Wholistic Mission

Dougald McLaurin, today, has made an excellent point in a post entitled, “What is Mission? A Call For a Holistic Mission for Life“.  He wonders why people are so willing to jump on a plane and cross the globe for ministry while they ignore the lost and hurting people right across the street. I wonder if such an attitue reveals a deficiency in our understanding of mission and missions.

Arnau Van Wyngaard, a missionary to AIDS victims in Swaziland, rejoined Dougald’s argument that many people who point to the needs for ministry at home often use this smoke screen as an excuse to do nothing. He makes a good point. I think this excuse is another symptom of the same deficiency in understanding mission.

For most, mission is what is done over there, missionaries are special agents, and they won’t get invovled in any ministry unless they are “called” to do so. There are confusing inconsistencies in this understanding, though. For instance, you have to be “called” to ministry, but Pastors spend their entire careers trying to convince people that they all have their own “ministry.” Missionaries have to be “called” to ministry, but we are constantly increasing the number of short term teams. As such, a few people (though the number is rising) get involved in Short Term Missions, a few more find their “ministry” but most are content to set in the pew and “be fed.” The good Christian is one who doesn’t get in any trouble, who attends faithfully and tithes (sometimes).  Even for the folks who do find their “ministry,” the ministry they find is usually internally focused, aimed at supporting the church programs, not at ministering to the needs of the community.

We need a fuller understanding of mission. Lesslie Newbigin has forever reminded us that there is no “home base” in missions. The whole earth is the realm for mission. Therefore, there is no distinction between mission and evangelism. Evangelism is a subset of mission. Bosch teaches us this as well. Furthermore, Stott reminds us that evangelism and social ministry are equal partners in mission. Then, the emerging church question has taught us that the attractional, Christendom model of church has failed. Thus, we cannot merely be “attracting” people to our “superior” moral and spiritual gathering. Rather, as Bosch reminds us, the church is the church for others, it is incarnational and missional by nature. I summarize it this way–the church is to be God-centered and other-focused. This does not deny the necessary function of the church for encouragement and fellowship of believers (Heb 10). But it emphasizes the “going” to the nations (Matt 28), “bringing” (Isa 66) them to “come” and be disciples of Jesus (Matt 11).  This is done for our neighbor who is near and who is far off (Eph 2). Thus, mission is both/and. It is taking the gospel to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Moreover, it is preaching the gospel as much as in serving (Rom 12). Thus, Mission is also done by all. It includes all the “giftings” of the church (1 Cor 12). I could go on and on. But the point is that mission is much, much more than overseas missions.

I am not suggesting that the sacrifice of missionaries is not real and important. But to say in one breath that mission cannot be done by proxy and missionaries are not special people on a special assignment, then with the other breath claim that we need to honor our missionary “heroes” is double-speak. We need an understanding of mission that does not allow this word play. I wonder what would change in our understanding of mission if we saw that mission is the role of the church as a whole, not just a select few? What do you think?



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  1. Wes, you make some valid points. I think we just need to be careful to see this as an or / or situation. Churches, I believe, need to be involved in missions both near and far. I wrote about this myself: http://missionissues.wordpress.com/2007/04/13/missions-near-or-far/
    Every church needs to identify a place within walking distance where they can get involved but they also need to find a place where they can travel to once a year. But every Christian also needs to find a place where they can work – near or far – wherever God calls them to work.
    God can use full-time missionaries as well as short-term missionaries. God can use them next to the home church or in another country. I don’t think we need to see these as opposing each other. Pray about it and do what God tells you to do. Don’t pray WHETHER God wants to use you. That we already know. Just pray to find out WHERE God wants to use you.

  2. Arnau,

    Thank you for bringing that post to our attention. You are right, the church should be involved near and far. It is healthy and biblical.

    I hope my post didn’t imply that Short Term Missions is not important. I think a full definition of mission definitely includes this. I am, up to this point in my life, a lifelong short-termer. My mission trips have mostly been two or three weeks, only two two-month long trips. So I apologize if I misrepresented short term missions.

    I was only trying to support the notion that mission is larger than overseas mission and that, at least in circles I run, there is an unhealthy disconnect between mission “over there” and mission “at home.” True mission sees no real distinction between the two. Charles Chaney, in his published dissertation “The Birth of Missions in America”, convincing argues via extension primary source research, that the fathers of mission in America and in Europe saw foreign mission as an extension of home mission, just in a different locale. There was no evangelism/mission distinction at all. They were one and the same. If we recovered this mindset, I think we would have a healthier understanding of mission.

  3. Wes,
    No, I don’t think I misunderstood you. I think you have a Biblical view on this. This was something that David Bosch emphasised so strongly and that I agree with, that we really do not have to see any tension in the near / far issue, as distance does not define whether I’m involved in mission or not. This is an unhealthy distinction. In Apartheid South Africa, the distinction fell on the colour of the people you are working with. I wrote about it in this post: http://missionissues.wordpress.com/2007/08/01/mission-and-evangelism/
    But we should not stop thinking and debating the issue, because I realise that there are still millions of Christians who so not understand what God is calling them to do.

  4. Arnau,

    Thank you for the link. I really appreciate your wisdom. You have life experience that I don’t have and I am honored to learn from what God has allowed you to learn and see.

    I think I misspoke in my last comment–“There was no evangelism/mission distinction at all. They were one and the same.” I meant to highlight that the 17th and 18th century missionaries did not distinguish between evangelism to the native americans and evangelism to the lost colonists. That is what I meant by “no evangelism/mission distinction.” The whole mission/evangelism debate came along later. And I’m in agreement with you and Bosch, that evangelism is a part of mission, where mission is bigger than evangelism.

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