Why Mission?

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from Youth Ministry as Mission: A Conversation About Theology and Culture
by Brian Hull & Patrick Mays


What might a missional reading of the Bible look like? Several scholars have offered versions of the narrative arc of Scripture in recent years.[1] Let’s look at Michael Goheen’s offering in Introducing Christian Mission Today.

Goheen (2014) claims the biblical story is true for all people, in all times, in all places. The main theme in this narrative is “God’s mission to restore the world and its people” (Goheen 2014, 38). A divine restoration is needed because of the “destructive power of sin” that is brought into God’s creation by human rebellion against God. It results in alienation from God, creation, other people, and ourselves. The consequences of sin infect and affect every inch of the earth and every person for all generations. Therefore, a holistic restoration is needed. God announces his plan to crush evil in Genesis 3:15. From this proclamation, “the story of God’s mission is the path he follows to make this good news known to the ends of the earth” (Goheen 2014, 39). The summary of this story can be stated in the following words: “Israel, Jesus, church” (Goheen 2014, 40).


Goheen encourages a reading of Scripture that recognizes the movement of God’s mission “from the particular to the universal” (39). Thus, God elects one people, Israel, to initiate his redemptive purposes. Goheen notes that the choice of Israel is not limited to privilege. Israel’s election always has universal implications. It also comes with obligations and, in times of rebellion, judgment. Ultimately, though, the choice of Israel is a sign of God’s grace for both Israel and all others.

As mentioned above, Israel’s election starts with the call and blessing of Abraham (Gen. 12:1–3). This singular act, though, is set amidst the “universal backdrop” (Goheen 2014, 40) of Genesis 1–11. Key themes emerge in the opening account, which are central to the biblical story. The God who calls Abraham is the creator of the universe. This God is not a limited, regional god but the Sovereign of all nations—indeed, the whole earth. Humanity is created in the image of this God, but all peoples rebel against him in thought, word, and deed. All come under the judgment of God, but at the same time he enacts his redemptive plan for the restoration of all his creation. Into this wide scope comes the call to one man, to one family, to bring God’s promise to the whole world.

The family grows, and through a mixture of both faithfulness and faithlessness, the Hebrew people become enslaved. God intervenes with miraculous, liberating acts. In doing so, God chooses Israel “in God’s redemptive purpose” (Goheen 2014, 42), to be a display people. He calls them “my treasured possession . . . a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:5–6). As a nation set apart, “Israel is summoned to be a model of what God intends for human life” (Goheen 2014, 42). The goal is that Israel’s life in special relationship with God will be so attractive that other nations will desire a close bond with God too. This universal intention of their covenantal relationship is a central expectation, and reminders come in both stories (Jonah) and worship (Psalms), but Israel finds it difficult to maintain fidelity to God’s mission.

God gives a land to Israel from which they live in view of the nations. Unfortunately, they enter into cycles of apostasy and recovery, and the people cry out for the stability of a king. Though this is an affront to God’s rule of Israel, he grants their request but “incorporates the kingship into his covenantal and missional purposes” (Goheen 2014, 47). In the Davidic covenant, God promises an everlasting kingdom that “becomes the universal horizon of God’s redemptive purposes” (Goheen 2014, 47). Still, Israel’s covenantal rebellion continues until God’s judgment comes as the northern kingdom is obliterated and the southern kingdom is defeated by Babylon.

God is not done with Israel yet. Though they play the harlot and chase after other gods, God redemptively loves them back into his fold (Hosea 1–3; Ezekiel 16). The prophets speak of a future hope, a time when God’s mission through Israel will be fulfilled. They also speak of a Messiah, one who is both king and servant, and one who will bring God’s mission to fruition.

Goheen mentions three terms in relation to God’s mission through Israel: universal, centripetal, and eschatological. Israel’s covenant with God came with the universal intent to bless all the nations. Centripetally, Israel is in focus as a showcase people, who in their worship of the one, true God point others to him. Ultimate fulfillment, though, waits for that eschatological moment “when God will break into history in an unusually powerful way through the Messiah and by the Spirit” (Goheen 2014, 49).


Goheen highlights the recovery of Israel’s mission in the coming of the Messiah, Jesus. The kingdom mission of Jesus is a time of gathering. Guests gather at a banquet (Luke 14:15–24); a harvest is gathered (Matt. 9:37–38); a shepherd gathers lost sheep (John 10:1–18). Jesus initiates this mission by gathering and restoring Israel, according to prophetic expectations. Jesus calls his people to the good life, characterized by “love, reconciliation, peace, joy, justice, compassion, and solidarity with the poor and marginalized” (56). In fellowship with the Father and Son and empowered by the Spirit, such a life is a participation with God to work transformation in the world (John 14–16).

