Donald McGavran (1897-1990) began his career as missionary to India, but is best known as the director of the School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary. As “the father of the church growth movement,” McGavran’s principles and methodology were not uniformly helpful. But he was the foremost missiologist of his time, a mentor to hundreds of scholars and practitioners, and a man clearly devoted to world evangelization.

Toward the end of his life he wrote a letter to David Hesselgrave, co-founder of the Evangelical Missiological Society and director of missions at TEDS, explaining his concern with the ever broadening definition of mission.

I want to lay before you, David, a very important item. . . I think that the evangelical professors of missions need to establish a nationwide organization called openly and courageously “The American Society of Christian Missiology.”. .   . What is needed in North America and indeed around the world is a society of missiology that says quiet frankly that the purpose of missiology is to carry out the Great Commission. Anything other than that may be a good thing to do, but it is not missiology (Quoted in Hesselgrave, Paradigms in Conflict, 316).

That was 1988. A month later in April 1988 McGavran wrote a piece called “Missions Faces a Lion” which was subsequently published in Missiology: An International Review. McGavran described a remote village with sickness, poverty, inequalities, and antiquated agricultural methods. After affirming that Christians should work to alleviate all these problems, McGavran noted that one problem was more critical than the others.

However, [the village's] crucial need is none of these. Its crucial need is to cease worshiping the stone idols, to cease believing that sickness is caused by the acts of these gods. The crucial need is to believe on God the Father Almighty, who is made known to us in Jesus Christ, His Son. The great need is to move off the animal and human platform and mount the platform of the divine life. Then and then only will these other advances be made quickly and permanently (quoted in Hesselgrave, 330).

Hesselgrave concludes that McGavran’s “lion” was “the kind of mission/missiology that ‘devours’ evangelism and church growth efforts by insisting that everything else that is good and desirable is equally or more important.” If mission is everything then what does it really mean to do mission or be on mission? Obviously, we must obey the two great commandments to love God and love neighbor. But do these commandments constitute the mission of the church? Or is the church’s mission something narrower, something shared by no other institution on earth, something we see modeled in the missionary work of Paul? At the very least, I would argue that the mission of the church is most clearly explained in the Great Commission, and that the other good things we do as Christians are virtuous, but either secondary or something other than the mission of the church altogether.

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17 thoughts on “What is the Mission of the Church?”

  1. Roger King says:

    Excellent, thought provoking and most of all True. Thanks for letting us know about McGavran.

  2. Chase Bowers says:

    Good stuff. Helping with these other needs may aid the Church in carrying out the Great Commission in specific areas, but these acts of compassion are indeed not it.

  3. Yolanda says:

    Re: Is dialoge a basis…
    Help me here, if Jesus himself came for sinners of all kinds then why should Christians of any kind not be inclusive. After all isn’t the message “love the sinner, not the sin”. We should accept all who come to Christ in truth and love. And love includes boundaries and limitations and discipline (as in Disciple)does it not?

  4. Josh R says:

    I think the question is a huge one — Do we take on fights like abolition of slavery, Civil rights, or Abortion on a cultural level or do we assume that those evils are inherent and cannot be defeated?

    I think the mission of the church is to straighten the thinking of the world, individually and if possible corporately. Most people see this as insanely optimistic, but historically it has worked. Martin Luther King Jr for example gave an insane speech in 1963.. It isn’t nearly as insane now, looking back on it.

    There is power in the victory of truth over evil. I don’t think the Church should minimize it’s mission. “His kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven”… We may only realize a shadow of what is to come, but that shadow still is and effective image of God’s glory.

  5. Malin Friess says:

    I would agree that the Great Commission is the primary purpose of missions and everything else is secondary. But as a Medical Missionary in Africa we must also do the secondary things. Can we give the Gospel on Sunday and they still have no food in the belly and are hungry on Monday? Do we give the Gospel on Tuesday and they are still are sick and not healed on Wednesda? Do we give the Gospel on Thursday and they still have no job on Friday?
    Compassionate ministries like medical missions, relief, development although secondary, can serve as the vehicles for the primary (the Great Commission).

