Pastoral Perspectives

The Meaning of Mission in this Millennial

I began writing this year’s perspective on “Cannot lose a Generation – Who will go for us?” followed by the second one on “Millennial for Missions” and now I thought it is appropriate to relooked at “the meaning of missions in this millennial”. At last year’s mission committee retreat, we discussed and relook at our mission’s handbook and I told the committee that it is time to rewrite and take a fresh look at missions today. We are still bound by mission policies of the 80s and 90s. The world has changed but we have not. Mission has taken on a new face. Missionaries are finding it increasingly harder to enter certain countries. I said this because I began my ministry as a missionary in the late 70s when mission organisations are relatively active in their recruitment campaign. Operation Mobilisation used to run winter camps to recruit workers to go on board the ship “Logos”. Fortunately or unfortunately God did not direct me to OM. I was called to be a missionary when churches are financially poor yet  resourcefully rich. I was member of a small Presbyterian English service when at her peak had sent out about 20 missionaries and I was one of them.

As a young man, I answered God’s call to become a missionary. First I was actively serving in church, taught pre-schoolers in Sunday school, led short term mission trips to the Riau Islands in Indonesia, visited the long houses in Sabah, went to the mountains in Thailand, preached my first sermon as a young adult in the mission field and spend 3 months in training in Fiji Island with only 1 US dollar in my pocket. I’ve read biographies of missionary pioneers and martyrs. The year I was born Jim Elliot was killed by the Aucas Indians. Have survived 37 years in ministry. Pioneers like George Muller & Hudson Taylor & CT Stud who gave his inheritance to missions and started the World Evangelisation Crusade (WEC) were my inspiration.

Let me share extracts from John Stott’s book Christian Mission in the Modern World. This was originally released forty years ago; it was recently republished as Christian Mission in the Modern World: Updated and Expanded. The book seeks to elucidate the meaning of “mission” and four other words commonly associated with it: evangelism, dialogue, salvation, and conversion.

As Stott aptly points out, the words “mission” or “missionary” typically evoke a certain image:

The missionary is often caricatured as standing under a palm tree, wearing a pith helmet and declaiming the gospel to a group of ill-clad “natives” sitting respectfully around him on the ground. Thus the traditional image of the missionary is that of the preacher, and a rather paternalistic kind of preacher.

Stott observes that this romantic image of mission implies that the primary, if not exclusive, function of mission is evangelism. However, in the past several decades an alternative view has held that mission should be defined solely as engaging in what is today commonly referred to as social justice – redressing economic disparity, oppression, racial inequality, and other social ills. Instead of choosing one of these two extremes, Stott suggests we understand mission as a partnership of evangelism and social action:

As partners the two belong to each other and yet are independent of each other. Each stands on its own feet in its own right alongside the other. Neither is a means to the other, or even a manifestation of the other. For each is an end in itself. Both are expressions of unfeigned love. Evangelism and compassionate service belong together in the mission of God.

In formulating this broader understanding of mission Stott draws on the biblical account of the Great Commission. The expression “Great Commission” is usually understood to refer to Jesus’ words in Matthew 28:19-20a:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.

The exclusively evangelistic understanding of mission is derived in large part from these verses. In the Gospel of John, though, Jesus is also recorded as using more expansive language: “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you” (John 20:21). As Stott rightly points out, Jesus’ ministry was a ministry of word and deed, evangelism and service, not just one or the other. Our own ministry to the world should be the same.

With this great commission in mind, Stott then suggests we understand mission as “everything the church is sent into the world to do.” That covers a lot more ground than just preaching to the unevangelised overseas. It speaks to you and me right where we are, for if service is a part of mission, then our vocational calling—as manifested in the different careers and jobs we have—is missional. It is the only kind of mission we are called to, but it is certainly mission.

The world is full of Christians who are not contented with their ordinary lives they dream of doing something great for God. Imagine what would happen if they realised that mission—their mission—is not necessarily on the other side of the world. It is right beneath their two feet where they stand and live and work and love. Is this not the incarnational works of Christ? Mission has taken on a new face and as a church, we need to be relevant to the times – relooking at mission in this millennial.

It is my prayer for True Way that God will from amongst us raise up workers for the field. Will you be the one whom He will call? 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 his people.

Rev Tan Cheng Huat

May 28, 2017