How Should We Define Mission?

mission defined

We are launching a discussion on missiology around several essays from a new missiology book that I co-edited with David Hesselgrave.

Today’s subject is around the definition of mission. The main essay was written by Chuck Van Engen, and the responses came from Keith Eitel, Enoch Wan, Darrell Guder, Andreas Köstenberger, and me. Needless to say, with this list of missiologists responding, there is rich missiology to consider.

We also have new unpublished content that makes the discussion fresh. David Hesselgrave was recently teaching through the book and added some “second thoughts.” He gave permission for me to share them with you. Then, we decided to give away some books to bless others and invite them into the discussion. Dozens of folks agreed to receive the books and made a commitment to blog through these issues with us. Those participants have actually seen today’s content via e-mail a couple of weeks ago.

So, wade in. The post is lengthy, but we do serious missiology here at the blog (in addition to the occasional YouTube silly video). I hope that many of you who are interested in the missional conversation or just interested in missiology in general will take the time to move beyond “missional” as a cliché or buzzword and think deeply about God’s mission and missiology in general.

We will do this again in TWO weeks to give everyone time to read the next 1/3 of the book. You can participate if you would like. Just order a copy of MissionSHIFT and follow along. If you post on your blog anytime in the next two weeks, just add your link in the comments.

One final thing before we get to David’s thoughts. David is, in many ways, the “dean” of evangelical missiology. He is co-founder of the Evangelical Missiological Society, author of countless missiology books, and professor emeritus at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where I also serve on faculty.

Here is David’s essay:

Back to the Basics:
Second Thoughts on Our Book MissionSHIFT
by David J. Hesselgrave

When Ed Stetzer and I agreed to co-edit the book MissionShift: Global Mission Issues in the Third Millennium, our aim was to produce a book that would be truly representative of evangelical mission thinking in America. To that end, we invited contributions from fifteen leading evangelical scholars across the country–primarily, but not solely, missiologists. I admit to a bias, but I think we succeeded. I don’t know of any single volume that does what this one does. The three “grand essays” written by Charles Van Engen, Paul Hiebert, and Ralph Winter along with response chapters by K. Eitel, E. Wan, D. Guder, A. Kostenberger, M. Pocock, D. Whiteman, N. Geisler, A. Willis Jr., S. Moreau, C. Little, M. Barnett, and J. M. Terry seem to me to be uniquely representative of the present state of evangelical missions/missiology in North America.

My “first thoughts” upon reading and rereading the “grand essays” and response chapters in MissionShift are discoverable in the concluding chapter of the book. But after attending the Friendship Bible Class session and the Morning Star symposium, I have entertained some “second thoughts.” Why? Because it dawned on me that, while Friendship class laypersons readily understood and appreciated what the Apostle Paul wrote about Christian mission in Romans, they would find it very difficult to really appreciate much of what contributors wrote about mission in MissionShift. It also occurred to me that after five to six hours of deliberating MissionShift issues, professionals participating in the Monday symposium were probably left with as many questions as when they began. Some had been put to rest; others were no doubt raised.

As I pondered this, it came to mind that MissionShift has turned out to be more than just information. It represents a challenge to evangelicals to examine global mission issues that surface in the text–and, perhaps just as important or more so, issues that lie just beneath the surface–if they want to be a force for Christian mission in the future. The question is how should they go about it? Where should they begin? My answer is why not start with the basics and go from there?

High school geometry furnishes an example of what I have in mind. About three centuries before Christ, the Greek philosopher Euclid got to thinking about the rudiments of mathematics and geometry. His thoughts yielded a principle or postulate so elemental it is seldom expressed, but so profound that we still resort to it when studying geometry and logic. He hadn’t discovered something new. What he did was give expression to a postulate so simple that no one had ever thought of actually stating it. Here it is:

If A is equal to B
And B is equal to C
Then A is equal to C

Although anecdotal, I believe this to be intensely relevant for evangelicals in this globalizing world of the third millennium. We have arrived at a point where we desperately need the aid of some rudimentary principles (let’s call them “postulates”) that enable us to cut through the underbrush, refocus mission, and move forward. But do we have any such? Happily, I think we do, and I propose to employ “Christian postulates” advanced by Carl F. H. Henry (Toward a Recovery of Christian Belief: the Rutherford Lectures) of the twenty-first century, Saint Augustine (On Christian Doctrine) of the fourth, and, most importantly and in a class by himself, the Apostle Paul of the first. I place these Christian “Euclids” in this order because their proposals are especially applicable to the offerings of Van Engen, Hiebert, and Winter, whose essays appear in this order in MissionShift. Of course, I want to encourage readers to read the response chapters. But due to space restraints, I confine this discussion to the three grand essays.

