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August 1, 2011Missiology

Developing Missional Churches for the Great Commission, Part Six: The Compartmentalized Mission

This is the sixth of an eight-part series on Developing Missional Churches for the Great Commission. Here are the first five posts:

  1. Understanding What We Mean When We Talk about Being Missional
  2. The Great Commission and Missional Thinking
  3. The Challenge of Being Missional
  4. The Missional Idea in Scripture
  5. God Sends

Mission Gets Compartmentalized

In different ways, missions have been compartmentalized. What became of this is a view of missions as a specific activity or ministry of the church and only specially called people participated in it. Historically, in the early part of the twentieth century, there was a desire to elevate missions as a discipline in Christian settings. So people began to distinguish between evangelism and missions. Evangelism was defined as telling the good news and propagating the gospel in Christendom–particularly Europe and North America. Missions became a cross-cultural focus that involved an academic discipline that had to be done differently. They knew that crossing cultural boundaries–such as reaching the Iban in Malaysia–would need different skills to proclaim the gospel. So we created a discipline from that perceived difference, and that discipline was called "missions."

Also, the term "missions" was, at times, used to describe the inferior status of non-Christendom churches, rather than describing the work of advancing the gospel, certain ministry outpost were called "missions," instead of a church. In the early twentieth century, believers living in countries outside Christendom were not part of any "church." Thus, in the nineteenth century, Christians in China were not part of a Chinese church; they were part of an Anglican church in London as a "mission." They were not full communicants. Believers in the Two Thirds World were in an Anglican mission or a Baptist mission or a Presbyterian mission. Effectively the "missions" status relieved these churches from the responsibility of doing missions themselves, and ultimately, created the idea that only established churches from certain parts of the world could do missions.

But, over time, leaders began to recognize that all churches were called to participate in God's sending work. They realized that churches in every region have a task and a responsibility to send people to the uttermost parts of the world to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. No matter the place of origin, the world is the responsibility of every church. So the language has begun to change. New works were no longer called "missions" but churches, because Christians began to realize that the church is wherever God had planted it. Furthermore, wherever the church was, it was on mission. In other words, the mission was from everywhere and to everywhere. The church is sent and is a sender, in every time and in every place.

In due course, people noticed that the West needed to be re-evangelized. As people wondered how the churches would "win back" the West, grand conversations about missiology emerged. In part, that face gave rise to the term "missional." Being missions-minded was not and is not sufficient; we have to be missional. It is an important distinction.

In many denominations and fellowships, we have many missions-minded churches, giving large amounts of money to missions. Cooperative giving to missions is a central idea of what it means to be a part of my denomination, and also in many others. But the challenge is that many times, in spite of being mission-minded with great global thinking, we miss the impulse of being the "sent people" of God to our local culture. Too often we've "outsourced" the mission of God.

I fear that in the shadows of our own steeples people far from Christ have never heard the good news communicated to them in a way that they can understand. We need to recognize that the church sends people but the church herself is also sent. The challenge is that many of us have not yet figured out how to be sent into our own community. Being missional means we have to live sent here, to our place and among our people.

I frequently speak at conferences and training events. I remind them that in spite of their exposure to the greatest church minds of the day (the other speakers), they should resist the tendency to live as if they are "sent" to their (the speakers') communities. Often, pastors and leaders hear about what's going on with Wayne Cordeiro in Hawaii or Andy Stanley in Atlanta, and say, "I want to be just like that." What happens is that you begin to think that the key to what they have done is the way in which they have done ministry. It is easy to forget that when we are sent to a place, and that, in many ways, the how of missional ministry is determined by the who, when, and where of culture.

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