A mission-minded Christian church understands that mission was not started by a charismatic church leader, a particular group of believers, or even by great biblical characters like the prophets or the apostles. Neither does it arise from a single biblical text such as the Great Commission. Rather, Christian mission arises from the heart of God and comprises the central theme of the whole Bible.

Beginning Mission

The story of God’s mission to lost humanity is the greatest story ever told; it’s the central narrative of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. The story begins immediately after the Fall, when God took the initiative to reach out to Adam and Eve (see Gen. 3:8-24). The mission narrative continues throughout the patriarchal period and the history of Israel, with patriarchs, prophets, priests, kings, and ordinary people serving as God’s mission agents.

The Gospels record the central event of God’s mission—Christ’s birth, ministry, atoning death, resurrection, and ascension. At Pentecost the Holy Spirit performs the next great act in God’s mission by coming to empower and launch the church. The story continues in the book of Acts and the letters of the apostles, and the spread of the Christian church throughout the Roman Empire. The mission narrative reaches its apocalyptic climax in the book of Revelation, when Jesus shall return to “make all things new” (Rev. 21:5, KJV). At that point, “the great controversy is ended. Sin and sinners are no more. The entire universe is clean. One pulse of harmony and gladness beats through the vast creation.”1 This is the story of the missionary God.


The phrase mission of God (Latin: misseo Dei) came into use in mission studies in the last half of the twentieth century in a particular historical context. World War II had ended. Colonies were becoming independent nations. The modern missionary movement (c. 1750-1950) was ending as churches and denominations around the world transitioned to indigenous leadership. In this context the project of global mission was called into question, both from inside and outside the church. Was the continued cross-cultural evangelization of non-Christian peoples biblically appropriate, or was it merely a continuation of colonialism? Different answers were given and continue to be given.

The conclusion reached by many Christians, including Seventh-day Adventists, had two elements.

First, colonialism and colonial attitudes in the church and its missions are biblically unacceptable; any mistakes of the colonial era must be recognized and confessed; the church must learn and apply lessons for today from its mission history.

Second, the continued evangelization of the world is not only appropriate but required for Christians because it’s part of God’s mission for humanity. The functions of local churches and the evangelization of local communities are ideally performed by local indigenous people. Cross-cultural mission remains necessary, however, because many millions of unreached people don’t have any local Christian churches nearby. Unlike the colonial era, cross-cultural missionaries would now come from everywhere and go everywhere, instead of coming mostly from the West. This would show itself as missionaries from the Philippines, Brazil, the United States, or Kenya serving cross-culturally to strengthen local churches in each other’s territory or establish them where none was before.

Challenge and Response

Not everyone agrees with these conclusions. Leaders of some world religions don’t want their adherents to be evangelized; they sometimes charge Christian missions with colonialism, no matter how much respect missionaries show for local cultures. Sometimes in the West, secular, agnostic, or atheistic individuals see Christianity as offering nothing of unique value, and support the label of Christian mission as colonialist.

These differing opinions must be acknowledged and respected. But the biblical concept of the misseo Dei requires Christians to hold fast to the conviction that “this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations” (Matt. 24:14, KJV). As Christians obey Christ’s commission, they can expect to face opposition. When Jesus sent the Twelve on their first mission trip, He warned that they would face great opposition (see Matt. 10); early church missionaries to Thessalonica were accused of turning the world upside down (Acts 17:6); and Paul documents an amazing catalog of suffering he experienced in the work of missions (2 Cor. 11:24-27). Twenty-first-century Christians must balance questions of respect for the rights of others with a sense of the value that saving truth can bring to everyone possible.

The church does not control God’s mission, because He remains sovereign over the work He started.

Probing more deeply into the historical context of the term misseo Dei allows us to expose its meaning and implications more clearly. The mission-of-God concept implies that Christian mission arises from the nature and character of the Creator God Himself. Mission exists because God exists and because God has particular character attributes. The attributes of God—such as compassion, grace, loving faithfulness, mercy, and justice—comprise God’s glory and holiness and make Him the only valid subject of human worship. Mission calls all human beings to give glory only to God and to worship only Him (Rev. 14:7). God’s character is the foundation of the principles undergirding missions.

