“Hey Google, what is mission?”

A Google search for “what is mission” returns the top two definitions: “1. an important assignment carried out for political, religious, or commercial purposes, typically involving travel. 2. the vocation or calling of a religious organization, especially a Christian one, to go out into the world and spread its faith.”[1] This understanding of mission has shaped much of modern Christian faith and practice and evidently the world—or at least Google—has taken note as well. Merriam-Webster provides an additional definition: “a preestablished and often self-imposed objective or purpose.”[2] This definition of mission may help us better understand the mission of God.

I argue that the mission of God is to create and dwell with all of creation, including the people of God and the nations. This understanding of the mission of God shifts my perspective on personal and ecclesial identity and gives shape to my vocation.

What is the preestablished and self-imposed objective or purpose of God? A good place to start would be, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”[3] The creation narrative illustrates whom, what, when, and where God created, however, it does not explicitly explain the reason why. I have often heard that the purpose of God is to save people or to redeem creation, yet I never found these answers satisfying as to why God created anything in the first place, if the sole objective was to see it fail in order to redeem it.

What if the purpose of God in creating was to simply enjoy the very act of it as well as the end product? When God creates light, water, land, vegetation, fruits, lights to rule over the day and night, sea creatures, birds, living creatures on the earth, and ultimately humankind, God sees each creation as good and when God sees everything that was made, “it was very good.”[4] Afterwards, “God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.”[5] It could be said that the mission of God, the preestablished and self-imposed purpose, was to create good work and when it was finished, to rest and enjoy the good creation. Like an artist who paints a picture, a cook who prepares a feast, a coder who designs a website, and a parent who raises a child, there is something beautiful and meaningful in the very act of creating and in the creation. When many in the modern age view their work simply as a means, most often to make money in order to provide a living, God demonstrates that work ought to be good in and of itself. That was and continues to be the mission of God.

Placed within the story of creation, is the introduction of humankind. An interesting note to make, particularly when we as humans are inclined to make ourselves the center of the story, is that the creation of humankind did not even encompass a “day” of its own. We shared it with the creation of the beasts and livestock of the earth.[6] The special trait that humankind did receive is that we were created in the image of God, a motif I will explore in more detail. [7] Humankind was given a purpose as well. On the indicative of being blessed by Creator God, humankind was to be fruitful, increase in number, fill and subdue the earth, have dominion over the living creatures, and eat.[8] Humankind was placed in the good creation and was given the same enjoyable purpose of working and taking care of it.[9] Yet, as most interesting stories go, there are always characters who mess things up.

God dwells with creation and with humankind as initially intended.[10] However, instead of fulfilling the simple and enjoyable purpose set forth by God, humankind disobeys by doing the one thing they were not supposed to do. Like one who vandalizes a painting, a server over-seasoning a meal, a hacker inserting a bug, or a child disobeying a parent, the good creation was ruined. Instead of issuing the initial consequence from disobeying, God formulates a new purpose for restoring what had been marred.[11] God executes this specific purpose through a covenant with Abram, through whom “all peoples on earth will be blessed.”[12]

The Bible takes its readers on a complicated journey of how God will fulfill this new purpose. In contrast to most self-imposed objectives where the work is ongoing and the end result uncertain, we are fortunate to know how this story will end. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God restores the broken relationship with humankind and will fulfill blessing all peoples on earth. Bible readers have a glimpse into the ultimate reality God has planned.

“Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.”[13] The people of God are found in the new creation, where the gates and foundations of the city have the names of the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles of the Lamb, respectively.[14] The nations will walk by the light of God and their glory and honor will be brought into the city of God.[15] “And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”[16] Once again, God is at work creating a good creation, “a new heaven and a new earth.”[17] God is fulfilling the purpose of redeeming the people of God, through whom all nations will be blessed. God is ultimately continuing the purpose of creating good work and to enjoy good creation. God states, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment.”[18] What a masterpiece.        

This framework, or missional hermeneutic, is imperative for understanding the Biblical narrative, as Christopher Wright argues in The Mission of God.[19] The Bible itself is a “missional phenomenon,” providing within its own texts and as a whole (as demonstrated above) the mission of God.[20] “In short, a missional hermeneutic proceeds from the assumption that the whole Bible renders to us the story of God’s mission through God’s people in their engagement with God’s world for the sake of the whole creation.”[21] This “missional basis of the Bible” can only be properly understood when there is radical shift in one’s preconceived ideas of mission.[22] The story of God’s mission, according to Wright,

begins with the God of purpose in creation, moves on to the conflict and problem generated by human rebellion against that purpose, spends most of its narrative journey in the story of God’s redemptive purpose being worked out on the stage of human history, [and] finishes beyond the horizon of its own history with the eschatological hope of a new creation.[23]

