out men into the great harvest of our Lord wherever that might be.  We can be those who support these men and encourage them with prayer and through other means.  To clarify, this does not mean that every single local church has to be a sending church in the sense that we understand it in our Canadian Reformed churches.  When we say “senders,” that includes those we would call “supporters.”

The second possibility is that we can be goers.  We can be those sent out into the harvest near or far.  We can be missionaries.  Here a word of caution needs to be spoken.  There is a popular idea floating about that all Christians are missionaries.  Though it is well-intentioned, I don’t think this is a helpful notion.  There are at least three reasons why.  First of all, the Great Commission was not given to individual Christians, but to the church.  The idea that all Christians are missionaries is built on Western individualism and not on a church-centered theology of mission.  Second, we see this reflected not only in the connection of official preaching with the Great Commission, but also in the mention of baptism.  The administration of the sacraments belongs to the church, not to individuals.  Finally, and in a more practical vein, there are some real and serious concerns about what has been called the amateurization of mission in the last two decades.  Especially because of short-term missions, many believers think that anyone can be a missionary and training is irrelevant and unnecessary.  The result is that many of the significant problems faced by Christian mission around the globe are not being solved or are not even being recognized as problems.  For these reasons, it is best that goers, wherever possible not only be ordained men under the supervision of a local church, but also that they be well trained – even more so than the regular ministers in our federation.

So, the two possibilities given in Acts 13 are that we can be either senders or goers.  However, there is a third possibility.  This can only be a possibility if you are not a Christian.  That possibility is to do nothing.  To be disobedient.  Few of us might go out for the sake of the gospel; those of us who do not must send and support such people who do and we must do so in a manner worthy of God.  Listen to the words of John the apostle in 3 John 5-8:

Dear friend, you are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers, even though they are strangers to you.  They have told the church about your love. You will do well to send them on their way in a manner worthy of God.  It was for the sake of the Name that they went out, receiving no help from the pagans.  We ought therefore to show hospitality to such men so that we may work together for the truth.

In this passage, John is writing to Gaius and he mentions here men who were missionaries.  To do well, Gaius and his fellow believers were “to send them on their way in a manner worthy of God.”  The implication is that to do otherwise is to act in a way that has nothing to do with God.  In other words, we can be senders, goers, or disobedient.  But the third possibility is not a Christian option.  We see that in what John writes about a man named Diotrephes,

I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us.  So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, gossiping maliciously about us. Not satisfied with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.

In what follows, John describes this as evil behaviour.  Therefore, disobedience to the Great Commission cannot be an option for this congregation of Jesus Christ.  Either we’re going to be senders or goers.  That is the task of the local congregation (as a corporate body), both here and elsewhere in the world.

To be continued…

[1] Johannes Verkuyl, Contemporary Missiology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 9.