What on earth is missions?



Let’s ask a really big question that could and should radically alter how we live our lives: What is the mission of the church?

For us, ‘mission’ is, as John Stott wrote, ‘a comprehensive word that embraces everything which God sends his people (the church) into the world to do’. It describes any activity from the church to the unsaved world. The Christian faith is intrinsically missionary. In short, mission is the outward focus and purpose of the church in and to the world.

When we use the word ‘mission’ we’re not just talking about ‘missions’. As we’ll discover, missions – ministry overseas or cross culturally – is an aspect of mission. But we also have a mission in our neighbourhood, city and nation.

Therefore I would suggest the mission of the church involves four things.


A first aspect of our mission is to be a witness or, in other words, to tell others about Jesus.

Prior to his ascension, Jesus said in Acts 1:8, ‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’

In New Testament times, a ‘witness’ was one who could testify of actual events. They could provide evidence based on his or her direct personal, firsthand knowledge (see Acts 1:21-22; 1 John 1:2-3).

Importantly, Jesus said in Acts 1:8: ‘…you will be my witnesses…’ Jesus did not say we will do witnessing; he said we will be his witnesses. There is a big difference between being a witness to doing witnessing. A witness is how we live, not just what we say.

Being a witness is not our assignment; it is our identity. By virtue of the fact I am a Christian, I am automatically a witness of Jesus. A ‘witness’ is being a model of a true Christ-like life.

Before we open our mouth to say anything about Jesus, our lives have already borne witness to what we believe. Witnessing isn’t just sharing our faith; it is embodying and exemplifying our faith. Our life must speak louder than our words. Our life will qualify or disqualify the validity of our words.

Witnessing also involves, as the word suggests, speaking (testifying, declaring) to others of the reality of Jesus in our lives. If we have given our life to Jesus we know from firsthand experience who he is and what he has done in our life. Therefore we want to tell others of his life-changing power. Never underestimate the power of your testimony.

We may not have all the answers but we know who the answer is.

A ‘witness’ shares the reality of what Jesus has done in their life to whomever, wherever, however (see 1 Pet. 3:15).


A second aspect of our mission is social action or, in other words, love in action. In essence, this means showing people the love of Jesus, not just telling them. Phrased differently, this component of mission is a demonstration, not just a declaration.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus vividly expressed his expectation for his followers when he called for them to be ‘salt and light’ (Matt. 5:13-16). What did Jesus mean by the terms of salt and light? In short, Christians are to be fundamentally different from non-Christians. The world is dark, but Christians are to be its light. The world is decaying, but Christians are to be its salt and hinder its decay. Our light must shine into the darkness and our salt must soak into the decaying meat. The implication is that we must become immersed in the world around us and demonstrate our ‘light’ by our ‘good deeds’.

Our mission is to declare the gospel and to demonstrate the gospel through acts of care, compassion and mercy. Good news and good works are inseparable. The gospel has social implications. True mission should always be incarnational. It is Christian to care!

An expert in Old Testament law once tried to evade responsibility by asking Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ In reply, Jesus gave what is commonly known as the Parable of the Good Samaritan. One of the lessons taught in that powerful parable is that compassion is more than sentiment. Sentiment is when we are moved, but compassion is when we are moved to do something about it. The Samaritan not only ‘took pity’, but provided tangible, practical care to the beaten man.

Based on this parable, what is compassion? It is love in action! It is more than emotion, feeling sorry for someone or indignation. It is being moved enough to move us to do something about it.

The ultimate example of love in action is Jesus. He did not stay in the safe immunity of heaven, but entered into our pain, our dysfunction and temptations. He not only proclaimed the good news of the Kingdom of God, but demonstrated its arrival by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, forgiving the sinful, befriending the dropout and raising the dead. He then bore our sins in his own innocent person as a substitutionary sacrifice.

This vision of Jesus should affect our understanding of his commission, ‘As the Father has sent me, I am sending you (Jn. 20:21).’ For if the mission of the church is to be modelled on Christ’s mission, it will surely involve for us, as it did for him, an entering into other people’s worlds.


A third aspect of our mission is to be an advocate for issues of justice and morality.

‘Justice’ could be defined as the right use or exercise of power. ‘Injustice’, therefore, is the abuse, misuse or non-use of power. Most of us would agree that there is a lot of injustice in the world.

Part of our mission as the people of God in the earth is to defend or advocate for what is right or should be put right.

Advocating for ‘morality’ means to defend the ethical and moral standards that God has clearly prescribed in his Word.