The triune God works in harmony, and each divine member plays a role in God’s mission. The Father’s role is that of the fully engaged source, sender, and initiator of mission. During all of human history God works dynamically among all people through His chosen agencies. The Father sends angels, prophets, signs, miracles, and His Word to accomplish His mission. He called Abram and the people of Israel to be His special mission agents. In “the fulness of the time” (Gal. 4:4, KJV) the Father sent the Son as the ultimate missionary, to play the central role in God’s mission. The Father also sent the Spirit to empower the launching of the church (verse 6).

God the Son’s role was to embody God’s mission within Himself in two special ways. First, Jesus embodied the principles of the kingdom of God in His human person in a way that humans could understand. Said Jesus, “If you really know Me, you will know My Father as well” (John 14:7). Jesus personally embodied and demonstrated the new creation to which God’s mission calls humanity. The incarnated Christ “translated” divinity into humanity, just as one language can be translated into another. He became a particular man, Jesus of Nazareth, who was a cultural Jew, living at a particular time and place. By doing so, Jesus modeled how the principles of God’s kingdom may be translated into other cultural contexts in other times and places. Second, Jesus embodied God’s mission by becoming “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8, KJV).

God’s mission was possible because He “presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of His blood—to be received by faith” (Rom. 3:25; see 1 Cor. 15:3; Phil. 2:8). The objective actions of human sinfulness needed the objective atonement of the cross. Thus, the cross of Christ is the foundation upon which God’s saving mission rests.

Within God’s grand plan of mission, the Spirit’s mighty works at Pentecost were a follow-up to the Son’s mighty works as Savior. God the Holy Spirit assumed His particular role in God’s mission at Pentecost by becoming divine overseer and guide of mission until the Second Coming and the new earth. This is not to imply that He was inactive before Pentecost, but to say that He has a special role in the era of the church. Understanding His continued role in mission is vital.

First, the Spirit empowers the church for the proclamation of Jesus Christ with overflowing joy. Shortly before His ascension, Jesus told His followers that “I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). Second, the Spirit teaches the church the principles and message to be proclaimed in mission. Said Jesus, “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:12, 13). Third, the Holy Spirit sustains the church through the suffering and persecution experienced in mission, as already noted above.

Understanding the Church’s Role

If God is the source of mission, what role do the church and its members play? One mistake to avoid is to conclude that Christians can just sit back passively, waiting for God to finish the work He started. The opposite mistake is to place so much weight on the role of the church that God becomes a virtual hostage who waits for the church to finish the work He started. Neither of these positions is biblically acceptable.

While God both started His mission and will “finish the work, and cut it short in righteousness” (Rom. 9:28, KJV), He chose sinners saved by grace through faith to be agents in His mission. He does not use sinless angels as His only agents, although they have a role to play (Heb. 1:14). The fact that He uses ordinary believers, like you and me, is deeply humbling. The following quotation, attributed to D. T. Niles, is surely apropos: “Christianity is one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.” The church is powerful when it feels weak. In the words of Paul: “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). The awareness of our weakness does not imply passivity toward God’s mission. Rather, believers should use every personal spiritual gift and engage every human capacity in mission to humanity.

Yet even though it exerts every energy, the church does not control God’s mission because He remains sovereign over the work He started. Lesslie Newbigin writes: “Because the Spirit is Himself sovereign over the mission, the church can only be the attentive servant. In sober truth the Spirit is Himself the witness who goes before the church in its missionary journey. The church’s witness is secondary and derivative. The church is a witness insofar as it follows obediently where the Spirit leads. . . . The witness that confutes the world is not ours; it is that of one greater than ourselves who goes before us. Our task is to simply follow faithfully.”2

The mission-minded church understands that when people respond to its best works and endeavors, they are in reality responding to the Holy Spirit’s voice and influence that goes ahead of the church. God started His mission in the Garden of Eden, and He will finish His mission in great glory and in the fullness of His time. The church’s sacred privilege is to be God’s humble, faithful, diligent servant.

  1. Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), p. 678.
  2. Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), pp. 61, 62.

Gorden R. Doss grew up a missionary kid in Malawi, southern Africa, and has remained dedicated to mission service in Malawi, and mission training as a professor of world mission at Andrews University, in Berrien Springs, Michigan.

On November 11, 1918, World War I ground to a halt. The 2018 centennial of the ceasefire that ended that global conflict provides a historical perspective for some thoughtful reflection. During the past 100 years, how has the world changed? How has the Adventist Church changed? And what are the implications for Adventist mission?