  6. It’s a complicated issue. First and foremost the mission of the church is preaching the gospel, not running a social program; on the other hand, the gospel and mission cannot be separated from compassionate action.
    The question is, what are the implications of being and making disciples? We certainly don’t want to sink into a private pietism that only concentrates on an individual(istic) “personal relationship with Jesus,” nor secularize the gospel into a social program; but the gospel and discipleship have social implications (Matt. 25:40). While too often our duty to our neighbor is reduced to a partisan political agenda (witness the new evangelical left, or, alternatively, an American fundamentalism that only cares about a narrow range of issues such as abortion and gay marriage), being a disciple also has implications for caring for the poor and needy. Moreover, one cannot merely say to the hungry and cold unbeliever, “be warm and well fed,” (James 2:16-17) and expect them to listen to anything one says about “good news.” The other extreme is a relief agency that calls itself Christian and solicits support from churches, but in practice excludes the preaching of Christ from their work. The social gospel is no gospel, either.
    In the Reformed tradition, the life and thought of Abraham Kuyper is very instructive for integrating faith into all areas of life; and even evangelism itself cannot merely be “spiritualized,” because to make disciples means calling people to follow Christ in his work of transforming the world and catching glimpses of the New Creation he promises. This is (one of many reasons) why that book *The Shack* is so utterly wrong; Jesus *is* interested in politics and economics and all areas of human life. And Jesus *did* come to make people Christians.

  7. Brian Current says:

    @Josh R, you said “I think the question is a huge one — Do we take on fights like abolition of slavery, Civil rights, or Abortion on a cultural level or do we assume that those evils are inherent and cannot be defeated?”

    IMO, it’s not either/or it’s both. If you saw your neighbor violently beating his 2 year old out on the driveway of the house next to you, what would you do immediately? Would you preach the gospel to him while he’s beating up his kid so that he’ll have a change of heart/mind, come to Christ then realize what he’s doing? Or, would you first stop his actions, saving the child because in this case, this instance, regardless of what the father is thinking, there’s a child in need of immediate help? The way you answer that should help with the question – we fight to stop abortion, for example, because regardless of what the mother thinks – there’s a baby that’s about to die if we don’t. We should do everything in our power to engage culture to stop abortions. At the same time we also engage culture to bring others to Christ which will affect their worldview in matters like this. It’s both and we should not assume that we are defeated. Just my opinion.

  8. Noah says:

    I agree completely with the post, not that my opinion matters. This is something that has come up recently with my church. What I have seen as the Church’s mission as laid out in the Bible is spreading the gospel primarily and above all. That is what we are about (of course the purpose is different, our purpose is to worship the Lord who gave us the mission). The problem that comes with this definition is people hear “primary” and “secondary” and assume the gap is too wide to actually do both. But Acts 20:7-12 tells a different story. Paul is preaching to some people and he goes so long that one of the guys in the back falls asleep and then falls 3 floors out of a window. Paul stops his preaching and goes outside to the guy, now dead, and taking him in his arms says “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.” Then Paul goes back up and continues his preaching while some others take away the formerly dead youth alive to care for him. This is obviously an extreme example, but the point still stands that the gospel is what the Church is all about. What we do while preaching does not have to be separated from proclaiming the good news. For example, my wife and I made and ate meals with various needy and homeless individuals in our area for over a year, but we made it a point to tell them why we were doing it and to call them to Christ with the gospel and saw a little fruit come to bear. So it can be done, especially in the U.S. (there are definitely places around the world where discernment must be used).

    To sum up, the problem is people hear primary and think the secondary stuff doesn’t matter at all. But that is a distinction that should not be made. The Church should always remember her first and foremost command from the Lord is the Great Commission, spread the gospel, and that most assuredly does not minimize anything else she does (especially the Great Commandment). It seems we simply don’t trust the Lord to sanctify us in the implications of the gospel while we go about doing what we are primarily about, which is the gospel. We seem to need to tack things on to the gospel and the mission of the Church.

  9. Josh R says:

    Brian, Can we can add malaria, hunger and other poverty induced ills to the list of dangerous issues worth standing up for as strongly as we stand up against abortion??

