The Meaning of Mission

In his recent book on “justification,” N. T. Wright complains that we have taken a perfectly good Biblical word with a limited set of meanings and tried to use it do describe the whole of the Christian theology and life experience. You can do that, he says, but you need to realize that your meaning of the word “justification” encompasses a lot of things for which the Biblical authors used different words – or didn’t think about at all.

I feel much the same about the word “mission.”

Mark Roberts is a Presbyterian pastor whose postings I read regularly. In a series of posts revisiting John Stott’s Christian Mission in the the Modern World, Roberts says something with which I disagree:

“Mission” describes rather everything the church is sent into the world to do.

Now the word “sent” there does imply mission of some sort. Based on Robert’s excerpts, however, Stott’s concept of mission includes everything that Christians – corporately and individually – in the church and in the world – are to be and do. Coming out of evangelical Anglicanism, Stott has an admirable purpose: to convince Christians that being a “missionary” isn’t the only important vocation for serious, committed Christians. So far, I agree. But not every Christian virtue, aspiration, function and practice is best described as the mission of the Church.

First of all, to speak of the mission of the Church is to speak of the mission of the corporate body. “Church” and “Christian” are not interchangeable words.

Secondly, not every virtue or practice is part of the corporate mission, as important as important as these virtues and practices may be.

The other world in which I live – the Army – knows something about mission statements. We live by them; they focus our actions. The Army values are Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor and Personal Courage. But courage is not the Army’s mission. Neither is respect is not the Army’s mission. We live by these values as we accomplish the Army’s mission. Our individual  actions and organizational functions contribute to the mission. Our “off duty” life also has an impact on the mission. None of these things, however, is the mission itself.

“Mission” is not, by the way, a New Testament word. The New Testament frequently speaks of being sent, but it does not use the word “mission” in connection with that activity. Most translations describe Paul’s journey as a “mission” in Acts 12:25, but the word is “diakonia,” probably better translated as “ministry” or “service.”

Within the church, I think it is best to use the word mission in its ordinary sense, to give focus to our actions. The more domains we try to incorporate into our concept of mission, the less helpful the word becomes.