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14 November 2023

What is mission? Part 3: Glory and virtue


David Williams is the Director of Training and Development for CMS, based at St Andrew’s Hall in Melbourne, Australia. In this third of a four-part series, he suggests how aiming for God’s glory (as the reason for mission) will inform our ‘virtuous practice’ of mission.  

In the previous two articles, David looked at the goal of mission, discussing the problem of ‘mission as “growth”‘ and suggesting that the right goal of mission is the glory of God.  Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.  

In previous articles we have looked at some problems with the ‘mission as growth’ narrative. At the same time, we grieve that people do not know the Lord Jesus, and we delight when they put their trust in him. So we eagerly desire gospel growth—after all, people’s eternal salvation is at stake. I summarised our question as follows: how do we care about growth without making growth an ultimate good? I suggested that one way to do this is to define the overarching purpose of mission as the glory of God. In this article we will explore how a ‘glory of God missiology’ informs our practice of mission.  

When we recognise that the ultimate purpose of mission is the glory of God, this brings into focus the way that we practice mission. It is immediately obvious to us that God is not glorified by activities that are dishonest, deceitful or manipulative. One of the problems with the ‘mission as growth’ narrative is that this distinction might become opaque. If growth is considered an ultimate good, a good in its own right, then the way that growth happens might not matter much. However, we know that the New Testament cares a great deal about the way that growth happens: 

Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.
(2 Corinthians 4:2) 

Mission as virtuous practice 

If our desire is to serve in mission to bring glory to God, then it is clear that both what we do and how we do it must be God glorifying. Michael Niebauer explains these ideas by arguing that God-glorifying mission engages in the God-ordained activities of mission in a way that develops virtue in the practitioner.[1] Virtue might be summarised as my moral character. Virtues include the theological virtues of faith, hope and love. We can also think about virtue in terms of the fruit of the Spirit or the qualities listed in 2 Peter 1. A ‘glory of God missiology’ aims to practice mission virtuously.  

This in turn introduces us to the idea of virtuous practice. Alasdair MacIntyre explains the idea of virtuous practice as ‘an activity that both produces an external outcome that is virtuous and also grows the practitioner’s own internal virtue’.  

Virtuous practice has a number of key characteristics, which we can illustrate by thinking about parenting:[2]

  1. Virtuous practice has a long-term purpose or end—a telos. A virtuous practice has an ultimate purpose that defines it and gives it meaning. The ultimate purpose of the practice of parenting is to raise children to maturity.  
  2. Virtuous practice is part of a bigger story. This bigger story gives the practice meaning and coherence. Christian parenting sits within other stories—the story of Christian marriage, the story of lifelong discipleship, the story of belonging to a church. We engage in the virtuous practice of parenting by relating our parenting to these wider stories. As we do so, it increases our sense of the significance of parenting. 
  3. Virtuous practice benefits the practitioner: as we engage in virtuous practices, we ourselves are changed and transformed. As I am patient with my grumpy toddler, week in and week out, I grow in the fruit of patience. Over time, if I practice patience in my parenting, I will become a more patient person. Virtuous practice grows us in virtue. 
  4. Virtuous practice is valuable for its own sake. We don’t need an external reward to engage in virtuous practice. I parent because parenting is inherently valuable and important. I don’t parent with the goal that my children will fund my retirement.

There are lots of ways we could relate these ideas to a ‘glory of God missiology.’ Here is my attempt: 

  1. If we engage in mission as virtuous practice, our ultimate goal is for God to be glorified. We will discern what he is doing in the contexts where we serve. In terms of contextualisation, we will ask not only ‘where are we?’ but also ‘when are we?’[3] Is this a time when God is glorified by great gospel increase? By faithful gospel presence? By prophetic gospel challenge? We see all those seasons reflected in the Bible’s narrative.  
  2. If we engage in mission as virtuous practice, we will connect what we are doing with the wider story of what God is doing in Scripture. And we will relate these themes to the places we serve—in this town, this country, this region. 
  3. If we engage in mission as virtuous practice, we will think carefully about how we do what we do, practising mission faithfully and virtuously. This will in turn lead to our own transformation. We will grow in faith, hope and love. Serving in mission will grow me in virtue. 
  4. If we engage in mission as virtuous practice, God’s glory is enough for us. We don’t need other people’s affirmation. We won’t agonise over whether our work is successful, rather we will desire to be faithful.  

Conclusion 

If mission is ultimately about the glory of God, we will think carefully both about what we do in mission and about how we do it. What we do must be shaped by God’s glory—so we engage in the mission activities that God commands us to practice. In a ‘glory of God missiology’ we do these things not because we ought to; not because it is our duty; not because we feel guilty; but because we delight in God. He is our desire. God’s glory is our great joy.[4] And how we engage in those activities must also be God-glorifying. We will do God’s things God’s way. Practising mission activities should grow virtue in us as mission practitioners.  

This in turn will help us to reflect on what fruitful mission looks like. We will return to the theme of fruitfulness next time, in the final article in this series.  

What does it mean to be fruitful in mission? You can read David’s thoughts in the fourth and final part of this series. 


References cited

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

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

[3] Piper, John. Let the Nations Be Glad! The Supremacy of God in Missions. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1993. 

[4] Smith, James K.A. How to Inhabit Time: Understanding the Past, Facing the Future, Living Faithful Now. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2022.