True justice and morality is grounded in the very nature of God. God has revealed himself as a God of justice (see Deut. 32:4 and Psalm 146:7-9). Scripture uses a number of words in relation to God’s justice. He protects (Jer. 49:11), upholds the cause (Psalm 146:7), defends (Ps. 68:5), watches over (Ps. 146:9), sustains (Ps. 146:9), lifts up (Ps. 146:8), keeps intact (Prov. 15:25) and leads out (Ps. 68:6). In short, God’s concern is for the voiceless, fatherless and family-less (Psalm 82:3; Isa. 1:17).

Let’s briefly flesh out this concept of ‘advocacy’ for justice from Scripture.


There was a strong Old Testament tradition in the Law from God which required justice to be exercised among God’s people. They were required to advocate or defend what was right. God required his people to not only show justice within their exclusive community, but also to the aliens living among them. He also revealed himself as a God who hates injustice and oppression anywhere, everywhere at any time.


Under Roman law, a party to a trial in a Roman court could be assisted by a legal adviser, his (Latin) advocatus, from which we get the English word ‘advocate’. In the Greek it is parakletos. The advocatus or parakletos was something akin to today’s lawyer. It literally means ‘one called alongside (to help)’. This term signified anyone who assisted in the conduct of a case – the ‘counsel for the defence’ in a legal context. It means a person who intercedes on behalf of somebody else.

Jesus has revealed himself as our Advocate. When we are most powerless, he comes and defends our cause (Romans 8:34, 1 John 2:1). He speaks for us, stands up for us and advocates for us.


This is where we as the church come into the equation. In Matthew 5:13-16 Jesus used the terms ‘salt and light’ to describe the influence he required his people to exert in the world.

Through these terms (salt and light) Jesus taught that Christians can influence non-Christian society. Before the days of refrigeration, salt was the best known preservative. Either it was rubbed into fish or meat, or they were left to soak in it. In this way bacterial decay was retarded. Light is more obviously effective – when the light is switched on the darkness is dispelled. Jesus’ point is clear: Christians can hinder social decay and dispel the darkness of evil.

We often bemoan the world’s deteriorating standards. We say, ‘Our nation is going down the drain morally and spiritually!’ But whose fault is it? Who is to blame?

As John Stott wrote:

If the house is dark when the sun goes down, there is no sense blaming the house. The question is, “Where is the light?” Similarly, if meat goes bad and becomes inedible, there is no sense blaming the meat. The question is, “Where is the salt?” If society deteriorates and standards decline until it all becomes dark and stinks like rotten fish, there is no sense blaming society. This is what happens when fallen people are left to themselves. The question is: “Where is the church?” Why are the salt and light of Jesus Christ not permeating and changing our society?

The Lord Jesus told us to be the world’s salt and light. We must advocate for right or for as it should be.

Importantly, if we are to be advocates I would suggest a few practical points:

(1)  Know what you’re talking aboutDon’t be emotive, but be informed and know why you stand for or against a particular issue. Understand the debate, the actual issues and other’s point of view. Read and study Scripture to understand your position.

(2)  Be compassionate. Don’t speak out of anger, but from genuine love and compassion.

(3)  Speak from your own experienceShare your own experiences and pain.

(4)  Don’t be hypocritical. We must live an authentically Christian life with transparency and integrity, otherwise we discredit our voice and undermine our argument.

(5)  Don’t conform to political correctness. At times, we may feel so overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the issues we face. We may feel so insignificant. We may feel like just a house wife, just an office worker, just a labourer, or just a student, but we are, in fact, a child of God. We are salt and light.


What is missions? Here is a working definition: Missions is any activity in which Christians are involved in reaching lost people of other cultures or ethnicities that may involve crossing cultural or international boundaries.

To really understand missions we need to re-examine the Great Commission which is found in Matthew 28:18-20. Let’s highlight and examine some of the key words.

All authority…

The first thing Jesus highlighted was his authority. Jesus said that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him to extend God’s kingdom. He has transferred, delegated and entrusted this authority to us, his representatives. Therefore we are to obey! But what are we empowered to do?

… go and make disciples …

The two words that are the key to understand this whole passage are ‘make disciples’. The other commands: ‘Go…baptise…teach’ all flow out of the central command to ‘make disciples’. This was Jesus’ brilliant blueprint to save the world: make disciples who would make disciples who would make disciples…until he returned. For some inexplicable reason the church has largely ignored this imperative.

