GLO Director, Rev. Dr. James Tino


What is mission?



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What is mission? It’s a deceptive question, really – seemingly so simple to answer, but one that is confoundingly complex. David Bosch, whose book Transforming Mission is arguably one of the most significant contributions to the study of missions during the last 100 years, despairs of a definition: “Ultimately, mission remains undefinable”.[1]

Perhaps due to the North American emphasis on developing a “mission statement” to provide direction to a congregation or ministry, ‘mission’ is (unhappily) defined by many as “anything that Christians do”. In his book What is Mission?, respected missiologist J. Andrew Kirk answers his title question by saying, “Mission is quite simply, though profoundly, what the Christian community is sent to do, beginning right where it is located”.[2] For Kirk, everything is mission. Christopher Wright seems to agree: “It would seem… biblical to say, ‘If everything is mission… everything is mission.’ Clearly, not everything is cross-cultural evangelistic mission, but everything a Christian and a Christian church is, says and does should be missional…”[3]

Some of the confusion surrounding this topic is due to the dual nature of mission. In its primary theological sense, “mission” is the salvific character, nature, and activity of God. “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” (Ex. 34:6-7, NIV). “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Lk. 19:10, NIV). Often, the latin term Missio Dei is used in reference to this dimension of mission – God’s salvific character and activity on behalf of fallen Man.

The second dimension of mission – and the one which generates the confusion – is our participation in the Missio Dei. Gailyn Van Rheenen attempts to differentiate between these two dimensions of mission by using the terms “mission” and “missions”, respectively. “‘Mission’, therefore is the work of God reconciling sinful humankind to himself…. Missions is the plans of committed believers to accomplish the mission of God.”[4] However well-intentioned, Van Rheenen’s attempt to standardize the vocabulary has not been successful. For better or worse, we use the terms “mission” and “missions” interchangeably.

Contemporary Lutherans of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod appear to be confused about what mission is, and what it is not. Significantly, in his recent work “A Theological Statement for Mission in the 21st Century”, LCMS president Matthew Harrison does not attempt a definition of ‘mission’.[5] By default, LCMS Lutherans seem to have adopted de facto a modified version of Van Rheenen’s definition of ‘missions’ – something like, “The Church’s participation in the Missio Dei.” Recently, I have heard LCMS mission leaders explain that mission is “preaching the Word and administering the Sacraments”. If that were the case, then every pastor who preaches the Word and administers the Sacraments would be a missionary – and in fact, some are advocating this very position! Additionally, the current confusion between ecclesiology and missiology limits the participation of the non-ordained Christians (the priesthood of all believers) in the missionary task. Rather than helping the church, this understanding of mission diminishes our participation in the Missio Dei by diluting the specific focus of mission: the intentional concern and effort to reach the lost in other nations, cultures, and languages.

Lutheran missiologist James Scherer provides some helpful guidance for avoiding a confusion of missiology and ecclesiology.

(M)ission consists in activities which are not identical with church work in general, least of all with the maintenance of institutional ministries, however valuable or necessary. Mission as applies to the work of the church means the specific intention of bearing witness to the Gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ at the borderline between faith and unbelief. Mission occurs when the church reaches out beyond its inner life and bears witness to the gospel in the world… the heart of mission is always making the Gospel known where it would not be known without a special and costly act of boundary-crossing witness.[6]

By emphasizing the intentional nature of bearing witness to the Gospel along with the idea of crossing boundaries, Scherer helps us to avoid the “everything is mission” mentality. Mission must be something other than what the local church does in and among her local community. Otherwise, Christians will become content with the comfortable ministry to people just like themselves (Jerusalem), or geographically near to themselves though perhaps different in some ways (Judea), and ignore the masses in other nations who have no living witness to the Gospel (Samaria and the utmost parts of the world).