If one wants to extract the essence of Christian mission, Goheen suggests, then one must look at how Jesus lived out his kingdom mission. First, Jesus’s central message consists of an announcement of the arrival of the kingdom of God. “Jesus went into Galilee proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news’” (Mark 1:14–15). This announcement came with an invitation and the expectation of a choice. The decision to receive the gift of the kingdom and enter into it invokes urgency (Luke 9:57–62) and costliness (Luke 14:25–33). The blessings of the kingdom, though, bring forgiveness, relationship with God, and joy.

A second element of the kingdom mission of Jesus is authentication by deeds. Jesus’s life is an inventory of demonstrations of the arrival of God’s kingdom. From his Trinitarian relationship with the Father and the Spirit (Luke 3:22) and his commitment to prayer (Luke 5:16; Mark 1:35; John 17), to his teaching to both the few and the many in various social contexts (John 3; Matt. 5) and his acts of healing and forgiveness (Luke 21–23; Mark 2:1–12), Jesus enacts God’s kingdom mission to restore creation to its original beauty.

Third, this missional life of Jesus, then, becomes a model of mission for his followers. In short, disciples of Jesus are called to mission the Jesus way. The gathered and discipled community does not exist for itself. It gives itself, like Jesus, in service to others. Such sacrificial service requires a life commitment for the sake and the salvation of the world. Moreover, it meets the challenges of various contexts “in the pattern of Jesus with imagination and creativity” (Goheen 2014, 59).

Participation in the missional life of Jesus requires the sustaining power of two cataclysmic events: crucifixion and resurrection. As Goheen explains, “these two events constitute the turning point of universal history” (2014, 60), as the old age passes away and the age to come arrives. The regathered Israel now has access to the liberating power over the darkness of Satan, sin, and death and can truly become light to the world. “The cross accomplishes the salvation of the entire creation and all nations; the resurrection is the dawning of the renewed creation. On the basis of these events Jesus draws his disciples together and commissions them to take the good news to all nations, even to the ends of the earth” (Goheen 2014, 60–61). As Wright would say, the Messiah has “missional significance” (C. J. H. Wright 2006, 30).


Two more events serve to launch the church (ekklesia—the assembled or gathered) into God’s mission. First, Jesus ascends and is exalted. In Jesus’s ascension, his rule over the world is proclaimed. Second, his presence with his people is assured through the coming of the Spirit. The new community is formed in the Spirit and begins to experience a life in the Spirit that is attractive, powerful, and nurturing.

In the midst of early growth, roadblocks to expanding God’s mission rise up in Jerusalem and Israel in the forms of rejection of the gospel message and persecution. “Yet the time has also come for Gentiles who believe the gospel to be grafted on like wild shoots,” writes Goheen (2014, 64). Beginning with the ministry of Peter among the Samaritans and with Cornelius (Acts 8:14–17, 10:1–11:18), and then spreading because of persecution, the gospel is extended beyond Jerusalem. It is in Antioch, in the gathered community of believers from both Gentile and Jewish backgrounds, where God’s Spirit intentionally operationalizes the cross-cultural communication of the gospel. Moved by the Spirit in worship and prayer, the multicultural leadership of the Antiochian church send out Paul and Barnabas to spread the gospel to Asia Minor (Acts 13:1–3).

In the mission of Paul, a new aspect of God’s mission blossoms. Paul plants gathered communities of Christ followers in new places and encourages them to “be mission” in their locale. He nurtures them with periodic visits and letters of chastisement and instruction. This method is significant, as it introduces a centrifugal direction in mission. However, the movement of sending out and gathering in are best held together in creative tension. Both serve the other and are needed for effectiveness in God’s mission.

The expansion of these early Christian communities into new areas creates a disturbance. The simultaneous breaking out of the Hebrew/Aramaic Jewish world and breaking into the Greek/Latin Hellenistic world begin to raise important practical and theological questions (Sanneh 1989). Jewish opposition arises and a meeting of Christian leaders is called (Acts 15). The decision from this Jerusalem Council is that God’s mission is not held captive by Jewish culture: “from now on the mission of God’s people will involve a missionary encounter with all cultures, embracing the priceless treasures and opposing the destructive idolatries of all cultures” (Goheen 2014, 67).

This kind of reading of the biblical text reveals the “missional thrust” of the whole Bible, both Old and New Testaments. Missionary activity, then, becomes more than mere obedience by a few mission professionals to Jesus’s last command. Rather, it demonstrates participation in God’s mission to bless the nations as central to the identity of the church and of each disciple of Christ.


God’s mission clearly has a spatial dimension. The mission works toward completion as people are gathered from across cultural and linguistic barriers into one body, worshiping together in one place. For example, Ephesians 2 indicates that “the dividing wall of hostility” (v. 14) has been torn down between Jews and Gentiles and that they have been made into one body. They now are “fellow citizens” and “members of God’s household” (v. 19). Paul’s ecclesial description here shows the early church working out what it meant to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19).