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World Religion by the Numbers

In 1918, about 1.8 billion people inhabited Planet Earth. By 2018 that number has exploded to an estimated 7.8 billion.1 In other words, the world population has more than quadrupled since World War I ended. This most basic metric of the challenge of world missions is hard to grasp fully.

During the twentieth century the number of people who self-identify as Christians has remained constant at one third of the population. Christianity, in its many forms, remains the largest of the world religions, followed by Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. The total number of Christians has grown from about 0.6 billion to 2.6 billion. On the other hand, the two thirds of the population that does not claim to be Christian, that stands in the greatest need of the good news, has grown from about 1.2 billion to 5.2 billion.36 2

The growth of the Christian faith has shifted its numeric center of gravity away from its longtime center in Europe and North America. In 1910 European and North American Christianity accounted for 81 percent of the total. By 2010 only 38 percent of Christians lived on those two continents.2Christianity has become a truly global religion. As World War I ended, the privilege and responsibility for Christian global mission rested primarily on the church of Europe and North America. Today the task of missions is distributed and decentralized to many new centers on all of the continents.

Shifts in Adventist Mission

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In 1918 the Adventist Church had only 171,914 members, 78 percent of whom lived in Europe and North America.3 By 2018 the membership has grown to more than 20 million, with only 8.1 percent located in Europe and North America. This amazing growth is cause for Adventists to praise the Lord. But even as we give thanks, the unfinished task of world mission looms large because the membership is unevenly distributed, and large people groups remain mostly unevangelized.

On the basis of membership concentration Adventist membership can be divided into two large clusters. The “big seven divisions” cluster includes the North American, Inter-American, and South American divisions; the West-Central Africa, East-Central Africa, and Southern Africa-Indian Ocean divisions; and the South Pacific Division. These seven divisions account for 77 percent of Adventist membership but only 26 percent of world population. Each of these divisions faces major, unique mission challenges, but their territories are comparatively well evangelized, and they are comparatively well equipped for the unfinished task within their own territories. Furthermore, they also have the missional capacity to reach beyond their own territories.

The “diverse six divisions plus” cluster includes the Trans-European, Inter-European, Euro-Asian, Southern Asia, Northern Asia-Pacific, and Southern Asia-Pacific divisions, plus the Middle East-North Africa Union (MENA) and the Israel Field. These territories account for only 23 percent of Adventist members, but a huge 74 percent of world population. They are so diverse that placing them in the same grouping may not seem logical. What they have in common is the missional challenge they each face.

The “diverse six divisions plus” group has a greater missional challenge compared with the “big seven divisions” for three main reasons: (1) while the “big seven divisions” have a member-to-population ratio of 1:344, the “diverse six divisions plus” ratio is 1:1,200 and the ratio in MENA, by itself, is 1:420,400; (2) the centers of global Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism and the 10/40 window are located there; (3) the nominally Christian populations of Europe have become quite secularized and not attracted to organized religion. In other words, the “diverse six divisions Plus” group has comparatively fewer members and fewer resources to witness to vast unreached people groups that have historically been least responsive to the Adventist message.

Four Implications for Twenty-first Century Mission

What do these and other major changes occurring since the ceasefire that ended World War I imply for Adventist mission in the twenty-first century?

First, the privilege and responsibility for world mission has shifted from resting primarily on the church in North America and Europe to the church in the whole world. More specifically, the “big seven divisions” cluster, with about three quarters of the Adventist membership need to embrace a calling to support mission alongside their “diverse six divisions plus” spiritual siblings. A century ago, the church of North America and Europe, with an Adventist membership that now seems microscopic, stretched itself out to the entire world field. Today the Adventist Church has amazing missional capacity in many countries that waits to be fully unleashed among the least evangelized people groups of the world.

Second, the church has the opportunity to enhance intercultural competence at every level. At the local church level, some monocultural congregations remain, but their number is declining. Most congregations include a significant number of members from multiple cultures who have differing, and sometimes conflicting, convictions about the “right way” to be a “good Adventist.” Many believe preaching, singing, Communion services, diet, dress, and behavior must be a certain way. They see change in any of these as akin to spiritual compromise. Interestingly, the cultural blending that sometimes occurs produces a diversity that can make it difficult to witness in communities with dominant traditional cultures.

