Mission(al): what’s in a name?


When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. “They’ve a temper, some of them – particularly verbs, they’re the proudest – adjectives you do anything with, but not verbs – however, I can manage the whole lot them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”

“Would you tell me, please,” said Alice, “what that means?”

Humpty Dumpty gave a lengthy explanation of what he meant by the word.

“That’s a great deal to make one word mean,” Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

“When I make a word do a lot of work like that,” said Humpty Dumpty, “I always pay it extra.”

 The word “mission” should be paid extra for all the things we make it mean today. In the last few years “mission” has included everything that the Church does, from cross-cultural evangelism to litter-picking or campaigning on social justice  issues. It has Biblical roots going back to Jesus “sending” (the root of the Latin term missio) his disciples after the resurrection: “as the Father sent me, so I am sending you” (John 20:21). So I think we should retain the word, and its related adjective “missional”.

But given the confusion about what should or should not be called “mission”,  a look at the word’s definition and scope  is overdue.

Mission is not just for “missionaries”

Because the words of Jesus “as the Father sent me, so I am sending you” are followed by him “breathing on them” and saying “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:21-22), this moment has been called John’s version of Luke’s Day of Pentecost – the giving of the Holy Spirit to empower us to share the good news of his kingdom. All who follow Jesus are sent (commissioned) by Jesus.

Whilst we recognise the particular calling of some to leave home and share the good news in other nations, it is clear that it is not just those we call “missionaries” who are sent to do mission. We are all missionaries, the moment we receive Christ, his Spirit, and his Commission to “make disciples of all people”. Mission is not just for those labelled “missionaries”.

Mission is not unchanging

The word “missional” in particular has been in vogue in some church circles over the last 20 years or so. It reflects a rediscovery, to some extent, that the way in which churches reach out to their culture needs to be flexible and sensitive to that culture.


One of the spurs to this impetus was the British theologian Lesslie Newbigin, who spent 30 years in cross-cultural mission in a non-Christian culture (India). He was shocked to return to Britain in 1980 and find that in that period, this country had effectively become non-christian too, and the Church was still operating as if everyone around shared Christian belief, and was not ready for mission. His books “The Gospel in a Pluralist Society” and “The Open Secret: an introduction to the theology of mission” remain key to the modern interest in mission in the West today.

The missional movement has rightly identified that in the West today the ordinary person does not any longer give the Church much attention, look to the Church in time of need, or know much at all about the Bible story. We cannot simply keep “doing” church the way we did 30 years ago. We have moved (as Tim Keller from Manhattan is fond of putting it) from doing mission in Acts 2 (Scripturally-influenced Jerusalem) to Acts 17 (pagan Athens). Mission needs to change the shape of Church life to reach each generation that comes along in our culture.

In recent years this has meant realising that churches will connect more with our culture if we do not simply repeat what we believe to the world around us, but demonstrate the difference faith makes in life; if we send disciples out into the culture and don’t just expect people to come to church uninvited; if we speak not only about what we believe but the difference faith makes in life; if we recognise that coming to faith is not just an event but a journey of exploration.

Missional churches show the people around them a community that is both connected with their culture (speaking their language instead of religious jargon, for instance) and  counter to that culture when it comes to issues of money, sex and power. Missional churches  have doctrines which we believe, but we are also respectful towards those who those who differ from us. All of this is somewhat different from 50 or even 30 years ago. So mission is not unchanging.

Mission(al) is not new

When I read some of the writings of “missional” church leaders I get the impression that they think mission started with them. Everything that came before was hidebound, inwardly-focussed, formal, and aimed only at those who were already Christians.

In fact, of course, the Church has been missionary over the entire 20 centuries since the Great Commission of Jesus to “make disciples” (Matthew 28:16-20) and the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2)! How else did the good news of Christ reach the shores of Britain 1500 years ago and become surely THE dominant cultural and spiritual influence over the succeeding years? Are we saying that the apostles, and Augustine of Canterbury, and Patrick and Columba, and George Whitefield and John Wesley, and Williams Booth and Wilberforce, Billy Sunday and Billy Graham, and a million other evangelists, leaders and church planters, had no missional heart? Certainly every one of these found a different way to communicate the good news in their generation, but communicate it they did.

Mission has always been the energy of the Church, and we simply need to discern what shape it should take in each generation.

Nor, for that matter, are many of the concerns of the modern “missional church” movement new either. The existential search for meaning and relationship (often described as one of the things a missional church will seek to address) has been the search of human beings since Augustine of Hippo’s famous line in his Confessions “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee” – and long before him. We all need love and hope, whether we are young “millenials” or middle-aged; we always have done, and the mission of God has always brought those things to the needy. Mission and its need is not new!

In following posts on Mission we will look further at “missional” thinking, and in a culture of “mission statements”, we will ask the key question “Whose mission is it anyway?”

(An adapted version of a post on the website of Christ Church Cockfosters.)


Published by


Rector of Holy Trinity, Norwich, since Sept 2017, writing on pastoring, preaching, resourcing discipleship, and apologetics/philosophy.

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