What is mission? This question is one that confuses the church endlessly today. For one thing, different groups
in the church define mission very differently. These differences fall into two main categories.
On the one hand, some see mission as service. They base their view on Matthew 25:31-46, where Jesus, just
prior to his death, specifically identifies with the poor and suffering. He says that to serve them is, in effect, to serve
him. He says this is the way to heaven. This group of Christians correctly understands that the church’s mission is
to help those in need. I grew up with this understanding of mission. In many churches the Mission Committee, and money raised
for mission, has mainly to do with giving assistance to needy and hurting people. Usually, following Jesus’ own example,
there are no strings attached to this service. It is given simply where there is need.
The other view is based on Matthew 28:18-20, and sees mission primarily as evangelism. Here the risen Lord
Jesus specifically commissions his disciples to "go and make disciples of all nations." It is the more evangelical Christians
who have been most inspired by this command. They would say, also correctly, that mission is when the church is out there
converting people and bringing them into a relationship with Jesus.
It is a tragedy that the church has been divided so profoundly between these two opinions, especially since
they are only separated by a handful of chapters in Matthew’s gospel. Given the wall erected between these two understandings
by their interpreters, it is almost hard to believe that the words in both chapters 25 and 28 are from the mouth of the same
man. The chapter 25 (service) party looks on the chapter 28 (evangelism) party as a bunch of harsh fundamentalists who attach
unnecessary and selfish conditions to God’s grace and the church’s work. As if we should deny help to suffering
people unless they convert. (Sadly, some Christians do hold this extreme view as we heard about after the tsunami.) The chapter
28 (evangelism) party views the chapter 25 (service) party as mere social service providers who are ashamed to mention Christ
in their work at all. (This is not completely inaccurate either.)
I suspect that the bifurcation between these two views of mission began early in the era of Christendom, when
Christianity was practically identical with Western Civilization. In those days, roughly from the 4th through the
20th centuries, it was the State that got to decide what the mission of the church was to be. The State defined
the church’s mission in terms of what the State needed done. (By "the State" I don’t mean just the government,
but the complex of all the institutions in a given nation.)
Thus the church’s mission was focused on two separate areas. First, since the whole culture was officially
Christian, and nearly everyone was born into the church, there was no point to doing evangelism in the sense of going out
and converting people. Within Christendom everyone (except for small pockets of Jews) was Christian. Evangelism became something
that was aimed at other parts of the world, outside the bounds of the West (Europe and North America). Even when I
was a kid, a missionary was someone who went to Africa or Asia to spread the gospel. They were literally fulfilling
Jesus’ command in Matthew 28. They went to other nations because, of course, our own nation was already converted.
Secondly, the State decided that the church should have a domestic mission, which is the care of the poor,
sick, and otherwise less fortunate. It was the "social safety net," as it were, caring for those whom the State — families
and communities — either would not or could not. The church embraced this task with enthusiasm because they knew it
was a literal fulfillment of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25.
This bifurcation worked well enough as long as the premises of Christendom functioned. But when Christendom
began to collapse, it became increasingly difficult to hold together two distinct views of what mission is. Where it used
to be that there were these people here, whom the gospel required us to serve, and those people out there whom the gospel
required us to convert, now the boundary which once divided Christendom from the rest of the world began to blur.
More and more we found non-Christians — people who left or rejected the faith or who had never been
exposed to it, and people with other faiths — among us. The "unchurched" were no longer people in other countries far
away, but our neighbors, co-workers, relatives, and friends. Indeed, the government and other institutions were themselves
less and less explicitly Christian. So it occurred to some that evangelism is something that we should be doing right here.
Thus the two understandings of mission collided. The group that heard Jesus telling us to serve others, and the group
that heard him commanding us to convert others now focused on the same people.
This brought the church into conflict over strategy and resources. Serving and converting are two different
activities requiring two different ways of speaking, thinking, and acting. Thus churches and denominations have been waging
guerrilla war for a few decades over budgets and priorities between the "mission is service" group and the "mission is evangelism"
group. Matthew 25 vs. Matthew 28.
