Being missional conveys the idea of living a purposeful, biblical mission. Christ’s love compels God’s people to be missional for God’s glory. The church is called to join Jesus on mission. This mission is from everywhere to everywhere. Mission is the reason the church exists.
The connection between the church and mission anticipates another important matter: “missions.” Talking about “mission” leads to asking about “missions” (or, the international pursuit to preach the gospel to all people of the earth—the ethnē). How are missions and missional related? Should they be related at all?
Missions and missional are distinct and yet integrated. They thrive best when they are both embraced and implemented in a local church body. Being missional, or living on mission, is not a missions issue, per se. It’s a Christian issue. It’s an identity issue. As we live on mission, we live out our identity as missionary people of God. Living on mission, however, must lead to missions. Part of the reason a tension is felt between being missional and missions is the church tends to embrace one particular commission of Jesus without considering his other commissions.
For example, the Great Commission should be understood in light of the ethno-linguistic context in which the commission was given. The Great Commission is a paradigm shift in how missions is understood by the people of God. The Old Testament details a clear God-given mission to the Jewish people that they were to be a light to the nations, drawing the nations to Jerusalem where they would worship the one, true God. It was a centripetal mission—from the edges (the nations) to the center (the temple in Jerusalem).
Jesus redefined that pattern. He sent his followers from the center (Jerusalem) to go make disciples wherever they went (all nations), and he promised that he would go with them. The Pauline approach to missions—go out and plant churches—was derived from following Jesus’ command in Acts 1:8. Jesus commanded his followers to be witnesses in “Jerusalem, in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” But it is also closely related to Matthew 28:19—Jesus commanded to “go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.”
These statements in Matthew and Acts point out that something has changed—the mission is no longer centripetal, but now it is centrifugal. Rather than merely drawing the nations to Jerusalem, the people of God were called to go out from Jerusalem. The Great Commission is about reaching your neighbor; but in the flow of redemptive history, it lays out a new plan for mission. Because it involves reaching the nations, it involves missions.
We must be aware of the pitfalls in overemphasizing one (missional) to the exclusion of the other (missions) or promoting one (nations) at the expense of the other (neighbor). When the church’s focus is solely on international missions, it becomes easy to think of ways to reach remote tribes in Africa and not engage our neighbor down the street. The Johannine commission helps us see that we are called to be missionaries to our neighbors too. In John 20:21, Jesus spoke to his disciples explaining that he was sending them as his Father had sent him. This text teaches that everyone is sent on mission (John 20:21) and everyone is called to this ministry (1 Pet 4:10).
Embracing the John 20:21 commission has ignited a revival for churches to embrace mission locally. The Bible teaches everyone is sent on mission, and everyone is called to the ministry. The challenge with this pendulum swing from a Pauline to a Johannine approach to missions and mission is that some are tempted to only think about mission in their local contexts. Both mission extremes (local only, global only) must be avoided.
Mission and missions need to live together. I want us to be missional—living as agents of God’s mission in context—but you cannot take John 20:21 in isolation without also remembering Matthew 28:18–20 and Acts 1:8. We need missional churches engaging in global missions because both are clearly articulated in the teachings of Jesus and the actions of the disciples.
Editors’ note: This is an excerpt by Ed Stetzer from Missiology: An Introduction, Second Edition (B&H Academic, 2015), edited by John Mark Terry. Terry is professor of Missions at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. He served with the International Mission Board for twenty-four years in Southeast Asia. Stetzer is the Executive Director of Lifeway Research, a prolific author, and well-known conference and seminar leader.
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