When it comes to mission, the church has more in common with a pizzeria than you might think.
Imagine sinking your teeth into the best slice of pizza you’ve ever had. Bright tomato sauce bursts through gooey mozzarella to land on your tongue, tempered by a buttery garlic crust. This miraculous pizza nourishes you in ways you didn’t even know you needed. (Even people with gluten and dairy sensitivities somehow feel great after eating a slice.) And, amazingly, the chef offers to make you an eternal supply, without charging a dime.
This is the kind of life-changing deal Jesus offers his followers. And just like satisfied customers help spread the word about great pizza and servers bring it to customers, Jesus asks those of us who accept his offer to help deliver the gospel. The mission of the church is to share the gift Jesus is offering with the world, extending the incredible hospitality he shows us to others.
The theology of mission: Why does mission matter?
“The church doesn’t do mission; the church is mission,” says Chuck Van Engen, who served as a missionary in Chiapas, Mexico, for many years.
This message would undeniably look great on a T-shirt. And, more importantly, it captures the fundamental role of mission in defining the church. But what makes sharing the gospel the mission of the church? And why is this mission so pivotal?
The mission of the church according to the Bible
While the Bible might not specifically use the word “mission,” the concept is rooted in biblical truth. Mission signifies purposeful movement—being sent from one place to another for a purpose. The apostles of Jesus were among the first to be sent out on a mission to share what Jesus was proclaiming.
To understand why this mission matters, it helps to see where it’s taking us. Revelation 7:9-10 offers a peek:
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
This vision is the ultimate fruit of sharing the gospel around the world. Salvation doesn’t belong to any one culture, language, or race. Instead, the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ, the good news at the heart of the gospel, brings together a beautiful mosaic of cultures in worship and celebration.
Jesus lays out the role of the church in fulfilling this vision when he commissions his disciples in Matthew 28:18-20:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
As followers of Christ, our mission is to be disciples who make disciples. The church is a way for followers of Jesus to act together as one body, with Jesus as the head, to fulfill this mission. At its best, the unity in Christ we experience in the church can even give us a taste of the glory to come in Revelation 7. Hebrews 10:23-25 describes how:
Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Following Jesus is a communal activity. We both make disciples and become better disciples by seeking Jesus together. In fact, God often speaks to us through our relationships with others. Facilitating this communal growth, worship, and prayer is part of the mission of the church, too.
The global mission of the church
Jesus told his disciples, “be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8, NLT). God called the early church to be missional outside of their own communities—to share the gospel to those in their surrounding area but also to the ends of the earth. This is our call today, too.
The vision of the church in Revelation 7:9-10 sees people from all different cultural backgrounds come together through Jesus. Realizing that vision requires engaging in mission that reaches beyond our tribal and cultural boundaries.
The local mission of the church
In the same way, the church needs to be attentive to the needs of the people directly surrounding us. Local mission—loving those in your backyard—is exactly how Paul started doing mission work. He built relationships, participated in outreach and evangelism, practiced discipleship, taught, and trained up leaders. We often need to learn these skills within our own context before we are ready to practice them on the other side of the world.
Jesus began his ministry preaching, teaching, and healing the sick in Galilee. He made his first disciples when he invited fishermen in Galilee to join him and learn to fish for people.
Is the church still relevant?
The good news of salvation in Jesus Christ is as relevant as ever. The church is still relevant because the mission is still relevant. But we may need to change our methods to accomplish our mission.
There’s no denying that the world has changed since Jesus embarked on his earthly ministry 2,000 years ago. Video calls, airplanes, and iPhones were definitely not on the radar when early missionaries like Paul went out to share the gospel. And we’re only just beginning to figure out how to use the new mission tools our globally connected world calls for.
Even within the present day, what works to share the gospel in one culture might not be the right approach for another cultural context.
North American churches who have long sent missionaries to other countries to share the gospel find themselves in the middle of an emerging mission field at home. In some neighborhoods, the fullest church buildings are the ones that have been converted into restaurants and apartments. The church is not the dominant cultural force in the Western hemisphere that it used to be. And fewer people see the church as an important part of their life.
If we trap the gospel message inside our empty church buildings, many people will never hear it.
Meanwhile, the gospel has never been more alive or vibrant in the Southern hemisphere. A new cultural center for Christianity is emerging in the Global South. Now Christ-followers from some of the very countries where North American churches sent missionaries in the past are beginning to descend on North America to bring the gospel.
These cultural shifts impact what it looks like to fulfill the mission of the church. The gospel is still relevant. But some of the ways we have been sharing it might not be. To reach people where they are today, we may need to embrace a few new methods.
How do we engage in good mission work today?
