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The Great Debate Surrounding the Great Commission: Making Sense of Missions vs. Missional

I’ve been musing on the apparent tension between global and local mission endeavors during most of my adult life. I was that home-grown kid from the heartland of America that had my world rocked by the opportunity to live into my sent-ness in my early twenties. That was when my wife and I were sent by our church in Ohio to join a disciple-making team in the world-class city of London with Encompass World Partners. All of a sudden my provincial Midwestern upbringing and the values that it represented seemed out of place with a world that needed Jesus. A world I could see from the window of a small flat in the heart of the world’s most ethnically diverse city.

This journey started for me when the word missional was just beginning to gain traction among evangelical churches in America. I can remember long London bus rides lasting what seems like a few minutes thanks to books like The Shaping of Things to Come by Hirsch and Frost. It seemed as though I had some fellow journeymen who were helping me understand the new orientation I was seeking to live out in my overseas missions experience. The ironic thing was I arrived there with a burning heart for sharing the life-transforming work of Jesus and very little understanding of a church history that had been shaped over a century of what has been called the modern missions movement.

The missional conversation and framework seemed to make sense as I thought about how I could take these new discoveries back to “the heart of it all” (The Ohio State Motto). However, by that time I found myself in the crosshairs of a growing debate, where global missions leaders seemed to be digging in while the missional voices spoke loudly to the need for living sent in our communities of origin. It wasn’t adding up to me at the time because it seemed as if each was reading off the same sheet music but in a different key as one attempted to sing louder than the other.

Feeling this tension, I was staying close to the Great Debate that was unfolding. Many of my friends would come to me to learn about the latest tidbit of news from the blogosphere while I continued to live out the Great Commission. Yes, the debate has since died down, and thankfully my listening ear along with it, as I sought to live in the tension. However, what I didn’t realize then that I now see in hindsight, is how much of the debate seems to be about the allocation of resources and semantics. Oh, how we need balance in our efforts to make disciples in our local communities and among the nations that are still unreached. Time passed and things seemed to settle down when Ed Stetzer shared some words of wisdom in his article Missions vs. Missional? Why We Really Need Both.

From the outside looking in it seems as though missional is simply an adjective that describes the noun mission—or better yet—the adverb of missions, giving it action. But on closer look the enterprise that has grown up around the sending of missionaries has become synonymous with the word Missions (don’t forget the S). In the effort to describe or distinguish itself, missions organizations and local churches—without ill intent—had semantically reduced the mission of making disciples of all nations to the sending of what have become known as missionaries. Dissenting Missional voices disagreed and sought to reclaim the Great Commission away from those that were crossing an ocean, learning a language, and contextualizing the gospel in another culture, and back into the hands of the everyday followers of Jesus.

It was in this context that the missional voice joined the chorus and called the church back to the heart of mission. Some of it’s own authors like Hugh Halter wrote books such as The Tangible Kingdom and And, referencing great missiological thinkers like Ralph Winter and Leslie Newbigin, and all seemed to be at peace again. However, this voice sought a community of followers all its own and today it is its own enterprise with conferences, curriculums, and hashtags (#missional).

The great debate continues over the great commission, which is why Stetzer’s article was so refreshing. Like a voice in the wilderness, like a well in the desert, it was helping me make sense out of the apparent tension I’ve been living in all these years. I guess I’m a slow learner because it’s taken me some time to understand these lessons and yet it still feels like I have miles to go in this marathon.

How can we make sense of it all and live with balance in the tension? Here’s what I’m learning…

  1. I’m learning to embrace the tension
    Great Commission gains are spiritual endeavors that come through spirit led efforts to build up and not tear down the church that Christ died for. Embracing the tension means that as His disciples we are commanded and called to live sent and to send, both locally and globally (John 20:21, Acts 1:8). We need both voices and we need balance.
  2. I’m learning to live out of my identity in Jesus
    My identity as a disciple should be firmly in the person and work of Jesus (Galatians 2:20). My role in the body of Christ, not even the title missionary, should come ahead of my identity in Christ (Romans 12:3-8).
  3. I’m learning to love my neighbor as myself
    Mother Teresa’s words, “not all of us can do great things, but all of us can do small things with great love,” continue to capture my heart.  Western values keep us dreaming about making a difference in the world and doing great things for God, but Jesus keeps it simple and redirected the questions of who’s my neighbor, following the Great Commandment, to the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).

My friends and fellow learners let’s embrace the tension, let’s live out of our identity in Jesus, and let’s love our neighbors as ourselves. Let’s do it both locally and globally so the name of Jesus will be known in our communities and to the very ends of the earth. Let’s do it as disciples of Jesus that are living sent and let’s be a part of sending. Let’s end the great debate with the way we live out the great commission.

John Ward is the Director of Mobilization at Encompass World Partners. He is part of a team seeking to mobilize and equip people and churches who are following Jesus into the missional work he’s doing to make disciples of all nations.