In my experience, there are at least four major views amongst evangelicals regarding what mission is. They are:
View 1 – ‘overseas mission’
Mission is something that is done overseas and missionaries are people that we send overseas to ‘preach the gospel’ (ie evangelise).
View 2 – ‘saving souls’
Mission is God’s work of ‘saving souls’ – both overseas and in New Zealand. It is primarily spiritual, in that it is concerned with the non-material aspects of life. Everything is measured by how it contributes to the task of evangelism. This means that the workplace has value because it is another opportunity to ‘witness’. We’re talking ‘pure soul-winning’ – none of this ‘felt needs’ stuff!
View 3 – ‘evangelism and social action’
Mission is God’s work of bringing about his kingdom in this world. This includes both evangelism and social action. However, while issues of justice and mercy are important, they are secondary to the most important task of all – the ‘saving of people’s souls’. In fact, most acts of service and mercy are only really a means to an end – ie we do this in order that they people might come to faith.
View 4 – ‘bringing the kingdom of God’
Mission is God’s work of bringing about his kingdom in this world. Everything that contributes to this is important. God’s kingdom impacts every area of human life and endeavour. This includes evangelism, which is the centre or heart of mission. As David Bosch has written, “Evangelism is calling people to become followers of Jesus. It is enlisting people for mission – a mission as comprehensive as that of Jesus.” Thus, mission is the wider concept, incorporating all that God intends to transform in this world.
Which view do you hold? It’s critical to know because that will in large measure shape our understanding of what is important in the life of the church and for us as individuals.
Factors which influence our understanding of mission
Where does our understanding of mission come from? A good percentage of our missiology (theology of mission) stems from our escatology (view of the last things) and the way we define such terms as ‘kingdom of God’, ‘eternal life’ and ‘salvation’ (see Appendix 1). For most evangelicals much of the way we think about these issues is shaped a great deal by developments in the evangelical movement in the late nineteenth century. A brief look at one of the key evangelical leaders of this time period, is useful, because so much of his thinking embodies much of what was happening in the movement at the time, and what still influences us today.
Dwight Moody is recognised as the greatest English-speaking evangelist of the late nineteenth century. Though not well educated, Moody had the gift of the gab and with it, a tremendous nous for marketing and selling. At an early age he became a highly successful shoe salesman, and concurrently developed a large Sunday School for poor children in Chicago. Moody eventually became a fulltime evangelist and his exploits in both North America and Great Britain are legendary. His influence upon the evangelical movement goes much wider than his developing of the prototype of the twentieth century evangelistic crusade. In fact, it’s somewhat ironical that the man who said, “I don’t have a theology!”, is one of a handful of people who have substantially shaped the theology of modern evangelicals.
1. Moody’s view of salvation
Dwight Moody was primarily concerned with the ‘saving of people’s souls’ – the ‘spiritual salvation’ of people. This had major consequences for the way he saw his faith, because it created a dualistic way of viewing life, where certain things are seen as ‘spiritual’ and other things as ‘secular’. Some of the implications of this secular/spiritual split include:
a. certain activities are considered more ‘spiritual’ (and therefore more significant) than others. If God’s priority is evangelism, then those who are preaching , running crusades, overseas on missionary service etc, doing what is closest to God’s heart, are more important than others. Everyone else is able to find their significance by either contributing financially to ‘the work of God’, praying for missionaries, or by developing a ‘ministry’ of their own.
b. only valuing work so much as it contributes to ‘ministry’. Work is primarily useful because it gives us an opportunity to ‘witness’ to our non-Christian workmates, and earn some money in order to ‘serve God’ (or support others in ‘ministry’).
c. acts of service and mercy toward others are essentially a means to an end. By doing these things we hope to attract people to Christianity and so ‘save their souls’. Likewise friendship is seen mainly as a means to an end – we need to build friendships with non-Christians so that we earn the right to share the gospel with them.
d. ‘salvation’ becomes mainly an individualised and privatised faith, with little direct relevance to the public sphere of life.
This is a huge contrast to the theology of late 18th and early 19th century evangelicals such as the Clapham Sect (William Wilberforce et.al), Earl of Shaftesbury, and John Newton.
