Defining missions today

We have received some great questions for our mentoring panel – who in turn have responded with great answers. 

Nowadays, the term “missionary” conjures up a wide range of different images and definitions. I read a young Christian writer’s self-confessed perception in a magazine recently, “I used to have this image of female missionaries being in long flowing skirts and having a bad hair-do. They were people who had big faith, little money, lived in wooden stilt homes and were willing to pay huge costs for the Lord”.

While this is now a largely eradicated stereotype (although the scenario may also be true in many cases!), there still lingers a “specialness” mystery around those who are “on the field” serving in a culture and country other than their own. In the same way that some old stereotypes are being dissolved, so too has the traditional definition of “missions” it seems.

Is being missional in your own commitment to societal transformation enough or is it a cop-out from participation in global evangelisation? Has globilisation changed the meaning and outworking of missions for the next generation whose nations receive thousands of foreign migrants each year? Are those who are “sent” by historical missionary-sending nations a special (or dying) breed as reports of revivals and mission-movements sweeping the developing world increase?

Thanks for submitting various questions around these issues. We draw on the wisdom of Henry V, Jo Graham, John Elliott and Max Chismon (men who have collectively had their sleeves rolled up in mission service for over 90 years!) to give us some clearer insights.


Are missionaries who “go abroad” more obedient christians?

On obedience:

Henry V: Obedience depends on what a person’s calling is.  Someone going as a missionary, but has not been called, can also be disobedient. Not everyone is called by an audible voice from God as Paul was.  Too many people use this as a cop-out! I’m so glad I wasn’t called like that, as people with such a clear calling are usually called to suffer as much as Paul did! Nehemiah was called when he saw a need. In Isaiah 6:8 we see that he volunteered; surely there were others present who remained quiet when he said, “here am I, send me!” Some realise that it’s not fair that only some people get to hear the Gospel and others not; some, like myself, “desire to preach where Christ has not been named” (Rom 15:20). Others are called when they read Matthew 28:19 – here Jesus calls all believers!

John Elliott: Obedience is huge! Scripture (1 Samuel 15:22) says the Lord seeks this more than sacrifice. This means that the Lord looks for obedience from all believers. We are all called by God whether we serve Him at home or abroad. Those obeying His call to go to foreign shores will experience His grace as much as those obeying His call to make Him known on the home front.

What is the difference between “missions” and “being missional”?

Henry V: The meaning of the word “missions” seems to have been re-defined and broadened to the point where it has lost some of its power. So let’s rather talk again about “making disciples”. After all, the word “missional” does not even appear in the Bible!  But the words “go and make disciples” are there! (Matt 28:19).  We can and should be making disciples right where we are, but Jesus called His Church to take it further – “… to ALL nations.”  The Greek word translated “nations” is ethné, from which our word “ethnic group” comes from. He wants to be represented among all ethnic groups (Rev 5:9; 7:9). In fact, in His own words, it is a pre-requisite for his second coming!  (Matt 24:14).  There are still 7,275 such groups remaining (www.joshuaproject.net).  Let’s go tell them!

Jo Graham: “Missional” is not the adjective that is derived from “missions” in the sense that we use it. We use “missions” to mean cross-cultural ministry; “missional” is normally used by western churches to refer to a church that is not self-obsessed but reaches out into the local community and is proactive in E-1(near-neighbour/same-culture) evangelism. This is great, but nothing to do with making disciples of unreached peoples, and unfortunately, when some churches say, “we must be missional” they confuse outreach into the local community with cross-cultural ministry, putting them both into the same pot (and the same budget). The result is that the focus goes off cross-cultural ministry.

John Elliott: Certain terminology has a definite “use by date”. Globalisation has put paid to many such terms. With massive migration during the past 20-30 years, many former “reached” (with the Gospel) developed nations are now considered “unreached” because of the large migrant non-Christian communities within them. Therefore today, to be missional has to mean being aware of the opportunities to share the Good News with non-Christian communities – whether in my home country or abroad. The term “mission” has traditionally related to leaving one’s country to go and serve in an overseas cross-cultural environment. However, the end result of mission activity, whether at “home” or “abroad”, must be the same, i.e. the making of disciples of Jesus Christ.

Max Chismon: Mission is different from missions. Mission is the purpose of God of gathering out of the world, and all the nations of the world, a people for His name, through His chosen people – the Church. Therefore everyone should be missional! Missions (with an s) are the activities we engage in (according to our giftings, opportunities and leading of the Holy Spirit) that fulfills mission!

