69. The Difference between Missions and Outreach

NOTE: Mark is available to work with our FEBBC/Y churches to coach missions committees in their role in leading their local church in the area of missions.  Please contact Mark via the Contact Me form or view Mark’s Coaching page

A fuzzy understanding of Missions

I have a saying on my screensaver by Joseph Jourbert: “Words, like eyeglasses, blur everything that they do not make clear.”  This is true for Bible translation – which is the reason the quote appeals to me – but it is also true for the word “missions.” For some, the word is loaded with passion and purpose.  Missions, in the plural, refers to God’s mission to bring redemption to the world and a heart for missions is the positive response to Jesus’ invitation to participate in what God is doing (Mt 28:19-20).  Unfortunately, for many in our churches, missions is a word somewhat “fuzzy” in meaning.

Throughout the first two eras of the modern missionary movement, beginning with William Carey in the 18th century and ending sometime in the latter half of the last century, the definition of missions was clear: missions was the job of missionaries who traveled overseas with a lifetime commitment to bring the gospel message to those who had never heard.  The role of missions committees in the churches was to support the missionaries in their task, and the distinction between missions and other ministries in the church was clear.  However, times have changed.  Short term mission teams abound, the world and its variety of religions has come to our doorstep, and the west has been recognized as a legitimate “mission field.”  In the midst of such change and diversity, churches have become somewhat unclear in distinguishing missions from the other ministries in the church.  Indeed, at times, the distinction has been deliberately downplayed in order to encourage every believer to be a “missionary” wherever they are.

Is missions one aspect of what the church does, or is it inclusive of all church activities?  Does any and all interaction with those who are not believers constitute missions, or only particular ministries?  Should donations to the denomination headquarters, church planting efforts in our own province, local evangelism efforts or training for teens to reach their peers all be considered legitimate items on the missions budget? Or is there something distinct about the nature and purpose of missions that determines which ministries can be considered missions?  For example, consider the following.  Which do you think should be classified as missions?

  • Youth summer ministry in downtown Vancouver
  • Teaching a class at a seminary in Korea
  • Rescuing girls from prostitution in Bangkok
  • Gospel outreach to local First Nations
  • The Alpha program
  • Billy Graham crusade in Vancouver.
  • Youth for Christ camp ministry in Venezuela
  • Leadership training at Northwest Baptist Seminary
  • Leadership training at a seminary in Singapore
  • Awana
  • Young Life youth ministries
  • Feeding the homeless in the Lower Mainland
  • Church planting in interior BC
  • A Punjabi church plant in Lower Mainland
  • Church planting in Australia
  • Church planting in Japan
  • Community Fun Day at your local church

If everything is missions, then nothing is missions

Stephen Neill warned, “If everything is missions, then nothing is missions.”1 If we are unclear concerning the task of missions to which God has called us, it is very easy to lose sight of the primary purpose of missions.  Without insight into the reason for missions, it is impossible to strategize and prioritize effectively.  We can become busy with many things, but miss out on what is essentially missions. So what are the appropriate criteria by which we can determine what is legitimately “missions”?

Missions is initiated by those who are “sent”

In his book, Loving the Church, Blessing the Nations, George Miley provides an important biblical distinctive that qualifies missions and distinguishes it from other ministries in the church.  Through an examination of 1 Co. 12:28 he relates missions to the role of apostolic leaders who are to “blaze the trail, to pioneer, to initiate kingdom breakthroughs into new areas, and to lay foundations on which others can build. When it comes to extending the reign of God on earth, they … go first.”2 God has appointed apostles to the church for the purpose of advancing his kingdom.  They are the “sent ones” who to open the way for the gospel.

This is illustrated in Acts 13:2-4, recounting an incident that occurred in the church at Antioch.

While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off. The two of them, sent on their way by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia and sailed from there to Cyprus.

set apart for a distinct task that is fulfilled beyond the boundaries of the church

The distinction between other ministries of the church and missions is clear in this passage.  The church at Antioch had a responsibility to be Christ’s witness in their local context, but they are also given the opportunity to affirm with the Holy Spirit that some are set apart for a distinct task that is fulfilled beyond the boundaries of the church.  That is, Paul and Barnabas are sent out to initiate the kingdom in a context where the church has no influence.  The church does not directly benefit or grow numerically through this process.  On the contrary, they sacrifice their “best and brightest” in order to see God’s work become established and grow among a group separate from themselves.

initiate the kingdom where it would not otherwise occur

This understanding of missions does not necessarily require geographical distance, but it does require the appointing of individuals to the task of “stepping beyond” the boundaries of the local church’s influence in order to initiate the kingdom where it would not otherwise occur.  Based on this understanding of missions, I believe that is it helpful for churches to make a distinction between their task of local outreach and evangelism, and their role in missions.  Consider the following statements:

outreach is making an impact where you live
missions is making an impact by intentionally
stepping beyond where you live.