2. Moody’s eschatology
Historically there have been three predominant views of when the second coming of Christ will occur – all taking different interpretations of Revelation 20, where the ‘saints reigning with Christ for a thousand years on earth’ is mentioned. The three views are known as premillenialism, postmillenialism and ammillenialism (from the word ‘millenial’ – referring to a thousand).
Premillenialism – understands scripture to state that things will get worse here on earth until finally Jesus returns and brings about a millenium (a thousand year reign of Christ on this earth).
Postmillenialism – understands scripture to state that God begins the thousand year rule of Christ on earth before the end of history. God’s purposes are progressively coming about, perfecting the world and bringing it closer to it’s final fulfillment.
Amillenialism – understands scriptural references regarding a millenium to be figurative (ie not a literal thousand years).
Up until the time of Dwight Moody most evangelicals were either post-millenial or ammillenial. In the early part of the 19th century there had been a great optimism amongst evangelicals about the potential for God to transform society and they were at the forefront of much of the social action occuring in the western world. However, many things contributed to a change in the way the future was perceived. In the US, the Civil War (and the tragic lead-up to it) caused enormous devastation and a pervasive pessimism set in. Influenced by dispensationalists such as J N Darby and C I Schofield, Moody rejected the post-millenial view for a pre-millenial one.
He was the first major evangelist to do so, and it set a precedent for succeeding generations. This change in eschatology had major implications for how Moody viewed evangelism. He believed that the world was getting worse, and that only the Second Coming of Christ would save it. This led for a pessimism that became more and more disinterested in addressing the social ills of society and more and more concerned with ‘saving souls’. As Moody himself said, ‘I look upon this world as a wrecked vessel. God has given me a lifeboat and said to me, ‘Moody, save all you can.’
Conversion began to be seen in an increasingly narrow perspective and also led to a very static view of a person’s salvation. Once in the lifeboat, a person was safe, the act of conversion was complete, and this was irrevocable. What got the person into the lifeboat was a simple act of personal choice to accept Christ. One result of this theology was that increasingly evangelicals became less and less committed to seeing evangelism and social action as two sides of one coin, and concerned themselves only with ‘saving souls’.
3. Moody’s view of eternal life
The culmination of Moody’s dualism and pre-millenialism, was the way he understood certain terms such as eternal life. Eternal life was something which, while we are able to possess now, related mainly to the quality of life to be experienced after death. While Moody encouraged Christians to ‘live a life worthy of the calling’, his messages gave every encouragement to accept Christ because of the wonderful benefits involved, with the responsibilities being mainly limited to a strict, personal moral code. Although an element of life-quality was maintained, eternal life came to be seen more in terms of its everlasting nature, and restricted to the ‘spiritual’. So eternal life came to viewed as largely futuristic (you ‘purchase your ticket here and now but don’t get to go on the ride until you die’).
Evangelicalism since Moody
As the twentieth century has progressed, most evangelicals have continued to hold to a strongly premillenial position, anticipating catastrophic events which will lead to a rapture of Christians (delivered out of the evil of this world) and a time of immense tribulation for those remaining on earth. Much has been written by evangelicals, seeking to link current events with passages of prophecy, helping to see (supposedly) that we are very close to the second coming.
It is easy to see that in this environment, where the deterioration of the world is an inevitable and clear sign that the end of this age is near, how it is difficult to engender motivation to do any more than ‘save people’s souls’. As one author has put it, “Why work for peace if war is a sign of Christ’s coming? Why feed the hungry if we are to expect famine?” (Wes Granberg-Michaelson)
In the last couple of decades, among some evangelicals, the lifeboat mentality has been moderated somewhat, either by premillenialists who recognise that a responsible Christian response to the desperate needs of the world cannot be isolationist and one of ignorance, or by others who have begun to reject premillenialism out of hand, in favour of the amillenial position.
This has led to increased involvement by evangelicals in the world – in issues of mercy, justice, and in the structures and forms of culture.
However, most of the split between ‘secular’ and ‘spiritual’ has only been accentuated.
How does this compare with a biblical perspective?
