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God has entrusted to his people the task, or mission, of spreading the message of his salvation to the world. The people who carry out this mission are therefore called missionaries. The present article uses the words ‘mission’ and ‘missionary’ in this broad sense, and not as technical names for specific organizations or people who work full time in church-sponsored activities in foreign countries.

Mission is necessary because sin has cut people off from the life of God and left them in the power of Satan (Genesis 3:24; Romans 1:21-25; John 3:19; Galatians 5:19-21; 1 John 5:19). God, however, has made a way of salvation (and it is the only way; John 3:16; John 14:6; Acts 4:12; Romans 5:17), but if the people of the world are to receive this salvation, God’s people must first of all tell them about it (Romans 10:13-15; 2 Corinthians 5:18-19).

The Bible records the development of God’s plan for the salvation of people worldwide. God chose one man (Abraham) to father one particular nation (Israel) through whom God’s blessing would go to all nations. Israel was to be God’s representative in bringing the nations of the world to know him (Genesis 12:2-3; Genesis 22:18; Exodus 19:5-6; Isaiah 49:6; Zechariah 8:22-23). Although Israel as a whole failed to carry out its task, out of it came one person, Jesus Christ, who was the Saviour of the world (Luke 2:10-11; Galatians 3:16). He built a new people of God, the Christian church, to whom he entrusted the mission of taking the message of his salvation to people everywhere (Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 1:8; Acts 13:47).

Jesus and world mission

Israel failed to be God’s light to the nations, partly because the people were so self-satisfied in their status as God’s chosen people that they had no concern for others. They considered themselves assured of God’s blessing, and the Gentile nations assured of his judgment; but in this they deceived themselves (Jonah 4:2; Jonah 4:11; Matthew 3:9; Romans 2:25-29; Romans 3:29; Romans 9:6-7; Romans 9:15).

Despite Israel’s failure, it was still the nation God chose and prepared to produce the world’s Saviour. Jesus therefore announced his salvation to Israel before spreading the message farther afield among the Gentiles (Matthew 15:24; cf. Matthew 4:23; Matthew 13:54). He instructed the twelve apostles to do likewise (Matthew 10:5-6). (For the mission of the twelve during the lifetime of Jesus see APOSTLE.) Even Paul, who was not one of the original twelve, believed he had an obligation to preach to the Jews first (Acts 13:46; Acts 18:6; Romans 1:16).

Jesus had always anticipated a wider mission to the Gentiles (Matthew 8:11-12; Matthew 21:43; Matthew 28:19; John 10:16; John 20:21). He told his disciples, and through them the church, to look upon the initial work in Palestine as the foundation for a wider reaching work into the Gentile world (Luke 24:46-47; Acts 1:8). He encouraged a sense of urgency in this mission by saying that he would return and bring in the new age only after his followers had preached the gospel worldwide (Matthew 24:14).

Planting churches in new areas

The New Testament record of the expansion of the early church shows the sort of work the church must be prepared for if it is to fulfil its mission. Of first importance is the personal life and testimony of the Christians themselves. Through their witness the gospel spreads (Acts 8:4-6; Acts 11:19-21; Colossians 1:7). But God wants more than to save people. He wants to see them baptized, made disciples of Jesus, instructed in Christian teaching and built into local churches (Matthew 28:19-20; John 17:20-21; Acts 1:8; Acts 2:41-47; Acts 11:26; Colossians 1:25; Colossians 1:28; see BAPTISM; DISCIPLE; TEACHER).

Although all Christians should bear witness to Jesus, God chooses and equips certain people for the specific task of breaking into unevangelized areas with the gospel (Acts 9:15; Romans 10:14-15; Romans 15:20; 2 Corinthians 10:16; Galatians 1:16; see EVANGELIST). As a church recognizes such gifted people, it may send them out to devote their whole time to preaching the gospel, making disciples and planting churches. In doing so, the home church becomes a partner with its missionaries in the gospel (Acts 13:1-4; Acts 14:27; Acts 16:1-2; Acts 18:22-23; cf. Philippians 1:5).