Within two or three weeks of the book’s release, I revisited my former Friendship Bible Class in Rockford’s First Evangelical Free Church on a Sunday morning and participated in a six-hour symposium on MissionShift issues held in Morning Star Baptist on the following day. Friendship is made up of 25 or 30 seniors who are devoted to Christ and missions. They were completing a two-month long study of the Book of Romans. The Monday symposium involved 25-30 area pastors, missionaries, and mission leaders of varying affiliations.

Defining and Describing the Mission of the Church: Where Should We Begin? And How Should We Proceed?

It does seem odd, but after two thousand years, we Christians are still discussing the nature of the church’s mission in the world–and still disagreeing about it! Oh, we agree that we should be doing good things, in fact, many, many good things. But we still have a problem with that word “mission.” How many of these good things does it include? Are there any that it excludes?

An Abbreviated Overview of Charles Van Engen’s Essay: “‘Mission’ Defined and Described.”

Van Engen’s answer to their question, “What is the mission of the church?” has three parts. First, he explains mission in terms of the New Testament idea of “sentness” as expressed in the words apostello and pempo.

Second, he deals with the widely (sometimes wildly!) differing definitions and descriptions of “mission” advocated down through history:

1) The Constantinian redefinition: establishing the “kingdom of God” (i.e., as expressed in the Holy Roman Empire).

2) William Carey’s Great-Commission definition: world evangelization as commanded in Matthew 28:18-20.

3) The Indigenous Church model of H. Venn and R. Anderson: establishing churches that are self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating.

Van Engen immediately transports readers to the missionary conference of a local church where he was the main speaker. The church seems to have been quite typical. However, this particular church had an unusual aversion to the word “mission.” Van Engen was requested not to use the word at all! The preferred term was “global outreach” and a “Global Outreach Task Force” had been appointed to study the subject and report back to the church.

4) The missio Dei (mission of God) thinking of the 1960s and beyond in which mission was not only world rather than church-oriented but ultimately received its marching orders from the world (i.e., “let the world set the agenda”; 19).

5) The evangelical reactions, redefinitions and reconstructions of the 1980s and 1990s: i.e., the narrower view of reaching unreached and frontier peoples vs. the wider view of ministering socio-politically as well as evangelistically.

Third, Van Engen has three suggestions for Gloria and her Global Outreach Task Force.

1) Consider what a “missional” church might look like, i.e., a church that recognizes “the essential nature and vocation of the church as God’s called and sent people”…and also recognizes that “Mission is the result of God’s initiative, rooted in God’s purposes to restore and heal creation and to call people into a reconciled covenantal relationship with God.” (24)

2) “Consider thinking, sharing insights, and working together to write their own definition of mission” to be presented to the church. (26)

3) Consider Van Engen’s own stipulated definition of mission–a definition consisting of over one hundred words carefully crafted over a period of forty years. Namely, God’s mission works primarily through Jesus Christ’s sending the people of God to intentionally cross barriers from church to nonchurch, faith to nonfaith, to proclaim by word and deed the coming of the kingdom of God in Jesus Christ through the Church’s participation in God’s mission of reconciling people to God, to themselves, to one another, and to the world and gathering them into the church, through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, by the work of the Holy Spirit, with a view to the transformation of the world, as a sign of the coming of the kingdom in Jesus Christ. (27)

It should be noted that Van Engen divulged his definition with some reluctance and with the proviso that it is tentative and subject to change.

The evangelical reactions, redefinitions, and reconstructions of the 1980s and 1990s: i.e., the narrower view of reaching unreached and frontier peoples vs. the wider view of ministering socio-politically as well as evangelistically.

Third, Van Engen has three suggestions for Gloria and her Global Outreach Task Force.

Two Postulates Posed by Carl F. H. Henry and Useful in Evaluating Definitions of “Mission”

1) Henry admonishes Christians to recognize the significance of “presuppositional philosophy” in the determination of truth and the role of “logical consistency as a negative test of truth.” Applied to the task of defining “mission,” this can be translated: “To be meaningful a definition of “mission” must be grounded in rationality and logical thinking.”

