There is a lot of confusion about what is “mission” and what is “missions.” The terms can be ambiguous and unclear for the local church when not clearly defined, leading to such a broad application that the adage becomes reality: “If everything is missions, nothing is missions.”
When the word missions is used broadly, it can cover everything from global partnerships, short term missions, garden ministry, first impressions, local partners, short-term mission trips, and the church library to anything else that doesn’t seem to fit anywhere else in the church.
We find it helpful to make a distinction between mission and missions.
By doing so, churches can more accurately distinguish between the two, and determine how they choose to respond to each one within their own specific context. When we think of mission, we think of the all-encompassing mission of God to redeem mankind and bring healing to the land. It is reflected in the Lord’s Prayer when we ask that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Our God is a God on mission, to redeem and restore. The Church then goes about the Father’s business, seeking to redeem and restore as well.
In this sense, mission is a broad category referring to everything the church is doing that points toward the kingdom of God.
Missions, on the other hand, has been generally related to the specific work of the church and agencies in the task of reaching people for Christ by crossing cultural boundaries. It involves evangelism, baptizing, discipling, church planting at its core, even as it may also focus on the poor, the defenseless, and those suffering from injustice. Missions, then is most closely tied to the Great Commission because of the specific call to “disciple all the nations.”
Why distinguish between the two?
Simply put, we tend to focus on that which is easiest or more self-serving than other areas. Many churches use their mission’s budget to reach out in ways that are close to home and which bring a direct benefit to the local church.
Have you ever been to the gym and watched certain weightlifters workout? It is common to see guys with big arms, continually working their arms, at the expense of their lower body. Much like bodybuilders in the gym who often work their strengths instead of concentrating on developing their whole selves, the church who only focuses on that which is easiest or closest to home, is a church that is not fully developed.
By distinguishing the cross-cultural, cross-lingual, or cross-ethnic component, churches can make sure that they are looking at the global mission of God in a balanced way. In previous generations, this meant sending out missionaries beyond our borders. However, due to globalization and the tremendous effects of immigration, missions can and should be done within our own borders as well.
Our encouragement is to be deliberate and to be clear and educate your churches on what missions is about and how this is being played out in the context of their church.
Examples of Missions Definitions
Here are some examples of missions definitions used by local churches who have sought to clearly define what is and what isn’t missions within their church:
Missions at College Church shall be defined as ministry which fulfills the Great Commission by proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ cross-culturally through evangelism, discipleship, Bible translation, church planting, and church leadership development, giving priority to the least reached.
Missions is a part of the Church’s total mission. Mission describes who the Church is and what the Church does to advance Christ’s kingdom for his glory. Missions describes the Church’s activity to advance Christ’s kingdom across language and/or ethnic boundaries. This ministry among peoples of distinctly different cultures and languages is cross-cultural and is the particular focus of the Board of Missions.
–Bruce Wilson, College Church, Wheaton, IL
World, National, and Local Missions shall be defined as any ministry aimed outside the continental United States or a cross-cultural ministry within the continental United States, the purpose of which is to fulfill the Great Commission by proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ through evangelism, church planting, church development, and training and/or equipping of Christian leadership.
–Frazer Memorial United Methodist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.
Crossing barriers to provide access to the gospel.
–Scott White, Lake Avenue Congregational Church
All of these are examples of how churches have worked at determining, with preciseness, the parameters of their missions programs. An effective missions church is one who does the same, having clear definitions which help lead to a well-developed missions strategy that operates both at home and far away.
An effective missions church is one who has clear definitions which help lead to a well-developed missions strategy that operates both at home and far away.
 Stephen Neill, Creative Tension: The Duff Lectures, 1958 (London: Edinburgh House Press, 1959) 81.
(Excerpted from Andrew J and Chris Irwin, Missions in Focus: 10 Essential Conversations for Effective Sending [Joplin: College Press, 2020]. Used by permission.)