Paul was a missionary sent by a church into unevangelized areas, and his example shows that missionaries must have plans and goals. Like Paul, they may make no attempt to preach in every town and village, but concentrate on planting churches in the main population centres (Acts 13:14; Acts 14; Acts 1; Acts 8; Acts 20; Acts 16:12; Acts 18:1; Acts 19:1). These churches then have the responsibility to spread the gospel into the surrounding regions, though they will do so effectively only if they themselves are spiritually healthy (Acts 13:49; Acts 19:8-10; 1 Thessalonians 1:8).

Whatever the strategy, the missionaries must also be flexible. They must be sensitive to God’s will in changing situations, and be prepared to alter their plans if God so directs (Acts 16:6-10; Acts 18:21; 1 Corinthians 16:7-9; 1 Corinthians 16:12).

Adapting to different situations

There is only one gospel, but its presentation may be adapted to the background and needs of different audiences. Paul’s preaching in the Jewish synagogues differed from his preaching to non-Jewish idolaters (Acts 13:14-41; Acts 14:11-17; Acts 17:22-31). Nevertheless, it is often the case that those who appear ready-made to accept the gospel refuse it (e.g. Jews who already knew the Bible; Acts 13:45; Acts 14:1-2; Acts 17:1-5; Acts 17:13), and the most unlikely people accept it (e.g. idolaters, robbers, adulterers and perverts; Acts 19:18-20; Acts 19:26; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11).

Christianity must not be identified with one level of society or one race. There should not therefore be an emphasis on one class of people to the neglect of the rest (Acts 16:14; Acts 17:4; Acts 17:12; Acts 18:3; Acts 18:7-8; 1 Corinthians 1:26; 2 Corinthians 8:1-2; Ephesians 2:14-15; 1 Timothy 6:1-2; 1 Timothy 6:17). Nor should there be an emphasis on one sort of proclamation to the neglect of the rest (1 Corinthians 9:22). Missionaries may make the gospel known through preaching, discussion, debating or teaching; they may use religious buildings, public places or private homes; they may deal with mass audiences, small groups or individual enquirers (Acts 2:40-41; Acts 5:25; Acts 6:9-10; Acts 8:27-29; Acts 11:12; Acts 14:1; Acts 16:13; Acts 16:32; Acts 17:19; Acts 20:22; Acts 21:39-40; Acts 28:17).

The time that missionaries spends in one centre may vary from a few weeks to a few years (Acts 17:2; Acts 18:11; Acts 20:31). Patience is necessary, but that does not mean that they must remain indefinitely in one place preaching the gospel to unresponsive people, when people in other places have not yet heard (Matthew 10:11-14; Acts 13:51; Acts 17:13-14; Acts 19:8-9).

Independence of new churches

To avoid making a church dependent on them, those who plants the church should be careful about starting programs that can only operate if they are there permanently (Acts 18:20; Acts 20:38; 1 Corinthians 2:5). They should concentrate on making the Christians true disciples who can carry on the work of Christ, both in helping the church and in reaching out to the lost (Matthew 28:19; Ephesians 4:11-13). In particular they should train those who show signs of being gifted for the more important ministries of the church (2 Timothy 2:2; see GIFTS OF THE SPIRIT).

Having taught people to trust in the Lord, missionaries must show that they also trust in the Lord, by leaving the new believers to learn by experience how to live as Christ’s people (Acts 14:23; Acts 20:32). If the believers have been built up in the knowledge of God and his Word (Acts 11:26; Acts 20:27), they will be able to maintain their Christian commitment after the missionaries have gone. They should even be able to spread the gospel into the surrounding regions (Acts 13:49; Acts 13:52; Acts 19:10; 1 Thessalonians 1:8-10).

