Mission creep

Matthew 28:16-20, Acts 1:6-11

5 May 2013

Woodley Baptist Church

Morning Reflective Service


Before we get into this great text, let me tell you something about myself. You probably don't know that, many years ago, I spent three years studying for a Ph.D.—a doctorate in applied maths—but never completed it.

It started off OK, but after a while, I began to feel that one of the computer tools we were using could do with some improvements. So I spent some time improving it. My colleagues seemed to appreciate the work, so I spent some more time on it. Then back to my research. But then I decided I didn't like the computer model of the atmosphere I was using, so I wrote a new one—about a year's work. But it seemed useful to me and other people, so I spent the time on it. Then I started helping out some of the other researchers with their own computer programs. In fact, I began to spend rather more time doing this than doing my own research.

In the end, to cut a long story short, I never did get that Ph.D. I was left with essentially nothing to show for my three years' work, all at the tax-payer's expense in those days. Don't worry, I'm sure I'm paying more than enough tax to make up for it now!

What I'd done, you see, was to lose sight of the goal. Had I focused ruthlessly on the original mission, you'd be calling me Doctor Edgington today.

Why am I sharing this with you? I'm sharing this with you as an example of what we sometimes call "Mission Creep".

Mission creep happens when a project or mission expands beyond its original goals, and it often ends in catastrophic failure. Each new direction seems like a good idea at the time, but in the end, the original goal is lost, and may never be achieved. We hear it most often in a military context these days: mission creep in Afghanistan; mission creep in Libya; and so on.

The way to avoid mission creep is to keep a ruthless focus on achieving the original mission. An utter refusal to be distracted by other things—some of them possibly good—an utter refusal to be distracted on the way to the goal.

What, then, has all this got to do with our Bible passage this morning?

Well, as we start a series of sermons on "The Church", I want to look back today at the original mission of the church, as handed down by Jesus, which we find in this passage. It's often called "The Great Commission". When we understand our mission, we'll then be able to decide whether we are suffering from mission creep.

So let's look at Jesus' words: Matthew 28, verses 18 to 20, right at the end of Matthew's gospel on page 1001 of the church Bibles.

Here are very nearly Jesus' last words to his remaining eleven disciples while he is on Earth. He takes these few who are going to be the first leaders of his church and he gives them their mission. And strikingly, as ever, he begins and ends with himself.

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.ref

Proclaiming the authority of Jesus, we go

Jesus begins with an astonishing claim: All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to meref. Jesus challenges the disciples to believe that he is not simply a Jewish religious leader: he is Lord! The resurrection proves it. Jesus is now enthroned as Lord of the whole world, and not only the physical world, the spiritual world as well.

Since Jesus is Lord of the whole world, this message needs to reach the whole world. Therefore go!ref, he says. Go to all nations. Everyone on earth needs to hear this message: Jesus is Lord!

Jesus' authority is both the reason for our mission and the message of our mission. Our fundamental mission is to tell the world that Jesus is Lord. We proclaim the authority of Jesus.

What does this mean for us as a church? Two things: number one, we need to be clear on our message; number two, we need to be clear about going.

What is our message? Is our consistent, clear, relentless message as a church, "Jesus is Lord"? I hope so; have you noticed it is written in big letters high up on the wall of the church facing the car park?

I do quite a lot of work with a major bank in Canary Wharf who, shall we say, have had quite a bad press over the last couple of years. But a striking change has happened recently. Inside the lobby huge signs have appeared saying things like "Integrity, Respect, Stewardship", and this extends throughout their building—a colleague and I joke that we always seem to end up in the "Service" elevator. It's a striking change, but you have to wonder how deep it goes. Has the bank's culture really changed? Only time will tell.

What about us? Is "Jesus is Lord" just a slogan on the wall, or is it writ large across every single thing that we do? Guiding us, shaping us, driving us?


