Developing Missional Churches for the Great Commission, Part Four: The Missional Idea in Scripture

This is the fourth of an eight-part series on Developing Missional Churches for the Great Commission. Here are the first three posts:

  1. Understanding What We Mean When We Talk about Being Missional
  2. The Great Commission and Missional Thinking
  3. The Challenge of Being Missional

Today I want to focus on The Missional Idea in Scripture.

If we are going to understand our role in the kingdom of God, we need to understand God’s sending purposes and our right response to that commissioning. If we are going to get what it means to live missionally, we have to understand that God sends us according to His redemptive plan for the world, and we have to respond to that call. The word missio is a Latin word meaning “sent,” and the equivalent word in Greek is apostolos, meaning “sent ones.” The whole idea behind the adjective “missional” is that we are sent.

A nine-year-old boy was sent to the store by his mother to buy a head of lettuce. This was the first time he had ever been on such a mission. His older brother and sister had always been sent before. He had money in his pocket. He knew right where he was going. He went into the supermarket, got it, paid for it, and returned home feeling proud of himself. The only problem was that he brought home a cabbage. Why? It was green, round and had leaves. Was this mission a success? No. He was willing, he had gone, and he had returned triumphant. But no, he had not achieved the intent of the one doing the sending–not to mention that the boy hated coleslaw.

The story of the little boy gives insight concerning the tension created through the missio Dei movement. Completing the assignment given by the sender is the critical factor. In a post-resurrection appearance to the disciples, Jesus said to them, “‘Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.’ After saying this, He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained'” (John 20:21-23 HCSB). Jesus sends His disciples to proclaim delivery through the forgiveness of sins. That is clearly an essential part of the mission and shapes how we view being missional. No social, political, or ethical scorecards should replace the specific mission of Christ. When sins are forgiven and new life is experienced social, political, and ethical arenas in our culture will change. Churches and individuals are right when they live for the good of their world in these areas. God is glorified when there is more peace and justice in His world. But these arenas are not the ultimate focus of God’s mission and why He sends us. Christ died to save sinners. We proclaim, explain, and deliver that Good News.

Mission is not just going–don’t miss this. Mission is not only about getting on the foreign mission field and doing something. Mission is understanding the work of God, and joining Him in it. It seems even in the Great Commission Jesus makes this point. He says, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. As you go. . .” Apparently, the going part, at some level, is assumed. The assumption is you will go–the verb form “go” implies a command to go. Some people express a unique and special call to go to another city, state, or country. But, Jesus is not dealing with that in Matthew 28. He is simply saying you live, you go to and fro everyday, and “as you go” be on mission.

The question is: what do you do when you go? To answer the question, we need to look to the God who sent us because it is His mission, not ours. If we don’t understand His purpose, we can do good things and still fail. So when we talk about mission and being missional, we need to remember that generating mission activity is not the mission. The mission is tied into the nature of who God is and the nature of the gospel itself. We take our cue from God’s activity, and our lives are to be ordered and shaped by what God’s mission for His world is. Playing “missional” without being gospel-centered and Great Commission engaged only means you have a personal agenda. The term missional has changed the conversation in the church, and that conversation is largely good. But we must keep a perspective of gospel-centrality in the process.

God is a sender by nature, and has been sending for a long time. It isn’t just a phenomenon of the New Testament. In Genesis 12:1-4, Abraham was sent by God to be blessed and to be a blessing. Abraham’s obedience resulted in his joining God on mission. Another example is seen in the life of Isaiah. He encountered the holiness of God (Isaiah 6) and became aware of his own sinfulness. God asked, “Whom shall go for us, whom shall we send?” Tied up in the nature of God himself–in the nature of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit–He is a sender.

Because God by nature is a sender, it implies two simple ideas. First, there is One who sends; and second, there are people to whom we are sent. But, it is not that God just sends us anywhere; God sends us somewhere. You are called and sent on mission; the only question is where and among whom. It could be to the Pokot in East Africa or to a cultural mosaic of urban Los Angeles. We are called because we have a sender, but we also have a people to whom we are sent. This is the reason we plant or lead so many diverse churches, because ultimately God is a sender by nature.

When you understand that God is a sender, you are simply responding to the character of God and His purpose for His world when you live sent. And because you live sent, it means you will live and lead differently. We join Him in that mission so that everyone–from every tongue, tribe, nation, every people group, every population segment, every cultural environment–hears the good news of Jesus Christ and is reached by a church appropriate to its cultural setting.

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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.