Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Purpose and Mission

I have been doing a good deal of thinking of late about the distinction between our purpose and our mission as the Body of Christ. It's an important distinction, I think:

The primary purpose of the Body of Christ is to glorify God. Everything we do must serve this purpose, or we are doing the wrong thing.

The Great Commission (and I propose therefore the primary mission) of the Body of Christ is to spread the gospel.

The distinction here is important. Our mission to preach the good news needs to guide our actions, but allows for activities that don't directly impact this mission. On the other hand, any activity that doesn't glorify God should be rejected.

To illustrate, in a military unit I may be given a particular mission (let's say, to secure and hold an urban area in a combat zone). My ultimate purpose is to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States." I may participate in activities (eating, sleeping, training, morale building, etc.) that are more or less directly related to my mission. Moreover, there will be members of my unit (the chaplain, the medic, the cook ...) whose roles within the unit are more tangential to the mission than others (say, those of the infantryman, the intelligence analyst ...).

If I engage in activities that don't serve my overall purpose, I'm off course, even if they appear to serve the mission. For example, if I were to participate in a military coup, judging that a different civilian leadership would better serve my mission aims, I would be betraying my purpose for the sake of my mission.

In the same way, the church will engage in activities (worship, prayer, learning, acts of compassion ...) that may be more or less directly related to our primary mission of preaching the gospel to a lost and dying world. We also have members of the body whose particular gifts and talents (nurture, encouragement, teaching ...) tend to lend themselves toward these kinds of "support" activities, no less critical but less direct in their application to the mission of preaching the gospel to the lost.

If, however, in service of our primary mission, we sacrifice our purpose of glorifying God, we are off course ... we are sinning "for the sake of the gospel." For example, if a self-serving pastor seeks to grow a church in order to become wealthy and powerful, he sins. Though the gospel may still be preached and the lost saved, it is in spite of the pastor and not to his credit. In the same way, if the church were to depend on worldly methods (as opposed to trusting Christ) for the success of its ministry may seem to enjoy success, but because "everything that does not come from faith is sin," any glory to God is in spite of the church's actions, not because of them.

UPDATE: Please see the "Comments" for a great discussion on the definition of "mission", etc.


  1. Just read your latest blog. I find the distinction most helpful. Great insight.

    I have one matter for clarification though. While I agree that the primary mission is the "spread the gospel," isn't "preaching" or evangelism too narrow a definition of this mission? Besides, the great commission in Matthew 28 actually states we are to "make disciples," which involves "teaching them to obey everything" that Christ taught. In other words, our mission is not just "saving souls" but also "forming Christ-like followers." Discipleship is not just a "support" mission but very much part of the primary mission.

    What sayeth thou?


  2. The above is a fair point from my friend Pastor Keith. Rather than respond directly, I'd like to open this topic up for general comment ... seems like we could have a healthy and productive debate on this.

  3. Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XXV, Section III:

    "Unto this catholic visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and the perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world; and doth, by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto."

    Two points: (1) "perfecting the saints" is surely what Pastor Keith means by "forming Christ-like followers". (2) The charge is given to "this catholic visible church", which should incline all of us to pursue these aims as its agents.

    And a third point: Over 350 years have passed, but I don't know how one could improve on the confession's formulation. Why don't more of us read these things?


  4. Another way to show the distinction between "purpose" and "mission" is by saying that purpose is "being" and mission is "doing". Our ultimate purpose is to be worshippers of God; to be Christ-like; to be the "presence of Christ" in this world. Our mission is to fulfill the Great Commission -- which will serve our ultimate purpose. Any other mission which does not serve our ultimate purpose must be laid aside.

