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.
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.