Lutheran missiologist K. Detlev Schulz attempts to straddle the fence between “everything is mission” and the specificity of mission: “Although mission can include spontaneous outreach and works of love and mercy arising from all Christians, it also represents the intentional targeting of people in the state of unbelief to who the Church sends individuals. …The Church’s task is also to set apart and commission individuals to ensure that the mission of the Church continues intentionally next to the sporadic witness of all Christians.”[7]

I think we need to point out that we already have a good English word to describe the activity of sharing the Gospel. That word is Evangelism! We also have a word which describes the regular activity of Christians in the world which glorifies God and points to Christ, and that word is Witness. It seems to me that as we talk about defining mission in the second sense (our participation in the Missio Dei), we are confusing “mission”, “evangelism”, and “witness”.

So, let’s bring some clarity to the situation. I would define “evangelism” as sharing the Good News of Salvation in Jesus Christ with unbelievers in a winsome way.  It is “presenting God’s  plan of salvation”, or “bringing people to faith”, or “introducing people to Jesus” – however you want to say it.  Evangelism is a gift of God that some (not all!) Christians are given.

Mission is NOT evangelism. Mission is this (Here it is! My definition, at last): Witnessing the Gospel in word and deed by those who are sent by the Church to cross boundaries in service to Christ. Of course, the primary boundary is that which Scherer described as “the borderline between faith and unbelief”. Additionally, and significantly, missionaries also cross one or more of the boundaries which separate people, namely, the boundaries of Geography, Language, and Culture. What missionaries do, and how they understand their task and central focus, is where we will find denominational differences and where Lutheran missiology can make a significant contribution. But before we wade into those waters, we need to be clear about what mission is.

Some missionaries are also evangelists, but some are not. Some missionaries are ordained, and some are not. Some preach the Word and administer the Sacraments, and some do not. However, all missionaries – just like all Christians – are WITNESSES of Jesus Christ.  A witness does nothing other than tell what he/she has seen. Picture a witness in a court. The witness tells what they saw and heard.  As Christians, we are witnesses to what we have seen God doing in our lives, and sometimes to what we have seen Him doing in the lives of others.

To recap:

1)  Evangelism: sharing the Good News of the Gospel in a winsome way.  God gifts some to be evangelists.

2)  Witness: telling what we have seen and heard.  All Christians are witnesses.

3)  Mission: Witnessing the Gospel in word and deed by those who are sent by the Church to cross boundaries in service to Christ.

We have three good words. Let’s use them!


[1] Bosch, David. Transforming Mission. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1994, p. 9.

[2] Kirk, J. Andrew. What is Mission?. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000, p. 24.

[3] Wright, Christopher J.H. The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission, in “Biblical Theology for Life”, Jonathan Lunde, ed. Grand Rapid: Zondervan, 2010, p. 26.

[4] Van Rheenen, Gailyn. Missions. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996, p. 20

[5] Harrison, Matthew. “A Theological Statement for Mission in the 21st Century”, Journal of Lutheran Mission, vol. 1, No. 1, March 2014, pp. 60 – 69.

[6] Scherer, James A. Gospel, Church, and Kingdom: Comparative Studies in World Mission Theology, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1987, p. 37.

[7] Schulz, Klaus Detlev. Mission from the Cross: The Lutheran Theology of Mission.St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2009, p. 27.

2 Responses to What is mission?

  1. Great definition of Mission here and the subsequent terms. You left no room for guessing what Mission is. I like especially the 3 boundaries to be crossed by a missionary. Dealing with the intricacies of how those boundaries are crossed to faithfully serve others with the gospel is where the task of Missiology is.

    Blessings brother

  2. Cesar Rios says:

    Nice text. You faced a really hard terminological problem and, in my opinion, the solution you propose makes sense. Your short (but deep) consideration should be shared in every Lutheran community around the world. We must understand our different tasks in order to get involved properly.

    I knew GLO today and I’m completely astonished! “Is it Lutheran?” That was the first question I thaught! I hadn’t seen something similar in Lutheran “environment” ever! Oh my God, yes, it’s Lutheran!! Then, we can make mission! Then, we have missionaries! We have people outside the walls of our churches, reaching further. This is a refreshing novelty to me.

    May God bless you a lot. And I hope someday I’ll be able to help somehow.

    And I must add something in Spanish: Bienvenido de vuelta a Suramérica! Que tengas mucho éxito en Santiago! Bendiciones!

    Cesar Rios (Brazil)

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