End or Means?

“Mission exists because worship does not.” With this phrase, John Piper begins his reformed missions manifesto, “Let the Nations Be Glad.” His assertion is simple: that worship is the goal of missions. I’ve written quite a bit about this book lately, and I’m seeing just how great an impact it has had on modern missiology. I’m thankful for Piper’s influence; he continues to push churches toward direct involvement in the Great Commission.

Nevertheless, I have to disagree with Piper’s premise. Despite the fact that he’s one of the few reformed theologians out there committed to missiology (Don’t believe me? W. Grudem’s 1200-page Systematic Theology devotes less than a paragraph to mission!), he begins with the same basic assumption that Christians have been making since the Enlightenment. This single understanding is responsible for all the places where we get missions wrong: that mission is a means to an end.

All traditional missiologies operate under the assumption that missions is how we get to “the end;” namely, vision in John’s revelation of people from every tribe, tongue, and nation” worshiping at the foot of God’s throne. From this perspective, missiology is eschatology; it’s purpose is only found in how it pertains to Christ’s return. God has shown us that this is His end, we’ve assumed that it is ours to accomplish on His behalf. Missions, then, is how we “finish the task.”

And this despite the fact that everything having to do with spiritual regeneration is solely the work of God. Has he commanded us to do something that only He can do? No! Our part is to obey in going, He handles the saving. This is why we’ve (fortunately) altogether stopped measuring missionary effectiveness by the number of salvations (and even percentages of “reachedness”), and instead (unfortunately) taken to measuring things like “engagement” and “access.” (These, we conclude, fall more squarely on the human side of the equation).

But what if mission is more than just how God accomplishes His purposes in human history? What if mission is the chief end of humanity?

God has revealed Himself as a going God. He intentionally left his place at the Father’s right hand to join human history to be a missionary among us. It was in His going that the Father is glorified. Every interaction between God and humanity recorded in scripture ends with God sending the ones to whom He reveals Himself. “Go… to the land that I will show you.” He goes, and sends us. “and sent them on ahead of him… where he himself was about to go.” “Because He is a going God, we are going people.

There is no Christianity apart from the going. We go from wherever we were when God found us to wherever He leads next. We go to serve, to preach, to heal, to love,  and to “sin no more.” “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” “Go and make disciples of all nations.” There is no “stay and worship Me,” in the Bible, only “go and worship Me.”

My point is this: the spread of the gospel to all nations is not the goal of mission, it’s the result of it.  If we are obedient to the commands of our Lord, we will be going people- actively proclaiming the gospel through word and deed in “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Piper and others get it wrong when they say that God is glorified when people bow before Him in an end-times worship service. No, He is glorified when people go in His name.

About E. Goodman

Ernest Goodman is a missiologist, writer, teacher, and communications strategist.