Too many churches think of mission as a line in the budget allocating money to an external agency or missionary. Funding mission work is crucial. But it’s only one piece of the puzzle. You can’t outsource the whole purpose and nature of church.
Making the mission of the church central to who you are means encouraging and preparing every member to share and embody the gospel in every aspect of life. The mission of the church is not just the work of faraway missionaries or even pastors. It’s for the whole body of believers.
Your church should see yourselves as part of the mission work you support globally, too. That could mean taking a trip to a location where you’re supporting a missionary, doing intensive fundraising, or building a long-term relationship with people, missionaries, or partners on the ground.
Consider how your global and local mission work can inform each other. What can you learn from your global mission partners about doing mission in your own community? How can your ministry in your own neighborhood shape your engagement with mission globally?
If you’re looking for missional inspiration, history is filled with stories to get your imagination going. For example, a major spark behind the North American church’s early global mission work was a simple conversation at the dining table of John and Mehitable Simpkins in 1802. R. Pierce Beaver recalled the event:
A guest raised his wine glass, admired the color and bouquet of the beverage, and exclaimed, “This excellent wine probably costs a penny a glass. Just think, if we would each forgo one glass tonight, the sum saved would buy several gospels or more tracts. Should we and our friends do without some little thing each week and save a cent, think of the hundreds of Bibles and hymn books with which missionaries could be supplied in just one year’s time!”
The Cent Society was born. Mehitable Simpkins volunteered to collect donations for the society and transmit the funds to her husband, who was the treasurer of the Massachusetts Missionary Society. Donations poured in from women to the Cent Society, which eventually funded the ministry of multiple global mission organizations.
Mehitable Simpkins was not a pastor or formal church leader; neither were the many women who sacrificed pennies each week for missions. And yet their resourceful giving paved the way for the mission of the church (Called to Serve: Essays on RCA Global Mission, pp. 11-12).
Foundational characteristics of good mission
Adapted from the mission principles of RCA Global Mission, these characteristics have been honed by more than two centuries of mission experience.
We are called to exist in harmony with diverse societies, traditions, and cultures. Our Christian witness should respect, honor, and seek to understand the value of other cultures and traditions.
Respect and understanding for Greek culture were essential elements of Paul’s missionary work among the Gentiles. He worked to understand the places where he traveled and adapted his approach to the culture. This respectful witness taught Paul that people could be spiritually transformed by the gospel without adopting the physical customs of Judaism. Letting go of these Jewish customs helped pave the way for Christianity to spread around the world.
Long-term mutual relationships
At its best, mission is relational and mutual. Strive for purposeful collaboration that matures into deep-rooted cooperation and significant partnership.
The story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman from the Gospel of John is an example of an approach to mission grounded in mutual relationship. Jesus breaks social norms among Jews to ask a Samaritan woman for a drink from the well. This surprising request from a Jew captures the woman’s curiosity and sparks a theological conversation.
Because Jesus is willing to ask help of a woman who would have been considered beneath him, he is able to share the gospel with her. She is rewarded for her open heart with a new life in Christ, the ultimate gift. Transformed by the interaction, the Samaritan woman spreads the word that Jesus is the Messiah among the Samaritans. And they believe in Jesus because of her testimony. Even Jesus, who gives us far more than we can ever give him, uses mutual relationships to further his mission.
When RCA Global Mission first sent missionaries to Japan and India, they sent both individuals with training in evangelism and those with a medical background. Why? Because it is important to care for the whole person.
Caring for physical needs first is often the best way to reach someone. Jesus himself modeled this with his healing ministry. As Dara VandenBosch, a missionary in Mozambique, puts it: “dealing with a person’s physical needs is often a necessary first step to prepare the soil for God’s Word.” This approach to mission is sometimes called holistic ministry.
There’s an old adage that it’s better to teach someone how to fish than to give them fish. And that holds true in mission, especially when you’re reaching beyond your own community. Think about what you can do to give people the tools they need for locally sufficient, supported, and sustainable transformation in their own communities and lives. Here, too, we are looking to Jesus’s example. He showed his disciples how to make disciples and taught them his gospel so that they could share it with others. Then his followers went on to plant seeds of the gospel that could be sustained in local churches once they moved on to their next call. By design, the mission should multiply as new people carry it to new places.
Ultimately, each of us is just one small part of the mission of the church. And just like Jesus planted seeds that he relied on his followers to water, we need to work together across both cultures and generations to fulfill the mission of the church.
We believe in breaking the cycle of dependency and paternalism by promoting interdependent, Christ-centered cooperatives that culminate in locally sufficient, locally supported, and locally sustainable, faithful transformation.