In September, during Sunday school, someone asked me, “Why do we still do mission at all?” Ordinarily, I would be unsettled by such a question. Is not the case for mission self-evident, after all? I’m understanding, however, that perhaps that’s not true for many.
Why do we do mission? I answered with the words of Leonardo Boff in his book Ecclesiogenesis (1997): “God has a project.” That project, Boff observes, is being carried out in the course of human history. Furthermore, he says, God’s project is advanced by human agency. Ordinary people, however weak or flawed, are the instruments the Spirit uses to advance God’s purposes.
In an earlier life, I was satisfied with proof texts I understood and underscored the importance of mission. Weren’t Jesus’ last sayings a directive to be involved in the mission of announcing and inviting people into God’s reign?
More and more, however, I have become aware that respected biblical scholars are increasingly uncomfortable with the prooftexting method. This and approaching the Bible merely as a tool for devotions or spiritual formation is seen as an unwarranted, instrumentalist use of the Bible for predetermined ends. Instead, these scholars point to the whole Bible as the comprehensive though varied story of God reaching into human history to effect the restoration of the created order to its originally intended purpose and the reconciliation of God and the human family.
Convinced that this approach of imagining our place in God’s project within the entire narrative of Scripture has great merit, I discovered various witnesses who respond to the question about the continuing validity of mission through fresh recourse to the biblical text in its entirety.
The first witness comes to us through the voice of the renowned New Testament scholar Christopher Wright in his book The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (2006). His approach shows that the entire Bible is generated by and is all about God’s mission. The Bible, Wright contends, does not just contain texts that happen to provide a convincing rationale for the missionary endeavor of the church but is itself a “missional” phenomenon. Wright insists that the entire text must be from the perspective of God’s unfolding purpose in the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The second witness, James V. Brownson, in his book Speaking the Truth in Love: New Testament Resources for a Missional Hermeneutic (1998), adopts an approach that proceeds from an understanding of God’s missional purposes in the world. It builds on a basic observation about the New Testament: The early Christian movement that produced and canonized the New Testament was a movement with a specifically missionary character. Furthermore, he finds strong support for his approach in the cross-cultural dynamics of the early church’s missional encounters seen in its crossing cultural boundaries. Everywhere the church bears witness to and participates in God’s gracious activity in the world.
The third witness, Richard Bauckham in his book Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in A Postmodern World (2003), calls attention to the movement in the text from the particular to the universal. Where Wright focuses on the cosmic scope of the purposes of God, Bauckham understands that at the heart of the biblical narrative is a focus on God’s redemptive purposes on behalf of the human family. Foundational to these purposes is God’s identification with particular individuals or people in human history for the sake of becoming known by all.
The final witness, Francis Dubose in his book The God Who Sends (1983), upholds the idea of God’s apostolic purpose as indispensable and fundamental to understanding the Bible. Dubose provides copious biblical evidence to support his thesis that God’s self-revelation is that of a God who sends. Mission means sending. The climactic expression is sending Jesus into the world for the redemption of humanity. The church is created out of this missional purpose and is sent to witness to God’s redemptive concern for all people everywhere in the face of issues that affect their daily lives.
All four of these witnesses confirm that the God of the Old and New Testaments is a purposive God.
Together they make the claim that the Bible is the comprehensive though varied story of God reaching into human history to effect the restoration of the created order to its originally intended purpose and the reconciliation of God and the human family. The essence of the Christian church is constituted by God’s mission, for which it is formed and for which it exists.