Beginning with the Student Volunteer Movement (SVM) at the dawn of the twentieth century, many evangelicals recognized that modernity had made travel and therefore global gospel proclamation easier. Excited by this potential, the SVM’s original motto was, “The evangelization of the world in this generation.”
Following this trajectory, many contemporary missions strategies also target the completion of world evangelization. “Finish the Task,” they say.
Of course, all of this is motivating, and rightly so. But we must consider whether or not the completion of world evangelization is in fact coterminous with the biblical missionary task.
WHAT IS THE TASK?
Excited by the idea that a single generation could evangelize the world, some missionaries used Matthew 24:14 to define the irreducible missions task as world evangelization. In this passage, Jesus makes a startling promise: “This gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” Amid a grim list of future predictions, Jesus provides hope that in the end his message will be victorious.
And yet, this passage is neither a command nor a task, neither an admonition nor an exhortation. This is Jesus’ promise that, despite all evidence to the contrary, his purposes will be fulfilled. To be sure, he will use his disciples to bring these promises to fulfillment. However, this passage does not instruct them about their role.
So how do we know what Christ’s disciples should be doing? Where do we learn about the missionary task? Consider the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
In this passage, the central command to make disciples is explained by three additional verbs: go, baptize, and teach. These four verbs provide the church’s basic marching orders.
DOES A MOTTO MATTER?
Without question, one implication of the Great Commission is that world evangelization must be an essential part of the missionary task. We must utilize our resources to identify and target those who lack access to the gospel so that they might hear, repent, and believe.
But this conviction is only the first step toward discipleship.
Strategies that focus on “Finishing the Task” often excel in the going and the baptizing. From the moment of their conversion, new believers are trained to go, to share the gospel, and to train others to do the same. By training new believers as immediate evangelists, movements multiply exponentially and “Finishing the Task” becomes more and more achievable.
But training a new believer to do a single (very important) task is not the same thing as making a disciple. And sadly, the overemphasis on rapid reproduction often results in an anemic understanding of the church into which these new believers are baptized, which then results in a diminished understanding of what it means to teach obedience to all that Christ has commanded.
In short, robust obedience is sacrificed on the altar of rapid expedience.
FAITHFUL TO THE TASK
In order to fulfill the command Jesus left us, the church cannot reduce its task to world evangelization. When we do, we produce strategies aimed at a diminished task. Furthermore, if subsequent missions mottos urge us to accomplish Jesus’ promise while neglecting his command, we’ll be working against the very way Jesus intended world evangelization to be completed: by making disciples.
The Great Commission tells us that the irreducible task of missions is making disciple-making disciples who are baptized into church-planting churches who go throughout the whole world teaching obedience to all that Jesus commanded. This may not make for a quippy motto, but we shouldn’t be alarmed that our role in God’s purposes can’t fit in a tweet or on a bumper sticker.
So let’s not allow the tail of our missions mottos to wag the dog of our missions mandate. Rather than aiming to “finish” the missionary task, let’s unite under the more modest banner of simply being faithful to the task.
Editor's Note: This originally published at 9Marks.