Henry is convinced that there is a basic logic and rationality that applies to all valid thinking. It accrues to the fact that man is created in the image of God. I believe that this comports well with Scripture. The writer of Hebrews says that those who come to God must believe that he is and that he is the Rewarder of those who diligently seek him (Heb. 6:7). In other words, they must believe in his existence and in his just nature. This is the basis on which Paul says that pagans were judged originally–God revealed his essential nature in what he created, but they were neither thankful nor did they worship him. That is elemental but also essential. It reflects the very nature of a God who “cannot lie” and cannot “deny himself.” (2 Tim. 2:13) Truth corresponds with reality. And it cannot be self-contradictory.

2) Henry proposes that, if we are to be truly Christian, there must be a growing awareness of the need for more theological depth and a resurgence of interest in systematic and deductive theology. Applied to the task of defining “mission,” this can be translated: “To be Christian, a definition of mission must conform to orthodox theology and doctrine.”

If separated from theological moorings and sound doctrine, Henry views the future of evangelicalism as being indeed bleak. He writes, “Without clear and credible doctrinal directives, Christian experience fades in conviction, even as doctrinal assent devoid of personal appropriation spells spiritual impoverishment.” [1990, xi] Given these statements, we can be confident that, in Henry’s view, Christian mission/missiology grows out of propositional revelation as revealed in Scripture and as reflected in historic theology and the creeds of the church. Christian mission must be defined and described in accordance with this “deposit of faith.” Or, expressed in another way, to be Christian, conversations on the meaning of “mission” must give attention to historic and orthodox theology and to the established creeds and doctrines of the church. They must move from these theological universals to prevailing particulars, not vice versa. To “deduct” is to “take away.” Deductive theologizing and missiologizing discloses and dismisses error even as it supports and sustains truth.

I met my eminent colleague Carl F. H. Henry for what proved to be the last time at a very small gathering in the home of Trinity’s dean, Kenneth S. Kantzer, and his wife Ruth several years after the publication of Toward a Recovery of Christian Belief (1990). At that time, he spoke of his disappointment that the book had not enjoyed wider recognition and acceptance. To this day, I find it ironic but also revealing that scholars regularly reference his early (1947) book The Uneasy Conscience of Fundamentalists but seldom make reference to a work that represents the accumulated wisdom of an additional quarter century of thinking on the part of one of the most recognized and celebrated systematic theologians of the twentieth century.

Seasoned by an additional half century of research and thought, Henry became convinced that speculative theories in general and empiricism and existentialism in particular had not only permeated western culture but had also penetrated our churches. Christian scholars have retained Christian principles only piecemeal and in so doing have sacrificed basic Christian doctrines. If evangelicals are to recover core beliefs and avoid fideism and mere theological probability, certain remedial steps must be taken and taken soon.

At least two of Henry’s “remedial steps” readily translate into postulates useful in the examination of the tsunami of mission proposals threatening to inundate evangelical churches.

A Preliminary Examination of Issues Growing Out of Van Engen’s Essay in the Light of Henry’s “Postulates”

Van Engen explains but does not evaluate the many varied approaches taken in understanding and carrying forth mission down through history. And although he suggests several ways in which Gloria and her World Outreach Task Force might go about thinking about mission and developing a definition for their church, he does not elaborate a procedure or framework for actually doing it. Nor is he obligated to do so. His assignment is to focus on meanings assigned to “mission” down through history. That is what he does and does exceedingly well. Students of mission will profit greatly from his discussion. But he leaves it to others to evaluate the various definitions and descriptions. The fact that he himself has not evaluated them constitutes more of a challenge to readers than a weakness on the part of the author.

So let us take up the challenge by applying Henry’s postulates to the task of defining and describing Christian mission. In various places, I have pointed to the ecumenical movement of the twentieth century as a negative example–an example of how not to go about defining mission. Van Engen’s essay helps to explain why. In what follows, I will concentrate first on ecumenical history and then on Van Engen’s unelaborated and tentative suggestions to Gloria and her Task Force.

