They don’t merely describe our experiences and express our thoughts. They also exert their own formative pressures on us, especially when used repeatedly. Thus do the mottos we live by quickly become much more than shorthand for what we believe. They begin to form ideals that we imbibe and produce rhythms to which we begin to move.
Pick a poor motto, therefore, and your thoughts and goals will begin eventually be shaped in unhealthy ways. I fear this could be the case when we talk about world missions with the motto, “Finishing the Task.”
“It is dangerous when motivation for missions shifts to ‘finishing the task’ instead of faithfulness to Christ.”
The Absolute Necessity of World Evangelization
Engaging the world with the gospel is both a beautiful privilege and a mandatory part of the missionary task that Christ left to the church. And as the first step in disciple making and church planting, evangelization must remain central to our missiology and strategy.
Add to this imperative the incredible advances of the past hundred years in transportation, communication, and cultural-linguistic understanding. All these developments have exciting implications for global evangelism. Indeed, they have led many to conclude that we could reach the world for Christ in a single generation. From this posture of urgency and excitement, Finish the Task has come to serve as a motto intended to kindle evangelistic passion in the next generation of missionaries.
Now, I wholeheartedly affirm the necessity and centrality of evangelism. And I rejoice greatly in every advancement that makes it easier to take the gospel to the world. But I can’t get behind the motto Finish the Task. In fact, I think if we adopt this motto it will begin to distort our mission in three serious ways.
1. It models the mission on a future promise instead of on present marching orders.
Defenders of the Finish the Task motto often look to Matthew 24:14 for biblical support. It reads, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (ESV).
There is some debate about this verse, however, with not a few scholars believing it to be a reference to Pentecost. (“Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven,” Acts 2:5 ESV, emphasis added.) Others point out that “the end” might be a long stretch of time, not a single moment or event. After all, the apostle John said the church had entered “the last hour” over 1,900 years ago (1 John 2:18).
Yet even if “the end” here refers the return of Christ, we should recognize that Matthew 24:14 is not a command but a promise. The command of the Great Commission comes four chapters later, in Matthew 28:18–20, providing a much better description of the task left to the church.
God will providentially fulfill his promise when the church is faithful to his command.
2. It reduces the task of missions to evangelization.
Proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom to all nations does not exhaust our task. Indeed, once we equate Finish[ing] the Task with evangelization, we’re no longer aiming at the whole mission.
A summary of the church’s commission is found in Matthew 28:18–20. There, Jesus calls his disciples to be indiscriminate disciple makers who go under his authority, teach faithful obedience to him, and baptize brothers and sisters in the triune name of God.
But when will the process of your discipleship be finished?
The answer is never, which provides an essential insight into the lifelong nature of the task given us. If my own discipleship to Christ will never finish—and if part of my discipleship includes being a disciple maker—then what makes me think that I could finish the task of making disciples of others?
Furthermore, what Jesus commands requires the planting of local churches. For not only did Jesus declare that his church would be built on a common confession of his lordship (Matt. 16:18) but also he taught that gospel-changed people will be incorporated into local churches in which believers are held accountable to one another (Matt. 18:17).
In short, both church planting and disciple making present us with a task that is inherently open-ended. We can’t and won’t finish this task until Christ returns. Any motto that suggests otherwise is detrimentally shortsighted.
3. It encourages shortsighted methods that have long-term repercussions.
It is dangerous when the motivation for missions shifts to “finishing the task” instead of faithfulness to Christ. For then, methods that promise rapid results have too strong an appeal.
For example, in 1955, a missionary named Donald McGavran wrote The Bridges of God. McGavran observed, “Peoples become Christian fastest when least change of race or clan is involved” (23).
Rather than recognizing this as a sinful human tendency to segregate ourselves, however, McGavran’s observations have been incorporated into missiological strategy as the homogenous unit principle. With this strategy, missionaries target segregated peoples with the intention of spreading the gospel more quickly within that group.
Yet in heterogeneous environments where long-held cultural prejudices and animosities exist between peoples, such segregation reinforces sinful division instead of demonstrating the power of the gospel to create unity between former enemies.
Secondly, because the Finish the Task mentality prioritizes urgency, missionaries and church planters often seek out partnerships with individual national believers instead of operating in conjunction with, or even under the authority of, the national believer’s local church.
If we treat the local church as an impediment to the Great Commission, however, our methods have subverted something central. Indeed, we must never forget that the church is both the goal and context of the missionary mandate.
“We can’t and won’t finish this task until Christ returns. Any motto that suggests otherwise is shortsighted.”
A Better Motto for a Biblical Mission
Since our words matter, let’s use them carefully, knowing they will exert a formative influence on us over time. Instead of an ends-focused approach, therefore, let’s be content with focusing on the means of disciple making and church planting. Instead of “Finishing the Task” of global evangelization, let’s simply be “Faithful to the Task.”
Matthew Bennett and his wife, Emily, served with the IMB for almost seven years. He holds a PhD in missiology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and he currently serves as an assistant professor of missions and theology at Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio.