#14  The Goal of Missions is the Kingdom of God

HAVING CONSIDERED IN THE previous chapter some legitimate reasons for Christians to engage in, and to support, global evangelistic missionary activity today, it is fitting that we now think seriously about what the real goal of missions is. I wrote that one of my goals was to lead individuals to faith in Christ, baptism, and church membership. But that was not my only goal; in fact, through the years on the “mission field,” I came more and more to see the goal of missions to be much more than simply encouraging individuals to accept Jesus as their personal Savior, although the latter was never completely discarded.

In any enterprise there are various levels of goals, some shallow and temporary, others profound and ongoing. Thus, it is impossible to talk about there being only one goal of missions, for in different times and places there are different goals that inform mission activities in the short run. But let’s here think about the most permanent and underlying goal of missionary activity. In many times and places that basic goal has, unfortunately, been inadequately understood and striven for, so it is necessary to dispel ideas about unworthy goals before looking at the true goal of missionary activity.

The Goal of Missions is Not Primarily the Expansion of Christianity

It is clear that Christianity spread, and spread significantly, growing from a small band of followers of Jesus Christ to become the largest religion in the world. The expansion of the Christian religion has long been a serious theme of church historians and others.

Adolf von Harnack, the noted German theologian and church historian, published The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries in 1902.[1] Then the seven-volume A History of the Expansion of Christianity by Kenneth Scott Latourette, a premier church historian in the United States, was published from 1937 to 1945.[2] In between these two scholarly works, reflecting upon the way early Christianity spread, missionary Roland Allen wrote The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church.[3]

It cannot be doubted that Christianity expanded greatly from the time of its beginning as a small “sect” within Judaism. And much of that expansion was due to missionary activity. But that does not mean that expansion was, or should have been, the primary goal of missions. Nor, certainly, does it mean that that expansion through the centuries was always done by legitimate or admirable means, even by missionaries.

Much of the expansion of Christianity in the seven hundred years between 300 and 1000, for example, was due to the military and political activities of powerful kings and emperors. A major change in the status of Christianity was made when the Roman Emperor Constantine had, or at least claims to have had, a vision indicating that he was to conquer his rival under the sign of the cross. One result of Constantine’s subsequent victory was the Edict of Milan (313), a proclamation that changed Christianity from a persecuted religion to one tolerated, and that led later in the same century to Christianity being proclaimed as the official religion of the Roman Empire.

After what is often called “the fall of Rome” in the fifth century, the Frankish king Clovis became the King of Gaul (modern France) and his conversion to (Catholic) Christianity along with his military activity led to the spread of Christianity in Western Europe.[4] A popular online history course indicates that after Clovis’s conversion, his “followers and loyal subjects followed suit and embraced Roman [Catholic] Christianity.” Moreover, “Clovis “turned his wars of aggression and conquest into holy wars.”[5]

Much later, Charlemagne, a descendant of Clovis, became the king of the Franks in 771, and one of his goals was to convert all of the Frankish kingdom, as well as all the lands he conquered, to Christianity. Thus, his reign was marked by almost continual warfare, and he is said to have been victorious “by the sword and the cross.”[6] The bloodiest battles were in the Saxon Wars (771-804) in what is now northern Germany, and on a single day in 782, some 4,500 Saxons in Verden were reportedly beheaded by Charlemagne and his soldiers. At the end of the war the Saxons, as well as those in the surrounding regions, were baptized “Christians.” Christianity had significantly expanded, in numbers at least.

There were some bona fide missionaries during these same 700 years—missionaries like Patrick in Ireland (fifth century), Columba in Scotland (sixth century), Augustine of Canterbury in England (597-604), Winfrid (Boniface) in central Germany (eighth century), and many others. While the missionaries did not use the same violent means of the political and military leaders such as Clovis and Charlemagne, they, too, were engaged in enlargement campaigns that were not unrelated to the political goals of the realms from which they were sent out.

But the expansion of Christianity, especially for political reasons, should in no way be considered the primary goal of missions.

The Goal of Missions is Not Primarily the Spreading of Western Civilization

To some Christians in the past, missionary activity was linked to the spread of “civilization” to the “benighted” lands of the world. European civilization was considered superior to that of the indigenous cultures of the other parts of the world, so spreading that civilization, seen largely as the fruit of the Christian faith, was considered a legitimate and praiseworthy activity for many Christians, especially in Great Britain and then in the United States.

The modern missionary movement which began in the last decade of the eighteenth century, and was in its heyday in the first decade of the twentieth century, was not unrelated to the existence, and power, of the British Empire, which at its height was the largest empire in history.[7] The Anglican Church (the Church of England) was planted all around the world, and those churches bore a distinct likeness to the churches back in England.

The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) was founded in England in 1701. The SPG’s first missionaries started work in North America in 1702, and its charter was soon expanded to include the evangelization of slaves and American Indians. In the 1820s the SPG began to work in India and South Africa, countries also a part of the British sphere of influence.[8]

That premier mission organization was involved in both evangelism and in the spread of Western medicine, technology, and education, including the spread of the English language. Thus, for example, while the introduction of English preceded the work of British missionaries in India, the latter helped establish English as the primary official language of India until 1947 and English has remained the “secondary official language” of the Republic of India.

There were, of course, important contributions made by missionaries, along with others, who sought to civilize “primitive” societies. The introduction of Western medicine, for example, was a great benefit to multitudes of people. But local cultures, societal structures, and religions were sometimes trampled underfoot in the process, and that type of missionary activity has, justifiably, come under intense criticism.

The spreading of Western civilization cannot legitimately be recognized as the major goal of Christian missions.

