What is the Purpose of Missions– Like, Really?

by Laura on April 2, 2012

I’m not going to lie– my idea of missions has had an extreme makeover during the last several years. I pushed off shore thinking I knew so much about loving-well and Jesus-following in another culture, but I continue to learn that I probably know-wrong more than I know-right.

And this can be very disheartening for the hit-the-ground-running missionary. Independent or with an organization. Short-term or long-term. With kids or single. Social-justice-minded or gospel-driven or leadership-developing . When you continue to have your neat-and-tidy-boxes of the purpose of overseas missions {and effectiveness} slam-dunked with the realities on foreign soil in the 21st century, you tend to falter a bit.

Which leads me to a question I’d love to have us as a community discuss:

What, really, is the purpose of international missions?

Is it to develop communities or to fight social injustice? Is it to disciple or evangelize or convert? Is it to be Jesus-with-skin-on or is it to save people from hell?  Should it look like developing national leaders or empowering the local church or handing out boatloads of resources?

And I know it sounds a bit wild, for me to even be asking this. But, honestly, really, I’m serious, I’ve had conversations over the past two years with lots of missionaries here, and many of them have very different opinions on the answer.

All right, the gate is opened, regardless of what latitude you call home: In one sentence, what is the chief purpose of overseas missions? If you are serving overseas, what one (or two!) purposes of missions is your main motivator? And, while we’re at it, do you like the term “missionary” itself?

Also, would you consider sharing this conversation via Facebook or twitter to ask your friends to join in the conversation?  I’d love to see what the general consensus is.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jennisue.jessen Jenni Sue Jessen

    In the history of missions, it is the “OR”s that have defeated us.  I think the purpose of missions is ALL of what you listed: being Jesus with skin on AND saving people from hell…developing leaders AND empowering the local church…being social justice minded AND gospel driven…to disciple AND to evangelize.  The problem in missions and with us as Christians comes when we choose one over the other, choosing OR instead of AND. 

    • lauraparkerblog

       Yes, I like this idea that it is definitely more than one thing.  I think, though, that most people are motivated by one or two purposes chiefly. For me personally, I have found that Matt and I get really driven by social justice issues.  We are wired and driven to care deeply about that, whereas I am not all that wired to plant churches.  Not that planting churches isn’t a great purpose, but for my “missions” experience, it’s just not the motivating one for me right now. 

      Great to hear from you Jenni.  I hope you guys are doing well. Pray for you as we pass your house lately!

    • lauraparkerblog

       Oh, and, this was such a good answer, I had to adjust the question to make it more specific.  :)

      Give your kids our love . .  .

  • lauraparkerblog

    And, just for the record, I definitely do NOT think it’s “handing out boatloads of resources.”  Just sayin.

    • Tanja V

      My teacher in Bible school Barbara Johnson said: we do missions so that the Lamb that was slain receives the prize for his suffering. And the prize is our obedience and love. (and that of te people reached through our obedience and love).

      Those words have stuck with me ever since… And I’m a missionary in Africa.

      • Tanja V

        And handing out stuff is definitely not the answer… I’ve been to a lot of Places where others have gone before and given out stuff and thus taught the” gospel of free stuff” along with whatever other good and positive things they did with the best of intentions. Lets jst say that unless you bring something to give away, nobody cares to listen to you in those places. I am sure nobody intends for that ti happen, but sadly, it does.

        • lauraparkerblog

          “Gospel of free stuff”– funny– I like that!  Not that I LIKE it, but think the term is fitting, for sure.  Thanks, Tanja for stopping in and for your service in Africa. :)

  • http://www.thecanvasstory.com/ Info

    Obedience. Do what God tells you to do. I think it’s that simple. When you know without a doubt what God wants from you, other people’s opinions of the “right way” don’t matter. 

    • lauraparkerblog

      Obedience, yes.

