Posted by: richard | 5 January, 2010

Mission at the Centre?

Last night we got stuck into the first couple of chapters.  We looked at Acts 1:6-11 where Jesus, risen, leaves His disciples with a mission – to be his witnesses from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, empowered by His Spirit.  We also looked at the Great Commission where Jesus sends his followers out to make disciples of all people.  The book moved from there to stating that “mission is the central purpose of the church”, which raised some lively debate and is clearly a central point to wrestle with.

The objections seemed to come from:

  • The definition of Mission.  The book gave us none, which didn’t help.  Comments were along the lines of “Surely we are not all called to be evangelists, nor called to go on mission to Africa.  Indeed, only 2 of the 5 gifts in the “Pentagon” (Apostle, Evangelist) are evangelistic; the others (Pastor, Teacher, Prophet) are more about building up the body.”
  • The exclusivity of the claim that Mission is THE centre.  What about worship, holiness, building up the church, being the bride of Christ?

Well, perhaps we can resolve these tensions by going back to the LifeShapes triangle: Up, In, Out.  God calls us to be a people (In) set apart for Him (Up) to take His love and grace to world that needs it (Out).  Or, our TASK is Mission (Out), our IDENTITY is as part of God’s people (In), and our SOURCE and DESTINATION is God Himself (Up).  I’ve probably not used the right words but hopefully you get what I mean.

Trying another way, we (the church) are a people called to BE the bride of Christ, a people set apart for God’s pleasure, and that EXPRESSES in the current age that calling through the outward impulse that comes from the Godhead itself.

The idea to put the outward ‘missional’ impulse at the centre comes from the idea of Missio Dei, the idea that God, from the start, sends, sends, sends, sends… Himself.  He himself is “the Missionary God” who does not wait in a temple for us to come to Him but who seeks us out constantly and from the dawn of time .  I strongly encourage you to read the entirety of the explanation (on Wikipedia of all places: but a quick summary is:

“God is the initiator of His mission to redeem through the Church a special people for Himself from all of the peoples of the world. He sent His Son for this purpose and He sends the Church into the world with the message of the gospel for the same purpose.

Our mission has no life of its own: only in the hands of the sending God can it truly be called mission. Not least since the missionary initiative comes from God alone … Mission is thereby seen as a movement from God to the world; the church is viewed as an instrument for that mission. There is church because there is mission, not vice versa. To participate in mission is to participate in the movement of God’s love toward people, since God is a fountain of sending love.”

Pragmatically, there is also another reason to put mission at the centre:  It moves so easily to the edge! As a Catholic blog I came across  notes,

He [Crosby] noticed that in over 60 years of significant ministry, he had observed that no groups that came together around a non-missional purpose (i.e. prayer, worship, study, etc.) ever ended up becoming missional. That it was only those groups that set out to be missional in the first place (while embracing prayer, worship, study, etc. in the process) that actually got to doing it. This observation fits with all the research done by Carl George and others that indicate that the vast majority of church activities and groups, even in a healthy church, are aimed at the insiders and fail to address the missional issues facing the church in any situation.

If evangelizing and discipling the nations lie at the heart of the church’s purpose in the world, then it is mission, and not ministry, that is the true organizing principle of the church. Mission here, is being used in a narrow sense here to suggest the church’s orientation to the ‘outsiders’ and ministry as the orientation to the ‘insiders.’ Experience tells us that a church that aims at ministry seldom gets to mission even if it sincerely intends to do so. But the church that aims at mission will have to do ministry, because ministry is the means to do mission. Our services, our ministry, need a greater cause to keep it alive and give it is broader meaning. By planting the flag outside the walls and boundaries of the church, so to speak, the church discovers itself by rallying to it—this is mission. And in pursuing it we discover ourselves, and God, in a new way, and the nations both ‘see’ and hear the gospel and are saved.

Put it another way – when mission is organising principle of the church, the other central activities flourish; when another activity is the organising principle, mission dies.

I’d appreciate your views and comments on this important topic.  It’s important because it is about the fundamental raison d’être of Christian communities such as Passion Fruit and our churches!


If you have 10 minutes to spare, watch the following video (from about 6:00 to 15:00) where Mike Frost gives an impassioned description of our missionary God!


  1. First of all, I apologise for having missed last night. I had somehow got it into my head that we were meeting on Tuesday. I’m glad that we will be continuing with the same chapters next week, because it seemed to have been a good debate.

    The passages suggested in the study don’t seem to leave any doubt that the church’s raison d’être (en français dans le texte) is mission. There is an old saying (probably worth a moo) that the church is the only club which exists solely for the benefit of outsiders. On the other hand, we see that the believers in Acts met together regularly, and Jesus sent out the disciples in pairs. If you lose one corner of the triangle, it falls over, but it shouldn’t be so heavily weighted down that it can’t move.