…teaching them to obey …

We are not just to evangelise. We are to make disciples who obey the commands of Jesus. We are not just to teach. Jesus clearly told us to teach them to obey his words (see John 14:15; 23-24).

…to the nations …

Something that is not immediately obvious about the Great Commission is who we are to go to. Of course, we have to try and reach every single person on the planet, but Jesus gave us a clue as to the strategy when he said ‘… to the nations’. This point is critical to the remainder of our journey.

For most of us the word ‘nations’ means ‘countries’, but in the original Greek – the language the new testament was written in – the word ‘ethne’ is used. Ethne is where the English word ‘ethnic group’ comes from.

How is this significant? About 100 years ago, missionaries got together and discussed whether or not the Great Commission had been fulfilled. After all, they thought, the Gospel had by then reached all the countries in the world. Further study brought out Jesus’ intention of ‘all ethnic groups’, and upon further investigation, it was found that the Gospel had not reached all these groups – not even close.

Application for today:

Today, there are more than 16,000 distinct ethnic groups on earth. For simplicity, let’s refer to them as ‘people groups.’ Of these 16,000, at least 6000 are counted as ‘unreached’ or ‘least-reached.’ This means that a person living in one of those groups will probably never encounter anyone who will be able to explain about Jesus in a language they understand clearly.

Here’s the shocker: added together, such people add up to over 2.7 billion individuals, or about a third of earth’s population!

Is the objective of reaching all people groups attainable? 

Today the mission’s task force consists of approximately 4,000,000 congregations and 600,000,000 believers. That is: 580 churches for one unreached people group!

Here’s another amazing statistic that fuels the belief we can do it.

This is a chart showing the ratio of non-believers to Christians from the 1st century.

AD 100      360 – 1

AD 1000   270 – 1

AD 1500    85 – 1

AD 1900    40 – 1

AD 1950    30 – 1

AD 1980    15 – 1

AD 2010    7 – 1

We are living in the first generation that can effectively fulfil the Great Commission within our lifetime. We can be God’s co-workers in this (2 Cor. 6:1).

Before the end comes, the Great Commission has to be completed. Jesus said, “And this Gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world as a testimony to all the nationsand then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14; also see Rev. 5:9; 7:9). Not only did Jesus give us the commission to go to every nation (ethnic group), he also said that it is a prerequisite that we do it before he comes again, but he also shows us that it will happen!

‘Regular’ verses ‘Frontier’ Missions

Having said that, let’s get a little technical so we can understand a few things about missions.

For the most part, the church worldwide is doing a good job of reaching people in its immediate vicinity. But Jesus’ Great Commission tells us that we are not to limit ourselves in this way, but are to seek out all these ethnic groups, and bring the gospel to them.

We can see that Paul had this vision when he wrote: “And in this way I desire to preach where Christ has not been named, so as not to build on another person’s foundation, but as it is written: ‘Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand'”. (Rom 15:20-21)

Experts on Mission have identified two kinds of mission work: ‘Regular’ and ‘Frontier’ missions.

Regular Missions are when workers bring the Gospel to people groups (nations) where there is already a substantial Gospel presence. This is necessary, because in many nations the Gospel is not strong yet.

Frontier Missions happen when workers take the Gospel to people groups who do not yet have it.

Astonishingly, less than 1% of mission’s funds go to this kind of work. Yet this is exactly where it is needed in order to fulfil the Great Commission! We need to complete the task Jesus gave us!

Let’s come back to our original question: ‘What on earth is missions?’ We’re going to answer that question by posing another question: ‘What missions is not?’

• Missions is not just evangelism

‘Evangelism’ is when a Christian or Christians explain the Gospel to unbelievers, and help them to start following Christ. Missions includes evangelism, but is much wider. The ultimate aim of missions is to establish a Gospel witness among people groups where there was none before.

Missions often includes living with the people, learning their language and culture to understand how best to:

  • Present the Gospel to them
  • Translate the Bible
  • Evangelise
  • Baptise
  • Disciple
  • Establish churches
  • Raise up local leaders from among the people so that the churches can be self-sustaining
  • Set up bible schools and much more.

Effectively reaching a people group takes much more than just evangelism!

• Missions is not just caring for orphans and for humanitarian aid

The vast majority of funds today for ‘missions’ goes to different forms of humanitarian aid, leaving relatively little available for church planting or ‘frontier’ missions.

There’s nothing wrong with humanitarian aid, relief and development. It is important because good news and good works are inseparable. The Gospel has social implications. True mission must be incarnational. It is Christian to care. The Bible clearly states that we should look after widows and orphans in their distress.

