The Expanding Scope of Missions

David Mays


Recently I have seen several articles that seemed to try to persuade people that local cross-cultural evangelism is "real missions.”  I agree with them but I don’t understand why the authors seem to presuppose that Christians think only overseas missions is “real missions.”  In my experience people in local churches accept as missions not only cross-cultural outreach (both globally and locally) but a great many other ministries as well. 


I noticed more than a decade ago that conservative or fundamental churches tended to see missions as "foreign missions" and mainline or "moderate" churches tended to see missions as social ministries in their own communities or the nearby city.  The latter perspective seems to be growing.


It is not unusual for half or more of a church's missions budget to be allocated to a large variety of ministries in the U.S. such as Bible colleges; scholarships for church kids; campus ministries; Christian camps; retirement homes; pregnancy centers; half-way houses; women's shelters; house-building, food pantries and services for the poor; church mission trips to do service ministries in U.S. cities; and other good ministries which are not primarily cross-cultural or evangelistic.  Stories of churches purchasing a new organ or paving their parking lot out of the missions budget are rare but true.  One church asked their children to give money for "helping other children come to know Jesus."  It was explained that their money would be used to purchase playground equipment for the church, presumably to make the church attractive to unchurched children.


Parachurch organizations discovered a long time ago that church missions budgets are often large, ill defined, whimsically administered, and the only likely source of funding from the church.  Further, missions has traditionally been a high priority for churches.  So they frame their ministries as “missions” and appeal to the missions budget for support.  The principal of a local Christian school sees the school as a missionary enterprise and himself as a missionary.  A Christian legal aid organization refers to their agents as missionaries.  Someone recently wrote me a letter saying he was becoming a “missionary” with Crown Ministries.  In many churches the category of missions has become very broad, almost synonymous with ministry.  Whether the ministry is primarily for internationals, for people of the same culture, or for Christians doesn’t seem to matter.  It’s all missions.


Perhaps the missions budget has subconsciously become, in the minds of some leaders, the "miscellaneous budget."  "Miscellaneous" does not convey a sense of priority, let alone urgency.  Thoughtful church leaders don’t deliberately allocate 25% or more of the church budget to miscellaneous: they focus their funds on their key purposes.  I wonder if the expanding scope of missions is contributing to the decline of the priority of missions in the local church.