Mission and Culture - What is Mission?
Having been invited by the editor to contribute a series of articles on the subject of 'Mission and Culture', I think it would be good to begin by defining our terms. In this first article, therefore, I propose to consider what we mean by the word 'mission'. In subsequent articles, I shall go on to consider what we mean by 'culture', and then go on to explore how 'mission' and 'culture' interrelate.
Firstly, then, the meaning of 'MISSION'.
To many people the word 'mission' conjures up the picture of a short burst of evangelistic activity, led perhaps by a well known preacher or a team of Cliff College students, or possibly the picture of something which only happens in distant places. Both pictures certainly allude to possible expression of mission, but both fall short of a full biblical understanding of the term.
The word 'mission' itself is derived from the Latin word for 'send', and therefore refers to something one is 'sent' to do. In the Bible, the word is given a theological meaning when God is described as the sender.
In the Old Testament we read, for example, of God sending Moses to deliver his people from Egypt (Ex. 3.10), Samuel to anoint David as King (1 Sam. 16.1) and the prophets to speak his word to the people (Jer. 7.25, cf. Isa. 6.8, Jer 1.7, Ezek. 2.3, Am. 7.15, Jon.1.2).
In the New Testament we read of his sending Jesus to be our saviour (Mk. 9.37 para, Jn. 4.34, 5.24, 9.4, Rom 8.3, Gal. 4.4, 1 Jn. 4.9f, 14) and of his sending the Holy Spirit on those who believed in Jesus (Jn. 14.26, 15.26, 16.7, Acts 2.33, Gal 4.6, 1 Pet. 1.12). Finally, we read of Jesus himself sending those who had believed in him to be his representatives and witnesses in the world. (cf. Mt. 28.19f., Mk. 3.14, 6.7 para., Acts 1.8, Jn 4.38, 13.20, 17.18, 20.21, 1 Cor. 1.17). They were thus called to continue the mission Jesus had begun, to share in God's own mission to the world. Biblically defined, therefore, 'mission' for Christians today means doing all that God in Christ has sent us into the world to do. To quote one helpful, contemporary definition of mission, "IT IS THE WHOLE CHURCH TAKING THE GOSPEL TO THE WHOLE WORLD."
Let us now consider this definition more closely so as to grasp clearly the three aspects of mission it highlights:
1. THE WHOLE CHURCH.
Mission is not just for some special elite group of Christians within the church, whether they be 'mission partners', ministers, evangelism enablers, social workers, Bible College students or whatever. Nor is it just for those who belong to certain countries, cultures or Christian groupings. Mission is for all who profess Jesus as their Lord, whoever they are and wherever they are His commission was given to all who followed him and has not since been withdrawn. It is therefore to be obeyed by all who follow him today: We need to recognise, of course, that different members of Christ's Body are differently gifted, that different congregations will have different capacities and opportunities to engage in mission, and that different situations will call for different responses.
Nevertheless all believers in all churches today are called to be involved in advancing God's work in one way or another, and need to be encouraged to think of ways in which the Lord might be prompting them to respond to this challenge.
2. THE WHOLE GOSPEL.
Mission should be 'holistic' in scope. The kind of evangelistic activities mentioned at the beginning of this article are certainly an important part of mission, but it has been increasingly recognised in evangel-ical circles in recent decades that mission is a term which should be given a broader definition. Human beings are not just souls which need to be saved through listening to a verbal message, but whole persons living in community, and a truly holistic mission is one that seeks to meet their needs in all the dimensions of their existence.
Jesus preached the good news of the kingdom and love of God, but also fed the hungry, healed the sick, delivered the oppressed, protested against hypocrisy and injustice, washed his disciples' feet, cared for the dying and comforted the bereaved.
Similarly, when he commissioned his disciples to go on mission during his earthly ministry, according to Mt. 10.7f. he told them to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers and cast out demons as well as announce that the kingdom of heaven was at hand.
If we are to share in his mission today then we must have the same sort of holistic approach. We are sent as he himself was sent by the Father (John 20.21).
Our mission is to be modelled on his.
3. THE WHOLE WORLD
Mission is global in its outreach. It is the Church 'turning to the world', going beyond herself, and (to borrow John Wesley's phrase) seeing the whole world as her parish. There is no limit to the extent of her mission, and it will remain incomplete until all people of every nation, including our own, become Jesus' disciples, and all those forces which currently stand in conflict with the values of the kingdom of God are overcome. While we recognise that these goals cannot be fully attained this side of Jesus' Second Coming we are nevertheless called to work and pray for the coming of God's Kingdom in expectation of seeing anticipatory signs of its future manifestation in the present moment.
This, then, is the understanding of mission we shall carry forward with us. In the next article we will consider the context within which the Church is called to carry out her mission. Our 'world parish' is full of variety and the seed we sow will fall on different types of soil. We will therefore need to understand the phenomenon of culture as a factor which will determine how mission may best be carried out.