If Everything Is Mission

Drawing A Narrow Definition

“If everything is mission,” Stephen Neill famously said, “then nothing is mission.”

Except, for God’s people, everything really is mission.

I understand the sentiment. There are too many churches who repave their parking lots out of their “Missions” budgets and too few international missionaries making disciples among those who have not heard the gospel. But the answer to the problem of a huge number of Christians acting like bad missionaries is not to draw a more narrow definition.

The problem is one of discipleship. For too long now, churches have been content to make Almost Disciples. These are churched people who have responded in some way to the gospel, joined a church, and are now being fed information about God. An Almost Disciple is considered to be spiritually mature when his sin is less obvious and he’s taken on more responsibly at church. He tries to manage his family and his money well. He supports missions, ministries, and certain political issues. For many, this is Christianity in America.

“Real missionaries”– the ones who’ve left their homes and their families to join foreign cultures in order to be and make disciples of Jesus– resent “Almost Disciples” claims to be “missionaries.” Surely playing a round of golf with guys from work shouldn’t fall into the same category as sneaking into a hotel to teach persecuted new believers Jesus’ teaching about taking up one’s cross. Should it?

Mission isn’t defined by difficulty. It’s not determined by our sacrifice. Mission is God’s redemptive work among humanity, which brings glory to Him. As His called-out people, we are sent into all the world to be His ambassadors. This is our part on God’s mission. The specifics– the timing, the location, the position– these are up to God. He organizes His church on His mission.

It is unwise to try to draw a more narrow definition of mission, because, for God’s people, everything is mission. When we tell the church otherwise– that the “front lines” are over there and not here– we only encourage the sort of behavior we oppose. If you tell people they aren’t missionaries, don’t be surprised if they don’t act like missionaries.

About E. Goodman

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

3 comments

  1. I appreciate your post here and I continue to see the utter lack of trus discipleship regardless of context. But for me saying everyone is a missionary is kind of like saying everyone is a pastor. Everyone is a teacher. Everyone is a prophet. Those seem to be very distict gifts and Scripturally it seems that being a missionary necessitates crossing a cultural boundary. I have talked with many churches on how to make this distinction while recognizing we’re in this together. I don’t think we can be saying that sharing the Gospel with Fred the golfer in Tulsa is the same as sharing the Gospel with Tika in Tibet. For me, the narrowing of the definition is important due to the very ppor efforts we have given as the church in mobilizing our people to take the Gospel where it has never been (what I see as an apostle). So we have a missionary task force working primarily in contexts where the church already exists. You know all of this I’m sure but I think the question of access and commitment to the unreached is an important one and clarity on what we mean by missions is often up for grabs.

  2. Ty,
    Thanks for your comment. I’m sure you’re thinking of passages like Ephesians 4:11, which outline spiritual gifts, where Paul teaches that Christ gave “apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers” to the church for the equipping of the saints for the works of ministry. The list includes the gift of evangelism. Do you believe that some Christians are exempt from sharing their faith because they don’t have the gift of evangelism? Of course not? We must not conflate “apostolic gifting” and “sentness.”

    You mention that mission entails the crossing of cultural boundaries. I agree. As God’s called-out people, we are sent back into the world as both “sojourners and exiles” and as “ambassadors.” In Christ, we are necessarily outsiders, and even the culture of Fred the Golfer in Tulsa requires contextually-appropriate gospel witness and example.

    You value “taking the gospel where it has never been.” That’s great! So did the Apostle Paul! But nowhere in scripture does it say that this is the totality of mission (apostolic ministry). We don’t have a “missionary task force” working where the church already exists (I wish we did!) because Christians in the West are constantly being told that they aren’t missionaries. Instead, we get a bunch of “Almost Christians,” as I mentioned in my post.

    I appreciate your passion for the “unreached,” but the mission of God is much bigger than that. Reserving the term “missionary” only for your narrow (and extrabiblical) missionary strategy is counterproductive because it implies that anyone who is sent to work among “reached” people is somehow not on mission.

    In the end, “missionary” means “sent-one.” As Jesus said to His disciples in John 20:21, “As the Father sent me, I also send you.” We have been sent, so we are missionaries. We don’t all have the spiritual gift of apostleship, but we all have a place on God’s mission.

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