    --- Gil

  5. God's timing is perfect - thanks for this topic! Our ministry council is having just such a discussion right now - to be able to explain to the body what direction our church wants to go. We all agree on the council that the 3 main "focus" items (to interject another buzz word into the discussion) of our church are to transform, equip and send. We had discussed if these where more a purpose or the mission. I think it could be somewhere in between - i.e., "The purpose of GBC is to glorify God by transforming, equipping and sending believers into the world to fulfill the Great Commission." The mission statement can then be a further explaination of the "transform, equip and send", and how we do them.

  6. An excellent distinction between -- and linkage of -- purpose and mission. Agree with Keith that making disciples is the mission clearly given to the embryo of the church in Matthew 28. And Jesus then described subelements of that mission when He said "baptizing them," (I suggest that encompasses the entire realm of pre-evangelism through the public confession and baptism), and "teaching them to observe." Too often we are satisfied with a decision for Christ without a subsequent life transformation and the sad results in the Church's witness and
    influence are manifest. "More Hollywood in the Church than Church in Hollywood," is how the late Derek Prince stated it. Dr. Bill Brown, President of Cederly College, once stated, "It's not enough to save our young people's souls; we must save their minds." Jesus linked the mission to the purpose just before His ascension in Acts 1:8 when He
    said, "You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you shall be My witnesses . . ." A witness certainly must share by word (preach) and by life (living an exchanged life as a disciple) and by that will glorify God and join in His purpose.
    -- Tom

  7. Good thinking, keep it up! Keith's comments concerning "making disciples" is good as well. Too often "preaching" comes with huge connotations of only proclamation. Communicating the gospel making disciples is how I often describe purpose and mission.
    Glorifying God hands down is our over arching purpose and mission. Exemplary character fleshed out through Holy Spirit transformation communicates the Good News backing up our words.
    Continue meditating and following Christ with passion! May Jesus' peace rule your heart daily! Col 3:15
    --Mike D

  8. I'll chime in first by saying that I appreciate the Jailer's distinction between purpose and mission. Recently, I've chosen to look at my life in a very similar way--through a vision and mission statement. Being in the military, I am surrounded by vision and mission statements; almost every unit has one. As I was reflecting on what these statements do for a military unit, I realized the benefit of assigning a personal vision and mission statement to my own life. A vision statement helps either a person or organization remember why he or it exists and expresses a desire for what he or it wants to remain or become. This aligns with the Jailer's idea of "purpose" above. A mission statement deals with day to day action and specifically answers the question, "What should I do?" For now, I've settled on this for my vision: "Adam, a genuine believer, radically in love with Jesus Christ, his family, and his church."

    We actually discussed the Great Commission in our Sunday School class a few days ago. I agree that the Great Commission goes beyond seeking to see people converted. Jesus did say "teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." I went so far as to say that I was taking part in the Great Commission by teaching a Sunday School class of believers, and that a parent teaching his child more about God was taking part as well. Did I go too far? I'm sure someone will give me an opinion!

  9. As Randy always says on Ammerican Idol, we gotta be "keeping it real, dog!" I think the point is that we can easily get absorbed in what we think is our mission and forget our primary focus is to glorify God (end) by making disciples (means)of real flesh and blood people. This has been brought home to me recently in my position as a history teacher at a Christian school.. I forget that in my capacity as a teacher it isn't enough to simply be a creative history teacher - nor is it enough to integrate biblical principles into my lessons so that students see history from a Christian perspective. To paraphrase Lenin - it isn''t enough to explain the world the point is to change it. If my studentts leave withoutt "knowing him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferrings, being made conformable to His death" then I have lost sight of both my purpose and my mission. Will they know Christ better as a result of my lessons? Perhaps. But I sense that they know Him better if I am pouring my own life into theirs to equip them to live godly in this present generation - beyond the page of the lesson and into the daily experience of their lives. So, to bettter live out my mission and thus fulfil my purrpose, I will glorify God by using my gift to teach well - Col. 3::23 - and I will move into their lives so they may know Christ - to experience that "well done" from God rather than merely an A on the next exam. Those of us like me who tend to be more task-oriented need to remember that no matter what our gifts are, it is people we grow - not programs or even small group Bible studies.

