26. An Expanding Definition of Missions

The Fear of Dilution

I was recently talking with a colleague who voiced a concern about the expanding understanding of missions in some of our more missional churches.  The missions committee at his church expressed the desire to incorporate local evangelistic and social efforts under the broad umbrella of  “missions.” My colleague was afraid that when local ministries are considered as “missions,” the focus, support and emphasis on foreign missions efforts will be diluted. 

Is this fear valid? If missions is defined so broadly that it encompasses all the church exists to do and more, will this not result in the demise of missions as traditionally understood?  Will the concept of foreign missions cease to exist?  Is the term “missionary,” as a word describing the international minister of the gospel, in danger of becoming archaic and obsolete?  By describing everything as “missions” are we in danger of undermining support for international missions?  The World Council of Churches removed evangelism as a separate focus because it understood that evangelism was integral to all work done in Christ’s name. However the result, according to some, was that evangelism disappeared for the most part from their efforts.  Could foreign missions face a similar fate in our evangelical churches?

A New Perspective in Missional Churches

Foreign missions has traditionally been one of the sacred elements of the evangelical church.  I have heard people quote the percentage of church giving devoted to foreign missions as a significant criterion to measure the spiritual vitality of a congregation.  Missions has been viewed as the responsibility of dedicated individuals who are sent as an extension of the church which limits local involvement to prayer, financial support and accountibility. 

But now the missional church movement calls congregations to view their setting as a mission field.  A new buzz word, “glocal” (combining “local” and “global” concerns), underlines the validity of all efforts to bring gospel transformation into the world, eliminating geographical distinctions from the definition of missions.  Instead a new definition can be described as aligning ourselves with God’s mission in the world for the sake of his glory.  Chaplaincy, local centers ministering to abused women and Christian soccer camps are all given equal status with foreign missions as participants in God’s mission to the world.  But what are implications for traditional missions agencies?  Is this trend to be welcomed or resisted?

Benefits of the New Definition for the Church

I would argue that this move to view local efforts as much a part of missions as the missionary sent overseas is not only appropriate, but should be encouraged.  The benefits will not only be seen in revitalizing the local church in missional thinking, but also can serve to sharpen the focus of missions organizations.

This trend revitalizes the local church by recognizing that geographical parameters are no longer valid for defining missions. Because God’s mission is global, the local church is situated within a mission field and is required to face that responsibility with the same dedication expected of mission organizations.  Moreover, this view validates all missional efforts no matter the setting.  The visitor to hospital shut-ins is recognized along side of the church planter in Pakistan as being a part of bringing in Christ’s kingdom.

Furthermore, commitment to missions does not occur without involvement. Limiting the local church’s mission participation to prayer, giving and accountibility – as vital as these have been and will continue to be – undermines the development of the passion to be involved in what God is doing.  People, in general, are not satisfied with following traditional patterns, but require a vision that grips their heart.  Involvement both locally and globally is accessible and is a key factor in developing that vision.

Benefits of the New Definition for the Mission Organization

This challenge of competition for church support and resources is actually a healthy environment for those of us involved in mission organizations.  Rather than seeking to maintain foreign mission priority, we would do far better to promote and adapt to this new reality.

First, it challenges us to define our specific role in being a part of God’s mission.  It encourages a more integrative and holistic perspective of working together with the local church. Significance and transformational impact become the factors which validate our partnership with churches and draw the attention and commitment of those who desire to do God’s will, rather than merely historical or traditional ties.  Rather than competing with local ministries for resources, mission agencies must become a part of the church in ways that enhance those ministries and integrate the focus of international missions with the concerns of the local church.

Second, it challenges missions organizations towards accountibility.  Local churches sense a responsibility towards their local ministries due to their proximity and involvement.  When cross-cultural ministries are considered a part of the essence of a church’s existence, it will be prepared to take a greater role in overseeing and evaluating the significance of the work of a mission organization.

Our mission organization, FEBInternational, has much to offer churches nationally and around the world in cross-cultural expertise, organizational support and evangelistic commitment, as well as providing significant models of culturally sensitive church structures and leadership development.  Open partnerships in missional churches with local ministries and concerns will provide a forum to communicate the importance of our ministries as well as opportunity to both benefit from and contribute to local churches’ efforts in being a part of God’s mission to the world.

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Author: Mark Naylor DTh (missiology)

I have been with Fellowship International since 1984. Karen and I served in Pakistan for 14 years and returned to Canada in 1999. I have continued to be involved in Bible translation traveling twice a year to Pakistan. My current role with Fellowship International and Northwest Baptist Seminary is as Coordinator of International Leadership Development