“Evangelism is church growing where it is,
missions is church going where it isn’t”3

Outreach is what the church does
by existing within its context
Missions is what the church does
by initiating beyond its context

This is just one of a number of parameters that are helpful for members of missions committees to keep in mind as they fulfill their responsibilities to lead their church in missions.  In the following article other biblical images and concepts that clarify missions will be explored.


Mark spends part of his time coaching churches for effective involvement in missions.  If you are interested in taking advantage of this, please contact him via the Contact Me form.  If you would like to leave a comment, please use the “comment” link at the bottom of this article.


  • 1 Quoted in Bosch, D.J. 1991. Transforming Mission: Paradigm shifts in theology of mission. Maryknoll: Orbis, 115.
  • 2 Miley, George. 2003. Loving the Church, Blessing the Nations: Pursuing the Role of Local Churches in Global Mission. Waynesboro: Gabriel, 94.
  • 3 Quoted in Mays, David. Missions Stuff.
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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

5 thoughts on “69. The Difference between Missions and Outreach”

  1. It was nice to find a clear definition about missions and I am going to need to use in a seminar about evangelism and make clear the difference and the points that both are together working for the Kingdom of our Lord. Would you allow me to refer part of this article, mentioning your website and name?

  2. I’m a bi-vocational missions mobilization strategist. I helped put together some ministry work in Haiti, Guatemala and south Asia (with the IMB – details left out for the sake of my friends in the field). I am doing this at a church level, and struggling with a few points. I believe I have a good missiology in terms of my burden for the unreached peoples of the world (too lengthy to go into here – maybe a personal email later). A few years ago I called our missions ministry “Global Outreach”, not too long before I lost my job and had to move away in Dec 2005. Finally we moved back and I am trying to dive back into the ministry that I love. There have been some minor philosophical changes while I was away (not particularly bad, but making me rethink some things). In a nutshell, “Global Outreach” and “Local Outreach” have been placed within the “Outreach” ministry area. I have been struggling with this, as they are focused on such different things (or at least aspects of ministry). Reading quickly through your article above, It has occurred to me that perhaps even calling missions “Global Outreach” may have been missiologically a little of a misnomer. I believe I have good effective strategies developed (I can share a little more detail in on offline email). But our small church of around 250 people has been instrumentally involved in reaching UPG’s in south Asia, and more strategically to come.

    What I hadn’t quite been able to put my finger on, I believe you succinctly hit with your differences between Outreach and Missions.

    As a contemporary church, we wanted to get away from some of the stereotype terminology, and cast off the term missions. Please feel free to contact me via email; I would love to discuss this further, perhaps give more details if you’d like, and help me with this gnarly little issue.

    1. Hi Jerry,
      Thanks for your interest in the article. I have not written further on the topic, although I still do coaching for missions and continue to use the concepts mentioned to help people make a difference. I encourage churches to have two separate teams, one local outreach (what the church is directly responsible for) and one for partnerships with those initiating church or filling a gap that a local church is not addressing. When churches try to merge these different foci then, in my experience, either one or the other suffers.

      I have found that people commonly try to distinguish the two in various ways and have used the following chart to stimulate discussion:

      What is the difference between outreach and missions? Possibilities:
      1. No difference. God’s mission is universal and so the church’s mission is universal as well.
      2. Gospel difference. Outreach is helping people. Missions includes a gospel message.
      3. Geographical difference. Whatever is done in our context is outreach. Whatever is done in other countries is missions.
      4. Social / Cultural difference. Whatever we do as part of our cultural context is outreach. Going across cultures requires specialists – that is missions.
      5. It is a matter of control. If we as a church control the ministry, it is outreach. Missions is the “sending” of people to do ministry on our behalf.
      6. Strategic. Missions is about going where the church is not.

      God bless as you pursue your role in God’s mission.

  3. Please email me your email address that I could send you a question. I would prefer that it not be posted on your website. It is regarding the difference between missions and outreach. Thank you and God Bless.

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