1. Shalom and the Hebrew view of life
If we lived in Israel in Old Testament times and began talking about getting involved in a ‘secular’ occupation or buying some ‘secular’ music, the Jews who heard us would not comprehend at all. The Hebrew worldview saw life in its entirety – as one whole panorama. To talk of certain things being ‘spiritual’ and other things ‘secular’ was not even possible. The secular/spiritual split which is so much a part of the theology of most evangelicals today, is more a result of a Greek way of viewing life. This form of dualism has much more in common with the condemned heresy of Gnosticism ( in the early church period) than it does with a biblical view of life.
When Jews reflected on what God’s intentions for his world were, the word that summed it up was ‘shalom’. To us, shalom is often viewed as being a Hebrew synonym for peace, and used as a greeting by Jews. However shalom in the Old Testament is an overarching term summing up the well-being in life when God is at the centre of things. This well-being is meant in the widest sense of the word – prosperity; bodily health; contentedness in going to sleep, leaving to go somewhere and at death; good relations between people and between nations; salvation, etc. Shalom touched all areas of life and conversely, God cared about all areas of life.
When the Jews thought of salvation, they thought of shalom – God’s wholeness, complete well-being. All of life was totally connected and God should be experienced and related to, in all aspects of life.
2. Jesus and the kingdom of God
The shalom the Jews aspired to in the Old Testament, was clearly part of the worldview of Jesus. It was when the Kingdom of God/Heaven was established that this shalom would become a reality. (John’s Gospel uses the term ‘eternal life’, which is essentially a synonym for ‘kingdom of God’.) Jesus talked more about the kingdom of God than any other subject (105 times in the synoptic gospels). In fact, we must understand this term if we are to stand any chance of understanding Jesus. It’ s clear as we read the gospels that the Kingdom of God/heaven is very much concerned with the rule of God. When Jesus uses it he is primarily talking about the time when he will exercise his sovereign rule.
The Jews of Jesus’ day were also familiar with the term ‘kingdom of God’. However, their reading of the Prophets had led them to understand something quite different regarding it’s nature and timing. Many (maybe even most of the Jews of Jesus’ day) were looking for an end to history, where God would usher in a new age. They were experiencing great oppression, from their Roman captors. Deeply resenting this, they read the prophets to say that God’s rule (his kingdom would be both physical and immediate in it’s coming). When John the Baptist came, announcing that the kingdom was close, the Jewish expectations were raised to fever pitch. No wonder then, that Jesus had to battle with such explosive enthusiasm (eg John 6). When some Jews suspected he was the One who would usher in the kingdom, they presumed that he would deal to the Romans, and establish a physical kingdom. Jesus not only had to battle this preconception with the wider Jewish population, but also with his own disciples – even up to the time of his arrest (witness Peter’s sword heroics!).
However, what Jesus understood the kingdom of God to be was very different to that of his contemporaries. A thorough reading of the gospels in regard to Jesus’ statements about the kingdom of God/heaven can seem very confusing. On the one hand it is easy to see how some of his statements would have fuelled the speculation that he was about to set up a physical kingdom (eg Luke 4 where Jesus reads a text from Isaiah referring to the Messiah, and then says, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’; Mark 1 where Jesus preaches ‘The time has come. God’s kingdom will soon be here.’)
Furthermore, we can easily get confused, as to when exactly this kingdom will occur. One minute he states that the kingdom of God is present – in the here-and-now; the next minute he seems to infer that it is for the afterlife. So which is it? Are God’s intentions for this world able to be realised in this life, or is it only a pipe dream – something only possible in the afterlife?
Most evangelical scholars have come to agree that it is a bit of both. When Jesus talked about God’s kingdom, he viewed it as something that was already here, but that which wouldn’t come in its fullness until the end of this age. In other words, it is both a future event and a present reality. This is known as the ‘already but not yet’ tension. The death of Jesus was the seed of God’s kingdom. It was critical to it coming about. His resurrection was proof that God’s kingdom had begun and would eventually rule the day. And the life of Jesus was a living demonstration of the kingdom, which he did in a thousand different ways. But Jesus was also fully aware that while he had come to bring abundant and full life, an aspect of it would only be experienced in the life to come. That’s why he described the kingdom as being like a mustard seed, something that would grow from very small beginnings, but would eventually reign supreme.
