Mission is proclaiming God’s kingship over all of human history, indeed over the entire cosmos (Col. 1:15-20). And the concern of mission is universal (Rev. 5:9-10). Christ’s mission aims at nothing less than completing what God began to do in creation and now extends to all peoples through the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Thus mission is the presence of God in the kingship of Jesus, who is Lord over all creation and culture.

Without a third affirmation these first two are potentially misleading. Mission is not the property of the church. It has too easily been domesticated within the church but we must remember that mission is never the church putting forth its own power and authority.

Open Secret Lesslie Newbigin is right when he says, “To accept

[such a] picture would be to sanction an appalling distortion of mission. On the contrary, the active agent of mission is a power that rules, guides and goes before the church; the free, sovereign, living power of the Spirit of God. Mission is not just something that the church does; it is something that is done by the Spirit, who is himself the witness, who changes both the world and the church, who always goes before the church in its missionary journey” (The Open Secret, 56).

The failure to see the central role the Holy Spirit has in mission is a fatal flaw in much thinking about evangelism and the church. The disciples were in danger of making this mistake in Acts 1 when they asked the question in verse 6 about the time for restoring the kingdom. The answer given is that mere mortals should not presume on God’s plan but trust in his patience. The answer given (verse 8) is important to grasp. The kingdom would not come in its entirety, in its final fullness, at least not in the age that followed Christ's ascension. What would be given was a gift, a foretaste, a pledge, a guarantee. That gift is the Holy Spirit. The disciples are not promised the full victory but a powerful advance installment of the reality of what has been promised in the final day. This promise comes on Pentecost. From this the church is launched on its mission. That mission remains to this day the mission of the Spirit.

Newbigin is again helpful:

“Mission is not essentially an action by which the church puts forth its own power and wisdom to conquer the world around it; it is, rather, an action of God, putting forth the power of his Spirit to bring forth the universal work of Christ for the salvation of the world nearer to its completion. . . . [Before Peter and Cornelius the church had been] “a kind of society different from what it was [enclosed within Israel] but now it became something radically different, a society that spanned the enormous gulf between Jew and pagan and was open to embrace all the nations that had been outside the covenant by which Israel lived” (The Open Secret, 60).

This means that the church is not in control of its mission. Nor is mission something we do. The Spirit is in control and his new works will regularly surprise the church. I believe this compels the church to stop talking and actively listen. I wonder if we are not nearing such a time in history again, at least in North America. I am weary of so much talk about our mission. I am watching for signs that the Spirit is leading us rather than our amazing new ideas and overly developed human programs.

This much I am sure of. The witness of the church is always derivative. The church is truly faithful to her witness when she obediently listens to the Spirit and follows wherever the Spirit leads. This conclusion is consistent with everything we read in the New Testament as well as in the subsequent history of mission through all ages since Pentecost.

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  1. Joe Schafer January 12, 2011 at 6:58 am

    One of the most helpful insights that I learned from Newbigin is that our primary mission is not to go out and convert the heathen but to be the church. A loving, Spirit-filled community with the risen Christ at its center is the most powerful and effective witness. This is what I see in Acts chapters 1 and 2. On the day of Pentecost, the apostles did not engage in a massive effort to gather a crowd and then preach the gospel to them. The crowd gathered spontaneously in response to the work of the Holy Spirit that was already going on in the church. Peter’s evangelistic message in Acts 2 was a direct answer to the non-believers’ questions.
    The Spirit does lead us at times to go out and preach the gospel. He does give us the gift of evangelism and the opportunity to use it. But if God’s primary goal is just to “get the message out,” he can do that far better on his own. A lot of damage is done when well-meaning Christians engage in misguided attempts to get the message out without stopping to listen, to learn, and to understand how the Spirit is leading.
    So, John, I agree with you. I think that many of us have developed a habit of telling ourselves that we are being led by the Spirit simply because our intentions are good, and because we can find some support for our activities in the Bible. Spirit-leading has become an assumption, not a reality. Then we march ahead with our own plans and programs, believing that they must be God’s will, not even knwing how to listen to the Spirit anymore. In the end, the ministries that we build become monuments and museums to ourselves.
    As a pastor of a small church, I would like to push my members to carry out my vision. But experience has shown me that this is a selfish endeavor, and it just doesn’t work. What I need to do now is to carefully listen to the Spirit and to help others to do so. But that’s easier said than done. Listening to the Spirit seems to be a lost art.
    I have heard it said that, at any time, there are three voices rattling around in our heads: the voice of God, the voice of the self, and the voice of the evil one. Distinguishing among these three is going to require us to really know God (i.e., knowing Christ) and to really know ourselves. Knowledge of the Bible is necessary but not sufficient. And we need to listen to other believers — to the communities of saints, past and present, and to the friends who know us and whom God has placed in our lives. I don’t think we can really be led by the Spirit very well unless we are able to really listen to other believers, especially those with whom we disagree. This is a hard lesson to learn.

  2. Rick Schnetz January 13, 2011 at 1:45 am

    I appreciate your comments !

  3. James Kim January 13, 2011 at 6:06 am

    “This means that the church is not in control of its mission. Nor is mission something we do. The Spirit is in control and his new works will regularly surprise the church. I believe this compels the church to stop talking and actively listen.” How true it is that we must actively listen to the word of God (so that the Holy Spirit may speak to us) and stop talking (or talk less). We have most underutilized anatomical organ, ear. The motto of Benedictin order is “Ausculta O Fili, Obedientia Sine Mora, Ora et Labora” The first thing to do is to listen. It is amazing in the Bible the word, “listen” or “hear” is found more than1,500 times. Leslie Newbegin has vision for the church based on John 12:32, “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself”. He said, “For the Cross of Christ is the place of expiation, a place where sin is forgiven— Here is the one and only center that has been given for the unity of humankind and thus the one object that can bind nations into unity without setting them at enmity with one another” This was his vision for the church. He also said, “The Church needs to be very humble in acknowledging that it is itself only a learner and it needs to pay heed to all the variety of human experience in order to learn in practice what it means that Jesus is the King and Head of the human race. But the church also needs to be very bold in bearing witness to him as the one who alone is that King and Head.” James K

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