But Christ is not divided. The same Lord uttered both passages a few days apart, on either side of his death
and resurrection. He clearly did not mean for his words to be taken as contradictory. He must have thought it was possible
to do both service and evangelism at the same time. It was not he but the church, under pressure from the State, which
separated the two. In the early church, before it was coopted by the Roman Empire, the believers saw no conflict between these
emphases. They understood that service and evangelism were in fact the same thing, and that it was a large part of the mission
of the church.
Bringing these two back together does not mean simply mentioning Jesus more in our service activities, or
making sure our evangelism efforts bring physical assistance to the needy. This reblending approach has been shown to be very
difficult if not problematic. Service and evangelism have evolved into two distinct approaches, both based on the Christendom
model. Which is to say that both have tended to be patronizing efforts by the people with all the power to express, prove,
and enforce their superiority over those with none. And both also tended to identify the gospel with the interests of the
State. Thus service and evangelism, in their usual incarnations, both have to do with assisting people in becoming useful
and willing cogs in the economic and social order.
No. We need to rethink the mission of the church from the ground up. In this task we will have more to learn
from the early church and from a few very selective examples of mission in our history, than from anything in the last thousand
years. What the early church, and other fruitful and faithful manifestations like the Celtic mission, understood was that
the church does not do mission; it is mission. The church’s mission is realized and accomplished not in
what it does, but in what it is. That is, the church is doing its mission when it is itself the kind of community Jesus established.
I believe it was the German theologian, Emil Brunner, who made the oft-quoted observation about how mission
is to the church as burning is to a fire. That statement was true and profound... but woefully misunderstood more often than
not. For what was frequently self-servingly gleaned from it was that everything the church does is mission... which means
that in the end nothing is. This motto was used to justify retaining the status quo, as everything the church was already
doing became defined as a part of its mission. What I suspect Brunner really meant was not that the church defines what mission
is, but that mission defines what the church is, the way burning defines what a fire is.
The word in Greek for church is ekklesia. It comes from the prefix ek-, meaning "from" or "out
of," and the word kaleo, which means "call." The church, then, literally is those who have been called; called out
from secular society and called into the Kingdom of God. More specifically, the church is those who have been called by God
into a new community. In that community, in the way it worships, talks, orders its life, serves, and loves, people experience
in advance something of what God’s coming Kingdom is about. The ekklesia is not the place where you work out just the
spiritual or charitable side of your life. It represents an entirely different orientation of your whole life. It is your
Under Christendom the church was part of the State. It was one of many cultural and civic institutions the
combined effect of which was to make people more productive, loyal, enthusiastic, and serious participants in the social order.
But that was hardly what Jesus had in mind. Jesus and the apostles understood the church as ekklesia in completely different
terms. Peter in particular calls the Christians "aliens and exiles" (1 Peter 2:11). The church is a group of people who happen
to live under one social order, and yet are loyal to a completely different regime, one "not of this world," but that is nevertheless
coming. In other words, far from being an arm of the State, the original vision of the church was as a beachhead of a foreign
power that was preparing to invade and even overthrow the State. It becomes easy to see why Christians, like the Lord,
were arrested and killed for blasphemy and sedition. They were considered enemies of the State.
The values under which the Christians lived were given, not by the State, but by the Word of God: Jesus and
the Scriptures. These values were lived out in the context of the church. The church became the place where another, alternative,
form of life could happen. It was where people learned to live together according to the rules of God’s Kingdom, as
opposed to the rules of Caesar’s empire. The church was a place of honesty and forgiveness, mutual love and support,
equality and acceptance, transformation and repentance, prayer and worship, and so it became the place where people met God.
