by Dan Stott
The problem with speaking about “mission” and “service” in the same breath is like the proverbial query of comparing apples and oranges.
The problem with speaking about “mission” and “service” in the same breath is like the proverbial query of comparing apples and oranges. There is a common similarity. Apples and oranges are fruit just as mission and service are biblical commands for Christians to obey God. But there are distinct differences. An apple is not an orange and an orange is not an apple. They are two distinct kinds of fruits and so it is with mission and service: each has its own purpose in fulfilling two commands given by God.
For Christians, mission and service are only two of many more commands in the Bible. Like other commands, each shares a similarity in that all commands are biblical mandates given by God; however, each command has its own distinct purpose. Thus, for Christians the option is not either/or but learning “what is pleasing to the Lord” (Eph. 5:10). After all, we are not at liberty to pick and choose which biblical commands suit our lifestyle. We are obligated to obey all of them (Strauss 2005).
However, back to our fruit analogy, it would seem rather silly to imagine that an apple is an orange or that an orange is an apple. Yet it is not silly but worrisome that the distinctive nature of mission might not be identified as an organizational priority (As an apple is an apple and an orange is an orange.)—or that mission (and not another substitute) is not “the fundamental meaning, role and purpose” for a mission agency’s existence (Little 2006, 78). This is especially so because the origin and historic rise for the modern-day missionary movement was due to the disciple-making priority in the command of the Great Commission which compelled many people to leave family and home to reach others for Christ. People enrolled in missions because they understood the priority of the Great ComMISSION. Thus, the mission agency’s rise was a response to the strategic priority that focused upon, emphasized and targeted the need to obey the Great ComMISSION.
Christopher Little correctly identifies how throughout the history of missions there has always been the danger of losing sight of the priority of mission (2006, 78-80). Likewise, he was not misguided for warning us that within mission organizations, it is also a present peril worth calculating as we define, “What is Christian mission?” There is always the danger of losing sight of the Great ComMISSION priority. What happens is that it is easy for us to judge the mistakes of the past—to point a finger at social-gospel liberalism. A self-critique of the present threat that Little suggests reflects that we might be in the same danger of losing our mission focus.
BALANCING THE BIBLICAL COMMANDS
Yet it would be absurd for any Christian engaged in mission (as all Christians should be) not to be concerned with all of the commands given by God in the Bible. After all, even in the Great Commission of Matthew’s Gospel, the instruction is “teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matt. 28:20a). Therefore, humanitarian acts of service reflect an obedient heart for “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39) as well as obeying what Jesus identified as a new commandment to “love one another” (John 13:34). What biblical Christian would argue against such thinking?
Nevertheless, engaging in acts of humanitarian service should not be interpreted to mean that it must be or become an equal organizational priority for a mission agency any more than acts of mission must be or become an equal organizational priority for the strategic purpose of a humanitarian service agency. However, there does seem to be the juicy possibility of a middle ground. This is our fruit salad.
The thing about fruit salad is that it blends together all kinds of fruit into one bowl; however, the thing people respond to in a fruit salad is the taste. Some people will not eat it at all. Others will quickly scoop up apples, oranges and other fruit by the spoonful right into their eager mouths. Still others will pick and choose which fruit to eat. We can use this analogy for our discussion on mission and service.
We must ask ourselves, “If mission agencies have been constituted upon the strategic purpose to obey the Great Commission (as history confirms), is it advisable to risk that distinctive flavor by combining it in a fruit salad alongside other fruits (i.e., humanitarian service)?” Indeed, the addition of other fruitful priorities changes the flavor. We can perhaps all consider four factors in trying to decide if fruit salad is the best strategy. Mission agencies and service agencies must: (1) respect their distinct organizational purposes, (2) acknowledge that each has a special priority based upon biblical commands, (3) agree to synergistically work together when the opportunity presents itself to glorify God and (4) agree to stay out of the fruit salad lest either one lose its special flavor. Fruit salad may not always be the best option when it comes to fulfilling the priority of mission found in the Great Commission.
Little, Christopher. 2006. “What Makes Mission Christian?” Evangelical Missions Quarterly, 42(1): 78-87.
Strauss, Steve. 2005. “Kingdom Living” Evangelical Missions Quarterly, 41(1): 58-63.
Dan Stott and his wife Lynda are missionary church planters with TEAM in Ireland. Dan is also a New Testament lecturer at the Irish Bible Institute in Dublin.
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