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Meanings matter: clarifying “mission” and “gospel”
By John Bowen
Sep 15, 2021
I remember seminary students who were hoping to be ordained warning one another of the kind of questions they were likely to be asked in the selection process. “It used to be,” they said, “that you had to say something about the importance of the sacraments. But now,” they explained, “you’d better say something about the importance of mission, or you don’t have a chance.”
“Mission” has become a very tiresome buzzword in recent years, as has its offspring “missional.” And, like many buzz words, if mission did once have a clear meaning, now it often seems hopelessly lost in a fog of confusion. “Ah yes,” you will hear people say, “we’ve swapped the organ for guitars and drums, and we’ve replaced the pews with chairs, so we’re missional. Right?” Wrong. No wonder people roll their eyes whenever the word is mentioned.
So does mission have a meaning that is helpful in our present situation? Personally, I think the word is worth redeeming. But to get at its meaning, I actually think we have to start somewhere else—with a different word, the word “Gospel.”
Consider the things we talk about in everyday church life: fellowship, worship, ministry, prayer, preaching, money, and of course church itself. Yet in the New Testament, none of those is used anything like as often as the word Gospel. Even the word “church” is only used seventy-six times. The word Gospel? Over a hundred! Maybe this tells us something about the early church’s priorities.
I discovered this gap in our church vocabulary when I started asking Christians what they think the Gospel—the Good News of Christianity—is. On one occasion, a lifelong church-goer in his 70s confessed, “I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anything I would call ‘the Gospel.’” Sure, he had heard readings from one of the four Gospels more or less every Sunday—but it had never struck him as particularly “good news.” That’s just sad.
On the other hand, one woman was very sure that she had heard the Gospel: “Gospel?” she said, “That’s easy. Love your neighbour as yourself.” But how exactly is that good news? I don’t know about you, but it’s certainly not good news for me: it’s an impossibly high standard. And not particularly for my neighbour. Take in the mail and feed the cat while they’re away? Of course. That’s easy. But love them as myself?
Jesus, however, is quite clear what the Gospel is.
It is the thing he calls the Kingdom. (I know this word is also problematic, but bear with me for now.) And, as the stories of Jesus unfold, we see what “the Kingdom” is: it is the state of affairs where things are done in the way the Creator always intended. Wherever Jesus goes, there people get a taste of the Kingdom: it means healing, wholeness, forgiveness, inclusion, joy—in a word, life! And for those who experience the presence of Jesus, it’s very easy to explain what the Good News is.
I was complaining to a friend recently that we had little grasp of the Gospel. She immediately looked me in the eye, and said, “So what exactly is the Gospel?” Given my pontificating, it was a fair question. I thought for a minute, then took a deep breath: “The Good News of Christianity is that through Jesus Christ God is making all things new.” On reflection, I think I would stick with that, though there are a hundred ways of expressing the same thing.
The Gospel is firstly something God does: it is God who is making all things new. It’s not a huge burden simply laid on the shoulders of humankind. That would hardly be Gospel. Yes, we are called to work with God, but it is primarily God’s work. And that is Good News.
Secondly, the Gospel concerns all things. Jesus didn’t come to make us religious (thanks be to God). God’s work is much bigger than that. In fact, God’s work of restoration is as big as the world God made. It includes the renewal of relationships, business, politics, economics, law, the arts, and the environment—everything. Wherever human beings have messed up God’s good world, there God is at work to put things right.
It’s worth adding that Jesus did not come to make us nice people and good citizens, in spite of Douglas Adams’ summary: Jesus was “nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change.” (The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy) Jesus was certainly not always nice, and neither did he exactly model good citizenship. Good citizens didn’t get themselves crucified. The Gospel is much more radical than that.
Finally, the Gospel is about Jesus.
There is no Good News—at least, no good news of the kind Jesus taught and lived—without him. Conversely, unless you understand the Good News, you won’t get what Jesus is about. That’s the key for understanding his life, his death, his resurrection: they embody God’s determination to make all things new. After all, he is the king of this new kingdom.
So how does this relate to “mission”? At its heart, “mission” is just a theologian’s fancy shorthand for summarising this work of God through Jesus Christ to make all things new. It is God who is on mission, God (if you like) who is missional, and God who was these things long before we came along and began to use the words! It is always the nature of our loving God to reach out to places of sin and need and hurt to put things right.
That’s mission: the love of God through Jesus to make all things new. In fact, maybe we could stop using the word mission and just talk about the love of God instead. But I’m not holding my breath.
John Bowen is Professor Emeritus of Evangelism at Wycliffe College in Toronto. The themes in this article are explored more fully in his latest book, The Unfolding Gospel: How the Good News Makes Sense of Discipleship, Church, Mission, and Everything Else (Fortress 2021). A version of this article was previously published in the Niagara Anglican Newspaper.