Symposium: The “De-missionization” of Missions

by Marvin J. Newell

The concept of “doing mission” is still very strong, but it is increasingly being obscured by the use of creative functional substitutes.

THE “DE-MISSIONIZATION” OF MISSIONS is almost complete. This is an observation and personal opinion based on 36 years of continuous mission engagement. What I mean by that bold statement is that we in North America have been progressively eliminating the term “mission” so deliberately from our vocabulary that its usage is close to extinction. Granted, the concept of “doing mission” is still very strong, but it is increasingly being obscured by the use of creative functional substitutes.

This was driven home to me recently when, as an adjunct professor at a well-known seminary, I was told that the next time I taught the “Theology of Missions” course, I needed to update the title. The course title, after all, had recently been relabeled “Theology of Intercultural Ministry” by the curriculum committee.

In the Academy

It was not that long ago that one could study and even earn a degree in missions or missiology. But those degrees are harder and harder to come by, since educational institutions offering such programs are harder to find. Schools that were once Schools of World Missions are now Schools of Intercultural Studies; programs that were once specific to the Christian mission are now shrouded in intercultural studies; professors of missions of former years are professors of intercultural studies today; specific courses in mission studies are now titled in intercultural studies terminology; and, as would logically follow, degrees on BA, MA, and Doctorate levels in missions or missiology now have the appellation “Intercultural Studies” stamped on their diplomas. The term “mission” has progressively been eliminated from our mission training programs.

Many would say this is a good trend. But it causes me to wonder how it is that one sector of the social sciences (intercultural studies), called alongside to augment mission training and understanding, has over time been able to trump the mission training programs altogether. And why was this particular discipline elevated above others (e.g., anthropology, religious studies, communications) found in academic circles?

Why is it that what was viewed as a helpful subset in mission training has now been elevated to define the field altogether? Was this particular term chosen because it is the most innocuous and vague? Although its preference of choice is not clear, like a row of dominos, once the predilection of using this term came into vogue, nearly all in the academic establishment have tumbled over in following suit.

In the Assembly

De-missionization is not limited to the academy. It has spilled over into our churches as well. I have observed that in many churches the once staid “mission committee” has been renamed the “global outreach team.” I happen to be on one. Church mission conferences have become “global celebration” events or something similar. For some, their supported “missionaries” are now designated as church “extension staff.” And it is not uncommon to find short-term mission teams labeled, “vacations with a purpose.” These changes are not true of all churches, but the trend seems to be in this direction.

In the Agency

The agency has not been immune to this shift in terminology either. Instead of sending missionaries, many now send out “workers” or “members.” Additionally, we have witnessed traditional mission agencies that originally had the word “mission” in their title progressively rebrand their name without it—first by the use of capital letter abbreviations and then further by a renaming altogether.

Have you noticed that it is increasingly difficult to find an agency with “mission” in its name? This is not a criticism of some very appealing and appropriate new names that have recently emerged. Rebranding is an art and the creativity that has gone into many of these new names is commendable. And by digging down a level, I have found that “mission” is clearly articulated in their purpose statement. That is good. But there needs to be a measure of critique. We need to pause and consider the direction “mission” overall is taking by the progressive exclusion of its use in organizational identity. This draw is so subtle that I too did not perceive the trend when, as executive director of the IFMA, I led a rebranding of the association that did this very thing.

The Tension

Now, I am quite aware that conventional wisdom dictates that in order to get “workers” into and retained in highly restricted-access countries, that labels smacking of anything “missionary” would be a hindrance. But are we so naïve as to think that a quick Internet search by individuals or governments will not reveal true identities of those who enter with substitute titles?

A few years ago I led a group of students from a theological seminary to Turkey to teach English to university students. We discreetly told the students that we were from a school in America and used only its first name, leaving off the “Theological Seminary.” The first few days went well, until the morning when a group of the Turkish students showed up highly offended because they had Googled the unique name of the school and discovered that it was a Christian institution that trained Christian students to become professional Christian workers. It was an awkward moment, to say the least.

It seems to me that the North American mission movement has reached
a frightening impasse and my fear is that in the not-too-distant future
“mission” will have a weak definition and obscure identification.

Also, it remains to be seen that if by accommodating terminology for specific restrictive focus areas of missions (and tough ones at that!), we have inadvertently weakened not only the identity but also the purpose of mission itself. If so, then this should indeed give us pause.

It seems to me that the North American mission movement has reached a frightening impasse and my fear is that in the not-too-distant future “mission” will have a weak definition and obscure identification. As we continue to water down the term until it is meaningless, mission won’t be much more than a free-for-all of disjointed activities so disguised by various labels that it becomes unidentifiable. My question is: Are we destabilizing the mission of the Church by the disuse of the very term that defines it?

