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14 November 2023

What is mission? Part 1: The problem of ‘mission as growth’


David Williams is the Director of Training and Development for CMS, based at St Andrew’s Hall in Melbourne, Australia. In this first of a four-part series, he talks about the difficulty with viewing ‘growth’ as the aim of mission. In parts two, three and four he suggests looking rather to the glory of Godand the implications of this different perspective for our practice, our ‘virtue’, and how we evaluate fruitfulness in mission. 

How would you define the goal of mission? 

I often say to missionaries in training at St Andrew’s Hall, ’mission’ is a Humpty Dumpty word: ‘“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”’[1]

Lots of people talk about mission, but they are not all talking about the same thing.  

Returning, then, to our original question, when you boil it all down, what is mission all about? What are we hoping to accomplish? Different theological traditions answer this question in a variety of ways. Perhaps the most influential evangelical answer over the last century has been to say that mission is all about the growth of the church.  

We can trace the roots of this answer back to Donald McGavran. In Understanding Church Growth, he argued that while lots of good things happen under the banner of mission, one thing is fundamental, of a different essence. This fundamental thing is proclaiming the gospel so that people come to know Jesus and are gathered into churches. McGavran argued that the growth of the church is the fundamental and non-negotiable purpose of mission. He went on to say that if the growth of the church is of such significance, we should not be ashamed to measure it. McGavran brought the world of statistics and sociological research to the study of church growth. He stands as the father of the church growth movement, and therefore the grandfather of current trends like Disciple Making Movements.    

I suggest that there are some fundamental problems with the ‘mission as growth’ narrative. Let me outline three areas of concern:

1. Biblical concerns 

As we study the book of Acts, it is striking that when Luke records stories of growth, he always takes the same approach. He never says that the apostle grew the church. Growth is recorded in one of two ways. Sometimes Luke tells us that “the word of God increased and multiplied” or that “the churches increased daily in numbers”; and on other occasions Luke uses the passive voice: “there were added” or “believers were added.”[2]
Luke deliberately puts a degree of separation between church growth and human agency. The apostles proclaim, witness, strengthen, encourage. God grows his church.  

A second question is whether growth is always God’s intention for his people. In Acts, there does seem to be an overall trajectory of growth, although it is sporadic and not linear. But when we read John’s letters to the churches at the start of Revelation, 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 is obvious from the Old Testament that the nation of Israel experiences both great growth and terrible contraction. Growth is not necessarily the outcome God will give to his people.

2. Cultural concerns 

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 that is reaching ever more people, ever more quickly. Andrew Root has done a superb job at unpacking these narratives in relation to the church.[3] 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 that growth is an automatic good. 

3. Practical concerns

If we have swallowed the growth narrative of Western capitalism and if we believe growth is our responsibility as mission personnel, we face many practical challenges. The most obvious challenge is to our transparency and integrity. We have all heard stories of gospel workers who inflate the size and scope of the stories they tell in order to keep their supporters on board. If we believe that mission must be about growth, and we see no growth, then we inevitably conclude that we are doing something wrong.  

Perhaps a more insidious problem to 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 that 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 and we assume that we are only effective if things are growing. Alasdair MacIntyre alerts us to the risk of effectiveness becoming manipulation:  

“For the whole concept of effectiveness is, as I noticed earlier, inseparable from a mode of human existence in which the contrivance of means is in central part the manipulation of human beings into compliant patterns of behavior; and it is by appeal to his own effectiveness in this respect that the manager claims authority within the manipulative mode.”[4]

Conclusion 

I suggest that the ultimate goal or purpose of mission is better defined in relation to God. Rather than thinking that mission is ultimately about the growth of the church, I suggest that mission is ultimately about the glory of God. Michael Niebaur[5] has helped us enormously by unpacking how the activities of mission (such as the proclamation of the gospel), the purpose of mission (the glory of God) and the lives of people in mission relate to one another. We will explore these themes in future articles in this series.  

In the next article David Williams speaks about ‘Mission to the glory of God. 


References cited

[1] Carroll, Lewis. Through the Looking-Glass. London: Macmillan and Co., 1871. 

[2] MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue. 3rd ed. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2007. 

[3] Niebauer, Michael. Virtuous Persuasion : A Theology of Christian Mission. Studies in Historical and Systematic Theology. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Academic, 2022. 

[4] Root, Andrew. The Church after Innovation: Questioning Our Obsession with Work, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship. Ministry in a Secular Age. Vol. 5, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2022. 

[5] ———. The Congregation in a Secular Age: Keeping Sacred Time against the Speed of Modern Life. Ministry in a Secular Age. Vol. 3, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2021.