What is mission, and what is the principal foundation for the mission of the church? The word mission itself comes from the Latin verb missio, which means "to send." So, literally, missions has to do with sending. In the Scriptures, we see the verb to send being used over and over, in a multitude of ways. But there's a sense in which the whole life of the church and the whole experience of the Christian are rooted ultimately in some kind of sending that is founded in the authority and the action of God Himself.
It is God who institutes, sanctifies, and mandates the mission of the church. One of the most famous passages in the Bible speaks to this mission: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). Many people know this verse, but how many know the next verse? "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him" (v. 17). The motive behind the divine action of redemption crystallized in John 3:16 lies in the action of God in sending His Son into the world. The purpose was not negative but positive; God didn't send the Son for the purpose of judgment, but rather for the purpose of redemption. Verse 34 reveals more about that mission: "For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure." Who is the one whom God had sent? It's Jesus Christ, and He was sent speaking the words of God and giving the Holy Spirit without measure.
Jesus speaks also in His High Priestly Prayer of speaking the words of God and of having been sent by the Father: "For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me" (John 17:8). As He continues to pray for the disciples, He says, "As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world" (v. 18). Here we see the basis for the mission of the church. God sent Christ; Christ sent the church. The biblical basis for missions is the Word of God spoken in divine authority; it is the mandate of Christ.
We live in a time wherein the secular culture and many ecclesiastical authorities dismiss the whole concept of world missions. Some claim that the time of world missionary activity is over. One argument offered for this is that missions are not only unnecessary but are a destructive force unleashed upon the world. The charge is that world missions have been nothing more than a platform for imperialism and for the exploitation of the underdeveloped nations by the industrialized nations in the world. There is also the sociological consideration that civilization is a corrupting influence upon innocent natives who would have greater well-being and peace without the problems of the Western world that are inevitably carried in the carpetbags of the missionary.
This is pure nonsense, of course, and not supported by evidence. Modern missions provide valuable medical, educational, and agricultural resources, in addition to the important work of preaching the gospel. Unfortunately, the number of missionaries in the field continues to decline, because a significant portion of the church no longer believes that it's necessary to fulfill the mandate from Christ to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth.
But the mission of God has always been a sending program. God spoke to Abram in the land of the Chaldeans and sent him to a new land where he would be the father of a great nation. He came to Moses in the midst of the Midianite wilderness and sent Moses to Pharaoh with the message, "Let my people go." God sent His children out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. When they were disobedient to the covenant that God had made with them, He sent the prophets to warn them. When that didn't bring them around, He sent His Son.
The word apostle means "one who is sent." In the time of the New Testament, an apostle was one who would carry the authority to speak in the name of the one who had sent him. In the New Testament, the first Apostle is Christ Himself, the one sent by the Father. Then, the Father and Son sent the Holy Spirit. Then, the Spirit was poured out on the church, and the church was sent to complete the ministry of Christ in all the world—to every tongue, to every nation, to every tribe.
In Romans 10, Paul raises a series of questions that speak directly to the matter of our responsibility. Having affirmed that "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" (v. 13), he then asks:
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!" (vv. 14–15)
No one can call upon Christ to save them if they don't believe in Him. Paul puts his finger on the challenge and the responsibility of the church: to send, so that people might hear about Christ, and upon hearing, might believe and be saved.
When is the missionary mandate over? When it has been fulfilled, and the mandate of Christ has been completed. If someone stands up in a church meeting and says that the day of mission is over, resist him with all of your might, because that person is advocating nothing less than treason to the Lord of the church. It is the church's duty to fulfill the Great Commission, to send people into all the world. That's what missions is all about.