Three Levels of Mission 1/3

Howard Marshall

The word ‘evangelical’ is derived from the Latin word that means 'gospel', and it refers to the kind of religion whose centre is the gospel. That kind of religion is, or should be, inescapably evangelistic, in that it sees the gospel as something to be made known to people who are not yet Christian believers. The essence of evangelical Christians includes the fact that they must be vitally concerned with evangelism. They believe in the gospel and they believe in making it known, and it is at the centre of their Christian life and activity. An evangelical church is one which is in the business of evangelism and is doing something about it. Whether it is seeing results may be another matter. It is not exactly easy to gain Christian converts in an Islamic country, even if you are free to evangelise, but there is no question about the aim. King Agrippa recognised an evangelical when he saw one and said to Paul , 'I see what you're up to, Paul; you are trying to make a Christian of me!' (Acts 26:28). But the fact that some Christians are dubbed evangelicals and some are not, and some might not want to be, indicates that not everybody shares this belief that Christians are called to persuade other people to accept the gospel.


But are we, who claim to be evangelicals, fully obeying the Great Commission? Back in 1994 Harold Turner, a New Zealander who had worked in West Africa and then in Aberdeen, wrote an article entitled 'The Gospel as Truth in a Secular Society: The Three Levels of Mission in New Zealand' (Evangelical Review of Theology 18 [October 1994], 348-53). He stated that there are three goals that we should be targetting in the mission of the church; they correspond to three levels at which human beings live their lives, and he called them: the individual personal, the public social, and the deeper cultural. Although his main point was that we are neglecting the third of them, I believe that we should consider whether we are doing justice to all three of them.


The one that is most obviously evangelistic, is the individual personal. We can see its basis in Matthew 28:19-20 : ‘Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’ (TNIV). Here are the marching orders of Jesus to his followers.


~**Jesus finished his own career by giving his friends something to do. Being a friend of Jesus means, among other things, becoming a member of a task force. Not a committee that sits and talks and gets nothing done, but a group that has a job to do and gets on with it. Jesus has two main roles. One is that he is a Saviour, a Deliverer of people in their various needs, both physical and spiritual. His very name ‘Jesus’ means that God saves. The other is that he is a Lord who claims the obedience of his followers, so that a lot of the New Testament is the instructions that he gives us for the way in which he wants us to live. Christianity is more than just a general way of life. There is a specific task to do, an aim to be achieved. Jesus' instructions are not primarily about the rules for playing the game but about the scoring of goals.*~~*The scope of this operation is worldwide. In a world that has developed what we call a pluralistic society with lots of different religions, world-views and outlooks, there is the temptation that, in recognising the freedom of other people to believe and think as they wish, we begin to think that all forms of belief are equally valid, and it doesn't matter what people believe. We may be in danger of forgetting the way in which the first Christians recognised Jesus as the unique Son of God, the only Saviour, and the one Mediator between God and human beings. In this great declaration, he sends his friends into all the world, to all peoples, to the people who live in Carlisle and Cardiff as much as in Cameroon and the Caicos Islands.*~~*The command retains its validity until the end of the world. It is like a constitutional document which cannot be altered by subsequent assemblies or conferences but defines the government for ever. The command here is quite unequivocal, and the church cannot avoid it by saying that the time is past or that the task has been completed. While the rest of the world has been experiencing considerable Christian growth, we have fallen far behind in Europe.*~~*This task is one of instruction. A large part of the New Testament is what we call gospel, good news, the announcement of what God has done to put human beings right after their fall into sin. Jesus spent most of his time proclaiming this message not by words only nor by deeds only, but by both in combination. And what he told his disciples to do was to continue that task of communication, of telling people about what God has done for them and what he commands them to do. That is why the essence of a Christian church meeting is instruction. It's not like some other religions where a priest does things like making offerings and carrying out rituals. Our religion is concerned with reading from a book and explaining and applying what it says. But this instruction is not just for insiders like ourselves. The good news has to be conveyed to the people around us, and we all have a part to play in that communication.*~~*Such instruction has a clear aim. It is to bring people into discipleship. We are so to tell the good news that people will want to respond to it and become followers of Jesus. They will learn about him as the Saviour of the world who can release them from their sins and as the Lord who will shape their life in new ways, enabling them to be the kind of people that God always intended them to be. They will discover the rich blessings of a life lived under the rule of God that makes people truly blessed and content. They will find the ultimate answer to their problems. They will experience peace and joy. The outward mark of their commitment to Jesus is the simple rite of baptism, simple but rich in its symbolism. *~~*The disciples are promised the presence of Jesus with them as they go about this task. However, there is a conditional force about what he says; he means, 'If you go and tell the world, then I will be with you’. The Jesus who says this claims that all authority in heaven and earth is in his hands. It is a declaration of ultimate victory: the kingdoms of this world shall become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever. The commander of this army is convinced of victory; the captain of this team knows that his side can net the ball; the leader of this orchestra is sure that he knows the way through a tricky score. If we take courage and go out in faith, he will not let us down.*~~*This is the only thing that Jesus tells his disciples in this last scene in the Gospel. That underlines its priority and its importance. Nothing else even gets a mention. Not surprisingly, the early Christians got the point. ‘We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard’, was what they said when they were attacked. ‘Christ sent me to preach the gospel’, said Paul, and then even more strongly ‘Woe is unto me, if I do not preach the gospel’. **~


There, then, is the primary mission of the church, the mission of every congregation, and everything else slots in as part of this task. If we put the accent elsewhere, and make this just a minor part of the life of the church, we go seriously off centre and we fail to keep the Lord's command.


But so far we have looked only at the individual personal character of this task. We have still to see how the public social and the deeper cultural levels are essential parts of the total task, but this is the main task of which they are parts.

Howard Marshall is a Circuit Steward in the North of Scotland Mission Circuit and an Honarary Professor in the University of Aberdeen

Headline Winter 2006/7 pp 16-17