Defining what Christian ‘mission’ means

Mark Earngey at Gafcon 2024

It’s possible though to be a little bit confused sometimes by the Bible’s mandate for mission,” Mark Earngey told the Gafcon Australia Conference meeting in Brisbane this week. “On the one hand, sometimes the use of the word mission can be applied too narrowly as this mission was only our sending of people overseas… On the other hand, the use of the word mission can be applied too broadly as well as if all we do is mission and that all good work such as humanitarian aid work or social justice work are the essence of mission. So we really must get our bearings about what Christian mission is from our head missionary Jesus Christ.”

Surprisingly, perhaps, Earney explained, there were three commissions from Jesus, not just one great one. He listed them.

• The most familiar one:” Matthew 28:18–20 All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
• Just before Jesus ascends: Acts 1:8 You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
• Before Jesus descends Luke 24:46–47 This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.

“So we pull these three strands of thought together according to Christ, what is the mission of his disciples?” Earngey asked. “Well, it’s
• one to preach repentance to forgiveness of sins through Christ.
• two to all the nations and
• three to see disciples baptised and taught to follow Christ.
Thus, the mission is more than the act of preaching the gospel and less than simply doing good works.”

A theology of the cross not one of glory: a warning about progressive theology

The mission is not marketing-led, Earngey points out. “Our missional endeavours ought to be marked by a theology of the cross rather than a theology of glory. That is to say, the cross was a scandal and a stumbling block to the Jews and Gentiles then, and the cross remains a scandal and a stumbling block to the world around us.

“Now it’s weak, it’s foolish in the eyes of many and yet it is strength, and it is glory in the eyes of his people, and it will characterise much of our missional endeavours to see disciples made for Christ’s humble mission. 

“So we must remain vigilant to have the branding of the cross seared upon our efforts rather than being fixated perhaps on the sorts of branding and marketing which we might be tempted into think will ensure cut through and give us undoubtedly the right optic success.”

Mission is also not simply works of mercy or social justice, said Earngey, warning against mission creep. “Creep is that thing which happens when a new project or mission expands beyond its original goals, often ending up in catastrophic failure. Sometimes, you might hear of it in the context of military missions, mission creep in Afghanistan and so forth. Sometimes, we hear it in the context of business and commercial endeavours. ‘As the project was affected by Mission Creek, that scope blew out.’

“The same could happen in the context of Christian missions. When Jesus gave the great commission to his followers to make, he emphasised the preaching of repentance. 

“So when, for instance, the Marks of Mission document written by the Anglican Communion Consultative Council prioritises transforming unjust structures and safeguarding creation, we must call this for what it’s egregious mission creep.

“These things could be good things, perhaps sometimes, but they are not best described as mission.”

A warning about evangelical churches

Earngey criticises the tendencies of conservative churches in addition to progressive ones.

“The second danger is missional capitulation. What I mean is this: many Christians, Western Christians, and churches are acutely conscious of their cultural moments of the secularism and materialism in which we live, in which God seems to be framed out, so to speak.

“The mistake is to feel so under siege that mission becomes an overriding principle that may dominate or distort other good things. We do that in the realms of theology, liturgy, and church practices. One manifestation of this is how some churches, under the guise of mission, capitulate to secular trends and compromise their theological positions. An obvious example is human sexuality. 

“Another manifestation of this, perhaps we evangelicals may be more prone to this, is the way in which church services could become acutely seeker-sensitive. I remember someone telling me that their church wouldn’t pray the Lord’s prayer or say a confession of sins in a service because the surfing culture around them wasn’t used to saying things together.” 

Image: Mark Earngey on the Gafcon 2024 Livestream,