I owe much of my own “missional hermeneutic” to the argument presented by Wright, with a particular emphasis on the beginning of God’s purpose in creation. Understanding the historical and “grand metanarrative” of the Bible and fully capturing the mission of God affects all other aspects of mission, including the mission of humanity, Israel, Jesus, and the church.[24] The mission of the church, which has often been the primary or only study of “missions,”[25] “means the committed participation of God’s people in the purposes of God for the redemption of the whole creation.”[26] In order to do proper justice in our participation, it requires—and I quote at length—“a missional hermeneutic [that] means that we seek to read any part of the Bible in the light of

  • God’s purpose for his whole creation, including the redemption of humanity and the creation of the new heavens and new earth
  • God’s purpose for human life in general on the planet and of all the Bible teaches about human culture, relationships, ethics and behavior
  • God’s historical election of Israel, their identity and role in relation to the nations, and the demands he made on their worship, social ethics, and total value system
  • the centrality of Jesus of Nazareth, his messianic identity and mission in relation to Israel and the nations, his cross and resurrection
  • God’s calling of the church, the community of believing Jews and Gentiles who constitute the extended people of the Abraham covenant, to be the agent of God’s blessing to the nations in the name and for the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ.[27]

Adopting this missional basis of the Bible, will allow Christians to sing more richly,

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost,

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be,

World without end, Amen.[28]

“This is not just a liturgically conventional way to end prayers and canticles.” Wright explains, “It is a missional perspective on history past, present and future, and one day it will be the song of the whole creation.”[29]

Wright references this short Trinitarian hymn to capture the whole breadth of the mission of God.[30] The Trinity, as Eugene Peterson explains, “is the theological formulation that most adequately provides a structure for keeping conversations on the Christian life coherent, focused, and personal… If God’s presence and work are not understood to define who we are and what we are doing, nothing we come up with will be understood and lived properly.”[31] This understanding of God may seem like mere abstraction and some aspects certainly are, however, Peterson argues that the Trinity ought to be “a witness that God reveals himself as personal and in personal relations,” and thus is not understood as intellectual categorization, but rather and only through relation.[32] Miroslav Volf corroborates this notion in his work, After Our Likeness. “[These] brief and abstract considerations concerning the one and the many indicate that the way one thinks about God will decisively shape not only ecclesiology, but the entirety of Christian thought.”[33] This relational understanding of God, which Volf explains theologically as the perichoretic personhood of God,[34] aligns with the mission of God, to dwell with all of creation, the people of God, and the nations.

Volf interacts with two leading voices from the Catholic and Orthodox tradition to assess how different understandings of the Trinity has led and continues to lead to different understandings and expressions of the church. Different traditions and theologians have emphasized and have an affinity towards universalization or pluralization, depending on their Trinitarian theology.[35] While older traditions have been steeped in Trinitarian thought and practice, the Trinity “has remained largely alien to the Free Church tradition.”[36] Volf aims to place the “cry of protest of the Free Churches — ‘We are the church’ — into a trinitarian framework and with elevating it to the status of an ecclesiological program… that is dogmatically fully orthodox.”[37] The focus of his work is on the inner nature of the church and he explicitly states that he does not directly address how the church should “participate in God’s mission in the world.”[38] Thus, it would be unfair to respond and critique his work specifically in regards to the mission of God, but there are two aspects of ecclesiology worth mentioning.

Volf argues that the church is the image of God and must be understood in light of God’s new creation, “as the anticipation of the eschatological gathering of the entire people of God.”[39] If the church is the image of God, then the mission of the church is the mission of the triune God, to be in communion with the entire people of God in the new heaven and new earth.[40] If the church is understood strictly in this manner, perhaps then we will be better equipped to understand the mission of God. Having a proper understanding of God and “the church as community is therefore simultaneously a missiological dispute concerning the correct way in which the communal form of Christian faith today is to be lived authentically and transmitted effectively.”[41] While the “decentralized participative structure and culture” that Volf presents seem like a more plausible expression and form of church, one must remain grounded in theocentric mission and worship, rather than a predominant ecclesiocentric view.[42] Volf reminds us that “[successful] participative church life must be sustained by deep spirituality. Only the person who lives from the Spirit of communion (2 Cor. 13:13) can participate authentically in the life of the ecclesial community.”[43]

Understanding more of who God is and the mission of God in the world, continually shapes my identity and vocation. The tendency, as we saw from the beginning, is the desire to make ourselves the primary character and author of our lives. I do not believe this is solely a modern dilemma of extreme individualism, but can be a tribal flaw as well, such as the role and emphases of the institutional church. Wright argues that a “shift in paradigm” is necessary, from “our human agency to the ultimate purposes of God,” from “mission as ‘missions’ that we undertake, to mission as that which God has been purposing and accomplishing from eternity to eternity,” and from “an anthropocentric (or ecclesiocentric) conception to a radically theocentric worldview.”[44] I believe my personal identity has been greatly impacted by fully understanding the mission of God. However, having been shaped by the “modern social imaginary” and the evangelical emphasis of personal experience in salvation, I believe we in the modern West will continue to live in this tension, until the new creation.[45]