    When I was reading (on a train) through the book chapters before not coming to the meeting, I was particularly struck by the central sentence of the passage from 1 Peter : “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope that you have”. I think that the reason why I am afraid of “evangelism”‘ is that I am not always certain where my hope comes from. This may be because I haven’t been to Babylon yet – I am too inclined to try to work things out on my own, rather than trusting in God.

    One thing that I was going to mention to you all at the first meeting, which may be an idea for the “practical” part, is the Scottish Dance on February 5th. Since this is being run by and for HTCML, it would be good to try to pass on some sort of message to people there. This is somewhat complicated by the fact that I will be in sunny India (unless my visa application is refused) when the Dance happens. I thought of a small flyer (in English and French) with the essential of our “hope” in a few short paragraphs – maybe entitled “Lord of the Dance” if that’s not too cheesy. (I also thought of a big banner saying “Highland Reels, God Rocks”). What do you all think?

    I’m looking forward to seeing you all again, so I can present you with the CDM which I awarded you in the New Year Honour’s list.


  2. Thanks Gill.

    Regarding the Scottish Dance, it is quite a good idea, though I am a bit torn between (a) doing something is better than doing nothing, and God can and does work through these things; and (b) the feeling that ‘evangelism by flyers’ is impersonal and “non-incarnational” (God didn’t send an advert but sent Jesus amongst us). We should focus more on sharing our lives than sharing our tracts. But one doesn’t preclude the other… It’s more a question of time I guess.

    Hmm. If Base Camp is up and running we could leave Base Camp fliers instead….

  3. A sceptic writes …

    I’m a full subscriber to the view that “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever”. By extension, then, the Church’s purpose (individually and collectively) is also to glorify God.

    Now I suppose you could say that engaging in mission (however you define it) is glorifying God – but so, as you noted, are lots of other things. To pick a concrete example, what about engaging in social action? That glorifies God and although it might also be considered a missional activity, that’s not really its purpose.

    It seems to me that you could take any activity that glorifies God and call that the purpose of a particular church, so to that extent mission can be a purpose. Is it supposed to be THE purpose of all churches everywhere? That’s less obvious to me.

    I find the Missio Dei aspect very striking, but again I’m not sure that it is the exclusive essential character of God. God is love; God is faithfulness; God is mercy; God is justice: surely when we show or seek to draw out these aspects we are also glorifying God and fulfilling His purposes?

  4. Robbie, interesting points though can you help draw them to a conclusion (unless you conclusion is “so mission is a bit of an option really”)?

    Regarding “different churches could have different focuses”, there is only one church, right? The bride of Christ. But to your point on social action; it is clear the church is to do justice and love mercy; but isn’t the ultimate loving aim of such activities actually to bring people to a place where they can receive the love, grace and salvation of God? If not, we may as well just join Amnesty International or any other secular charity. But as God’s people, we do these things so that God’s name will be glorified… so isn’t that mission?

    So anything we do to bring glory to God’s name “among the nations” is mission: word and deed in harmony. Again, I really don’t think the book is saying “evangelistic campaigns are the church’s sole remit” but saying “the church’s mandate is to look beyond itself and bless the nations in order to glorify God and to draw people to Him”.


    (Out of interest, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever” is not a Biblical phrase, and though it captures some Biblical ideas of course, I wouldn’t want to hang too much on that…)

  5. All good, all good. I like the Missio Dei stuff.

    I dont for one moment think that ‘mission’ (still requiring more definition for me) is not important, and in fact one thing that came out of last year for me was a strong challenge to my lack of any real evangelistic effort or leaning at all in recent years.

    I think the sticking point was the authors assertion that it was a taken for granted foregone conclusion that mission was just about all the church existed for.

    Speaking formyself I think I have reacted in the past to evangelism being portrayed as a rather joyless task or expectation or duty on us as christians that we are judged failures or successes as christians on, placing us solely responsible for all those who go to hell because of our communal failing in our christian duty to spread the good news.

    That concept of missions is certainly not the purpose and raison d’être of the church. I think that’s as big a falacy too often dogging evangelical christians with guilt etc, as any of the well known falacies in say the catholic church, with its overemphasis of the authority of the church etc.

    I think we have to fully understand that WE are God’s mission in the first place, that Jesus didnt come just to make us all good little missionaries, but he came to REDEEM us first and foremost, motivated by his passionate love for us, the passion of a bridegroom seeking his one true love, his bride.

    Certainly probably the most focussed on missions I have ever been in my life was my preoccupation with getting married when I was still single, and all of which was practice for the day I finally nailed my first true ‘convert’, my wonderful wife! 8-D

    I think it is only once we have been well and truly FOUND by God’s primary mission to find us, redeem us, restore us, love us and make us his own possession, that we are then really ready to work along side him in His mission to others.

