Missions Is about More Than Just Reaching the Nations

One day in 2010, I woke up on the floor. Someone was trying to push a pencil between my clenched teeth. Moments before, I had been with friends enjoying dinner, including a memorable bowl of homemade peppermint ice cream. Suddenly, I was told, I had passed out, falling limply into the arms of the friend beside me. I had then begun to convulse and groan, appearing to have had a seizure. The bewildered party laid me on the living room floor and gathered round in a panic.

Afterward, I spent a week in an African hospital. They ran every test the doctor could think of. The results showed that the “seizure” actually hadn’t been a seizure at all. Physiologically, I was a mystery. Then I’ll never forget what happened next.

A wise nurse who knew me well sat down on the end of my hospital bed. She looked at me firmly and said, “Even though these tests seem to show that everything is healthy, you’re actually a very unhealthy young man. You’ve been living with dangerously high levels of stress and anxiety, and that’s likely what caused this. You don’t need a hospital; you need rest and counseling.”

Riding the Pine While Your Team Forges Ahead without You

I spent the next month visiting a Christian counselor almost daily. I was diagnosed with clinical depression. It was one of the lowest points of my entire life. And did I mention that all this happened in the middle of a church planting movement?

That’s right, while I was being forced to pry open the dead-bolted closets of my soul, back in my country of service my teammates were laboring among thousands of new believers. People were literally knocking on their doors and asking to hear the true story of God. The harvest was so ripe that I had helped plant a church within three months of my arrival. It was like life straight out of the Book of Acts.

And yet here I was, miles away, broken to pieces.

According to the formula of missions I had learned throughout my life, this pause for physical and emotional illness was an embarrassing blight on what otherwise would have been an ideal experience. It was not the kind of thing you wrote home to your sending church about. It was a detour—an unfortunate hindrance to the mission that needed to be overcome so that the mission could continue. The dollars that had been given sacrificially for me to be a full-time gospel witness were instead now paying for my mistakes. I nearly drowned in shame.

The Unspoken Assumption

The challenge of exposing the “formula” to which I referred is that it abides in underlying assumption. In other words, it is mostly unspoken because it is an omission. Yet I believe it is exposed well in a recent article ironically titled, “Dear Church, Missions is Not for Your Own Discipleship.” There the author provides this clear definition of missions:

Missions as a whole is the endeavor to glorify God by obeying the Great Commission by crossing cultures and language to make disciples of all nations.

I’m sure almost no one would have a problem with that definition. It orients missions around the glory of God. It is obviously rooted in the Scriptures. It even emphasizes the missiological presupposition of crossing ethnolinguistic boundaries. I agree with it heartily. But what’s missing?

Perhaps it’s just the PTSD of falling apart as a missionary, but the definition seems to echo with a final climactic sentence: “Therefore, missions is all about God and lost people, and it has little or nothing to do with you.” Or, to put it another way, “Dear church, missions is not for your own discipleship.”

A fair rebuttal might be that the growth and discipleship of God’s sent ones is assumed within the definition. One could argue that as they obey the Great Commission, they will be formed more and more into the image of Christ. I would agree. So let me be clear about what I am saying: we cannot merely assume this any longer.

Missions’ Two-Fold Purpose

Yes, missions is glorifying God by obeying the Great Commission. But it is also glorifying God by being conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29). Just as God’s mission is two-armed, by the Son and through the Spirit, its purpose is also two-fold: the nations’ gospel obedience to Christ and the church’s spiritual formation in Christ. They both bring glory to God. They carry equal significance. They deserve intentional distinction, yet they can’t fully be separated.

If this were not true, if missions really wasn’t about our own discipleship, I believe God would have chosen to accomplish it entirely on his own. Why use human messengers at all if the sole purpose of his mission is to reach the nations? But instead, he redeems and sends fragile men and women (2 Cor. 4:7, 5:20, 12:10). Why? So that many among the nations will marvel and be saved, but also so that those jars of clay, his bride, will concurrently grow into the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:13).

After receiving the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, blundering Peter stood up and preached a sermon that converted three thousand people. Yet before he was willing to go to Cornelius the Gentile in Acts 10, something still had to be converted in Peter. His ethnocentrism was so severe that God had to use repetitive miracles to rattle him out of it.

Take note, however, that God did it anyway. He could have chosen other means for igniting the gospel among Gentiles. But he chose Peter. Changed by this experience, Peter would go on to help the rest of the church awaken to God’s heart for all peoples (Acts 11).

Our Missionary Practice

This has massive implications for our understanding and practice of missions. What if this “other half” of missions was no longer unspoken? What if the development of God’s people on mission mattered just as much as expending them to advance the gospel? Perhaps the “much fruit” we are to bear as referred to in John 15:8 could be seen not only as the precious converts God makes through us, but also little miraculous conversions he fashions in us.

This could broaden our ground for celebration, awakening us to more of God’s manifested glory (Rom. 1:8, Eph. 1:15–16, 2 Thess. 1:3). For churches, it could sharpen how we mobilize, train, commission, care, and receive. For sent ones, it could reorient our daily experience from a success-failure formula to a journey of fruitfulness.

It could even make a broken missionary as significant as a thriving one.

Zach Bradley is the director of content strategy at The Upstream Collective, director of training and operations at Refuge Louisville, and a missions pastor at Sojourn Community Church. He also authored The Sending Church Defined and blogs at brokenmissiology.com.