    I do think there is a eschatological question that makes us phobic of these programs, and I am not sure we (The Church collectively) are thinking properly.

    Do we see Isaiah 11 as being something that can happen before the return of Jesus? Verses 11-16 sure seem to indicate that this happens in a still imperfect world – as it is being perfected..

    MLK Jr’s famous speech certainly had a Isaiah 11 flavor to it, and the culture rallied around it, and was redeemed and transformed by it. I don’t think his message was adequate on a personal/individual level, but I don’t think we should shy away from holding up Godly kingdom values as a cultural vision.

  10. Joel Shaffer says:

    Kevin,

    Why do we have to pull apart the great commandment from the great commission? The great commandment provides the context for making disciples and was never meant to be compartmentalized. The two are inextricably linked together. In other words, mission is holistic.

    Also, when I hear people use primary/secondary language to describe the relationship between evangelism and social action I get warning flags. I think a couple better ways to describe the relationship would be what Tim Keller describes as eternal and temporal. Or maybe C.H. Wright who describes evangelism as ultimate in its relationship with social action rather than the primary/secondary language that seems to downplay the importance of compassionate service towards others. In my hood’ because of the sheer enormousness of our neighborhood’s social problems such as violent crime, chronic poverty, underfunded and substandard education (all of G.R. public high schools were labeled drop-out factories by a study done by John Hopkins University), single parent families, gang-related killings (I’ve had at least 15 former students of mine who are dead because of it), teenage pregnancies, and unemployment, we have no choice but to approach mission holistically. By the way, these problems (whether individually or institutionally) are rooted in the sin nature of people which ultimately only the cross and resurrection of Jesus can comprehensively address. It is the Gospel that transforms, but the Gospel has major social implications………

    Enough of my rant. I guess this is a soap box of mine because I am seeing in many conversations what the late Ralph Winter talked about last year being the biggest global trend in missions…..That is, the polarization between evangelism/discipleship and social justice/community development….Things that should never be pulled from each other in communities of need.

  11. Jon Chalmers says:

    Thanks for your post. I have been thinking on this issue as well. Something I came across and liked was written by A. Kostenberger (The Missions of Jesus and the Disciples according to the fourth gospel) he wrote that disciples of Christ are not just called to represent Christ but to re-present Him.

  12. Rev. Dave Shoobridge says:

    If we are “to teach them ALL that I have commanded you”, than we are do ALL that Christ taught us. That includes those things we don’t like or ignore, like Matthew 25:31-46 or the Sermon on the Mount or things like giving away everything to the poor or being like the Good Samaritan. The Gospel is about Salvation, transformation and Justice, of both the individual and society. The prophets and God’s Law is about individual resonse to God and the society’s response to the individual. We can’t separate the two or it isn’t the Gospel of Christ.

  13. Marty Caudle says:

    I don’t see exclusivity between the Great Commission and the Great Commandments. They can’t be separated out and parted from each other. Evangelisim cannot be “dragging someone to the foot of the cross.” Nor can it be only “trampling the idols of those we seek to bring to the cross.” Evangelism is in essence “telling” people the Gospel. It is most effectively done when we “live” the two great commandments. For if I love God above all else, this is fuel to be obedient and to “go” and if I love my neighbor, then this is the fuel to to “share.” I also see the parable of the sheep and the goats here, in that the word “hungry” does not merely imply a hunger for food. But when we have compassion for those who are in need of feeding, we must understand that they need to be fed physically, but most importantly they need Spiritual feeding. Jesus said “Man does not live by gread alone, but by every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God.” Thus we we cannot feed the body and not the soul or we are not following the two great commandments. I am not loving my hungry neighbor by merely giving him food for a physical hunger, but I must seek through the grace of God to satidfy my neighbor’s Spiritual hunger. I am not saying we should not “confront” idols–we must! Not just in foreign missions, but in the church at home as well. But to say we must forsake all for the purpose of evangelism removes a great synergy of Christ’s teaching. When he proclaimed the Great Commission, he did not redact any other teachings, but he reinforced them by saying, “…teaching them to obey all I have commanded.”

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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