Meeting people’s physical and material needs is a way to demonstrate the Gospel. We should do all those things, but not to the exclusion or in priority over fulfilling the Great Commission. In other words, we should do all we can to alleviate human suffering, but prioritise and emphasise the eternal destiny of those who have never heard about Jesus.

• Mission was not an afterthought?

Some consider the Great Commission as like Jesus’ ‘famous last words?’ They portray it as if Jesus said, ‘Oh, yes, by the way, I almost forgot, I just have to tell you this last thing before I go…’

Jesus repeated the Great Commission on a number of occasions, even wording it differently to make it clearer (see Mark 16:15; Luke 24:47; John 17:18; 20:21).

Jesus’ true ‘famous last words’ are found in Acts 1:8 where Jesus envisages the Gospel going out from each church in concentric circles …

  • ‘Jerusalem’ best represents our church’s immediate location
  • ‘Judea’ speaks of the neighbourhoods around us
  • ‘Samaria’ signifies people further away including people of a different culture that may be living in our vicinity
  • ‘Ends of the earth’ indicates LRP’s or those of a different culture.

It is important to note that Acts 1:8 does not talk about incremental steps of progression of the Gospel, but an inclusive ‘both’. The word ‘both’ appears in the original Greek. The implication is that we should not first finish evangelism in our area before venturing out further afield. We are to engage in all of them at the same time.

So to answer the question: ‘Was the Great Commission just an afterthought’ we say a loud and resounding ‘NO!’

No, missions was not an afterthought; it was Jesus’ master plan to reach a lost world. Missions is how this redemptive work of the cross was to be made known among humankind in all their people groups. It is as relevant to today’s church as it was to the disciples who heard him say it.

Now to a huge question with far-reaching implications: Can those who have never heard of Jesus be saved?

Many Christians have never really thought about what will happen to people who never hear the Gospel in their lifetime.

A lot of Christian people believe that the unreached can be saved by knowing about God through what theologians call ‘General Revelation’.

What is General Revelation? In short, it is the belief that God has revealed himself to all people, at all times and in all places. This divinely given revelation has been made available to humankind since its creation through two primary ways:

(1) Creation (Romans 1:18-20 & Psalm 19). The rationale of this view-point says that the universe, stars, mountains, oceans, flora, fauna, and the intricacy of the human body all stand as evidence of God’s existence as Creator. They testify that there is a God. The Creation leads people to ask: ‘Where did all this come from? Is there a God who created all this?’

(2) Conscience (Romans 2:14-16). Some argue that one of the ways God has revealed himself is through the conscience he has created within every human being. This faculty is like an internal regulator (adjudicator) which gives us a sense of right from wrong. Our conscience leads to the question: ‘What is the basis for right or wrong, law or order? Is there a Creator God who built a moral code within us?’

So, the argument runs, as long as someone has responded to whatever revelation they have had of ‘God’ – whether in nature, conscience or in their own religion – then it’s OK. The blood of Jesus was shed to purchase all people.

But this train of thought undermines people’s commitment to missions because the logical conclusion of this thinking is that if people can be saved through General Revelation, why go to all the trouble of going to tell them about Jesus?

On the contrary, we are compelled to tell people about Jesus and his Gospel. We must remember a few key Scriptures that reveal we do, in fact, have a responsibility to tell those who have never heard about Jesus:

  • Jesus said, (John 14:6) ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’
  • Peter boldly declared (Acts 4:12): ‘Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to me by which we must be saved.’
  • Paul wrote in Rom. 10:13-14: ‘“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”(14). But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?’

We have a job to do, a commission to fulfil. We are called and compelled to take the message of Jesus Christ to those who do not yet know him.

While not everyone has been given a grace and capacity from God to serve as a missionary, we all have a part to play in missions. In this last article of the What on Earth is Missions? series, we’ll explore what we can do.


A first thing we can do about missions is pray. Prayer is powerful. Prayer changes things. Prayer makes a difference.

What should we pray for in regards to missions? Here are some ideas from Scripture:

  • Pray for more workers in ministry, especially cross-cultural ministry (Matt. 9:37-38).
  • Pray for the missionaries you know of and support (Eph. 6:19-20).
  • Pray for the Least Reached People groups.
  • Pray for the political scene in the nations that are on your heart and especially where there are missionaries (1 Tim. 2:1-2).
  • Pray for a great outpouring of the Holy Spirit.


