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Toward a Better Definition of Missions

A few months ago, I had a conversation with the editorial director of one of today’s most highly trafficked Christian websites. I thanked him for all the great content, but I also asked why there was so little content related to global missions. His response?

Honestly, most of the missions writing we receive is so guilt-driven that we can’t use it.

I couldn’t have been more sad, because it couldn’t have been more true.

Between serving as a missions pastor and writing for Upstream, I spend hours, sometimes days, immersed in missiological content. Occasionally, a normal day in the office leaves me more weary than a five-day Sub-Saharan trek. Why? Because I’ve imbibed so many subtle ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ that my soul has started to heed them. Then, at the dinner table, when my wife asks, “How was your day?” I stare absently at the wall, recounting to myself how I once again failed to contribute enough to the mission of God that day.

There is no need to spew guilt, only gospel.

Let me give you an example. In November of last year, an article was published by one of my new favorite websites titled, "Dear Church, Missions Is Not For Your Own Discipleship." It’s a pretty typical missions article that provides a biblical basis for missions, touches on some missions history, and underscores the importance of targeting unreached people groups. Ultimately, it addresses common practices in short-term mission trips, many of which truly are legitimate problems. However, consider with me some of the article’s underlying messages:

For centuries, missions was a lifetime and sobering commitment . . . But suddenly we are living in a world where travel abroad is accessible and easy . . . Unfortunately, because of the accessibility, and because of our narcissistic culture, these short-term mission trips – and consequently long-term missions – have become a “discipleship tool” for the Church.

Do some churches misuse today’s global accessibility? Sadly, yes. But what’s the subtle message? Something like this: "The good ol’ days of mission have passed, and it’s our narcissistic fault."

Let’s look at another example. The writer continues,

I have heard mission agencies, pastors, and parents say, “We pray that our people (or students) will be changed” by going on this trip. (The prayer factor makes it sound more spiritual.) Their goal in missions is to make us more “thankful for what we have” and to disciple the short-term missionaries.

Do some people think that being more thankful for what they have is the main goal of a missions experience? Unfortunately, yes. But I struggle to hear the argument over the tone of the writing. What it says to me is, "Praying for people to be changed through missions is insignificant; we only do that to sound spiritual anyway."

Gospel me with missions identity, not missions indictment.

Consider this weighty sentence as well: These millions of people will die and go to hell unless someone goes to tell them the gospel.

Do we need to be reminded of the urgent need for unreached people to hear the gospel? Absolutely! But my zeal to set sail was ironically diverted by this undercurrent: "Unless you go and tell people the gospel, they will go to hell and it will be your fault; their salvation depends on you." Yes, remind me to wrestle with my human responsibility. But also gospel me with missions identity, not missions indictment.

Finally, let me highlight one more quote from the article. The writer offers this important definition:

Missions as a whole is the endeavor to glorify God by obeying the Great Commission by crossing cultures and language to make disciples of all nations.

Does missions include glorifying God by obeying the Great Commission? No doubt about it. But I can’t shake the (likely unintended) subliminal message. It goes something like, "Missions is all about God and lost people, and it has little or nothing to do with you."

"What?!" you might respond. "Brad, how did you get something like that from a simple definition of missions? You’re putting words in the author’s mouth!" I confess, it may well be an unfair stretch. But it sure sounds a lot like the title of the article: Dear Church, missions is not about your own discipleship.

The use of guilt to drive missions motivation is obviously concerning to me. As pastor Jason Seville asked, “Where do we get off with such pessimism and discouragement?” However, more grievous to me is the the root from which it all grows. It’s a misunderstanding so firmly planted that we could look at a definition of missions like the one above and nod in hypnotic agreement, all the while failing to see the monstrous hole. What exactly is that hole?

If missions really wasn’t about our own discipleship, then I believe God would have chosen to accomplish his mission entirely on his own.

Yes, missions is glorifying God by obeying the Great Commission. But it’s also glorifying God by being conformed to the image of Christ. Just as God’s mission is two-armed, by the Son and through the Spirit, its purpose is also two-fold: the nations’ gospel obedience to Christ and the church’s spiritual formation in Christ. They both bring glory to God. They carry equal significance. They deserve intentional distinction, yet they can’t be separated.

If this were not true—if missions really wasn’t about our own discipleship—then I believe God would have chosen to accomplish his mission entirely on his own. Why use human messengers at all if the sole purpose is to reach the nations? Yet he redeems and sends fragile men and women.


So that many among the nations will marvel and be saved, but also so that jars of clay, his bride, will concurrently grow into the fullness of Christ.

If this is true, then it has significant implications for our understanding and practice of missions. But for today, I’d be satisfied with just a little tidying of the language of missions. The church is God’s holy means for fulfilling the mission, and the mission is God’s holy means for maturing the church. As such, there is no need to spew guilt, only gospel.

May the Lord forgive me for all the times I’ve failed to do so.


Bradley is a missiologist, pastor, and trainer. He has been at Upstream since 2014, producing blog and social media content, authoring The Sending Church Defined and Receiving Sent Ones During Reentry: The Challenges of Returning "Home" and How Churches Can Help, and serving as a board member. He is also the lead pastor at Antioch Church. As a former global Sent One, Bradley reflects on missions and formation at Broken Missiology.

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