By Peter Bunton
What do you think of when you hear the term “missions”? Probably many of us think of someone traveling on a plane to another nation to serve the indigenous people. We probably also assume that those people speak a different language and may likely be of a different race to the missionaries who go. In these ways, we usually think of missions as people. They may not know the message of God’s love, in which case missionaries preach and proclaim who Christ is. It may be that the people have heard of Christ but need further teaching or discipleship. We probably also imagine people who may be economically poorer than us. Missions in these cases may have a dynamic of educating people with skills to earn a living, or the provision of medical care where there has been little access to medicine. Whatever we envisage, we imagine people. Of course, the above scenarios are often true. Missions focuses on people, and in a sense, so do the Scriptures. We know that the Bible envisions a time when there will be representatives of every tribe and language worshipping in heaven (Revelation 7:9–10).
From Providing to Supporting Sustainability
So, missions is clearly to people. It may require evangelizing people, or discipling people, or serving people in practical capacities through things such as health care and education. Sometimes missions has been giving. This has been particularly true when local needs are great, such as during a time of famine or drought, or where there is a need so large that it would be difficult for the local people to meet that need without external assistance. Especially in times of crisis, giving of finances and other resources may be the appropriate, indeed biblical, thing to do (Acts 11:27–29). Today, however, we are much more aware of matters such as “aid dependency,” a dynamic in which both donors feel good about themselves for giving, and receivers continue to expect, perhaps without seeking God’s creativity for them to find local solutions to their needs. It has, therefore, become popular to think not of donating (unless in times of severe crisis), but of coming alongside to equip people to flourish in their own lives under God. There is a popular saying along the lines of, “You can give a person a fish and satisfy their hunger today, or you can teach that person to fish so that they will have a livelihood and be able to provide for themselves and their communities on a sustainable basis.” Much modern missions, therefore, has focused on skill impartation and even business development.
Impact of Broader Societal Issues on Missions
While the above is good, we may find that our laudable emphasis on reaching individuals or small groups for discipleship and training may lead to some frustrations. For example, “It’s better to teach a person to fish than to give him or her a fish” may seem a truism. Yet, what happens if the multinational industrial complex upriver is polluting the water with its by-products? The infusion of chemicals and waste may pollute the environment, killing wildlife. Indeed, there may no longer be any fish to be caught!
Shalom: A Goal of Missions
This can become a huge challenge to us when doing missions. Indeed, what is the point of training people for livelihoods which cannot function because of larger structural, environmental, or political issues? This then causes many in missions to freak out! Yes, I just mentioned the word “political,” which sends many Christians running. Indeed, we are often told that the Church should not be political. For the missionary, however, not to engage the broader societal issues of industrial pollution means the missionary project to help people extricate themselves from poverty is doomed to failure. The missionary who has gone to tell individuals about Jesus and focus on their personal needs may find that missions is now about broader social engagement. Can this still be missions? It certainly is not what most of us think of, as illustrated in the first paragraph. To answer this question, maybe we have to return to the beginning and ask ourselves, “What is the purpose of missions?” Yes, it is important to preach Christ; yes, it is important to evangelize; yes, it is important to engage in personal discipleship. However, the goal of missions, as articulated by Christ in Matthew 28:18–20, is to make the nations, not just individuals, disciples of Christ. How then do we make a whole nation or people a disciple of Christ? Surely, it is not simply to evangelize individuals, but it is so that the believers in that nation will work to see every aspect of their national life become submitted to God and glorify Him. This means that businesses must be righteous and ethical; it means that art and mass media should be committed to truth; it means that laws and regulations should be just and administered justly so that all citizens have the opportunity to flourish spiritually, physically, emotionally, and relationally. Indeed, this is what the Old Testament Scriptures call shalom. This concept has been defined by the theologian Cornelius Plantinga simply as “the way things are supposed to be.”1 If shalom—a society fully glorifying God—is the goal, then it does become appropriate for our missions to engage the structural issues in communities which keep people impoverished, unhealthy, and not leading the abundant life Jesus desires.
So, missions is entirely personal, as God takes an interest in each one of us. We have also seen, however, that it may move beyond the individual and personal to be a prophetic proclamation to the very structures of society. This becomes permissible if we see the goal of missions as not simply people acknowledging Christ or church planting, but we envision the compelling vision of shalom on the earth. We are motivated by the desire that God would receive glory in every area of a society, and further compelled to serve all peoples, knowing that each of us is made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26–27) and is thus worthy of dignity. Those who bear God’s image are not just to survive, but flourish on this earth, just as the Lord intended (Genesis 1:29–30; 2:15). Yes, missions is personal, but it is also to transform communities and whole societies.
1. Cornelius Plantinga. “Sin: Not the way it’s supposed to be”. (2010), p.3. Available at: http://tgc-documents.s3.amazonaws.com/cci/Pantinga.pdf.
Questions for discussion
- What do we mean by “missions”?
- What is the ultimate goal of missions?
- When is it appropriate to give aid?
- What are some ministries which could form part of the missionary task?
- How can we work to see a whole nation or people becoming a disciple of Christ (Matthew 28:18-20)? What does it look like when a whole people is a disciple? What might each of these areas look like if they reflected Christ: education, government, media, science, arts, business?
Learn more about missions in the book Evolving Missions complied by Peter Bunton and Hillary Vargas here