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.
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.
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.
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.
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.