I am quite aware of a tension that exists as I raise this question. How do we preserve the very essence of God’s mission without diluting it with contemporary terminology? A further tension is the reality that the mission of God to the world is unchangeable, but it is not static. It must be encoded in words that are relevant on one hand, but not be entombed in them on the other (Hesselgrave 2007, 9).

Etymology and History

If we insist on discontinuing the use of the word “mission,” we will be the first generation of Christians since the Protestant Reformation to do so, although it was actually the Jesuits who were the first to use the term in relation to the spread of Christianity (Bosch 1993, 1).

For a millennium leading up to the Reformation, Latin was the lingua franca of the Catholic Church. Mitto (“I send”) became missio (to send)—the Latin translation of the closely related New Testament Greek verb apostello (to send) and its synonym pempo with close to the same meaning. Thus, our English word “mission” has no direct biblical equivalent—it has come to us vicariously through the Latin. The earliest occurrence of the word in English was in 1598 (Moreau 2000, 636). That was two hundred years before William Carey, “the Father of Modern Missions” of the English-speaking world, set out for India. But, should that etymology and history of the word in any way make it less useable to us today? I think not.

This question is not new and was actually the focus of the editorial in the very first edition of EMQ fifty years ago. In that inaugural issue, EMQ editor Jim Reapsome defended the continued use of the term when he wrote:

Missionary is a word that seems to need defense and definition in the face of contemporary doubts and discussions about its validity. However, it is superficial to think that the profound issues involved can be settled by a shift in ecclesiastical vocabulary. Those of us who are eager to define the nature and dimensions of Christian responsibility in terms of missions must admit that we have a series of non-Biblical terms (missions, missionary, and particularly foreign missions) at the heart of our statement of how the Church is to do the will of God in the world…Missionary is surely the word that most precisely and urgently defines such activity. (1964, 4-5)

Much has changed in the world since Reapsome wrote those words a half century ago. Our mission to the world is much more complicated and challenging. But I believe his premise is still worthy of consideration.

The Essence of Mission

The very essence of what it means “to be on mission” must be considered in light of what has been said. It should be remembered that besides religious missions, there are also diplomatic, military, and corporate missions in play daily. Whatever their origin, all missions (secular and religious) presuppose four essential elements: (1) a sender, (2) persons sent by the sender, (3) those to whom one is sent, and (4) an assignment. Underpinning all four is the presumption of authority to do so (Bosch 1993, 1).

With these elements in mind, George Peters rightly uses the term to define our mission as:

The sending forth of authorized persons beyond the borders of the New Testament church and her immediate gospel influence to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ in gospel-destitute areas, to win converts from other faiths or non-faiths to Jesus Christ, and to establish functioning multiplying local congregations who will bear the fruit of Christianity in that community and to that country. (1972, 11)

All things considered, can it be unequivocally stated that this is what is intended as we discard the word “mission,” and describe our outreach to the world with functional substitutes as mentioned previously? I certainly hope that we can.

However, it appears that a fundamental paradigm shift has taken hold that will be difficult to shake—that of an actual representation of our mission in nomenclature that is vague and unexacting. This, in turn, may result in a gospel outreach that is vague and unexacting as well. None of us want to see that happen, and thus the reason for this word of caution and appeal for reflection.


Because of the quality of its publication and its relevancy to the mission community, it is not surprising that Evangelical Missions Quarterly has reached the milestone of fifty years of continuous publication. However, noting the penchant in the mission community as a whole for eradicating the term “mission,” it is remarkable that it has been able to retain its middle name all these years.


Bosch, David J. 1993. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. New York: Orbis Books.

Hesselgrave, David J. 2007. “Will We Correct the Edinburg Error.” Unpublished manuscript, p. 9.

Moreau, A. Scott. 2000. “Mission and Missions.” Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.

Peters, George. 1972. Biblical Theology of Missions. Chicago: Moody Press.

Reapsome, Jim. 1964. “Missionary Faith.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 1(1): 4-5.


Marv Newell is senior vice president of Missio Nexus, a network that connects evangelical mission agencies, churches, and training centers across North America. Previously, he served as a missionary to Indonesia, a mission administrator, a professor of missions, and a director of a mission association.

EMQ Jan 2015, Vol. 51, No. 1 pp. 46-51. Copyright  © 2015 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors. For Reprint Permissions beyond personal use visit our STORE (here).

(Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of Missio Nexus.)

Related Articles

Welcoming the Stranger

Presenter: Matthew Soerens, US Director of Church Mobilization, World Relief Description: Refugee and immigration issues have dominated headlines globally recently. While many American Christians view these…

Upcoming Events