    Put it another way, once first saved, all of us needed a bit of a makeover of some sort from our original sinful condition, before we became Christlike – so if one of Jesus’s great characteristics is his ‘mission’, well, the more christlike we become, the more into missions we become.

    I also second Gill’s thoughts on the fact that for me personally, it was my lack of conviction about my own hope, my own identity and heritage as a christian, that made me undervalue what I had to offer those outside the fold, who according to some estimations, seemed to have so much better lives than me in some respects. I always felt the successful people around me would not see much in my rather messed up life to attract them.

    I’m reminded of a rather good sketch years ago on the Rory Bremner show in the UK, where his two sidekicks, I think they were called the two Johns or something, were having a mock serious conversation about efficiency of hospitals in the NHS. They concluded that the most efficient hospitals were ones where patients arrived in an ambulance, were whizzed around the hospital at high speed on a trolley before being whizzed straight out again, without ever really being treated!

    I think it is possible for churches to be so ‘task’ focussed on ‘missions programs’ (and other programs) that they fail to actually get people properly redeemed, and into a proper relationship with the lover of their souls, fail to disciple them properly – which is not a five minute job! They just want to get new converts in the door, turn them around and get them out the door witnessing.

    Anyway, anyway, anyway…. all that to say really…..

    Even if we cant agree that missions is the founding principle and purpose of the church, lets not choke on theological smallprint to the extent that we deny that it is indeed very important.

    But its not important because its the task we are all being judged by.

    I think that the more thoroughly saved and transformed we are by our own encounter with the God on a mission to save us, the more we will be swept up in and a part of His mission, in some capacity.

    Jesus said ‘I will build my church’ – not ‘you will build it’.

    Call me biased, but I like my own parable of the art gallery – where the gallery owner, who is also the master artist who painted all the masterpieces, is on a mission not only to find his lost masterpieces, but to restore them to their original glory in his house again.

    And to fit in Robbie’s point about glorifying God, I think both are important in that – the finding and the restoring – both will reflect his glory.

    To my most noble lords and ladies, I submit these my most humble musings on this topic…!

  6. My point is simply that I don’t agree that mission is the central purpose of the church, the central purpose of the church is to bring glory to God. As you have said, mission is part of that, but is not its sole focus (although I also don’t think it’s optional). When we engage in social action (or pastoral care, or …) we do it to bring glory to God, not so that others can see what we’re doing. Mission – depending on how it’s defined – might be a central task of the church, but not its purpose.

    I’ll have a think about your last sentence, I might be able to agree with that one!

  7. Thanks James. Some good points. My off-the-cuff responses below – excuse any bluntness in writing – I can’t spend too much time now wordsmithing:

    We do still seem stuck in this concept that mission is ‘evangelistic campaigns’ or something… Jesus said “I will build my church” and also “go into the world and make disciples of everyone”. I agree disciple making is not ‘dragging ’em in the church door’ but the full process of bringing people to maturity in Christ.

    God’s covenant with Abraham was to create a people who would bless the nations; in other words a covenant people that would bless those outside its boundaries. That outward-impulse seems to be the founding charter of Israel. Genesis 1:1-3 says “I will make you into a nation… I will bless you… and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you”. In the NT we get the great commission: “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.”

    I don’t believe that ‘missions programmes’ are central either. Programmes, schmogrammes! But I do believe that we are called to spread the good news in word and deed and this has to be at the core of our ‘Christian DNA’. If we lose that fundamental outward impulse then something has gone wrong with our spiritual walk, I’d suggest.

    We are God’s mission but so are all the other people in the world; are we going to join God in His mission to them? I agree as God works in us, we are more ready to reach out; but I think this has the risk of creating the great excuse of “God hasn’t sanctified me enough yet so I don’t need to think about spreading the good news”. We should not think that witnessing is a thing you do when you have reached some high percentage on a “Christian Maturity/Holiness Scale”!

    Back to Robbie’s point, the idea of splitting ‘social action’ and ‘mission’ into separate categories seems non-Biblical. Jesus came announcing the good news of the kingdom of God: he preached and casting out demons, we recall from Mark. But these were a unity in his efforts to bring God’s love to people; a love that cares holistically for body, mind and soul.


    So why am I rambling so much? Well, in all this I’m trying to see if we can find a summary that we all agree with, to unpack the “mission at the centre” theme and make it clearer and something we can all commit to. I’ll repeat my suggestion from my earlier comment: how about “the church’s mandate is to look beyond itself and bless the nations in order to glorify God and to draw people to Him”.

    I think as we do that the Holy Spirit works in us to sanctify us and empower us (Acts 1:8)… in other words, we grow as Christians if we roll up our sleeves and join God in reaching out to others, and not by going to a zillion meetings and conferences looking for personal healing! He who loses his life finds it, and he who tries to save his life loses it..