In the Fall of 2019, my wife and I rested from attending a local Sunday gathering of a Free Church. We were in search of what it means to be the church, instead of being a mere consumer, lay participant, or even a devoted member to the various programs of churches. We were unsure of what we were looking for, but wanted to avail ourselves to the possibility of a new rhythm that the Spirit of God would reveal. By understanding the mission of God and the church as the anticipation of the eschatological gathering of the people of God, Volf provides a strong theological dogmatic to our ecclesiology, even expressed within a family unit, another important growing theme.[46] While I do not believe I have landed anywhere concretely, I certainly have a strong platform to jump off and claim, “We are the church!”

According to the biblical narrative, who we are is shaped and defined by our relation to God and who God is and our vocations ought to be shaped and defined by our relation to what matters to God and what God is doing.[47] It is important to understand this grand metanarrative, but Steven Garber reminds us, “To have good lives, we cannot spend much of life talking about utopian fantasies, about ‘wouldn’t it be nice’ worlds.”[48] In order to combat the tendency to veer towards a utopian ideal, we can “live proximately” and one way to do so is through the vocation and calling of family. Not just as a socioeconomic benefit, cultural nicety, or fear of being an idol, but as one expression in the participation of the mission of God, as a church and as a witness to the image of God, dwelling with creation and being a blessing to those around and all nations.

“For eternity, all my heart will give, all the glory to your name.”[49]

[1] Lexico, s.v. “mission,” accessed April 14, 2020, https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/mission (emphasis added).

[2] Merriam-Webster, s.v. “mission,” accessed April 14, 2020, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mission.

[3] Gen 1:1 (ESV).

[4] Gen 1:3-31. I use the translation of “adam” as humankind, taken from the NRSV translation and explained further by Iain Provan in Seriously Dangerous Religion (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014), 80-1.

[5] Gen 2:3b.

[6] Gen 1:24-26.

[7] Gen 1:26-27.

[8] Gen 1:28-29.

[9] Gen 2:15.

[10] Gen 3:8-9.

[11] Gen 2:17.

[12] Gen 12:1-3; 15.

[13] Rev 21:3.

[14] Rev 21:12-13.

[15] Rev 21:22,24.

[16] Rev 21:5a.

[17] Rev 21:1a.

[18] Rev 21:6.

[19] Christopher J.H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006). This book deserves its own space for reflection and response, yet I will do my best to briefly summarize the main points in this essay.

[20] Wright, 48-50.

[21] Ibid., 51.

[22] Ibid., 62. I will return to this shift as it deeply resonated with me personally.

[23] Ibid., 63-4.

[24] Ibid., 63, 66-7.

[25] Ibid., 33-4. Most studies of or rather for Christian missions is “to find appropriate biblical justification and authority for the mission of the Christian church to the nations.”

[26] Ibid., 67.

[27] Ibid., 67-8.

[28] Ibid., 64.

[29] Ibid., 65.

[30] The appearance of this hymn has declined drastically since the late twentieth century. See Hymnary.org, s.v. “Gloria Patri,” accessed April 14, 2020, https://hymnary.org/text/glory_be_to_the_father_and_to_the_son.

[31] Eugene H. Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 6.

[32] Ibid., 7.

[33] Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 193.

[34] Ibid., 208-9.

[35] Ibid., 193-4.

[36] Ibid., 196. Volf associates Free Church as “churches with a congregationalist church constitution” and secondly as those who affirm the separation of church and state. See Volf, 9.

[37] Ibid., 11, 20. The study presented by Volf is far-reaching especially for the modern society and church. I believe it is crucial to understand how he defines the church, the mediation of faith, and the “polycentric-participative” model, however, space will not permit me to fully engage with his material here.

[38] Ibid., 2, 7 (emphasis added).

[39] Ibid, 128, 197.

[40] Ibid., 257.

[41] Ibid., 11. Through the Trinitarian understanding of ecclesiology expressed through the Free Churches, I believe the model that Volf presents is better equipped to engage with modern individualism and human rights, sociological hierarchy and structures, and roles and responsibilities of the individual and community. See Volf, 220, 226, 228.

[42] Volf, 257 and Wright, 62.

[43] Volf, 257.

[44] Wright, 62 (emphases added).

[45] See Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries and Catherine A. Brekus, Sarah Osborn’s World.

[46] Volf, 17-18, 36.

[47] Steven Garber, Visions Of Vocation (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2014), 161.

[48] Ibid., 220.

[49] Listen to Hillsong Worship, “You Hold Me Now – Hillsong Worship,” YouTube, accessed April 15, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ldX-5y8ulM.