In 2008, the United States faced a devastating financial crisis, triggered by the collapse of major investment banks and a global economic downturn. The crisis resulted from risky lending practices, a housing market bubble, and a lack of regulatory oversight, leaving millions of Americans jobless, homeless, and with depleted savings. The catastrophe eroded public trust in the financial sector. It was an absolute mess.
Much like the economic turmoil of 2008, there is a crisis in Christian missions today. Disagreements and fractures about mission strategies have led to widespread distrust in the “missions machine,” raising questions about its effectiveness and efficiency. Being a missionary from the United States, or even a Christian in general, is no longer popular. The state of missions is quite messy, and it deserves our attention.
Missions is not without its challenges, and many Christians will remain skeptical about missions before trusting it again. However, we must remember that missions holds a central role in the lives of Christians and the local church. To fix missions, we should follow a similar path to the one taken during the 2008 economic crisis: address the root problem by focusing on the fundamentals, starting with the church, rather than any individual.
So, let’s begin. Here are three key ways the Church can fix missions.
#1: Connect Your Church Mission to The Great Commission
Over the past few decades, various movements within the church in the United States attempted to answer the fundamental question: “What is the mission of the church?” While some of these movements yielded genuine spiritual growth, none provided a comprehensive answer to this question.
- The Jesus People Movement (1960s and 70s) defined the mission as living in community with other zealous Christians.
- The Church Growth Movement (1980s and 90s) defined the mission as increasing Sunday church service attendance.
- The Emergent Church Movement (2000s) defined the mission as contextualizing the gospel for postmoderns (with dramatic variance in sound doctrine).
The issue with these movements is not their inherent goodness (each had some genuine spiritual fruit), but their failure to grasp the primary mission of the church. So what is the mission of the church? In his book “What is the Mission of the Church?” Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert succinctly define it as the Great Commission:
“The mission of the church is the Great Commission.”
The Great Commission, found in Matthew 28:19-20, is Jesus’ primary directive to the church: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
And this is where we face our problem head on. Churchgoers in the United States are largely unaware of The Great Commission. Most have not even heard of it! In a 2017 study called “translating the Great Commission,” the Barna Group revealed some absolutely mind-numbing results…
“Among American churchgoers, When asked if they had previously ‘heard of the Great Commission,’ half of U.S. churchgoers (51%) said they did not know this term.”
The mission of your church must be oozing Great Commission language. If it is not, you can be sure that, like many of the modern church movements that have gone before us, you will perhaps hit the dart board, but miss the bullseye.
#2: Distinguish Between Ministry and Missions
I spoke with a pastor once who boasted that his church gave 20% of its revenue to missions. First, I congratulated him on the noble mark, and then I asked him to tell me more about where the 20% actually went. He told me about the food pantry they developed, the pro-life ministry that they supported, and how they even have a staff member whose salary they counted because he was a “missionary” to the community.
Friends, we celebrate the cheerful support of feeding the hungry and saving the lives of innocent babies. Praise God! But, these things are not missions. It is something else called ministry. If everything is missions, then nothing is missions.
To fix missions, we need to distinguish between “ministry” and “missions.” Let’s define our terms:
- Ministry: Serving others in the name of Jesus, by meeting their physical and spiritual needs.
- Missions: Sending out disciples of Jesus to cross geographic, cultural, and/or linguistic barriers to make disciples and multiply churches.
The word “ministry” comes from the Greek word “diakoneo,” meaning “to serve.” There is biblical precedent for the value of doing good ministry. Jesus came as a servant, and one who practiced ministry regularly. Mark 10:45 highlights the value of Christian ministry: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
On the other hand, missions requires that someone crosses barriers that have prevented another group from having reasonable access to the gospel. This is precisely why these lost people are in the condition that they are in—lack of access to the gospel.
All missions is a form of ministry, but not all ministry is a form of missions
Confusing ministry with missions will cheapen the call to missions, mitigate its significance, and prevent church members from stepping out into obedience in missions, should God direct them to do so.
#3: Expect Every Member to Engage in Missions (Not Just Missionaries)
Growing up, I went to a megachurch that had a ton of missionaries on the walls. I remember a missionary came back home to visit from Uzbekistan. He shared with the children about his time overseas. But it didn’t connect with me.
He was an incredible brother in Christ, and was faithfully serving among an unreached people group. But it never occurred to me that missions was for me. I thought missions was something people did when they couldn’t make it in America. If you’re being honest, haven’t you felt the same way?
Healthy churches expect every member to engage in missions, not just the missionaries.
In Romans chapter 10:14-15, Paul the apostle flips the script by showing us that it’s not just the missionary who plays a role in missions. He asks four rhetorical questions, and the answer to all four of them is the same: “They can’t”:
- “How will they call on him in whom they have not believed?” They can’t.
- “And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?” They can’t.
- “And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” They can’t.
Without someone preaching, nobody will call on Christ and believe in Him. But the series of questions doesn’t end here. The question that comes next connects to the start of missions cycle:
- “How can they preach unless they are sent?” They can’t.
When Paul sees the unreached get reached with the gospel, he shows us that the spark that starts every story in missions is the sender. Every missions story starts with a sender.
Every story of missions includes not just a missionary, but also a group of people who are sending them by giving, praying, hosting them when they come back on furlough, caring for them while on the field, etc.
Missions is for every believer, in every age, in every stage.
This means every single person in your congregation. Each one has a role to play.
In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the importance of rebuilding trust in the economy became evident. The lessons from that period emphasize the significance of addressing the root problems and returning to fundamentals. Likewise, with missions in the Christian church, there is a looming crisis that demands our attention. By connecting your church’s mission to the Great Commission, distinguishing between ministry and missions, and expecting every member to engage in missions, we can work towards fixing fractures and restoring trust in the infrastructure around one of the central commands of scripture: To make disciples of all nations.
We all have a role to play in fulfilling the Great Commission. Let us, as the Church, stand united and committed to the mission God has entrusted to us, and, in doing so, help fix missions. All for His glory praised, through Jesus, among the nations.