The church is also multicultural at the administrative level. The basic paradigm for leadership, finances, and organizational style continues to have an American flavor; but the paradigm is reshaped in different ways in the church’s many administrative offices. Church offices that were once culturally homogenous are now very diverse. Cultural concepts of time keeping, money management, gender relationships, and conflict resolution differ between people who work together closely.

The multicultural character of the church at every level shows how urgent it is that everyone develop intercultural competence. One important step in this direction is to normalize or validate cultural conflict. All human relationships experience conflict, and differing cultural perspective is one factor that produces conflict.

The challenge is not to strive to deny it, bury it, or exacerbate it, but rather to negotiate conflict in a Christlike way. Conflict of all kinds, when well managed, can produce enhanced relationships. A well-functioning multicultural church, engaged in mission to a multicultural world, has great potential for missional effectiveness. In a world torn apart by cultural and religious conflict, the church as the body of Christ can be a living, breathing model of harmony.

Third, the church has the opportunity to enhance missiological understanding at the local level. In this complex era, being full of zeal to “just get out there and do something” is not enough. Almost every local church has, within the range of its missional responsibility, Christians of other denominations, adherents of the non-Christian religions, animisti
c practitioners, secularists, and atheists. Many different approaches are needed. The same principles that guide a cross-cultural missionary among, for example, Buddhists in Asia, need to be understood by local church pastors, leaders, and members who reach out to Buddhists who live in the West.

Fourth, the church has the opportunity to give special priority to mission among the non-Christian world religions—Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism being the three largest. Migration has carried these people groups out of their traditional centers to almost every nation. Customary Adventist methods that have worked well among fellow Christians and traditional tribal peoples do not work well among people established in another world religion. Muslims do not respond well to methods that attract Methodists. Priority must be given to developing appropriate methodologies and materials and allocating increasing numbers of missionaries and moneys to meet the immense challenge of reaching the two thirds of the world’s peoples who do not have a Christian background.

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A Compelling Fifth: Longterm Missionaries

A highly significant fifth implication for twenty first century mission relates to the question of long-term missionaries. Their role needs to be better understood and reaffirmed. The church must exploit its opportunity to fully engage the missional capacity of its growing, gifted, and committed membership in effective and strategic ways.

Starting in the 1980s, the General Conference missionary workforce has changed from being mostly North American to being multicultural. Only about 30 percent now come from North America, and that group is multiethnic. Altogether, currently serving missionaries come from about 70 nations and serve in some 97 nations.

However, the magnitude of the unfinished task of mission cries out for many more missionaries than we now have. Among many large people groups, the church lacks indigenous believers to evangelize them adequately. Cross-cultural missionaries are needed to evangelize many, many millions of unreached peoples, especially in the “diverse six plus” divisions.

A wide variety of volunteers and short-term missionaries, serving from a few weeks to a year or two, has added a positive dimension to Adventist mission. One limitation is that their service is usually given among the best-evangelized people groups, where the church is already strong.

However, volunteers can provide effective service among less-evangelized people groups when their work is well coordinated by long-term missionaries and local churches. Good synergy, strategy, and coordination between officially sent missionaries and those in Adventist supporting ministries can also enhance global mission.

The Twenty-first Century Mission Mandate

At the end of World War I the Adventist Church had come far in its mission thinking: from the “shut door” period (1844-1851), to sending the first official missionary in 1874, to a complete reorganization of the church for mission in the early part of the twentieth-century.By 1918 the church had embraced Jesus’ command to make disciples of all nations. During the past 100 years God has greatly blessed Adventist mission; but the number yet to be evangelized is greater than ever, especially among non-Christian world religions.

Jesus promised that “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matt 24:14). Humanly speaking, the task is impossible, but Christ’s words are a promise and a prophecy. The God who used 12 apostles to reach their world, who grew a tiny group of Adventists into a global church, will empower His last-day church as we commit ourselves to the task of taking the gospel to all peoples everywhere.

  1. Todd M. Johnson and Kenneth R. Ross, eds., Atlas of Global Christianity 1910-2010 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), p. 7.
  2. Ibid., p. 59.
  3. Adventist statistics from General Conference Annual Statistical Reports.
  4. Foreign Missionary Program of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. 2017. Unpublished paper. General Conference Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research, 2017, p. 9.

Cheryl Doss directs the Institute of World Mission at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. Her husband, Gorden, is professor of world mission as the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University.