Friday, March 22, 2019

A New Definition of Mission

The following is an excerpt from UM & Global blogmaster David W. Scott's new book, Crossing Boundaries: Sharing God's Good News Through Mission.

My guess is that if you asked the average person in a pew on Sunday morning, they would not have a definition of mission that they could rattle off to you. While some Christians are deeply committed to mission and have thought extensively about it, many Christians have not thought about mission enough to have a pat definition ready-to-hand. But I would further guess that if you pushed that hypothetical average parishioner to come up with a definition of mission, it would be something along the lines of “helping others.”

To say that mission is primarily about helping others indicates that mission involves Christians providing some sort of assistance or something of value to other people, who are in need of that assistance or item of value. Thus, it presumes that we, the Christians in mission, are the “haves,” and others are the “have-nots.” Not all forms of helping, then, are recognized as mission. If we give a homeless person a blanket, that is seen as mission; if a homeless person helps us change a flat tire, that is not usually seen as mission, even if the homeless person does it as an expression of his/her Christian faith. If we share a spiritual insight with someone else, that is mission in the form of evangelism, but if we get a spiritual insight from someone else, that is a “God moment.” If we define mission as helping, it usually involves an unspoken sense of who is doing the helping—us!

Christians also often interpret mission as helping in programmatic ways. If you asked your average worshipper what they meant by “mission is helping others,” they would probably give you examples of programs that their church carries out to help others—a soup kitchen, a toy distribution drive, trips to other countries to paint schools, etc. Perhaps this definition would also include evangelism, in which we help others come to the Christian faith, often by following a particular script or program for presenting the faith.

To say that mission is a program indicates that it is something that happens at specified times and places in an organized fashion. Whether that takes the form of a mission trip, a service project, or a financial transaction, there is an identifiable and planned action or set of actions, often with formal responsibilities, budgets, a sponsoring organization, etc., that can be termed “mission.” Thinking of mission as a program also involves making distinctions between what types of helping count as mission and what do not. If we move furniture because a friend is changing apartments, that is not seen as mission; if we move furniture because our church is holding a rummage sale where the proceeds go to the food pantry, that is seen as mission.

I do not want to suggest that helping or formal programs are necessarily and always bad, but I would like to point out that this understanding of mission is limited and potentially problematic as well. Thinking of mission as helping programs is limited, because it makes us miss the breadth of God’s mission in the world and the full spiritual significance of joining in that mission. Many Christians would say that we should help others because God calls us to love others. That is true: God does call us to love others. Yet to equate helping and love is to dramatically misunderstand love, both God’s and ours. Helping may be part of love, but it cannot be the entirety of love.

An understanding of mission as helping programs, though, is not only limited but actually harmful at times. Such an understanding is especially problematic when we see helping as always flowing from the “haves” (the Christians in our congregation or group) to the “have-nots” (everybody else). As books such as When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert and Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton show, it is quite possible to set out to help others but to actually have the opposite effect, if we do so with improper understandings and attitudes.

Therefore, I would like to offer a definition of mission that goes beyond “helping programs.” Mission can instead be defined as cultivating relationships across boundaries for the sake of fostering conversations in word and deed about the nature of God’s good news. This is a long definition, so I’ll unpack it by looking at the four main parts of this definition.

First, mission involves good news. In mission, God sends messengers with a message. That message is good news. This is what makes Christian mission distinctively Christian as opposed to other forms of boundary crossing collaboration, such as international nongovernmental work, political diplomacy, transnational business, or global cultural phenomena. Note that it’s not just evangelism that involves good news. All forms of mission should have a component of good news to them. They should be both good and involve something new or not present in that situation before. Thus, good news is not just a narrow formulation of theology but includes the full breadth of God’s good actions in the world.

Second, mission involves relationship. Messengers are most credible when they act and live in ways that are consistent with their message, and it is relationship that best allows others to judge our consistency, authenticity, and, therefore, credibility. Moreover, relationship is a primary form of good news tied to other forms of good news. Mission is less about doing and more about being in relationship with others.

Third, mission involves crossing boundaries. As the biblical discussion of mission above showed, mission involves being sent across human boundaries. Mission involves something more than just relating to those we already know who are like us in almost every way. It involves encountering the Other.

Fourth and finally, mission involves conversations in word and deed. Mission involves cultivating relationships across boundaries not just for their own sakes, but for the sake of understanding the good news. Yet understanding that good news is a mutual process. It involves conversations between all mission partners, and between humans, the Bible, and human contexts. It is a process of mutual learning, not a monologue in which we seek to unload our information on others. While words are a central medium by which we have conversations, actions also have their place in mission as a way of demonstrating our understandings of good news and observing others’ understandings as well.


  1. Nicely written, and prescient in that it reminds us that being called into mission means being called into conversation with those we don't always understand and with whom we might not agree.