    • http://twitter.com/JustSchneider Justin

       Does that mean we’re not missionaries if we never hear the “voice” of God?  Plus, what about the people who do silly things because it’s what they grew up with thinking was helpful — and they justify it with knowing without a doubt?  I like to question answers.  Not trying to offend, just trying to join the “help me understand” crowd.

      • lauraparkerblog

        Justin, love your questions. I think, for me, I have found myself in a quandary of late because the direction of God feels like I may have heard that through a filter of lots of other things from my past. I wonder if I have talked myself into a direction, and felt led in that direction, mainly because I was already predisposed to head that way, anyway?

        It’s a hard thing to discern, I think– God’s voice. And yes, like the other commenter said, we do always need to obey– yes. But, I agree that it gets really, uber-tricky when our humanity is trying to do the listening.
        Yet, yet– I have to keep coming back to the heart and God’s sovereignty. If my heart is in just the best place I can muster it to be (desiring God, seeking, loving God, not serving self, etc), and even if I do hear God through the filter of past dogma or false ideals, etc, I have to trust that God is in even that, can use even that for ultimate good. Right? ugh . . . right?

        If not, then I can’t move forward in confidence in anything. Because I could always, always second guess myself and God’s leading. And then God becomes much less involved in my personal walk and decisions . . .

        hhhmmm . . . . thanks for asking the good questions, Justin.

  • Lorie Greer

    For me it’s been helpful to define what my mission is personally than what it means universally. My family and I will be moving to northeast India, as independent missionaries,  in October.  Like many places there is a ministry opportunity at every turn, and I know it will be hard to know which way to go at times,  so  we’ve discussed that it will be important to remember what God’s call was/is for us. We are the body of Christ and serve in different capacities and to stray from what God is equipping us to do would be a disaster.  Our focus will be mainly evangelism, discipleship and church planting ( and for me hopefully helping some learn to read).  The circumstances they live in might not ever change on earth but my desire is that the hope of heaven would help them persevere in them.  Honestly, as soon as our goals tumble out of our mouths it seems like God takes us in a new direction. It’s been a really humbling experience just getting ready to go I can’t imagine what it will be like when we are actually there. I’ve gained a lot of encouragement from blogs like yours (even though what you say isn’t always pretty, haha) but the fact that you are still there makes me think that it’s worth it. 

    • lauraparkerblog

      Lorie,
      Love your honesty and openness– can’t wait to hear of your adventures in India!  So exciting!  Sounds like you are really grounded in your perception of what you are going into and that you are open to God steering your ship once you get there.  Keep following along, friend!  :)

  • Lorie Greer

    Oops, I just saw the words ” in one sentence” and guess what- I have more to say!  My husband and I really struggled with the “m” word. It always makes me cringe for some reason. Maybe it’s because my name used to be just  Lorie  and occasionally my last name, Greer, was thrown in there too. Lately it goes more like this, “Hi everybody, this is my friend LoriewhoisgoingtobeamissionaryinIndia.” Why is it that this kind of introduction makes me wish I  knew a dirty joke that would snap them out of  the “I’m in the presence of a missionary stupor”.  Oh well, I figure  I can either keep on being irritated over something really quite trivial or I can get over it and accept that this is just part of it. 

    • lauraparkerblog

      LOVE your honesty here.  Totally get being defined by the “drama” of moving overseas . . .

  • julie gentino

    Hi Laura!  I feel a little intimidated answering this question (which is funny since I am a missionary), but I think I love John Piper’s quote best: “Missions exists because worship doesn’t.”  So for me, the chief purpose of overseas missions is the worship of God.  All of those specifics you mentioned fall under this overarching purpose.

    • lauraparkerblog

      Worship.  Like that.  Simple, true. Thanks, Julie!