Andrew Walls (1996) expounds on this spatial dimension of God’s mission, but he also points to the temporal aspect. Rather than collapsing various salvific events together such as incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and second coming, God patiently is waiting for his mission to be completed. Walls says, “The work of salvation is a historical process that stretches out to the end of the age” (1996, 73). The implication is that not only are all peoples of various ethnicities gathered together. It is also true that “salvation is complete only when all the generations of God’s people are gathered together” (1996, 74). Since the “work of salvation is cross-generational” (74, 75), no one generation has a monopoly on Christian expression. Social and cultural realities must be taken into consideration for effective extension of God’s mission.

Lesslie Newbigin (1989) steps into the social and cultural reality of the current age with The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Newbigin’s long, distinguished career as a pastor, missionary evangelist, and theologian prepared him to turn his missiological insights on his own Western culture. In doing so, he develops what some call a domestic missiology for the West.

Newbigin challenges the church to a new way of functioning by encouraging it to live out the “plausibility structure” of the gospel in order to provide a quality witness to the reigning culture. He attacks the false dualism that reached fruition during the seventeenth-century Enlightenment. Christianity’s failure to critique the rise of reason and empiricism as the sole basis of knowledge allowed a separation between the world of facts and values. By questioning the assumptions of this prevailing plausibility structure, Newbigin shows how Christians can confidently assert the truth claims of the gospel. We are called as Christians to live within both the biblical tradition and our Western cultural tradition.

The Christian tradition, or story, which flows from the heart of God’s mission to restore creation is grounded in the “happenedness” of the biblical record and includes the experiences of Christian communities as they have struggled through the ages to live gospel truths. The Christian church in the West today also lives squarely in the reigning Western tradition. Newbigin’s call, which every Christian should heed, is to enter both traditions. As members of contemporary society, we share in the reigning plausibility structure. Though it is not the “home” tradition of Christians, we know what it feels like to live in it. We internalize the debate. A healthy participation in the Christian tradition/story, then, prepares the church for a faithful witness. Newbigin writes,

There is room only for faithful witness to the one in whom the whole picture of God for cosmic history has been revealed and effected, the crucified, risen, and regnant Christ. So the logic of mission is this: the true meaning of the human story has been disclosed. Because it is the truth, it must be shared universally. . . . The gospel calls us back again and again to the real clue . . . that history is given its meaning by what God has done in Jesus Christ and by what he has promised to do; and that the true horizon is not at the successful end of our projects but in his coming to reign. (1989, 125–26)

This is particularly true as the modern project based in Enlightenment thinking crumbled in the twentieth century. In our current postmodern world, in which “facts” can be manipulated and faked, the Enlightenment is now seen as a spent force, and a moral consensus cannot be developed based on reason alone. Science and education, apparently, cannot bring inevitable progress, as actions and reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic have shown. As George Hunter notes, this crumbling of “intellectual foundations” has left “Western humanity without a consensus worldview” (1996, 22).

Newbigin’s call to the Western church to embrace its missional nature, then, is even more essential today than when he initially made it. In taking up Newbigin’s challenge, the Western church needs to rediscover the mission frontier at the church’s front door—or even the church’s pews, as the case may be.


To read more, pick up a copy of Youth Ministry as Mission on Amazon, Christian Book, or Bookshop!

[1] Some examples include Bartholomew and Goheen, The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story; Moreau, Introducing World Missions; Dyrness, Let the Earth Rejoice.

This post is adapted from Youth Ministry as Mission: A Conversation About Theology and Culture by Brian Hull & Patrick Mays. This title was released on June 21, 2022. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

Is ministering to youth like being a cross-cultural missionary? You’d better believe it.

The parallels between ministry within youth culture and global missions have long been touted by youth ministry experts, yet few resources exist to help youth workers benefit practically from the insights of missiologists. In Youth Ministry as Mission, Brian Hull and Patrick Mays fill this gap with an introduction to missiology, missions practice, and missionary witness tailored especially for a youth ministry context.

Youth ministers will discover missiological language that describes realities they face regularly and activities of cross-cultural missionaries that translate well into leaders within youth ministries. Hull and Mays address issues such as:

    • Understanding the relationship of the incarnation to ministering in youth culture
    • Translating stories and practicing storytelling as preparation for witnessing
  • Teaching for witness in a multi-religious context

Youth Ministry as Mission will be a valuable guide for college and seminary students as well as a breath of fresh air to those already working in youth ministry.


About Author

Brian Hull (PhD, Asbury Theological Seminary) is associate professor of Youth Ministry at Asbury University and director of Asbury’s Youth Becoming Leaders Program. Among other books and journal articles, Hull is coauthor of Reachable Reconciliation with Fred Oduyoye (Youth Specialties/Zondervan). // Patrick Mays (PhD, Asbury Theological Seminary) is professor of Christian Ministry and campus pastor at LeTourneau University. After co-launching the Passage Institute for Youth and Theology, a one-year discipleship program for high school students, he now serves as its campus director. Additionally, Mays has served in numerous pastoral roles, as a short-term missionary, and for seven years as a guest Bible scholar at a Bible translation ministry in Nigeria.

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