“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 second of eight posts that will examine the ideas and analysis found in this little volume. In this second post, we give our reflections on Chapter 1.
Chapter 1: Do Our Definitions Matter?
We (Dave and Joe) have some experience in working with churches to help them move forward on God’s mission. And more than once we have been flummoxed as we realized that we were going to have to confront the “everything is missions” mentality if we were going to help a church gain traction. So we certainly share Denny and Matthew’s concern about the implications of failing to properly define terms.
The theme of this chapter could be summarized this way: “If we are concerned about the progress of God’s mission in the world, then how we define terms matters. And the term ‘mission’ is in desperate need of defining in the 21st century.”
The unease about words and their meanings by both authors undoubtedly arises out of the difficulties they have experienced while working with churches. It’s problematic for a church to have a coherent missions philosophy and policy if there are fundamental disagreements or misunderstandings among its leaders over the basic meaning of words like “missions, evangelism,” and “Great Commission.”
This first chapter, written by Matthew, has two main points. First, there is great confusion in the church over the most important thing the Church is supposed to be doing. He starts off by asking an unusual question (p. 26): “How much confusion is there in the Church about the meaning of the Great Commission?” And again on p. 28, he ponders whether Jesus has left the interpretation of the Great Commission up to individual churches? We thought it a little odd that even before the authors define the meaning of the term “mission,” they appear to be conflating the terms “mission” and “Great Commission.” This is an easy thing to do and may prove to not even be that big a deal. (If your response is, “Wait a minute! Why are we already using a word, ‘missions,’ that doesn’t even occur in our English Bibles?” then be patient. That question is addressed in chapter 2.)
One might respond, “Of course we conflate them. Missions is the carrying out of the Great Commission and vice versa.” But when the authors spend a good amount of time arguing that definitions really do matter (to which we would definitely agree), and then terms are used interchangeably before definitions are agreed upon, the reader can easily get confused.
We might pose our concern this way: “Is ‘missions’ biblically synonymous with the Great Commission?” The need for clarity is highlighted on p. 28 as the authors inquire: “Does God expect us to pool our good ideas and pursue the things we care about, or did Jesus intend to convey objective meaning and purpose when he gave His final marching orders?” Yes, does Scripture give objective content to the thrust of God’s mission? Or is the term “mission” a good term to use to describe everything from going to live among an animistic tribe to translate the Bible into their own language to taking some teens to Appalachia to repair the roof on a church building.
Perhaps a more helpful approach might be to remove the word “missions” entirely from our vocabulary and then ask whether the argument is really about whether the church is really taking the Great Commission seriously? Or conversely, perhaps we should be talking about the topic of “missions” without bringing the Great Commission into the conversation at such an early point.
Second, there is great potential danger when we fail to define terms. This danger is illustrated on p. 29. At (and after) the Edinburgh World Missions Conference of 1910, a deliberate decision was made to prevent conflict or controversy by avoiding any discussion of theology or doctrine. The authors cite missiologist David Hesselgrave who calls this the “Edinburgh Error.” Hesselgrave argues that the seeds of the collapse of a great missions movement were planted early on by this decision. Not only did the participants avoid doctrinal examination, but they resisted any attempt to define mission by Scriptural standards. The resultant struggles of the Student Volunteer Movement are well-documented. Whether or not Hesselgrave overstates this “error” while neglecting other issues (like the two world wars that diminished the availability of potential young volunteers) can be left to the missions historians to debate.
On a personal level, as we were going through Chapter 1, Joe had flashbacks of memories of team meetings from his short time on the mission field. The team would gather and the members would go around the room reporting on what they were doing. Then one of the senior members of our young team would, with annoying (though necessary) regularity, exhort us to “make sure you can articulate how what you are doing is contributing toward church planting!”
With a lack of agreement on the definition of their team’s purpose, the team was doing “good things” but then trying to retrofit them into a church-planting paradigm. It was simply assumed that “church-planting” was the team’s raison d’etre. In like manner, most churches are trying to do many “good things” in missions with little biblical definition and with little agreement on the approach or goal.
We re-read the Stephen Neill quote on p. 28: “The mission of God cannot be the catch-all that includes everything from folding bulletins, to picking up trash on the highway, to coaching a ball team, to the gospel infiltrating a previously unreached people.”
We had to ask ourselves, “Do we agree with Neill?” To that we would add, is there not a danger in conflating “missions” with “church planting”? Or “the Great Commission”? Or making “missions” synonymous with “working in a soup kitchen”? We know sincere Christians who dig wells or bring medical care or construct church buildings, but some of these efforts seem to be an end in themselves. We also know missionaries who do these same kinds of things in order to make inroads to an unreached people group. Perhaps it is a matter of intent.
In summary, we quote Scot McKnight’s helpful observation (p. 31-32) in full. Under the heading “Mission Work Has Become Social Work,” McKnight muses: “What will become of us? Missions, international missions and foreign missions are now engulfed in NGOs and global justice and water projects and infrastructure. Evangelicalism was once built on church-planting pioneers. Always, or at least nearly always, such missionaries were fully engaged in church-planting as well as compassion and provisions so far as they were able. But they were there to preach and teach the gospel and win people to Christ. That’s evangelicalism.”
McKnight continues: “A friend of mine, a missionary, told me that in the last 15 years in his corner of the missionary world he has seen not one new missionary concerned with church planting and evangelism; they are all NGO types. Giving to NGOs is on the rise; giving to church-planting is on the decline. Organize a day for evangelism training and you will be alone or close to it; organize a day for some kind of social action and you may see more than for a Sunday morning service.”
In a Central Asian context, a similar observation was made by a Korean missionary when he said that “when Korean missionaries come they plant churches. When American missionaries come they start NGO’s.”
The chapter ends with a worrisome question: “Have we drifted from our God-given mission?” The book appears to be headed toward a “yes” answer to this question, and the reason seems to be that we have failed to adequately define our key missiological terms. Stay tuned…