It was where they experienced God’s saving Presence in their lives. It was where they related to one another in sacred
The focus of this sacred communion was the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, the offering
of thanksgiving, the sharing of the Lord’s Body and Blood. That sacred communion with each other and with the Lord is
the essence of being the church. Being the church in this way is its mission. The church’s mission is to be the
sacred community where God’s love is embodied and shared, and where God is thanked for it.
If we are to recover this more ancient and original model of the church it would mean realizing in our practice
that the mission of the church is not something we do; it is what we are. We do not get together in meetings
and groups for study and planning in order to then go out and do this other thing called mission; rather, our mission
is realized and accomplished in the very act and manner of our getting together and relating to each other and to the Lord.
If we are not the church in our meetings and conversations we will certainly not be the church in whatever we subsequently
do after our meetings and conversations.
Serving and converting others are important, but they are not the primary mission of the church. Rather, they
are secondary and derivative effects of our true mission which is to be the Body of Christ in the world. When we are
the Body of Christ, then our serving and converting of others will emerge naturally.
I find the example of the Irish missionaries during the 5th-12th centuries to be instructive
here. When the Irish monastics undertook mission work they followed the example of Jesus himself. In the Incarnation, Jesus
takes on human life, sharing it down to every detail, and so revealing the love of God to people; therefore the Irish missionaries
followed the same pattern. Their strategy was to move into a village, or even into a sparsely populated rural area, and establish
a household. Dwelling together in a life permeated by prayer and mutual love, they would learn the language and the customs
of the people, and quietly and sincerely over time embody among them the kind of community Christ inspires and creates. Knowing
that it is he who satisfies the deepest longing in the human heart, they knew that their lifestyle would be obviously and
This mission was informed by a more inclusive theology that believed God to be present in all creation, all
people, and all cultures. Therefore, instead of eradicating the pre-Christian beliefs of the people, they embraced what was
consonant with the Christian faith and reframed elements that could be reinterpreted in terms of the Christian story. Only
irredeemably violent and perverse aspects of the people’s faith were rejected. But even here it was not done with a
paternalistic and self-righteous attitude. Rather, the point was to show, in the quality of their communal life, how wrong
and dangerous these things were.
Those who were attracted by this model were embraced, instructed in the faith, and incorporated into the community.
The idea is that no one is talked down to. No one is threatened with hell-fire. No one is coerced by the withholding of some
benefit. Neither is anyone paid off or sold out. Finally, the mission did not rely upon the entertainment value of its worship
to lure converts. The church simply embodied Christ’s love for the world in such a way that people observed it and wanted
to be a part of it.
The Irish missionaries did things we would consider service. They ministered to the sick and suffering in
the local areas. The early church was famous for ministering to those whom the rest of society feared or rejected: plague
victims for instance. They did all the things Jesus mentions in Matthew 25. These things were done as an aspect, outgrowth,
and expression of the community’s life together. It would have been clear that these things were done as an expression
of their joyful obedience to the Lord. Not in an attitude of superiority, but as the actions of some broken human beings with
others. As people who have found something wonderful and who are motivated to share what they have found with others.
Thus by being the church, that is, by tending first and foremost to the quality and integrity of its own communal
and sacramental life, the church becomes a place where both Matthew 25 and Matthew 28 can be practiced.
This insight, that the mission of the church is enacted in the quality of our relationships in the church,
should bring a radical rethinking of the way a congregation conducts every element of its life. If mission is realized not
primarily in what the church does, but in what it is, then the point of church activity is located in the very
way it functions and how the members relate to each other. In other words, the meeting of any church group — committee,
choir, session, board, prayer group, dinner, class, etc., not to mention formal public worship — is itself the
church’s mission. That is where mission happens. The meeting is the mission (perhaps like the way the medium
is the message in McLuhan).
The dynamics of the gathering itself — its order, content, openness, reciprocality, integrity, orientation,
and spirit — is where the church’s mission is primarily realized. All other expressions of mission are secondary
and derivative, based on this elemental set of relationships.
