Never has the church been more obsessed with the meaning of “mission” and, at the same time, so babbled about accomplishing that mission. There is much hand-wringing and flag-waving and panel-discussing about mission but Michael Stroope, professor of missions at Truett Theological Seminary, wonders if the term “mission” and all its variants have not seen their day and it now time to move on to other terms. This is the theme of his new book, Transcending Mission: The Eclipse of a Modern Tradition.
Stroope encases his opening salvos in the idea of the term “mission” being a total enigma. How so? What does the term mean according to its practitioners in our society today? He lists seven meanings:
M1 Mission as general, common task of representation or personal assignment
M2 Mission as specified aim or goal of a corporate entity
M3 Mission as specific and personal life purpose or calling
M4 Mission as evangelism and church planting
M5 Mission as the ministry of the church in all its forms
M6 Mission as structures or entities related to the expansion of Christianity
M7 Mission as the activity of God in the world, often with little to no reference to the church
Many today are nervous about evangelism and for a variety of reasons: bad past experiences, uncertainty about what to say, civility designed approaches that dare not invade another person’s space, colonialism, certaintist epistemology, evangelism is done by deeds not words, missional community experiments … I could go on. But there is more than a few reasons that have conspired together to diminish the importance of evangelism and mission accompanies that diminishment, either with a better cover term or with an alternative approach. So, how is the term “mission” being used today? Stroope has studied this term with intensity.
Here are some term-defining claims by a variety of users:
Mission, in this narrow Christian sense, refers to a definite set of ideas, processes, activities, identities, organizations, strategies, and documents that relate to the advance of Christianity. In this particular Christian use, mission connotes specialization (certain ideas and activities), utility (processes, systems, and organizations), and viewpoint (a way of interpreting the world and the human dilemma). Thus, mission is rhetoric that describes specific Christian ideals and actions unique to its encounter with the world. 4
For most Christians, mission is simply the effort, through various actions, to address the human condition, proselytize others, and spread the Christian faith. 5
Mission is Everything
At the other extreme are those who employ mission as the alternative or counterpoint to evangelism, and thus, in some cases, mission is everything but evangelism. 6
Thus, mission means anything and everything the church does, from discipleship to eldercare, building homes through Habitat for Humanity to disaster relief in cooperation with the Red Cross. Describing mission as the action of God in world history or as “Jubilee proclamation” captures this wide and inclusive sense of the term (7).
Expanding Evangelical Missions
Christopher Wright expands mission to include creation care and combating HIV/AIDS. These, for Wright, are not auxiliary or tangential concerns but central to mission. Wright s definition of mission thus includes compassion toward and care for the whole of creation and a call to conversion, addressing both disease and planting churches. 8
Missio Dei is everywhere and means everything. 18
Missional, therefore, chiefly refers to all that the church does, when it does these well. 20
The adjectival excess of missional tends to conflate meaning and produces redundancy. As well as being an inexact and meaningless cliche, missional tends to read as an emblem for real, evangelical, or orthodox Christianity. As such, it is the least helpful of mission-related terms. 21
Time for a Change?
Smith, Hall, Shenk, Bosch, Costas, Newbigin, Scherer, Bessenecker, Herbst, and others signal that there is a problem and advocate for the reconsideration, refreshment, rehabilitation, and reformulation of mission. 25
What is Stroope’s orientation?
The task is one of transcending mission. Even if the language and activity of mission were necessary and appropriate for a former age, we must look to what the Spirit is doing now and listen to his directives for what might be fresh expressions of the church’s witness and service. The current situation is dire and thus calls for more than a vindication of mission language, or a renewed emphasis on mission, or a deeper commitment to mission, or better strategies and methodology, or more funding in the name of mission. Instead, we must do the hard work of reimaging witness, service, and love in conceptual and linguistic frameworks that allow for creativity and freedom. To state the problem in its most fundamental terms: it is not that mission has a problem, mission is the problem. 26-27