The Church is missional because God is. In fact, God has been on mission from the beginning. He sent Abraham on mission. He sent Jesus on mission and Jesus said, “as the Father has sent me, (on mission) so I send you” (on mission). It’s sad we have to talk about missional discipleship today or missional churches. It’s like talking about a “female woman”! Is there any other type of woman? Is there really any other type of disciple/church?

Mission therefore covers both same-culture and cross-culture. 2 Cor 5:18-20 sums it up well in saying we have been given the “ministry of reconciliation” – God is reconciling the world to himself in Christ and is making His appeal through us! So everything we do in reconciling people to Christ is missions! We must however distinguish between same-culture mission and cross-culture mission in order to reconcile both the unsaved (in reached people groups) and the unreached (plant churches in unreached people groups)! If we don’t, the unreached will get by-passed. Agencies are still needed but they have to adjust to changing situations or they quickly become irrelevant!

Has missions and the role of the West changed in missions today?

Henry V: Missions has changed, and is changing.  We as believers should not be dividing the world into “western” and “non-western” – better we talk of “believers” and “pre-believers!” Western countries used to send most of the missionaries, but this is changing rapidly to Asia and the global South. I feel sad for Christians who are too comfortable to go to the uncomfortable places where the Gospel is needed so much.  We are exchanging eternal blessings for temporal blessing, but God in his grace is giving them another opportunity by sending the unreached groups to them. Unreached migrants from very difficult-to-reach places are moving all over the globe to get work, right onto the doorstep of the Church. We should wake up and reach them!

Jo Graham: Yes, massively and in too many ways to do justice in a few words. Let me highlight just one area of change. Last weekend I was with a couple who were missionaries in Africa, recognised and sent out as traditional missionaries, living on a mission compound, having little contact with non-Christians and zero contact with people of unreached ethnic groups. Now they are back in their “sending country” and are no longer recognised as missionaries, but they have chosen to live in an almost entirely Muslim neighbourhood, where their children are the only white kids in their classes. They are building loving, redemptive relationships and sharing the Gospel among these people. That is one face of 21st century missions.

John Elliott: Most definitely! For more than 40 years the growth of Christianity has been greatest among non-western nations. By 2020 China is predicted to have sent out more missionaries than any other nation. Unless western churches and mission organisations are willing to learn and change, many will become irrelevant in their mission endeavours. Surely one role of the West is to find out how it can partner with what the Holy Spirit is doing in the non-West, without trying to control or own it. Practical support through training and finance to non-western initiatives among unreached ethnic communities in western nations is one way to get a great return of resource investment. As for foreign mission initiatives, the Church in the West needs to learn to observe, ask questions, and seek advice about how they can best serve and partner in cross-cultural initiatives, from ministries that are already successfully doing it.

Max Chismon: Local churches (where, I suppose, between 80% to 90% of all believers have an association), know missions as a departmentalised activity – assigned to a select few missionary professionals! Actually, all outreach is mission and all outreach is evangelism. We create a special class of workers and, in the minds of Christians, only these special workers can work cross-culturally! In today’s context of the world Christian movement, where globalisation is playing a huge part, we see the Church everywhere and we see the least-reached and the unsaved everywhere. Our mobilisation message needs to embrace this new context.

The most significant characteristic of world mission today is globalisation. Mission is from everywhere to everywhere! The Church exists on every continent and in every country and so do the unreached! The whole idea of missionary sending countries and missionary receiving countries no longer exists and what used to be the exclusive domain of the professional missionary, no longer is!

Henry and Betsy V served in Mozambique for 10 years among a Least Reached Muslim people group. Their passion is raising up and training people to work among those who have never heard the Gospel, especially Muslims.


Jo Graham and his wife Jenny, have been church planting for 25 years. Now they are based in Japan and are focused on mobilising churches and young people to make disciples of unreached nations, particularly in Central Asia. Together they have three adult children.  


John Elliott serves as the International Director of World Outreach International. WOI has more than 350 full-time personnel serving in over 60 nations on five continents. John heads an executive team of senior missionaries, pastors and a board of leaders who oversee the field personnel, various ministries and WOI bases around the world. John and his wife Mary have been serving in pastoral, leadership and mission related roles since 1977.


Max Chismon, together with his wife Dorothy, are New Zealand missionaries with WOI based in the Philippines. Together with their LSI team, they have been involved in a mobilisation ministry that has produced courses, seminars and programmes designed to mobilise the Church into meaningful ministry with special emphasis on reaching least-reached peoples. 

Post a Comment