This may seem like a simple question to some but there are many churches today who are redefining missions in ways that are problematic. To answer this question we need to look at the mandate of Jesus to the church and the strategy of the Apostle Paul in the early days of Christianity as he applied the Great Commission in his mission travels.
Remember the words of Jesus to His followers: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:18-20).
His mandate was to make disciples of all nations, to baptize people in His name and to teach them what it meant to be a follower of His. Perhaps the most important part of His command is “Therefore, Go.” It is taking the Good News beyond our circle to all nations on the face of the earth.
Our best example of what this meant is to examine the ministry of the Apostle Paul. He and Barnabas were not only the first missionaries sent by the church (Acts 13) but it is obvious from the careful record of his missionary journeys in one of the longer books of the New Testament (Acts) that we are to pay attention to what happened.
Paul’s strategy was very simple. He was focused on establishing churches, training leaders for those churches and setting them loose to live out the Christian life and be the Bride of Christ in their community. At the core of his strategy was establishing local churches. The methodology of establishing churches was the intensive discipling and training of men and women who responded to the Gospel.
In fact, some of the well known New Testament books were written to churches that he had established. In addition, Timothy and Titus were pastors that he had trained.
It is interesting that in some places where Paul planted a church there were already Christ follower present. This was true in Ephesus according to Acts 19. The presence of disciples, however, was not enough for without proper teaching and fellowship those disciples were unlikely to grow. Thus, Paul gathered those Christ followers, taught them intensely for three years and the church that was planted had an impact in a wide area of Asia minor.
Paul calls the local church, the Bride of Christ. The point I am making is that biblical missions may involve many things but at the center and core it is about establishing the church so that those local expressions of the Bride can continue to reproduce themselves therefore reproducing Christ followers and committed disciples. There is no concept in the New Testament following the ascension of Jesus of Christ followers who were not connected to a church.
In our own day there is sometimes a de-emphasizing on the establishment of the church for a focus on other ministries that are called missions. These include ministries of evangelism, compassion, orphan, sex trafficking, caring for the poor, literature, illiteracy, micro-enterprise, education, medical ministries and others.
All of these are good in themselves and worthy of being a part of our missions paradigm but they are not the core of what we are called to do. As long as these efforts are connected to the establishment of transformational churches they are deeply valuable and reflect the heart of Christ. However, when they are not connected to the church, they are often compassion without the Gospel.