It is this ‘already but not yet’ tension that preserves us from one of two extremes:
* being so taken up with the glories of heaven that we lose any vision of what God wants to do in the here-and-now – apart from ‘saving people’ so they can enjoy the life to come. (This is a tendency of the premillenialist.)
* or becoming so comfortable with this life that we live as though this is all the life there is. (This is a tendency of the postmillenialist.)
The eschatology of the New Testament seeks to hold this tension in balance. On the one hand we are a people of hope. Our hope is in the ultimate fulfillment of God’s intentions for us and this world. We are people of the ‘age to come’ living in this present age. On the other hand, we recognise that God has already begun to build his kingdom (his new society). He wants to transform us and our world here and now. Sure it won’t all happen in this life, but much of it can. His shalom can be experienced in ever-increasing measure right here-and-now. We live in this life, in the light of the fact that we are people of the age to come.
This places a new light on the Sermon on the Mount. It is really the manifesto of life in the kingdom – a description of what life in God’s new society is like. It is not a pipe dream, nor a description of the afterlife – an impossibility in this life. It describes what happens when God begins to transform us/when his mission is fulfilled/when shalom is achieved/ when his kingdom ‘comes’.
3. The nature of Jesus’ mission
Right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Luke sets out for us the nature of his mission, by describing an incident where he is asked to read from the Prophets in the synagogue one Sabbath. We are not told whether Jesus himself chooses the passage or whether it was chosen for him, but what he reads is of deep significance. Isaiah 61:1-2 was regarded as describing the task of the Lord’s Anointed One (Messiah). We know it well:
“The Lord’s Spirit has come to me, because he has chosen me to tell the good news to the poor. The Lord has sent me to announce freedom for prisoners, to give sight to the blind, to free everyone who suffers, and to say, ‘This is the year the Lord has chosen.” (Luke 4: 18-19 CEV)
Luke tells us that when Jesus finished the reading he closed the book, sat down, and with everyone’s eyes on him, simply said, “What you have just heard me read has come true today”. The incident is full of drama, finally resulting in Jesus coming close to being killed. However, the significance of his quoting Isaiah 61 is immense. In Luke’s account it forms the mandate for Jesus’ mission.
As John Stott notes, this mission was both universal and comprehensive in nature. It’s universal because its to all people. The Jews looked forward to the coming of the kingdom because they expected it to be a day of vengeance, where their enemies would be ‘dealt to’ by God. It’s interesting to note that when Jesus read these excerpts from Isaiah aloud, he completely missed out the phrase, “and the day of vengeance of our Lord”. As far as Jesus was concerned, his mission had nothing to do with nationalistic hopes. It was a mission to all peoples, regardless of race, gender, colour or religious heritage. This is further reinforced by the examples Jesus goes on to quote (verses 24-27). In fact it is these statements about his mission being for the Gentiles that leads the crowd to drive him out of town.
The extent of Jesus’ mandate was clearly visible as well. His concern was for all of life – for humankind as a whole – physical, emotional, mental, relational, would all be transformed. The good news he brought was a good news for the whole of our lives – not just some isolated ‘spiritual’ area. It has to do with the quality of our living.
In Luke’s account, straight after the incident at the synagogue, Jesus begins to teach and heal. After a brief time in Capernaum, he says, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.” It is clear from this that the mission Jesus felt called to fulfil, was intimately wrapped up with the kingdom of God. His mission was in fact, to establish the kingdom of God.
4. The life of Jesus – the example of life in the Kingdom
If the synagogue incident lays down the mandate for Jesus’ mission, his next three years demonstrate what life in God’s kingdom is about. They are an example of what we too should be working toward if we are committed to helping bring about the kingdom of God. When Jesus opposed injustice, loved and gave dignity to the outcasts of society, served others and healed the sick, he showed what life was about in God’s new society. When he forged open, caring and warm relationships with others, it was a living demonstration that life in God’s kingdom involves full and satisfying relationships.