A second way to be involved in global missions is to give generously and sacrificially. Most missionaries have two big needs – more prayer and more money. The vast majority of missionaries are completely dependent on faithful friends, churches and businesses to support them as they pull up roots in their home countries and sow their lives into an unreached land. They sacrifice so much, so why should they have to keep worrying about where their money will come from? Let’s get behind them, support them and provide for their needs. In this way, we can empower them to get on with their ministry.

Our tithe belongs to our local church first and foremost, but our offerings (which are above and beyond our tithe) can be allocated to where God leads us. Missions is a great place to give our offerings.

3. GO

A third response to the global missions challenge is to go ourselves. There are a number of ways in which we can go:

A.    Short-term teams

This will expose you to other cultures (dress, food, climate, sleeping arrangements) while giving you a taste of what it’s like on the field. Your life will change. Even if you’re not sure whether God has called you to be a missionary or not, a short-term team is a great way to “test” what is happening in your heart.

B.    Tentmakers

This is a term we draw from Paul who was a tentmaker by trade (Acts 18:3). On his missionary journey Paul arrived at the city of Corinth where he self-financed his ministry through the use of his skills. If you have a trade or profession you may like to consider a short-term investment of your time and skills to the developing world. While there, you could be involved in kingdom work.

C.   Missionary

For some, God may call you to be a missionary, which means giving your life to serve another people group in another country. If God is stirring your heart to go as a missionary then please go and speak with your Pastor and seek his/her advice about the preparatory steps.


Missionaries are real people doing a real work for God in real places. There is so much more we can do for them aside from prayer and giving. Let’s see ourselves as part of their supporting network. Here are some ideas:

  • Find out about them and their needs.
  • Send them birthday and Christmas cards and gifts.
  • Randomly send goodies.
  • Volunteer to look after missionaries when they are on home assignment, either resting or seeking to raise funds.
  • If you get a word of encouragement or prophecy, feel free to email it to them.
  • Read their newsletters to discover how God is using them there.


Another way to be involved in missions is to adopt one of the 6000 Least Reached People groups. Identify one you may have heard or know about. A great reference is the website www.joshuaproject.net. Do research on them. Link up with a mission agency or ministry that is seeking to reach them. Intercede fervently and passionately for them.


Most modern nations have many migrant groups. Perhaps there are Least Reached Peoples in your own community that can be reached? Do some research into the local cultural (ethnic) groups in your neighbourhood. Befriend them. Greet them in the street or at the shopping centre. Learn a few words in their language as a greeting. Attend their cultural festivals. Invite them to your home. Learn about their culture. Invite them to church when the time is right. Do some reading about their religion or belief so you get sound advice on how to present the gospel in a relevant and non-offensive way.


Your Pastor is God’s gift to you and your church. God will speak to your shepherd about his plans and purposes for your church. Some people call this “vision”. We would hope your Pastor has a mission’s heart and vision. If so, please support them 100%. Support your pastor’s appeals for giving to missions and humanitarian crises. Pray for your pastor. Encourage him/her to go on a mission’s trip. Please attend mission’s prayer meetings.


What happens now if you want to know more about missions? There are many options, but we would suggest an excellent course called Kairos. Also, we encourage you to have a talk with your church’s mission’s director or Pastor.

Now it’s time for you to respond to God’s call to influence the world. Go and make a difference. The Lord be with you.


What On Earth Is Missions? is an interactive, discussion-based, easy-to-follow, 3-part DVD series designed for local church small groups. The goal of this series is to help Christian people understand the nature and challenge of missions through discussion and reflection.

In each DVD the presenter speaks for a few minutes before the DVD is paused for discussion. Leader’s Guides are available for download from the World Outreach website. They provide questions and ideas for discussion. Also available are Participant’s Guides for each member of the group so their thoughts can be recorded.

Each session can be as short or long as the leader and group desire. It is very flexible and designed to be practical. Once the DVD’s have been purchased and the guides are downloaded, the series is ready to go.

Contact the World Outreach International office to order your copy of the DVD series.

Bruce has been in Christian ministry since 1984 and brings a wealth of experience and wisdom. He is known and respected around Australia for his prophetic and insightful preaching. One well-known Christian leader in Asia described him as having the “precision of a teacher, but the fire of a prophet”. For nine years (2000 – 2009), Bruce pastored one of Australia’s largest churches. He currently serves as the International Leadership Development Director for World Outreach International. Bruce is married to Fiona and has three grown children. They are based in Melbourne, Australia.

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