“When Everything is Missions”
by Matthew Ellison and Denny Spitters
Copyright 2017 Pioneers-USA & Sixteen:Fifteen
(A review by Dave Shive and Joe Steinitz)
This is the first of eight posts that will examine the ideas and analysis found in this little volume. We hope to post an evaluation of a new chapter every week or so. In this first post, we take a close look at the “Introduction.”
We believe that this little 144-page book is long overdue. Tackling as it does fundamental missions issues that are bedeviling the church and missions community, it fortunately doesn’t duck the tough questions as it challenges current trends in missions.
Denny is the VP for Church Partnerships for Pioneers USA and Matthew is the President and Church Missions Coach at Sixteen:Fifteen. We know both of the authors fairly well, we recognize that they clearly love the church and want to see her be the fullest expression of what God wants it to be. We are also aware of the fact that they are interacting with churches on an almost daily basis. For this reason, their impressions about trends in the church should be taken seriously, even where data may not be available to back up their ideas. They have earned the right to have their voices heard.
Denny and Matthew have taken on a formidable challenge. We are certainly hopeful that they are up to the test, but whenever you attempt to get people to redefine a word or words or rethink a common idea, you are usually swimming against a pretty swift cultural tide.
The introduction opens with the story of a church that wrestled with its missions philosophy. The church had stagnated in growth and was floundering in its efforts to make disciples and do missions (whatever that means!). Enter a new senior pastor whose philosophy could be summed up as “Everything is missions and evangelism are essentially one” and the recipe is right for an interesting book.
The authors highlight a fundamental problem in churches: that “many churches find themselves at a loss to define their global mission” (19). This is due, in part, to the fact that the time required to study and think through a coherent missions philosophy is not available. “…Many churches do not do missions well because they do not think about missions well” (19).
Ellison and Spitters go back to basics when they tackle the fundamental issue of definitions of terms: “If words have meaning, then their definitions and uses matter. When everything is missions, some of the most central aspects may be lost or buried…“ (p. 20) The “central aspects” they have in mind include ideas like churches sending their own people, making disciples, and crossing cultural barriers. The authors consider the issue of definitions to be so critical that they have devoted the entire first chapter of the book to it (our next post will review chapter one). So their desire is to get people to define missions differently, or perhaps with greater specificity.
The down side of missing these “central aspects” is that “an over-emphasis on getting bang for our buck may also lead us to ministries that make us feel good or seem to provide a greater return on investment. Some of our churches leave missions to our denominations and networks or partner with ministries that offer us low-cost opportunities to sponsor missionaries or projects far away. Yet does outsourcing missions come with hidden costs, perhaps at the expense of our own souls?” (20)
So it is that the authors clearly declare that “…we will directly challenge some assumptions surrounding the growing assumption or conviction that ‘every Christian is a missionary and every ministry is missions.'” (21)
It seems that Ellison and Spitters are really addressing two issues here. First, our definition of missions has become rather squishy. They quote Stephen Neill who throws down the gauntlet: “If everything is mission, nothing is mission. If everything the church does is to be classified as ‘mission,’ we shall need to find another term…” (9) Second, we have become so utilitarian about the Great Commission that we contract the cross-cultural piece out in the name of efficiency. They are correct that, in some way, we are damaging our souls by doing it this way. We are also contributing to a serious decline in interest and support for apostolic, pioneering missions activity. (23) We suspect that this second concern really has less to do with the definition of missions but more to do with the way we go about it. And, of course, one has to wonder whether there is any data to back up this claim or whether it is just an impression the authors have gotten (either way, their suspicions seem well-founded).
We were particularly alarmed to consider the implications of the new direction in missions: “Yet we are concerned that an uncritical use of words, and in particular a lack of shared definition for the words ‘mission, missions, missionary, and missional’ has led to a distortion of Jesus’ biblical mandate, ushered in an ‘everything-is-missions’ paradigm, and moved missions from the initiation and oversight of local churches to make it the domain of individual believers responding to individualized callings. ” (23)
With this summary paragraph, Matthew and Denny provide a clear sense of direction as to where they are headed. The pendulum has shifted to a new generation’s approach to mission: “In defining missions poorly, past generations of Christians have sometimes made missions about money, power, and counting converts. In our own generation, a strong embrace of the ‘everything-is-mission’ paradigm has sometimes resulted in an humanitarian mission devoid of the gospel. While ‘everybody is a missionary’ thinking has been intended to level the playing field for greater participation in making disciples, has this inclusivism had another unintended result, at times? Has it led to a serious decline in interest in and support for apostolic, pioneering missions activity?” 23)
It’s safe to say that we’re interested. We look forward to getting into the book to see the causal connection between an “everything-is-missions paradigm” and how that leads to making missions less the domain of the local church and more the domain of individual believers. We hope they can accomplish what they have set out to do! Stay tuned!