And the seminal Christian gathering which in turn informs and shapes all other gatherings is the Sacrament
of the Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist. Every Christian assembly, from two or three coming together for prayer or conversation,
to a meeting of the General Assembly or the World Council of Churches, needs to be eucharistic in character and be consciously
and visibly derived from the eucharistic gathering. In short, to be eucharistic means to be Christ-centered.
Admittedly, this eucharistic focus has been habitually downplayed in Protestant circles. This is nothing to
be proud of. It was merely a reaction against some of the superstitious excesses of the late Medieval Roman church. But to
therefore overthrow or even subdue the eucharistic emphasis in the life of the church is a grave error. The holy Table remains
at the front and center of our worship life. (Churches where it is shoved into a closet or out into the hall when Communion
is not being celebrated are missing the point of Christian worship.) The Reformers intended to bring the Sacrament, in a purified
form, back into the heart of church life. When some Protestants downplay the Eucharist it is more a caving in to rationalism,
secularism, or even gnosticism, than a recovery of biblical Christianity.
The Eucharist is central because it presents us with the entire gospel. On the one hand it is in a very succinct
form. And on the other, it also summarizes the entire biblical story. God’s self-giving in Christ is the story of the
universe itself, from the creation by the Word, to the redemption won on the cross when Christ’s blood is shed for the
life of the world, to the final triumph of resurrection, anticipating the completion of creation in love, as God’s life
is given to us in the Spirit. The Sacraments are enactments and re-presentations of the story of ultimate Truth. They become
the lens through which we see the world, which enables us to see God’s saving Presence in the world.
Finally, the Sacraments are the primary way we participate and share in what God is doing. In the Lord’s
Supper something physical is happening: we are eating and drinking, ingesting and gaining energy from none other than God.
It is a sign of that basic Christian truth: "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us;" "God was in Christ, reconciling the
world." Or as St. Irenaeus and St. Athanasius put it, "God became human so that human beings might become God." That is to
say that in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper we remember how God in Christ gives his life for us, and how in
the Spirit God gives his life to us. We leave the Sacrament empowered by God’s life to be God’s people
— indeed, to be Christ’s Body and therefore Christ and in some sense even God himself — in the world.
Since the Eucharist summarizes the Christian story, who we are and what therefore we do as Christians can
never be determined otherwise than eucharistically and Christically. It can never reflect other forces or influences. The
order and content of our gatherings can never be modeled, for instance, on a corporate board meeting, a football huddle, a
bunch of generals poring over maps, a Ph.D. defense, a sewing circle, a meeting of architects and contractors over blueprints,
a political convention, or a bachelor party, to name a selection.
The eucharistic character of Christian gatherings is summarized in Jesus’ actions at his last supper
with his disciples, when he took, blessed, broke, and gave the bread to them, radically identifying himself with it. In the
same way, our gatherings in the faith are matters of sacrifice, thanksgiving, sharing, blessing, and transfiguration. They
are representations and realizations of the Presence of the holy and of God in our midst. Even the most prosaic meeting to
decide about paving the parking lot or taking down a dead tree on the church’s property must be infused with this eucharistic
and sacramental sense that when we have to do with life and even matter we have to do with the God who created it and who
redeemed it by becoming it in Christ.
This is what our Confession of 1967 is talking about when it says: "The life, death, resurrection,
and promised coming of Jesus Christ has set the pattern for the church’s mission." And: "The church follows this pattern
in the form of its life and the method of its action. So to live and serve is to confess Christ as Lord" (9.32). It is also
the point to our Presbyterian emphasis on order in the church. We have always believed that the life of the church itself
— its fellowship, worship, and even meetings — are ways in which we embody the Presence of Christ among us by
the power of the Spirit. Believe it or not, we have always understood that the Spirit is working in our meetings, and that
the decision of a rightly constituted governing body is in some sense the will of God. How we order ourselves and make decisions
is not arbitrary but a conscious following of what we are given in the Scriptures.