By Brad Brisco
When you hear the word missionary, what is the first thought that comes to mind? A person being sent overseas? Maybe Africa or South America?
Webster’s definition is “a person undertaking a mission.” And what about that word mission? It’s defined as “the act of sending or being sent.”
The problem with this definition in the minds of many Christians is we focus almost exclusively on the idea of sending, rather than being sent. In other words, we think primarily of sending and supporting missionaries overseas rather than seeing ourselves, both individually and collectively, as being sent. We need more of both emphases.
Biblical picture of “sent”
The idea of being sent should proceed from what I believe is a necessary reclaiming of the biblical concept of mission. Too often in the church, we think of mission as one activity among many other equally important activities of the church. We think of mission as something the church does, but Scripture paints a very different picture. The entire Bible is generated by and is all about God’s mission. The mission of God is the grand narrative of Scripture. In Discovering the Mission of God, Christopher J. H. Wright says:
The whole Bible renders to us the story of God’s mission through God’s people in their engagement with God’s world for the sake of God’s purpose for the whole of God’s creation. Mission is not just one of a list of things that the Bible happens to talk about, only a bit more urgently than some. Mission is, in that much-abused phrase, what it’s all about.
But the Bible not only provides the big picture of God’s redemptive mission, it also highlights the missionary nature of God throughout the story. When we consider the attributes of God, we most often think of characteristics like holiness, sovereignty, wisdom, justice, love, etc. Rarely do we think of God’s missionary nature. However, Scripture is replete with sending language that speaks to the missionary, sending nature of God.
From God’s sending of Abram in Genesis 12 to the sending of His angel in Revelation 22, hundreds of examples portray God as a missionary, sending God. In the Old Testament God is portrayed as the sovereign Lord who sends in order to announce and complete His redemptive mission. The Hebrew verb “to send,” (shelach) is found nearly 800 times. While its usage is most often found in a variety of non-theological phrases, it is used more than 200 times with God as the subject of the verb. In other words, it is God who commissions His people and it is God who sends.
Perhaps the most dramatic illustration of sending in the Old Testament is found in Isaiah 6. In this passage, we catch a glimpse of the sending nature of the Triune God; “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’” To this Isaiah responds, “Here am I! Send me!”
The Old Testament ends with God promising, through the words of the prophet Malachi, to send a special messenger as the forerunner of the Messiah. “See, I am going to send my messenger” (Malachi 3:1). Then the New Testament opens with the arrival of that messenger in the person of John the Baptist described in the gospels as a man sent by God (John 1:6).
Sending language is found throughout the Gospels, the book of Acts and each of the Epistles. However, the most comprehensive collection of sending language is found in the Gospel of John, where the words “send” and “sent” are used nearly 60 times. The majority of uses refer to the title of God as “one who sends” and of Jesus as the “one who is sent.”
In the final climatic sending passage in John’s Gospel, Jesus makes clear He is not only sent by the Father, but now He is also the sender, as He sends the disciples—“As the Father has sent me, so I also send you” (John 20:21).
With this sentence, Jesus is doing more than simply drawing a vague parallel between His mission and ours. Deliberately and precisely He made His mission the model for ours. In other words, we must allow the doctrine of God—the triune missional God—to guide our thinking concerning the church. God is a missionary God, who sends a missionary church.
This is why the word “missional,” when properly applied is helpful. The word is simply the adjective form of the noun “missionary.” It is used to describe the church as a people who think and act as missionaries, actively participating in God’s mission.
What does it mean to be missional?
At the core of the missional conversation is the idea that a genuine missional impulse is a sending one. We should be sending the people in the church out among the people of the world, rather than attempting to attract the people of the world in among the people in the church. This is a necessary distinction because most people do not think of the church in sending, missionary terms. Instead many Christians today understand the church from two primary perspectives.
Some define the church as a place where certain things happen. They usually identify marks of the church that include the right preaching of the Word, the right administration of the ordinances and the proper exercise of church discipline. The church, therefore, is defined primarily as a place where a person goes to hear the Bible taught, to participate in the Lord’s Supper and baptism and, in some cases, experience church discipline.
Others view the church as “a vendor of religious goods and services.” From this perspective, members are viewed more as customers for whom the religious goods and services are produced. Churchgoers expect the church to provide a wide range of religious services such as great worship music, children’s programs, small groups, parenting seminars, etc.
However, when we realize God is a missionary God, and the Bible is the grand narrative of God’s missional activity, we begin to view the church differently. We begin to understand the nature of the church—rooted in the very nature of God—is missionary.
The people of God are both called and sent by God to participate in His mission for the world. The church still gathers together, but the difference is we don’t gather for our own sake. Instead, we gather for the sake of others, or better yet, for the sake of God’s mission.
In the final chapter of Foolishness to the Greeks, theologian Lesslie Newbigin provides a clarion call to the church to activate its missionary calling as God’s instrument sent into the world on His behalf, when he writes:
The church is the bearer to all the nations of a gospel that announces the kingdom, the reign, and the sovereignty of God. … It is not meant to call men and women out of the world into a safe religious enclave but to call them out in order to send them back as agents of God’s kingship.
The contemporary church is in desperate need of a self-understanding that will empower it for ministry in this changing world. That self-understanding, however, will come only when the church fully embraces the reality that it is a called people—called for the unmitigated purpose of being sent.
Brad Brisco (@BradBrisco_KC) is a church planting catalyst in Kansas City and co-author of Missional Essentials (The House Studio) and The Missional Quest (IVP).