  10. Purpose vs. Mission. Support vs. Operative. The subtleties can spark long discussions and debate. Well, I’m not so good at blogging, but let me throw in my two cents.
    • Purpose answers “why” while Mission answers “who”, “what”, “where”, “when”, and “how”. Our purpose extends beyond our mission(s), but our mission(s) must never extend beyond our purpose. One day, Christ will return and we will be with Him forever. Our mission(s) will drastically change, but not our purpose.

    • I believe our purpose, the reason “why” we were created, is to be in relationship with Him. The greatest commandment - “'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” - is to live out of that purpose.

    • Not everyone can live out of their purpose because they are either lost or immature as believers. That is why our primary mission - I believe - is to help them live out of their purpose. This is summed up in the second greatest commandment – “love your neighbor as yourself”! The specifics of how, who, where, and when we love others fills up the Gospels and Epistles. I believe this better captures our purpose than the great commission, because most people define too narrowly what it means to “preach” and “make disciples”. I’m talking in layman terms of practical application.

    • Regarding the issue of support vs. operative roles within the body, I think of I Cor 3:5-6 where Paul says “5What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. 6I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.” We are all servants - we are all support. And we must all fulfill what “the Lord has assigned to each [of us personally]”. The tasks that He assigns can often be discerned by what tools (or gifts) He gives, but even “the greater gifts” are still support in nature. Churchy people tend to esteem apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers, but these are all support roles to God’s people (Eph 4:11-12)

  11. The guy's right.

    Too often salvation is the git-all-and-end-all of some Christians' experiences. That's like going to church and siting only at the cusp of the front door, rather than heading to the altar and the hearth.

  12. In response to Pastor Keith and your comments I appreciate and agree fully. It seems that our purpose along with glorifying God would be our living in a state of "Thinking Lost" constantly as we go through life in the world but not of the world. Being in positions and relationships with lost ones so we can glorify God by serving him as we not only think lost but as they come to him we disciple them with the intent that they understand spiritual reproduction to the 3rd and 4th generation. Bill

  13. Merry Christmas everyone! Though the Great Commission and Great Commandant can’t be any clearer, two things have intrigued me over the years.

    The first is that in each of Paul’s letters (to a particular body of believers), nowhere does he “instruct them” to go out and do what he is doing (i.e. evangelism, missions, etc). His exhortation is overwhelmingly on living out the message in a manner that glorifies God and brings honor to the message.

    The second thing is the churches understanding of the Great Commission over the centuries. David J. Bosch in his most excellent book “Transforming Mission: Paradigm shifts in Theology of Mission” examines five different paradigms in the churches understanding and practical application of the Great Commission over the centuries. Though I don’t necessarily agree with all his conclusions, he does a masterful job at outlining what each era understood their responsibility to be (btw, reading about how the monasteries understood the Great Commission was particularly interesting).

    I guess the point I would make is that “now we see in the mirror dimly…” and though we have much to gain on having this discussion/debate in the body of Christ today, it is doubtful that we (in this generation) will have the last word on it. Furthermore, though this kind of discussion/debate does much to sharpen our perspective, the danger in all this is attempting to put our conclusions in a hard & fast code. If there’s one thing we can learn from church history, we certainly love our codes!

  14. It took me three weeks to read all this...my regrets, Jailer.
    To be blunt, are we back around at the first end of the discussion? To recall the Jailer's distinctions between mission and purpose, I align with the operational and strategic arguments in both military terminology as well as pointless strategy sessions in the business world...
    But then I find myself in Nehemiah...his vision about that wall...and then the leadership. Vision was established, mission declared and given by God, and purpose was throughout the rest of the book.
    I've come to the conclusion in my personal life that it usually takes God to show me something like a crumbled wall to get His vision...from there, I remember my purpose, and begin executing the mission.


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