Mission creep is so easy. Our message so easily becomes, for example, "Jesus loves you". It sounds reasonable, and Christian. But what have I done? I've just made the person I'm talking to the centre of the conversation Jesus and his authority is no longer in view at all. Mission creep! So what if Jesus loves you? It only becomes news worth listening to if we also proclaim Jesus' authority: "The high king who rules all of heaven and earth laid everything aside and came and died a humiliating death on a cross in your place so that our sins might be forgiven. That's how much he loves us" — now that's a message with power!

Or perhaps our message becomes, "having faith can help you cope with life", why don't you try it? Mission creep again! Where is Jesus in this?

And I could multiply ways in which mission creep has affected the message of churches. We need to a relentless focus on our core message: "Jesus is Lord!" How can we make sure that the people we come into contact with end up saying, "Wow, these guys really believe that Jesus is Lord"?


We need a clear message, and we need to be clear about our going.

It all used to be so much easier. A church in the UK would commission a bunch of missionaries and send them out to Africa or China, perhaps with a missionary society, and job done. The church could sit back; they'd done their bit for the Great Commission.

But now the missionaries are coming to us! One of the great unevangelised mission fields is on our doorstep—pretty much literally. We need to be out there.

I'm not going to labour this point, because I think that we as a church do pretty much get it: we need to be out there.

However, I will just point out that one of the ways mission creep happens is when we become overly concerned with internal things, devoting more and more of our time and energy to what happens inside the church body, and less and less to what happens outside. The devil will happily keep us occupied with anything else if it stops us encroaching on his territory.

So to summarise the mission, part 1, Proclaiming the authority of Jesus, we go.

To gain disciples for Jesus

Now for mission part 2, to gain disciples for Jesus. Proclaiming the authority of Jesus we go to gain disciples for Jesus.

Verse 19, Jesus says, go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded youref.

The mission that Jesus has given us doesn't stop with proclaiming his Lordship. With enormous confidence, Jesus expects that this message will be effective! He expects that people will come to believe it. And the fact of hundreds of millions if not billions of people on this planet today who call him their Lord is the astonishing outworking of that.

But Jesus isn't after people who will simply acknowledge his authority, who will just say that he is Lord. Jesus is after people who will work out the implications of his Lordship through their whole lives. Jesus commands us to make disciples.

A disciple is a follower, a learner, a life-long devotee. A season-ticket holder who attends all the matches, both home and away, in contrast to someone who just checks the final scores on the Internet from time to time.

The church is where Jesus expects disciples to be made. As the church goes out, people hear about the authority of Jesus: they are confronted with a decision, will I bow my knee or won't I? Do I believe he's Lord or don't I?

Then, through the church, they are to be baptised—a public profession that they now belong to Jesus, that the old life is gone and they are now committed to following him.

And through the church they are to be taught. Fundamental to what it is to be church is teaching. Dozens and dozens of times in the gospels we find Jesus teaching. People call him "Teacher"—he even calls himself "the Teacher". And, the rest of the New Testament is the outworking of this in the early church. We have here the Apostles applying the commandments and the message of Jesus and his authority to the earliest disciples. Teaching them. Teaching us. And in turn, we teach it.

So this is the outworking of our mission. How are we doing?

A couple of weeks ago we had a Re:focus day. About sixty of us got together as part of the Re:focus process and talked through some of our issues and hopes around mission.

We had an excellent facilitator, and one particular thing he said, almost in passing, really caught my attention. He just threw out the question, "what does the faith journey of somebody coming to Christ in Woodley Baptist Church look like?"

I was intrigued by this. Let me unpack it a little. If point A is friend, neighbour, family member, colleague with no knowledge of Jesus, and point B is a disciple, a committed follower of Jesus, baptised and taught, then how do we expect to get people from A to B? We're told to "make disciples"; how shall we do this?

As part of the Re:focus day we listed out the various ways we, through church activities, come into contact with non-Christians, leaving aside the fact that we all live and work alongside non-Christians all the time. In a few minutes we had listed out at least 25 different ways in which we meet non-church people through ministries of the church, which is absolutely awesome. Clearly and wonderfully many, many people are investing huge amounts of time and effort in this work. This is a Good Thing! We have a lot of friends.

