The mission agency with which I served has a very laudable vision of seeing the churches planted by its missionaries around the world become actively engaged in the global missionary enterprise. The tagline used to describe this vision is “From everywhere to everywhere.” And while it sounds exciting, I encountered a conceptual roadblock when trying to promote the idea in the countries where I served. It had to do with the perceived meanings of the words “Missions” and “missionary”.
It is hard to believe that a mere word can be an impediment to people’s thinking but that really is the case. Let me explain.
It has become very difficult for people in countries where the North-American church has exerted a significant evangelistic effort for people to think of a “missionary” in any terms other than a white English-speaking foreigner. They simply do not see themselves when they hear the word “missionary.”
- For some, “Missions” has come to mean schools, hospitals, community development, and foreign money. To fledgling churches in those countries, “Missions” means “We receive. You send.”
- In our own minds we think of “Missions” as something God has left up to us, and it’s up to us to figure out how to “finish the task” – either before the Lord comes back, or so that He will come back. “Missions” is our burden – our “white man’s burden,” to borrow a phrase from Rudyard Kipling.
- We think of “Missions” as just one of many things the church does, and we have gone to work on the project with a will and determination. Of all the peoples of the world, we are the ones with the means, the know-how, and the vision.
- We’ve turned Missions into a science (missiology). We’ve created corporations (mission agencies) to see that the job gets done in the most efficient way possible. We’ve entrusted the brunt of the task to a few heroes among us (the missionaries). Of course “ordinary Christians” have a role to play: they can pray, write to the missionaries, give to mission projects, and even go on workteams.
Essentially, the common view is that “Missions” is the task of the church, particularly the American church. But it is only one of its many tasks. It takes place far away. It is carried out by a specialized subset of Christians (I’ve often heard them called “God’s choicest servants) who are paid to do the task, and it costs a lot of money.
Sound cynical? I apologize.
But I have stumbled on to an expression that might help us set aside these clichés and come much closer to the heart of a Biblical understanding of God’s mission in the world He created. That expression is Missio Dei. Yes, it’s a Latin expression, but the concept it represents is not difficult to understand.
- Missio means “to send with a purpose”. A more colorful word for it, and one that we use in daily life, is to fetch – “to go after something and bring it back.”
- Dei tells us whose Missio it is. It is God’s Missio, from beginning to end.
- Missio Dei It is nothing more than God’s fetching.
Now here’s the important part: It is not the Church’s Missio. God did not entrust it to us. He called us to join him in it. It is God’s Missio, and the Church is only one agent of it. There are many agents of God’s Missio. Take for example the story of Jonah. He was sent (Missio) to Nineveh but discovered he was not alone. Along the way he met God’s storm, God’s fish, God’s gourde vine, God’s cutter-worm, and God’s scorching wind. Every one of those were sent at exactly the right moment as agents of God’s Missio, which was not only to bring Nineveh to repentance, but also to bring repentance to Jonah, his wayward prophet.
Next up: Missio Dei: The Sendingness Of God