Posted by: michaelhanegan | September 28, 2008

Missions vs. Missional

The longer that I have been involved in the missional conversation the more I come to appreciate how approaching Scripture from a missional perspective makes it easier to deal with the Bible as a whole and not just the “go to” texts. It is a more holistic, more thorough, and sometimes more honest look at what the Bible really says. It is being liberated from the artificial separations imposed upon it by Christendom and the Enlightenment as we are discovering again how to allow God’s Word (all of it, not just one or a few select texts) to speak for itself.

One area in which this approach to Scripture is insightful and corrective of the way things have been in our churches at times is the comparison and contrast of “missions” and “missional”. Is there a biblical basis for “missions”? Absolutely. We could start listing the texts, but more often than not we look no further than “The Great Commission”.

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matthew 28:18-20, TNIV, emphasis mine.)

From this passage we are able to construct a rousing call to support global missions. We send some of our best and brightest to places far different than our own to “take the gospel” to the far reaches of the earth. A couple of comments are necessary at this point in our discussion.

  1. “Taking the Gospel” is a concept rooted in the Enlightenment and the Modernistic paradigm. It is arrogant (and ignorant) to assume that our Western understanding of Christianity is both comprehensive and without cultural baggage or theological blind spots. Not to mention the fact that such language betrays and underlying belief that perhaps God is not already present and working in the places in which we send our missionaries.
  2. Too often when we receive reports from or set expectations for our missionaries it is related only to the second portion of Jesus command in the Great Commission… “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The making of disciples and the teaching them to obey all that Jesus commanded are often times either absent or tragically minimized in the whole missionary enterprise. This points us back to the first point. We have not “fulfilled the Great Commission” when we go to the far reaches of the earth and “plant churches” that look exactly like the church that sent them! Newbigin discussed this as an imperialistic characteristic of much of the foreign mission work that came from Western Civilization in the last century.
  3. We somehow also have created this false dichotomy between “missions” and “evangelism”. “Missions” happens over there and “evangelism” (when it happens) happens here. Somewhere we got this idea that the Great Commission’s use of the words “all nations” (or “all people groups”) somehow excluded the nation of people in which the text was being read.

This false dichotomy brings us to the refreshing part of a missional orientation to Scripture, that we are able (and willing) to take into account all the teachings of Scripture on the subject instead of the few choice texts that we have been able to ride for years and years. One narrative, and specifically the conclusion to the narrative, comes to mind when we think about “missions” vs. “missional” and “missions” and/or “evangelism”…

The text comes from the Gospel of Mark and occurs towards the beginning of the ministry of Jesus…

They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an evil spirit came from the tombs to meet him. This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him any more, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.

When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? Swear to God that you won’t torture me!” For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you evil spirit!”

Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”

“My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.” And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area.

A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. The demons begged Jesus, “Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.” He gave them permission, and the evil spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.

Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon–possessed man–and told about the pigs as well. Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.

As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon–possessed begged to go with him. Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed. (Mark 5:1-20, TNIV, emphasis mine.)

A few observations are helpful in this discussion at this point…

  1. From reading the text (and this is my understanding of it) I envision the formerly demon-possessed man “sitting there, dressed and in his right mind” while still showing the wounds that came from cutting himself with stones. Whether historical or not, the image is insightful as we seek to move beyond “missions” to becoming missional. Jesus cured the man of his bondage (the demon-possession) and enabled him to become a witness (the Greek word here is where we get Martyr…another insightful metaphor), but perhaps allowed him to bear on his body “the marks” of his life before Christ freed him. He may very well have been able to tell and show them what the Lord had done for him.
  2. This man has no desire after he is released from bondage to do anything but to be with Jesus. Jesus however has other plans. His desire is that he return to the place that had shunned and rejected him as a “missionary” to those who were formerly his friends, family, and neighbors. The implications of Jesus sending this man back to his own people should help us to be wary of a “theology of mission” that is exclusively or myopically oriented in an over there mentality.
  3. “All the people were amazed.” Why? Because they knew what he had been and it was obvious just by seeing him that he had been changed. Transformation (a.k.a. Spiritual Formation) will create some of the most obvious and impactful opportunities for people to see that God is really working in our lives and that it does make a difference.

So what are the fundamental differences between “missions” and “missional” and why does it matter? A couple of thoughts in conclusion…

  1. Missions is something that we support, it is a “work of the church”. It is something that we put our money and prayers behind. We share their victories as our own (and rightfully so in my opinion), but too often this is “our mission work” which means that we do little to nothing to reach our community unless they come to us. Missions is something WE DO.
  2. Being missional is about identity, purpose, and the expression of what Jesus has done for us, through us, and often times in spite of us. It is not a program or “work” of the church. It is a response to a deeply theological truth that God is the One who seeks and as His followers we too continue the ministry and work of Jesus to help people to enter the Kingdom of God. Missional does not in any way negate the importance and value of supporting “missions” over there. In fact, to ignore this would be contrary to the very nature of God, the One who seeks to redeem all creation and all peoples. Missional demands both. That we follow the words of Jesus in Mark 5… “Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” It also demands that we extend that desire to tell to as many places as we can. This is where the “all nations” comes into play. Missional is a response to something GOD DID AND IS CONTINUING TO DO THROUGH HIS PEOPLE.

May God help us to move beyond being people who support missionaries around the world alone to people who are missionaries where they live and seek to spread that message throughout the world as they have opportunity.



  1. Michael — some really good observations there. In my mind, much of our thinking on missions and evangelism has been skewed by our mistaken eschatology and soteriology to the effect that we conceive of the purpose of being Christian as getting to heaven after we die. And then evangelism/missions means getting OTHER people to heaven after we die, and further, we “preach the word of God that we might win a shining crown (O, glory)”. So, evangelism is done to avoid the threat of hell. No wonder we’ve been so bad at it!

    Conversely, if the purpose of being a follower of Jesus is to learn from him what it means to live in communion with God, indeed to truly LOVE God in this life (not excluding the next life), that puts a different spin on it (to say the least). Now I want people to be able to enjoy what I enjoy — in fact to enjoy it BETTER than I enjoy it! — and in part this means that we can try to bring them a better life even economically because enjoying God’s good creation is part of living in communion with God (rather than the emphasis being on getting them to heaven and therefore leaving them in poverty in this life). THIS LIFE MATTERS!!! Following Jesus matters! It really IS a better way to live!

    But frequently, we don’t believe it — we just want to use the Jesus ticket as a “get out of hell free card.” That’s what Bonhoeffer described as “cheap grace.” (end rant)

  2. Michael,

    If someone brought up that text in a mission discussion around here, they’d definitely get some confused and uncomfortable looks.

    I think the scene you shared also points out a relational and reconciliatory (is that a word?) aspect to living the mission of God.

    Apparently, it is very important to Jesus that this man be reconciled with his family and community. The power of God tears down the wall separating him from them, and Jesus says, “Go home and love your family in MY name.”

    Becoming missional must have somewhere close to its heart a shift from an adversarial approach to a relational one.

    in HIS love,

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