1) The guiding role of systematic theology and sound doctrine in analyzing ecumenical history and Van Engen’s suggestions
John R. Mott, one of the great missionary statesmen of his time, was a prime mover behind the World Conference of Missions held in Edinburgh in 1910. Would that Henry had been alive and could have dialogued with Mott and his colleagues before they made the fateful decision to omit theology and doctrine from conference consideration. Perhaps Edinburgh would have had a more positive outcome. As it was, the outcome was as related by Anglican John R. W. Stott. He writes,

Theologically, the fatal flaw at Edinburgh was not so much doctrinal disagreement as apparent doctrinal indifference, since doctrine was not on the agenda. Vital themes like the content of the gospel, the theology of evangelism, and the nature of the church were not discussed. The reason is that Randall Davidson, Archbishop of Canterbury, as a condition of participation at Edinburgh, secured a promise from John R. Mott that doctrinal debate would be excluded.

In consequence, the theological challenges of the day were not faced. And during the decades that followed, the poison of theological liberalism seeped into the bloodstream of western universities and seminaries and largely immobilized the church’s mission. (Making Christ Known: Historic Mission Documents from the Lausanne Movement 1974-1989; Paternoster, 1996:xii)

Little wonder, then, that Van Engen quotes James Scherer to the effect that eventually the secular ecumenical view of mission

…made the empirical church virtually dispensable as an agent of divine mission, and in some cases, even a hindrance…The world set the agenda for the church, and the real locus of God’s mission [mission Dei, ed.] was no longer the church but the world. Accordingly, the church must now receive its marching orders from the world…Humanization was the new keyword. (19, quoted from Scherer, Church, Kingdom, and Missio Dei, 82-88)

In light of this history, I am ambivalent about Van Engen’s suggestion that the Task Force attempt to describe what a missional church might look like. Much as Scherer said of the older term mission Dei among ecumenists, the new term “missional” has now become something of a plaything among evangelicals. It can be a good word as in those cases where it means that Christian mission is proactive in a church’s thinking, acting, and living. To Van Engen, it means that, but its meaning is still broader as can be seen by taking another look at his stipulated definition. However, to still others, it means that the church’s theology is to grow out of its mission rather than the church’s mission growing out of its theology. That notion is theologically invalid if not heretical. Presuming upon the next point, it should be said here that the notion is rationally suspect as well. To be sent on a mission presumes that the sent one knows both the sender and the sender’s reason for sending him or her. Mission necessarily grows out of theology. The converse may be intellectually intriguing, but it is both theologically and rationally irresponsible.

2) The guiding role of presuppositional philosophy, deductive theology, and logical thinking in analyzing ecumenical history and Van Engen’s suggestions

A half century after Edinburgh, another well-known Anglican, Bishop Stephen Neill, called his ecumenical colleagues in the World Council of Churches to account for irrationality and illogical thinking. He warned that they were in danger of “casting their net too wide thereby making mission enquiries almost meaningless.” He followed that warning with a line repeated so often that missiologists will be tempted to respond with a “ho-hum” upon reading it. He said, “When everything is mission, nothing is mission.” (Creative Tension, p. 81) Now that statement is more than a choice bit of missiological doggerel. It is just good, plain common sense. And Neill followed it with another statement that makes for good missiology as well as good sense. He wrote, “If everything that the Church does is to be classed as ‘mission,’ we shall have to find another term for the Church’s particular responsibility for ‘the heathen,’ those who have never yet heard the Name of Christ…” (ibid.)

Turning from Neill’s rebuke of the W.C.C. to Van Engen’s suggestions to the Task Force, he urges them to think, share, and work together with a view to deciding upon a definition of mission to be presented to the church. Well and good. That is precisely what they should do! But as they do so, they should be reminded of Henry’s postulate concerning the need for philosophy, logic, and the deductive method. Otherwise, they are likely to begin where popular “inductive Bible studies” often begin. Namely, by multiplying meanings (interpretations, opinions) while failing to distinguish between correct and incorrect meanings and failing to dispense with those that are wrong. Strictly adhered to and given sufficient time, the right kind of inductive reasoning can, of course, yield positive results. However, in most cultures and in most cases, people are reticent to identify incorrect opinions for fear of offending the persons involved. This helps to account for the fact that mission studies, conferences, and symposia all too often result in as much confusion as clarification.

Finally, what about Van Engen’s own stipulated definition of mission? Obviously, it is informed by the history of “mission” meanings reviewed in his essay. Though not discussed at any length, a good deal of thinking must have gone into his definition. In fact, a good deal of thinking must still be going into it! As important as his definition itself might be, the thought process that yielded it is even more so. However, in the final analysis, that process is what Gloria’s Task Force needs to understand. A valid process is one of the first things they should think about when they go about working out their own definition and description of “mission.”

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Ed Stetzer
Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and serves as Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books.