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Mission in the 21st century: When it’s for God’s glory…and when it isn’t

My wife Rachel and I recently visited some CMS missionaries in South-East Asia. We met the pastor of their church–a wonderful, godly man who had just returned from a mission trip himself. He had been working in western Kenya, helping equip churches to address some very practical issues.

So, we were visiting Australian missionaries in South-East Asia–who go to a church where their pastor is involved in mission in sub-Saharan Africa. That kind of thing is entirely normal in 21st century mission and shouldn’t surprise us at all. Mission has been ‘from everywhere to everywhere’ for at least half a century.

As we talked with the CMS missionaries we were visiting, we found that they loved their church and their pastor. We also discovered that some other missionaries in the area tended to avoid local churches. They preferred to operate separately because they felt local churches slowed them down. Their goal was rapid gospel growth.

This experience in South-East Asia illustrates two significant themes of 21st century mission: listening to the voice of churches in places like South-East Asia or Kenya; and the desire to see rapid growth.

Mission as listening

‘World Christianity’ is the in vogue term for the majority of the world’s Christians – that is, those in Africa, Asia and Latin America. It’s a movement seeking to give voice to theologians and missiologists in non-Western, or at least non-Anglo, contexts.

Consider the frustration of Chilean theologian Gonzalo Arroyo who, when commenting on American theology professors, asked: “Why is it that when you speak of my theology you call it ‘Latin American Theology’, but when you speak of your theology you call it ‘theology’”? A significant proponent of world Christianity was Andrew Walls, a British missiologist who undertook an important re-examination of mission history. His research enables us to tell a more complete, more accurate story of 19th and 20th century Protestant mission. Walls shows that the massive growth of Christianity in the past 200 years has typically followed a pattern: Western missionaries arrived and their ministry usually resulted in a very small number of local people becoming Christians. The explosive growth of a church typically came through the ministries of those local Christians, not the missionaries.

It was the evangelism of people like Samuel Ajayi Crowther, the first Nigerian Anglican bishop, that led to great gospel growth. And yet, in 19th and early 20th century writings, the focus tended to be only on white missionaries. History ignored the contribution of world Christians.

All this has led to great interest in recovering a more accurate sense of our history. We are wonderfully recovering the stories of great saints like Apolo Kivebulaya, Angelina Noble, Samuel Crowther, Betsey Stockton and Pandita Ramabai, and learning from the missiologists and theologians of world Christianity.

In the 21st century, we have the joy of worshipping the Lord Jesus alongside brothers and sisters from many cultures and countries. We have the rich privilege of reading the Bible with different cultural perspectives. There are many wonderful things about world Christianity.

But there are also areas for concern. While it is wonderful to record history accurately, it doesn’t help if we simply repeat past mistakes. Just as it wasn’t wise to airbrush out non-Anglo people, it is not wise today to airbrush out Anglo mission work and give the impression that growth has come entirely from the national church.

A great theme within world Christianity has been the appeal to listen. To listen to the theologies and missiologies being written in the Global South. We absolutely need to do that. But in the hands of some this has been taken a step further, saying that Anglo Western churches should listen and also stop speaking. Some missiologists urge the West to take the road of humility and silence. Humility–yes, absolutely. Silence–surely not. To say that Western mission should be silent is clearly not a road we want to travel.

In a similar vein, the world Christianity narrative sometimes argues that mission is not about sending. We’re told that sending is a neo-colonial narrative. But mission in the New Testament cannot be separated from the concept of sending.

Mission as growth

Of course, if we are gospel people, we long to see others come to know the Lord Jesus. The vision of CMS is a world that knows Jesus. That vision has an expectation of growth and transformation built into it. We want to reach gospel-poor peoples for Christ. Again, that imagines growth.

But there is a bigger story here. In contemporary missiology, we can trace ‘mission as growth’ back to American missionary and missiologist, Donald McGavran. He argued that while many things were included under the umbrella of mission, one thing was more fundamental and important than everything else: the growth of the church. He developed a whole set of strategies based on sociological argument and observation.

For example, McGavran argued that mission should focus on people or people groups who are responsive to the gospel, and not focus on those who are not. We can trace a clear line of thought from the Church Growth Movement in the 1970s and ’80s, to church-planting movements in the ’90s and 2000s, to disciple-making movements today.

A definition of the latter says, ‘Disciple making movements spread the gospel by making disciples who learn to obey the word of God and quickly make other disciples, who then repeat the process’. Notice the emphasis on scope and speed. Church-planting movements and disciple-making movements aim to reach as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. The promise of these models is huge gospel growth. We are invited to return to the first years of the early church as its growth is described in Acts. This promise is supported by accounts of rapid multiplication of small churches and cells of believers in Asia, North India and across the Muslim world. Now, let me outline three areas of concern.


When Luke records growth stories, it is striking that he always takes the same approach. He never says the apostle grew the church. Growth is recorded in one of two ways. Sometimes, Luke tells us, “the word of God increased and multiplied” or “the Lord added to their number daily”; on other occasions he uses the passive voice–“there were added” or “believers were added”.