  • http://twitter.com/theBossyMom Susan Hill

    Personally I think we have a misconception in the US {maybe it’s just my misconception} that every other country needs to be changed or converted into OUR perception of what Christianity is. {Did that make sense?} In other words, anything that looks or seems different from what WE know…must be altered. When, as a former pastor’s wife, the greatest missionary stories I encountered – as they came home to re-group – were the ones who fell in love with where they were ministering and brought ‘God’ to the people in a way that was authentic and relevant to that country. Whether through social change, religious change, physical supplies, or whatever…  {hope that made sense!}

    And I saw you mentioned that social justice had become very important to you. Which reminded me of something I read that I wanted to share. It was a statement that said {not exact quote here} sometimes we have to get started in a direction so that God can direct us AS we travel. They said, ‘You can’t guide a docked ship.’ So maybe you went out as a ‘missionary’ and are now finding yourself being ‘directed’ into social justice/change. Awesome! At least you are giving God something to work with. Keep giving your best…and He will direct you where you’re needed. {eek…WAY more than a sentence. Sorry….;) }

    • lauraparkerblog

      Susan, I love you point about missions not “converting people into our perception of what Christianity is.”  This is so true. Here in Asia, the first wave of missionaries taught a very conservative view of the Bible including rules about tattoos and drinking alcohol. Now, it is a general consensus that to be a Christian you can’t do/have any of those things. Obviously, this can cause problems with the newer missionaries/social workers who come here who do have tattoos and who do drink wine!  

      Love the idea, too, of falling in love with the people . . . 

  • Lokiswan

    The purpose of overseas missions is to glorify God. We do this by working (praying) to let His kingdom come and His will be done – in our own home and lives and in the lives of the neighbours He gives us, whether they look and speak just like us or whether they don’t. God’s glory as a purpose stands long after my zeal for missions, my love for the people and my call to a specific ministry has fallen, because He is committed to glorifying His own name and I am just privileged when I can participate.

    • lauraparkerblog

      I really really super liked this:

      ” God’s glory as a purpose stands long after my zeal for missions.”  Love that idea of something so. much. bigger than my zeal for a certain goal.

  • JaimeBrewer

    I’ve read the comments below, but I have to repeat something that’s already been said-it’s obedience. Ask me two years ago if we’d be on our way overseas and I would have laughed. He’s called, we’re answering and following HIS lead. Why He calls some and not others? Maybe another blog post altogether!

    • lauraparkerblog

      love this Jamie– obedience and following and giving everyone the freedom for that to look differently.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Lauren-Jones/29700818 Lauren Jones

    For me the purpose is to follow the example of Christ and love people, provide for their needs (with out giving hand outs all the time….for me that is through education), and build relationships.  Perhaps through those relationships I am given a chance to share my beliefs and my faith in God (notice I say share and not force or push).   In one sentence, I am a missionary because of Jesus’ example of selfless love.  Although I will never achieve that love, I follow that as my example in my life. 
    And no, I am not a big fan of the word “missionary”….it has connotations and evokes images and ideas that I may not want to be associated with, but it is what it is:)

    • lauraparkerblog

      Lauren, totally get the deal with not liking the word “missionary”– I think in our modern culture it evokes some negative things that maybe it didn’t 25 years ago. maybe? I don’t know, but I do know that I will very often just introduce myself like this:

      “my husband works for a humanitarian foundation”

      Is that a cop-out? Hmmmm . . . .

      Ya’ll are leaving soon, right?!

      • Lauren J

        That is not a cop out.  In fact, I often say we are going to West Africa and people say to do what and I’ll say “with a missions organization to teach”.  I understand:)

        We are leaving for training in July, then more training in October, and finally to Africa in January! 

  • Adam Hutchinson

    Overseas missions is no different to ‘anywhere missions’ because it’s about Righteousness: being right, doing right, declaring what is right, actively bringing about what is right, making God known by making things right. Defining ‘right’ is the hard part and where people come subjectively unstuck.

    • lauraparkerblog

      Overseas missions is no different to ‘anywhere missions’– preach it, dude. I agree wholeheartedly.