But we are not called only to make friends, we are called to make disciples. Now, making friends might be a good first step to making disciples. Making friends is nice! But if making friends becomes all that we do, then we've suffered from mission creep, haven't we, and ultimately, mission failure.

So my question is, what next? What is our plan for moving these wonderful people from A to B? To leave them at A is tragic. A precious few do find their way, but of the hundreds we know, it is but a precious few.

At some point each of these individuals needs to be confronted with the question: is Jesus Lord? That's our number one message. So what's our plan for doing that? How, where and when are we going to ask them the question?

Should we be inviting them to Christianity Explored—it is designed for the purpose? I gather that this term's course has been cancelled because only one person signed up, but didn't want to do it alone. Should that then be our strategy, to focus on getting them on the course? If it is, then it seems that we need to do better.

Or how else? Ought we to have more specifically evangelistic events, where the challenge of Jesus is clearly presented? That used to be a common model—I came to Jesus an event like that,—but they seem to be out of favour these days. Or should we have a regular guest services on Sunday mornings where we know that there will be a clear explanation of Jesus as Lord in terms non-church people can understand. Or should it be like that every Sunday? Or should we employ an evangelist—someone with the specific spiritual gift of presenting the challenge of Jesus' Lordship to non-Christians. Or should we each be learning a gospel outline so that we ourselves can present Jesus' claims to those we meet when the time comes?

I don't know the answers, but I think we do need to look at the question. How are we (with God's grace) going to get people from A to B: from unbeliever to disciple? I'm not sure that we need to do more activities—we have hundreds and hundreds of contacts—the question is, why are so few becoming followers?

And note that all the things I've suggested are only the start. When somebody does come to faith in Jesus, what are we going to do then? How do we plan to move them through baptism to discipleship: what does our teaching and nurturing programme look like? What is the faith journey of a person becoming a disciple at Woodley Baptist Church?

So now we have the first two parts of the mission statement: Proclaiming the authority of Jesus, we go to gain disciples for Jesus.

Encouraged always by the presence of Jesus.

Finally, Jesus gives us some encouragement in the last sentence of Matthew's gospel. Mission part 3, Proclaiming the authority of Jesus, we go to gain disciples for Jesus, encouraged always by the presence of Jesus.

And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.ref

We have a wonderful advantage. We don't come to the world with an abstract idea, a concept, and argument, a philosophy. We come with a person. Not a dead, historical person, but a living, present person.

We saw in the reading from Acts that Jesus did go away, although he promises to come back. So in what sense is he with us? Well, as he goes, he promises that the Holy Spirit will come. And the work of the Holy Spirit is to make Jesus real to us. Jesus is not only far away, enthroned on high above the heavens and the earth; he is in our hearts by the Spirit.

And it is this person we seek to present to the world. Our message is not, "look how great we are!", or even "look how great Christianity is". Our message is "look how great Jesus is! Do you want to meet him?"

This is a huge relief. All of us who are his disciples have a story to tell; we all have a walk with Jesus. We don't need to be Billy Graham to share this with people; to let them see that Jesus is with us.

But as we share our stories, I have one plea. Let's make sure that in the end we are sharing his story. If we only talk about our experience of Jesus then it becomes all about us, doesn't it? No more or less valid than somebody else's experience of Buddhism or of frog worship. As we share our stories with people, we need to weave in his story on which it all rests: he came and lived perfectly; he died bearing my sins; he was raised to life and given all authority in heaven and earth; he will come again to judge the world. These are the bare bones of his story. Let's make it fully a part of our stories.


So, the Great Commission gives us a mission statement: Proclaiming the authority of Jesus, we go to gain disciples for Jesus, encouraged always by the presence of Jesus.

I'll leave you now to reflect: are we still ruthlessly pursuing this mission, or have we suffered from mission creep?