Luke deliberately puts a degree of separation between church growth and human agency. The apostles proclaim, witness, strengthen, encourage. God is the one who grows his church. A second question is whether growth is always God’s intention for his people. In Acts, there seems to be an overall trajectory of growth, although it is sporadic and not linear. But when we read John’s letters to the churches in Revelation, it is clear the Lord Jesus might act in judgement against a church. Maybe the Lord Jesus will bring the churches in Sardis and Laodicea to an end?

In the same way, it’s obvious from the Old Testament that the nation of Israel experiences both great growth and terrible contraction. Growth is not necessarily the outcome God gives to his people.


A second area of concern relates to secular culture. Growth is the narrative of Western capitalism. For a company to be successful, it needs to grow. This growth is measured in terms of speed and size. A successful company is one reaching ever more people, ever more quickly.

When churches buy into the growth narrative unreflectively, they risk exhausting their congregations and burning out their staff. For the Western mission movement, the growth narrative is the air we breathe. We assume growth is an automatic good. The mission world easily buys into this.


If we have swallowed the growth narrative of Western capitalism and believe growth is our responsibility as mission personnel, we face many challenges. The most obvious is to our transparency and integrity. There are many stories of gospel workers inflating the size and scope of their ministry to keep supporters on board. If we believe mission must be about growth, and we see no growth, we inevitably conclude that we are doing something wrong.

Perhaps a more insidious problem with the growth narrative is the temptation to instrumentalise relationships. Instead of seeing people for who they are–God’s children, made in his image–we see them for the ministry potential they might offer us. Mr Maina stops being Mr Maina and starts being a potential convert, or a potential small-group leader. We want to be effective in ministry but we assume that we are only effective if things are growing.

So, how do we care about growth without making growth an ultimate good–that is, a good in its own right? I suggest one way is to define the goal or purpose of mission in relation to God. Rather than thinking mission is ultimately about the growth of the church, I suggest it is ultimately about the glory of God.

Mission for God’s glory

In the book of Ezekiel, God works consistently to preserve the honour of his name. In the experience of the people of Israel, perhaps it felt as though God was changing his mind. However, Ezekiel makes it clear that this is not the case.

In the early chapters of the prophecy, God removes his presence from Jerusalem and reveals himself to Ezekiel in exile. The Lord withdraws from Jerusalem because the people who represent him are bringing his name into disgrace by worshipping idols within the temple.

Later in the book, foreign nations say the God of Israel has not been able to protect his people. So, God will restore Israel from exile–but for the sake of his holy name (Ezek 36:22-23). He has acted consistently for the sake of his glory. We see this theme repeated over and over in the Bible. Our God is holy. He delights when his people reflect his love, justice and mercy but will separate himself from the profane. When his people rebel against him, he will act in judgment. We see God both engaging with and withdrawing from his people in the Old and New testaments. When we recognise that the ultimate purpose of mission is God’s glory, this brings the way we practise mission into focus. It is obvious that God is not glorified by dishonest, deceitful or manipulative activities. One of the problems with ‘mission as growth’ is that this

distinction might become opaque. If growth is considered a good in its own right, then the way that growth happens might not matter much.

One of the problems with the Mars Hill Church in Seattle was that growth became an ultimate good. If you weren’t on board the Mars Hill bus, then the bus ran you over. But, as we’ve seen, growth is not an ultimate good. And we know the New Testament cares a great deal about the way growth happens: “we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary…” (2 Cor 4:2).

If our desire in mission is to bring glory to God, what we do and how we do it must be God-glorifying. Mission as listening has lots of useful things to teach us–but God is not glorified if we only listen and never proclaim the gospel. Similarly, mission as growth has lots of useful things to teach us–but God is not glorified if we make growth an ultimate thing, or if we pursue growth in ungodly ways. People who are engaging in mission in a way that glorifies God will be growing in godliness. Let me be clear what I mean by this. I’m saying that the way we proclaim the gospel should simultaneously grow us more like Christ. The way we do mission should grow our characters in godliness.

So, what does all this mean?

1. We need to remember the ultimate purpose of mission: to glorify God. Our heavenly Father wants to set apart a people for his own, a people marked out by their likeness to him. He is glorified as that happens. He is not glorified if those who profess his name are profaning him.

2. Mission is relational. Yes, some people come to faith in Christ by picking up a Bible and reading it. But most come to know Jesus through another person’s engagement with them. Human relationships lie at the heart of the activities of mission. And the quality of those relationships, the attention that we give to them, is very important. In a technological age, we risk instrumentalising relationships. We risk turning relationships into tools we can use. Levers we can pull. But love does not do that.

3. Serving in mission grows us in godliness. If I am serving Jesus but growing bitter, getting angrier, becoming cynical, something is wrong. I need to serve in mission in a way that grows me in love, joy, peace, patience, etc.

If mission is ultimately about the glory of God, we will think carefully about what we do and how we do it. What we do must be shaped by God’s glory, so we engage in the mission activities God commands us to practise, not because we ought to; not because it is our duty; not because we feel guilty; but because we delight in God. And how we engage in mission must also be God-glorifying. We will do God’s work in God’s way.