  • Fionasmiffy

    I’ve been involved in “mission” (short-term trips, inner city living) for years and have had it in my head that all the tough stuff God’s brought me through has been in preparation for, finally, going overseas long-term. At last, to reach the Promised Land as a tougher/sorted/together  Woman-of-God……. Well, now I’ve lived in Cambodia for a year and a half, I don’t think any of that anymore. In fact I’m laughing as I write this. Because for me now, it’s about vulnerability and brokenness rather than success and being-brave. I’ve discovered, quite honestly, that as a Westerner I’m pretty rubbish at being a missionary. In the way I once understood it anyway. Right now I’m on a strange backwards journey and to me, mission makes most sense through stories like the Parable of the feast. God saying “Please come to my party” in all his glory and vulnerability, and getting his eclectic mix of friends (activists, contemplatives, artists, writers, teachers, parents, builders, cooks, entrepreneurs, pastors, gardeners, accountants, backpackers, surfers, musicians…….) to pass on the message. 

    • lauraparkerblog

      oh. my. word.

      i loved your response. i feel this too– so truly. especially this:

      “Right now I’m on a strange backwards journey and to me, mission makes most sense through stories like the Parable of the feast. God saying “Please come to my party” in all his glory and vulnerability, and getting his eclectic mix of friends (activists, contemplatives, artists, writers, teachers, parents, builders, cooks, entrepreneurs, pastors, gardeners, accountants, backpackers, surfers, musicians…….) to pass on the message. ”

      i thought this was really and truly insightful. thanks for giving it to us.

  • Brittany Cetti

    I’ve actually been struggling with this same idea for the past couple of months. What does it really mean to be a ‘missionary’? I’ve been one now for 5 years and I still don’t feel like God has called me to a certain country, injustice, or area of missions. What I’m beginning to realize is that He didn’t put a calling on my life to be a missionary, but that He called me to love. He has called ALL OF US to love. And the best way that I know how to love is to put others before me. Live with a little less, give a little more, live the ‘missionary’ lifestyle I guess, whatever that means or however that looks. I’m finding myself frustrated at God for not making it clear to me, but I hear him asking me ‘what do YOU want to do?’. I’m learning to serve out of desire, not out of obligation, but out of the desire to see people know Christ, and to feel Him. Just when I think I’ve got it all figured out, I realize I’m lost. Go figure. 

    • lauraparkerblog

      Brittany,

      Oh, girl, I hear this! The desire to serve, to find “it”– the elusive “calling”. Sometimes I think people do have that/get that, but I do think that other times, maybe its just not that cut and dry. Maybe we are the ones who put this big pressure on ourselves to find the calling/mission. I love what you are learning about simple loving. Extravagantly, well.

      but, I do get your feeling of being lost in it. I honestly, feel that too.

  • http://www.angiewashington.com/ @ngie

    Love God and love people. 

    • lauraparkerblog

      YES. and heavens sake, that can happen anywhere, anytime, with anyone. Love the simplicity of Jesus. . . .

  • Steve Pecota

    Lot’s of great comments. When we were in Germany for 20 years, I always loved to share that overseas mission happened because God loves to blow his dust around. You’re probably too young to know the lyrics to “Woodstock” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, but I suppose the metaphor is a nod to them. What I mean by that, though, is that there’s kind of a mystery to missions. Why did we end up in Europe? Why are you in SE Asia? Part of the answer is that God delights in blowing the dust of our lives into geographical and cultural settings that are way outside our personal comfort zones in order that his surpassing glory might show up in our very frail jars of clay. We’re the dust and we simply get blown. He shows up and turns it to gold. (That’s funny, because I’m an Arminian but that sounds rather Calvinist to me.)

    • lauraparkerblog

      what a fun way to think about it– God blowing dust.

      and what a good reminder that that is really all that we are . . .

      and WOW– 20 YEARS overseas! i think i could learn a lot from you!