As we read the gospel accounts, we quickly gain a sense of what was really important to Jesus. It includes:
a. freeing us from addictions – spirits, substances, the need to look good and impress, activism, consumerism etc.
b. healing and restoring our relationships, resulting in us being able to enjoy meaningful, rich and intimate relationships with others.
c. learning how to celebrate life, God and each other.
d. enjoying, respecting and stewarding creation (responsible use of resources).
e. finding fulfilment in living for others (incarnational servanthood).
f. working for true justice for all people.
g. learning to display mercy.
h. developing our creative gifts to the fullest.
i. finding significance in all we do and are – work, leisure, relationships etc.
j. empowering others to be all they were intended to be.
k. working toward the development of loving, caring and unified communities.
We return to the various views of mission mentioned at the start of this article. How do we evaluate them?
View 1 – ‘overseas mission’
Although God’s mission includes the need to go cross-cultural (if it is to be for all peoples, as Jesus understood it), it most certainly cannot be limited to that. Whatever part of the world we called to be involved in God’s mission, the issues are essentially the same – how can we demonstrate and share God’s whole good news? Cross-cultural missioners are not exceptional beings. They may certainly be ‘set apart’ for a particular task, which may even involve them requiring financial support from a home church, but they, like everyone else in the body, are simply seeking to live out the kingdom in the context God has called them to be a part of.
View 2 – ‘saving souls’
God’s mission is not one of ‘saving souls’, it is one of saving whole people, relationships, structures, communities, societies, creation. Salvation involves all of our being. His shalom is intended for all aspects of life. Of course, in order for us to be instruments of his peace, we must learn to submit to his rule. Real life can only be found in him. As we experience this ‘eternal life’ we are able to impact the rest of creation in a whole variety of ways, and so be involved in God’s redemption of this world.
Our acts of service and mercy, our efforts for justice, our struggle for real relationships, our stewardship of all God has entrusted us with (time, gifts, money, the environment, each other), our fight for meaning, value and dignity for all people…. all these express the nature of the kingdom we serve.
View 3 – ‘evangelism and social action’
God’s mission can’t be separated into pieces. His transforming power touches all of life. It is integrationist in character. Neither evangelism nor social action have a life of their own – they are very much connected. Furthermore, to limit his mission to two aspects – evangelism and social action, is far too simplistic. What about his desire to restore and rebuild relationships, to infuse ‘work’ with value and meaning, to free our creative and artistic gifts and abilities etc, etc. There are simply too many areas outside the direct orbit of ‘evangelism’ and ‘social action’, to reduce mission to these two aspects alone.
As for the prioritising of evangelism, above all other aspects of mission, again it risks being dualistic in nature, as if it is possible to ‘save a soul’ without at the same time redeeming the enviroment that the person lives in. It is simply not possible to have evangelism without a social dimension or to have Christian social action without an evangelistic dimension.
View 4 – ‘bringing the kingdom of God’
We are left with the view that mission is the total task God has set the church for the salvation of the world. This needs to be seen in its entirety. Evangelism (the call to enter into life with Christ – and with his people) is best seen, in the words of David Bosch, as “the core, heart or centre of mission…If you cut the heart out of a body, that body becomes a corpse. With evangelism cut out, mission dies; it ceases to be mission.”
This mission encompasses all that God intends for his creation. When God invades our lives, his Spirit impacts all that we are and do. His shalom (peace/wholeness) progressively becomes a reality in our relationship with God, with others, with his creation, in the way we view work and leisure, in the structures we are a part of etc etc.
We need to recognise that we can only share as much of the good news as we are in fact experiencing ourselves. So our call is to embody the gospel and to be involved in something of the breadth of God’s mission.
APPENDIX 1: Terms helping us to see the holistic nature of God’s mission
Kingdom of God/Heaven – God’s rule, his new society, his counter-culture. It is a term relating to time, not geography – the time when Jesus exercises his sovereign rule. The kingdom of God is both a future event and a present reality It has a progressive nature, and is both here and now (in part) and still to come (in fulness). This is sometimes described as the already/not yet tension or inaugurated eschatology. Jesus’ life was a living demonstration of what life in God’s kingdom was all about. His death was the ‘seed’ of this new society (it required his death to enable us to experience freedom) and his resurrection was the proof that God’s rule in this world had really begun. The early church tended not to use the term ‘kingdom of God’ very much because it was still loaded with Jewish nationlistic tones. They used other dynamic equivalents such as eternal life and salvation.