Missions is Not Primarily about Planting Churches

For quite some time, and increasingly, the goal of some mission boards in the United States, such as the International Mission Board (IMB) of the Southern Baptist Convention has had as a primary goal the starting of new churches. In some ways, that was a “marketing strategy,” much like successful businesses such as McDonalds and Starbucks have greatly expanded their sales primarily by greatly expanding their number of outlets.

In more recent years, however, the IMB has moved beyond the goal of just planting churches; emphasis began to be placed on church planting movements. In 1998, the International Mission Board’s Overseas Leadership Team adopted a vision statement: We will facilitate the lost coming to saving faith in Jesus Christ by beginning and nurturing Church Planting Movements among all peoples. That vision statement became the guide for the work of nearly 5,000 IMB missionaries who were then serving in more than 150 countries around the world.

“A Church Planting Movement is a rapid multiplication of indigenous churches planting churches that sweeps through a people group or population segment.”[9] According to the IMB website, that means that “the increase in churches is not simply incremental growth—adding a few churches every year or so. Instead, it compounds with two churches becoming four, four churches becoming eight to 10 and so forth.” This kind of “multiplicative increase” is said to be possible only “when new churches are being started by the churches themselves–rather than by professional church planters or missionaries.”[10]

Certainly, no one interested in evangelism, as I definitely am, could fault the idea of church planting or of church planting movements—unless that activity or those movements became goals rather than means and became exclusive of other legitimate activity. Unfortunately, that seems to what has happened, particularly within in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).

For a long time there was an emphasis in the SBC on missionary evangelism “by all means.” Back in the year I entered seminary to begin preparation for a missionary career, the then executive secretary of the Foreign Mission Board of the SBC joined with a few others in writing a book published under the title By All Means.[11] That book, written by and basically for Southern Baptists, emphasized “world evangelism,” seen as the primary goal of missionary activity. The main means used in that overarching task were preaching, teaching, and healing.

By the turn of the century, however, teaching (educational missions) and healing (medical missions) had largely been dropped from the missionary strategy of Southern Baptists. It is not that the previous strategy neglected local churches. In fact, in the first chapter of By All Means, Baker James Cauthen declared, “Every missionary regards his [sic] task as being that of bringing the people who accept Christ into the fellowship of New Testament churches” (p. 3). The change was that missionaries were no longer to be deployed to schools or hospitals or other types of activities not directly related to church planting.

The Goal of Mission is the Kingdom of God

But even with the older emphasis on missionary evangelistic activity “by all means,” still many did not adequately recognize the true goal of missions. One noteworthy exception was my former colleague and good friend E. Luther Copeland, an eminent Baptist missionary and missions professor. One of Copeland’s books is titled World Mission, World Survival: The Challenge and Urgency of Global Missions Today, and the last chapter contains a section entitled “The Kingdom and the Mission.”[12]

Copeland (1916~2011) is concise in declaring that the goal of mission(s) is the kingdom of God, which he describes as “God’s new order” (p. 139). The kingdom of God, he states,

is the necessary goal of mission because nothing less is capable of embracing all worthy secondary objectives. Making disciples is an admirable objective, but disciples are to be made for the sake of the Kingdom and in the context of commitment to this new order. Planting churches is commendable, but churches exist to give witness to the Kingdom. Human liberation is an important missionary aim, but only God’s new creation is the final liberation (p. 141).

Would that all Christians, and especially mission boards and individual missionaries, had such an accurate understanding of the goal of missions!


[1] Harnack (1851-1930) became a professor at the University of Berlin in 1888, and it was the original German edition which was published in 1902; the two-volume English translation was published in 1904-05.

[2] Latourette (1884-1968), was an ordained American Baptist minister who served for a few years as a missionary to China and then who for more than thirty years was a professor at Yale University Divinity School.

[3] Allen (1868-1947) first published his seminal book in 1927, and it is still in print, the latest edition (as of this writing) published in February 2018.

[4] Clovis (466-511) was baptized between 496 and 499, and his conversion was highly significant for the survival of Catholicism after the final fall of Rome in 476. His conversion was similar to Constantine’s in that it was also in the midst of battle, and Clovis sometimes compared himself to Constantine.

[5] From Lecture 20 by Steven Kreis of “The History Guide: Lectures on Ancient and Medieval European History,” found at http://www.historyguide.org/ancient/lecture20b.html.

[6] Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross is a symphonic metal concept album released in 2010 by actor Christopher Lee.

[7] At its height, the British Empire held sway over a population of about one-quarter of the world’s population and covered approximately a quarter of the Earth’s total land area. At the peak of its power, it was often said that “the sun never sets on the British Empire” because its span across the globe ensured that the sun was always shining on at least one of its numerous territories.

[8] It was not until missionaries were sent to China in 1863 that the SPG began to work in countries outside the British Empire.

[9] A statement found at http://www.churchplantingmovements.com.

[10] From http://www.imb.org/cpm/chapter1.htm.

[11] Baker James Cauthen et al., By All Means. Convention Press, 1959. Cauthen was executive secretary (and then executive director) of the Foreign Mission Board, SBC, from 1954 to 1979. He helped build the largest missionary force among Protestant denominations; under his leadership, the number of Southern Baptist missionaries grew from 908 to nearly 3,000 and the number of countries served increased from 32 to 95.

[12] Copeland’s book was published by Broadman Press in 1985. “The Kingdom and the Mission” is found on pages 140-5. Copeland (1916~2011) was a missionary to Japan from 1948-56 and again from 1975-80 and in between was professor of missions at the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina. Luther and Louise Copeland returned to Japan as missionaries in 1975 after his election as chancellor of the Seinan Gakuin school system.

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