    • http://www.ourwrightingpad.blogspot.com/ richelle

      we were, just last night, singing that song:

      “He makes beautiful things… He makes beautiful things out of dust-
      He makes beautiful things… He makes beautifu things out of us.”

      isn’t that our hope?

      • lauraparkerblog

        Oh my– I LOVE Gungor and that song has been my anthem this past month as well!

  • http://www.ourwrightingpad.blogspot.com/ richelle

    i haven’t read the other comments – i believe the chief purpose of overseas missions is to glorify God by loving Him and loving people.

    strangely enough (or maybe not so strangely) God has clearly shown me that I’m not here because He needed me to be here… or because the people I came to serve needed me to be here… but because here is exactly where He wanted me to be while He works on me – at least for this season. I may have great dreams of impacting the world for the sake of Christ – I think the Lord just wants to refine me into someone more like Him and in that process, I pray that others will see glimpses of Him.

    i don’t mind the term missionary – i’ve spent my whole life (well, almost as long as i can remember) wanting to grow up and be a missionary… and i’m still trying to get there. it seems like some unattainable goal – to be a “real missionary,” like the ones who are my heroes, who i admire from afar, who are seemingly used by God to do things I can only dream of. so, i’ve stopped thinking of myself as a misso in my head and consider myself just another follower of Jesus. maybe someday, i’ll actually grow into all of His plans for me and i’ll be a “missionary.”

    • lauraparkerblog

      oh, lady, this was perfect:

      “strangely enough (or maybe not so strangely) God has clearly shown me that I’m not here because He needed me to be here… or because the people I came to serve needed me to be here… but because here is exactly where He wanted me to be while He works on me – at least for this season. I may have great dreams of impacting the world for the sake of Christ – I think the Lord just wants to refine me into someone more like Him and in that process, I pray that others will see glimpses of Him.”

    • Lorie Greer

      “strangely enough (or maybe not so strangely) God has clearly shown me that I’m not here because He needed me to be here… or because the people I came to serve needed me to be here… but because here is exactly where He wanted me to be while He works on me – at least for this season. I may have great dreams of impacting the world for the sake of Christ – I think the Lord just wants to refine me into someone more like Him and in that process, I pray that others will see glimpses of Him. “This is exactly what I’ve been trying to say in response to the question, “Why India?” I don’t know why God is leading us to India (considering I took 5 years of Spanish, haha) but if God is inviting me into a deeper relationship with Him and He wants to reveal Himself to me in India then that is where I want to be.  Sometimes we get so caught up in what we believe God wants to do for others that we forget that He has His eye on us too.  Thanks again Richelle!

      • lauraparkerblog

        Lorrie, this really struck me:
        “Sometimes we get so caught up in what we believe God wants to do for others that we forget that He has His eye on us too.”

        Absolutely.

  • spreadtheflame

    I think about this often and just wrote about my specific burden of those with “little to no access to the Gospel” and all of its benefits including freedom and justice.  Here is my post that contains some other links of past writings: http://spreadtheflame.com/2012/04/red-zones-the-last-frontiers-of-missions/

  • Yahwehgsi

    The main purpose of missions is that God’s name would be great among the nations (Malachi 1:11)  There are some great side efffects or by products like meeting physical needs, fighting social injustice and people being saved.  Ezekiel 36 also speaks about the purpose of God in saving Israel is so that His name will be great.  If the main focus is making lives better or helping them escape hell then it is a humanistic purpose and not one to bring Glory to the lamb that was slain.  Praise God though for the by products of meeting needs.

  • Ross Slane

    The purpose of missions (local or overseas) is to bring Glory to God. That is the motivation behind sharing the Gospel. Our passion for God being glorified should overwhelm our love for the people that we are ministering to.

    I speak as a man preparing for a life of missions work in north/east Africa.

    I wrote about this exact topic on my own blog at http://rossslane.com/2013/09/29/417

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