Eternal life – John’s term for the Kingdom of God. It has to do with the quality of life we can experience, both now and in the future. It is not a synonym for everlasting life. Eternal life is life that can only be experienced through Jesus.
Salvation – a comprehensive term for the benefits of life with God (life in his kingdom/eternal life). These benefits are wholistic in nature (physical, relational, mental, emotional and spiritual). This provision from God for our human situation is also progressive. It involves past salvation (eg Eph 2:8); present salvation (eg Phil 2:12) and future and final salvation (eg Matt 19:25). According to scripture we need to be saved from failure, falling short, emptiness, alienation, bondage, rebellion, disease, corruption, pollution and death. The mission of Jesus was ultimately concerned with salvation., however salvation is not a word group that is used much in the the gospels.
Note: As can be seen, these three terms are very closely related and almost interchangeable. All three are holistic (referring to the whole of our lives) and cover all three tenses – past, present and future. They are also all intensely eschatological in nature – that is, they all only make sense within the framework of the Age to Come.
While these terms may have communicated well in Jesus’ day, to different groups of people, neither is particularly helpful to us – kingdom because we don’t really appreciate the totality of the rule of ancient kings and queens, and eternal life because it has been so abused, so that it is immediately associated with the afterlife, and with our ‘spiritual’ existence. So maybe a more helpful term for us would be ‘God’s new society’.
APPENDIX 2: Looking forward to ‘V-Day’
One of last century’s well-known theologians, Oscar Cullmann, uses an illustration from the Second World War, to illustrate the already, but not yet tension. On the 6th June, 1944 the Allied Forces invaded the beaches of Normanby in France, as a first step to reclaim Europe. ‘D-Day’, as it came to be known was the most significant 24 hours of the war in Europe. In that single day the future of the war was ultimately decided. Yet, the Allied Forces had to battle their way across Western Europe for another 11 months, before the Germans finally surrendered. Bit by bit, paddock by paddock, town by town, river by river, they reclaimed ground. As they did so, the casualties grew. Finally, on 8th May, 1945, ‘V-Day” (for Victory) was proclaimed. The war in Europe was finally over.
D-Day, Cullmann writes, is for the Kingdom of God, the resurrection of Jesus. It was the decisive battle. From this time on, the future has been assured. However, the ‘war’ isn’t over. Only when the final consummation occurs, will all that God intended for his creation be complete. When his kingdom is finally present in all its fulness, V-Day will have arrived.
We stand, in between D-Day and V-Day. There is no question that God’s kingdom will eventually reign supreme over all. He calls us, his people, to be involved in bringing it about. Jesus’ illustrations of the mustard seed and the yeast helps us to see how this can happen.
“What is God’s kingdom like? What can I compare it with? It is like what happens when someone plants a mustard seed in a garden. The seed grows as big as a tree and birds nest in its branches…It is (also) like what happens when a woman mixes yeast into three batches of flour. Finally, all the dough rises.” (Luke 13: 18-21 CEV)
From a somewhat inconspicuous start, God’s kingdom has grown, and will continue to grow into something very substantial. The way it grows is similar to that of yeast in bread, by permeating it. Those of us who are a part of his new society, are called to penetrate the societies we are a part of, making a difference in a highly significant way.
 For some people, the word ‘mission’ comes with such loaded baggage as to render it totally unhelpful as a term. So another way of considering the question, “What is God’s mission?” is to rephrase it, “What is God’s intentions for this world?” In other words, if God was given full space, what type of world would he bring about? What is on his agenda for change?
All of life is on God’s heart to be redeemed. God intends to see his kingdom rule in every area of life.
Questions relevant to God’s intentions for this world include:
- what is right?
- what is fair and just?
- what is empowering?
- what will help us mature and develop?
- what is liberating?
- what is transforming?
- what is loving?
- what is eternally significant?
- what is meaningful?