Mission: what are we Missing?

It has become popular in recent years to explore Christian mission as the “Missio Dei” — the mission of God. And rightly so. Our problem though, is that when it comes to motivating God’s people for mission we so easily forget that it is his. We say that mission belongs to God, but we interpret our partnership in it not as joyful union but as responsibility and task. What we tend to mean by “joining God on his mission” is one of the following:

  1. That mission originates in the purposes of God, but is fulfilled by our actions. He came up with the idea, and it is now up to us to see it through.
  2. That mission is about doing the will of God, all of which has already been revealed to us. We know what he wants, we just have to do it.
  3. That mission is God’s unfinished symphony. He has set it in motion, now we need to bring it to completion.
  4. That God’s future actions, for instance in initiating the return of Christ, are contingent on our completion of our mission. Once we’ve done our part, he will be able to do his.
  5. That the ultimate salvation of the world is contingent on our success in completing our mission.

There are elements of truth on each of these assertions. They have been used, with varying degrees of success, to motivate generations of Christians to join the global missions movement — but they share a fatal flaw. You can do the right thing for the wrong reason, bit it’s better to do the right thing for the right reason, and in a time of change, it might be important to know the difference.

As it turns out it is very important, just at this moment in history, to rediscover the right reasons for engaging in God’s mission. The Western church has suffered as great a loss of adherents in the past half century as any social collective in history. If ever there was a time for knowing what to do and why, this is it.

So, back to our 5 statements on mission. What’s wrong with them? The answer is that they name God as the source of mission but leave him out of its delivery. We acknowledge God as the origin of his will, but not as the force presently committed to it’s fulfilment. To will is his privilege, to perform is ours. Where this tendency takes over, our practice of mission becomes a form of deism, even if our theology claims to be theistic. We criticise the clockwork universe of the secularists, but we assume a similar construct for God’s kingdom. He has told us what to do, now we must do it — and if we don’t, the whole plan will fail. Worse, its failure will be our fault. In the most extreme expressions of this view, people — including people we love — will suffer some kind of hideous, tortured forever simply because we didn’t do enough.

God has done his part, now we must do ours — or else.

It is hardly surprising, in this context, that the traditional view of mission has become so unattractive to young adults. Being a missionary — if this is our starting point — sounds a lot like Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill. No matter how much you do to help God get his job done, the sheer weight of your failure will sooner or later roll back down to crush you.

The only answer to this dilemma is to discover what “Missio dei” really means — that the mission actually is God’s. Here are five key ways we can let God be God and give him back his mission:

  1. Acknowledge the overwhelming biblical evidence that God intends not only to be the source and origin of mission but to be its present, active protagonist.
  2. Accept that not everything God wants to say has yet been said. The worst thing you can do with the will of God is predict it. Don’t say “your will be done” with that tired, exasperated tone that says “and we all know what that is”. Say rather, “ let what you want be what happens”, with the excitement of a child waiting to find out what it might be.
  3. Trust God that he will bring to completion his purposes.
  4. Understand that your role is vital but not contingent.
  5. Anchor mission not in what you can achieve for God but in what God will achieve in you and through you as you surrender to his goodness.

god’s invitation for us to partner in his mission is just that — an invitation to partnership. it is a dance in which he leads us: his hand at our back; his energy driving every step. We are at the same time participants in the dance and recipients of it. Like some hapless overweight celebrity surrendering to the leading of a professional ballroom dancer, we find that we can do more than we ever imagined because we are in such good hands. “Trust me,” the Spirit whispers in our ear, “follow my lead”. We let the swell of the music of God’s goodness enter our very bodies; we place our feet where he directs them; we follow the minutest urging — and all at once we are dancing.

Mission is trust, not task. We surrender to the whisper of the Spirit and he, God, takes care of the ultimate outcome.

Mission is not what God is asking you to do for him. It is what he has done, is doing and will do for you. He doesn’t demand that you perform for him, he invites you to partnership. Trust him. He will make a dancer of you yet.