The language that dominates the theology of mission today features a hierarchy or an order of status describing its very essence. All the terms are derived from the Latin word missio (roughly translated “sent”) and are used to convey the concept rooted in the biblica l Greek term apostello. At the top is Missio Dei. This is followed by mission and missional in the middle. At the bottom, and considered by some to be a relic from the past, is missions.
This reality raises a couple of questions: “Are all these terms really needed? Are there distinctions to be communicated by the different terms?”
As to the distinctions they convey, Missio Dei literally means “mission of God,” and includes everything that God is doing in the world to achieve His purposes. He is sovereign over all and all that He does in the world, either directly or through His agents, is apart of Missio Dei.
The part of the Missio Dei that is undertaken by the Church in all of its variety is reflected in the word mission—the mission of the Church, and all it is to do in the world. Missional is a much more recent adaptation of the term to distinguish the outward or other-focus of the Church’s mission from all that the Church does to teach, care for, and minister to its own.
While some may see it as a vestige of the colonial past, or a “From the West to the Rest” approach to mission, missions is actually about that part of the mission of the Church that seeks to cross cultural, religious, and ethnic boundaries to introduce and further the work of the gospel.
In addition, establishing churches among those people groups and communities where Christ is least known has been distinguished over the last several decades as what frontier missions is all about.
As to whether all these terms are really needed, each one has a particularly important emphasis, even though each overlaps or encompasses at least some of what the others convey. So they are all interrelated, but, to the extent that they are properly understood, each term serves a useful purpose. The problems arise when the terms are used in exclusive ways for which they aren’t adequate.
To say, for example, either that the Missio Dei and the mission of the Church are synonymous, or that the mission of the Church is all that one needs to focus on or be concerned about, runs the risk of defining everything as mission.
As historian Stephen Neill once pointed out, “If everything is missions, nothing is missions.”
Neill might have been even more correct had he said, “If everything is missions, cross-cultural missions is not far from extinction.” The reason is that squeaky wheels receive all the attention, but even squeaky wheels that are far away are rarely heard.
Human nature is very predictable when it comes to setting priorities. The things that affect us most intimately—the welfare of our family and friends and the welfare of our community and country—are always going to receive first dibs on our attention. It takes a major adjustment to our mental and spiritual orientation for us to add a focus on geographically or culturally-distant people living and dying without the gospel.
If people(s) and places are outside our orbit of first-hand relationships, then it takes a lot of information and inspiration to get us to really care. And if a missions emphasis focusing on those outside of our own language or culture is not a significant part of the burden and teaching of local churches and their members, it will almost always be ignored. Without an intentional emphasis, the needs across the street will tend to crowd out the needs across the world.
So rather than limiting ourselves to one or two generalized terms related to mission, or using generalized substitutes words like ‘outreach’, it really is important to be precise in what we are talking about.
Missio Dei is about all that God does in the world. Mission is about all that the Church/churches do in the world. Missional is about what the Church/churches do to reach out beyond themselves. And missions is about crossing cultural and language boundaries with the gospel to minister to those with limited/least access to it. Without a special emphasis on missions, the unreached and the least-reached will likely stay that way far longer than they should.