  8. What a load of hot air!!

    Oooh, that batterham bloke being provocative and rude again, tsk tsk…!

    Well of course I cant resist a bit of banter, especially at Richard’s expense, these Mac users deserve it all…

    But actually I’m making a serious point!

    What is it that makes a hot air balloon stay inflated and go up up and away?

    Hot air!

    And what is it that stops the hot air just dissipating into the colder air around it, and not being harnassed into useful upward force that can convey passengers etc over Birmingham (or wherever it was that the Medcalves recently went up up and away!)? Well, it is the strong structure of the baloon itself, enabling it to contain the hot air and support the basket.

    My point…. the body is made of many parts. Some of us exude more hot air than others, I think Richard and I together could propel a fleet of Zeppelins around the world several times just the two of us just on this topic alone.

    So, there are those parts who provide the hot air that propels the church in its intended direction – and I would agree that its outward direction reaching out to the heathen is one direction in which it travels. But also there are those others whose function perhaps holds back the hot air and makes it useful, perhaps those are the teachers or prophets, pedantic so and sos like me who insist on everything being double checked against scripture etc, well that would represent the baloon harnesses and netting that contains it and attaches it to the basket, then there are those who want to carry and protect the precious passengers as the baloon basket does, they would be the more pastoral types.

    I like my analogy, even if I say so myself (much as I liked my as yet unblogged Dyson hoover analogy, and my art museum analogy!).

    To use one of your own analogies Richard, and thus hoist you with your own petard (hah!), lets revisit the triangle in life shapes – the triangle stays in balance by being equally upwards, inwards and outwards – gotcha!!

    Anyway, to be honest, I can agree with you that mission is very important, we are all involved in the churches mission – because we are the church! I still disagree with our author that it goes without saying that mission is the sole raison d’etre of the church…. all though I could give ground on that one, provided that mission is properly defined, and I like the missio dei ideas, and I wont budge on my view that our personal involvement in God’s mission springs out of the fact that we are first and foremost the targets of God’s mission, and we are continuing to let him complete his mission of transformation in us, and that our usefulness in mission to others springs out of that. I confess I have hangups having been to a boarding school founded for missionary kids, where the ‘mission as a task and life’s sole purpose demanding total self sacrifice and rennunciation of any kind of normal life for oneself’ orthodoxy kind of put me off, according to which I screwed up my expensive eduction and flunked Cambridge, along the way doing a stint in Africa trying to be a missionary when I was 19 which convinced me that I was a failure as a missionary and certainly not cut out for it! So yes, I have baggage to lose before I’m going to be an effective missionary, which is why I am a bit of a personal healing conference attender with my zillionth attendance badge!

    I think we’ve split this hair enough now…. there is a principle in scripture coming from the people of israel in the desert, that the flock moves at the speed of the slowest, those with young etc…

    So, with all our pre-flight checks complete, it is evident that the fires are hot and pouring out the hot air we need for upward mobility, but that all the other structures and supports and guidance systems needed for a successful safe flight are checked and in place, and the good Passenger ship Passionfruit is fit for takeoff on its missional voyage! Chocks away!

  9. Summarising a bit… I think if mission is likened to the joyful pursuit of the bride by the bridegroom, full of an urgency driven by a desire to express love and be loved in return, rather than just a military style desperate mission to send out foot soldiers to retrieve those lost in action (though there is some truth in that), then for me I am happy with mission being at the heart of church purpose. For something to lay claim to being so very central to the churches existence, it has to be correctly defined and tick all the boxes…
    I personally prefer the title of the book ‘gospel centred church’, I am happy with that as a phrase which sums up the churches mission, than the subtly different title ‘mission centred church’. To me gospel encompasses the idea of mission, but also contains the idea that it is good news, rather than just ‘mission’, which is neutral…. the airforce carries out seek and destroy missions, as well as search and rescue missions… whereas ‘gospel’ says it all… it conveys that its God centred and thus God glorifying, missional, good news, which conveys the character of the mission, ie driven by love and compassion, full of joy in the undertaking, etc etc etc – it says so so much more!

  10. Thanks for all these worthy posts! I realised that the main contention here was the worry of an unbalanced ‘out’ where ‘in’ and ‘up’ get forgotten.

    I mentioned the triangle before and certainly agree with the balance it represents. But it’s not a balance of one versus another versus another, but about the three coming together in harmony. Church is about a people (in) devoted to God (up) sharing His love and mercy with the world (out). So our encounters with God (up) have an intrinsic OUTward outworking; and our fellowship with each other (in) has the same OUTward outworking too.

    Yesterday I listened to the talk James was raving about “If the People Won’t The Dogs Will”, where he makes a similar point: God’s work in us leads us to him but it can’t stop there and we have to go out to share the grace he’s poured on us.

    So that’s it – the ultimate practical expression and demonstration of the up and in is in the out!

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