Though the founders of the church may leave it, they do not abandon it. Through letters, visits and periods of temporary residence they can help it to grow (Acts 15:36; Acts 20:2-3; 1 Corinthians 5:9; 1 Corinthians 7:1; 1 Corinthians 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:12).

Each church, if it is to stand by itself, must also be able to govern itself. God has provided for the leadership of local churches through giving certain people the necessary abilities to be elders. The founders of the church have the responsibility to appoint such leaders in the church (Acts 14:23; Acts 20:17; Titus 1:5; see ELDER). (Concerning Paul’s exercise of authority in the churches he established, see APOSTLE.)

People in different churches will pray, sing, teach and worship in a variety of ways, depending on their background and culture. When missionaries plant churches in cultures different from their own, they must not impose their culture upon the new Christians, but encourage them to find suitable ways of expressing their newfound faith (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:20; Colossians 3:16-17).

Christianity can function in any age and in any culture. The New Testament is not a book of rules giving instructions on the practical details of church procedures, but a collection of stories and letters providing guidance for a Spirit-directed people (Acts 20:28; 1 Corinthians 2:12-13; 1 Corinthians 6:5; 1 Corinthians 7:6; 1 Corinthians 7:40; Philippians 1:9). Flexibility will enable missionaries to change patterns of activity to meet the needs of different kinds of people (Acts 15:10; 1 Corinthians 9:20-23; Galatians 2:12-14). (For the principles of church life that should guide those who establish new churches see CHURCH.)

When establishing churches in new areas, missionary may choose not to accept financial support from the local people, to avoid being a burden or creating misunderstanding (1 Corinthians 9:12; 2 Corinthians 12:14-18). They might choose to do part-time secular work to help support themselves, or receive gifts of money from churches elsewhere (Acts 18:3; Acts 20:33-34; 2 Corinthians 11:7-9; Philippians 4:15-18; 1 Thessalonians 2:5; 1 Thessalonians 2:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-8).

Evangelism and social concern

Jesus demonstrated true Christian love by helping the poor, the sick, the despised and the victims of injustice. He taught his disciples to do likewise (Matthew 8:2-3; Matthew 8:6-7; Matthew 9:11; Matthew 25:34-35; Mark 8:1-2; Mark 12:40; Luke 10:36-37; James 5:1-6; 1 John 3:17).

Following Jesus, the early missionaries saw people not merely as souls to be saved, but as people whose bodies and minds were also in need. They were concerned for the whole person, not just part of the person. They therefore accompanied their preaching with acts of compassion, and taught the newly founded churches the social responsibilities that the gospel placed upon them (Acts 5:12; Acts 9:34; Acts 16:16-18; Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 2:10; Galatians 6:10; 1 Timothy 5:3-5; 1 Timothy 6:18; James 1:27).

Like Jesus, however, the early missionaries did not carry out their practical ministries or use their miraculous powers as a method of evangelism. They did not do good deeds for people merely to try to convert them. They did good deeds because they had a Christian duty to do so, whether or not the people were Christians or even likely to become Christians (Acts 3:6; Acts 5:15-16; Acts 19:11-12; Acts 28:8-9; James 2:15-16; see GOOD WORKS; MIRACLES).

As Christians carry on the mission that Jesus started, they show people the sort of world that God wants. They work towards the goal that God has for the removal of all the effects of sin, not only in individuals and human society but also in the world of nature (Romans 8:19-23; Revelation 21:4; Revelation 22:1-2; see JUSTICE; NATURE).

But the root of the world’s problems is sin, and the basic task of the church’s mission is to make known the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel is God’s provision to deal with sin. As people respond to that gospel, they come into a right relationship with God, and then set about producing character and behaviour that is in keeping with their Christian faith (Matthew 28:19-20; Luke 24:47; Acts 1:8; Romans 1:16; Romans 15:20; Titus 3:8).

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Fleming, Don. Entry for 'Mission'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. 2004.

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