What is the mission of God’s people?
I can’t think of a better answer than the one given by Missiologist, David Bosch, who wrote, “Mission is more and different from recruitment to our brand of religion; it is the alerting people to the universal reign of God through Christ.”[i]
And with that he said a mouthful.
You see, to reduce mission to the recruitment of new church members is like turning an ox into a bouillon cube. Rather, mission is the most extraordinary cosmic/global activity of “alerting people to the universal reign of God through Christ.”
In other words, mission derives from the reign of God. Mission is both the announcement and the demonstration of the reign of God through Christ. Mission is not primarily concerned with church growth. It is primarily concerned with the reign and rule of the Triune God. If the church grows as a result, so be it. Bosch made this clear in his book, Transforming Mission:
Mission takes place where the church, in its total involvement with the world, bears its testimony in the form of a servant, with reference to unbelief, exploitation, discrimination and violence, but also with reference to salvation, healing, liberation, reconciliation and righteousness.[ii]
Mission is not competition with other religions, not a conversion activity, not expanding the faith, not building up the kingdom of God; neither is it social, economic, or political activity. And yet, there is merit in all these projects. So, the church’s concern is conversion, church growth, the reign of God, economy, society and politics—but in a different manner![iii]
In a different manner, indeed. As I mentioned, the practice and attitude of mission is rooted in a belief in the kingship of the Triune God.
God reigns even if not one soul on the face of the earth acknowledges it.
His reign is full and complete, an eternal and nonnegotiable reality, not enlarged nor diminished by the number of people who believe it and yield to it. Our mission, then, is to alert people to this irrefutable reality, by both announcement and demonstration. It can never be boiled down to simply giving people information on how to go to heaven when they die. As Lesslie Newbigin put it,
The Bible… is covered with God’s purpose of blessing for all the nations. It is concerned with the completion of God’s purpose in the creation of the world. It is not—to put it crudely—concerned with offering a way of escape for the redeemed soul out of history, but with the action of God to bring history to its true end.[iv]
This is not some innovative emerging missional approach. Alerting people to the reign of God has always been the essence of the mission of the people of God. The exiled people of Israel were being called to “preach the gospel” of Yahweh; in particular, Isaiah 40–66, where in 40:9; 41:27; 52:7; and 61:1 the word “evangelize” (tell the gospel) appears several times (in Hebrew it is besar, in Greek it is euangelizomai). When we analyze these chapters in Isaiah we find a striking correspondence of meaning between the New Testament and Isaianic connotations of this word. Furthermore, on several occasions the New Testament directly quotes and/or alludes to passages in Isaiah that contain the “gospel” word (for example, Matt. 11:5; Mark 1:14:15; Luke 4:18; Luke 7:22; Acts 10:36; Rom. 10:15; and Eph. 2:17).
One example of Isaiah’s use of the word “gospel” is worth quoting. Not only is it a passage directly quoted by a New Testament writer (Rom. 10:15; Eph. 2:17; 6:15), the cluster of words surrounding the gospel-announcement of this passage (peace, salvation, kingdom) are instantly recognizable as important New Testament “gospel” terms and themes. Isaiah 52:7 reads:
How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news [besar/euangelizomai], who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings [besar/euangelizomai], who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!”
That’s the essence of the mission of Israel, taken up by the followers of Jesus in his new covenant: the alerting of people to the fact that our God reigns. In the New Testament his rule culminates in the death and resurrection of Jesus, but that rule has always been the object of the mission of God’s people. As New Testament scholar, N. T. Wright explains:
The New Testament picks up from the Old the theme that God intends, in the end, to put the whole creation to rights. Earth and heaven were made to overlap with one another, not fitfully, mysteriously, and partially as they do at the moment, but completely, gloriously, and utterly. “The earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.” That is the promise which resonates throughout the Bible story, from Isaiah (and behind him, by implication, from Genesis itself) all the way through to Paul’s greatest visionary moments and the final chapters of the book of Revelation. The great drama will end, not with “saved souls” being snatched up into heaven, away from the wicked earth and the mortal bodies which have dragged them down into sin, but with the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth, so that “the dwelling of God is with humans” (Rev. 21:3).[v]
Another way of describing the same idea can be found in Thomas Torrance’s The Christian Frame of Mind, where the great Scottish professor of theology puts it this way: “In Jesus Christ the new order of the kingdom of God’s love has intersected the old order of our existence in this world, with a view to redeeming and liberating it from the forces of disorder and darkness entrenched in it and renewing the whole created order.”[vi]
If mission is the alerting of people to the reign of God through Christ, our mandate is to do whatever is required in the circumstances to both demonstrate and announce that kingship.
We feed the hungry because in the world to come there will be no such thing as starvation. We share Christ because in the world to come there will be no such thing as unbelief. Both are the fashioning of foretastes of that world to come, none more or less valid or important than the other
It seems to me, then, that a core question for all missional Christians is to ask, what does the reign of God through Christ look like in my neighbourhood? If the kingdom of God has come and is overlapping with the broken world in which I live, how can I alert people to it? What does it look like? Where do I see the evidence of it? In fact, it occurs to me that this is a far more legitimate and creative question to ask than the usual questions about how we can attract people to our church programs.
[Adapted from Michael Frost, The Road to Missional, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 2011]
[i] David Bosch, Believing in the Future: Toward a Missiology of Western Culture (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press, 1995), 33.
[ii] David Bosch, Witness to the World: The Christian Mission in Theological Perspective (London: 1980), 18.
[iii] David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991), 519.
[iv] Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, rev. ed. 1995). 33–34.
[v] N. T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 217.
[vi] Thomas Torrance, The Christian Frame of Mind: Reason, Order, and Openness in Theology and Natural Science (Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard, 1989), 21.