Mission creep

Matthew 28:16-20

12 May 2013

Boyn Hill Baptist Church

Church Anniversary


It's a great pleasure to be with you on the occasion of the church's 132nd anniversary. You must be doing something right. It seems a bit impertinent for me to come from Woodley Baptist Church—a whole one hundred years younger than Boyn Hill—and talk to you about how we should "do church". But we're all learners, aren't we.

Before we get into this great Bible text, I want to confess one of my failures. 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—sorry to get technical—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've more than made up for it since!

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 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, on the occasion of your 132nd anniversary, I want to look back 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.

Let's look at Jesus' words: Matthew 28, verses 18 to 20. If you have a Bible available, it would be good to look it up.

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 tells 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. This man, whom the disciples have lived and eaten and travelled with for three years, this man challenges them 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. There is not one thing in the whole universe over which Jesus does not have authority. It is a breathtaking claim.

Since,then, 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!

So Jesus' authority is both the grounds of 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 the church today? 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 the clear, consistent, relentless message of this church, "Jesus is Lord"?

Have you come across this magazine? Maybe not—it's aimed at Henley, Reading and Wokingham districts. It comes out monthly and seems to be widely distributed in the churches and beyond. It says that it is "an independent publication that aims to reflect community and church life without bias". OK, so let's have a look at church life in Wokingham district. Well, we do community advice. We do food banks. We do quiz nights. We do Fairtrade. We do church re-building projects. We play football. And hold concerts. And we raise money for charity—there are any number of articles on fund raising for charity. We do lots of good things. But do we do Jesus? Well, apparently we don't.

Do you know, in this entire magazine about church life in Reading and Wokingham, Jesus' name appears in just three places. And one of those is an advert. In 32 pages packed with articles, Jesus is mentioned just two of them. This, my friends, is mission creep. Where is our message: Jesus is Lord? If this really is an accurate picture of the priorities of the churches today—and I desperately, desperately hope it isn't—then we've totally and utterly lost the plot, haven't we?

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

It all used to be so much easier, didn't it. A church in this country 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 of the world is on our doorstep—pretty much literally. We need to be out there.

Mission is no longer something we can contract out to specialists. We are all missionaries today. Everyone of us is "in the mission field". As a case in point, in just the last week I've spoken about Jesus with both a Muslim from Pakistan and a Buddhist from Japan, without leaving my office!

Nick told me that this church began 132 years ago as a result of a group of praying women inviting an evangelist to proclaim Jesus on this site, in the open air, with pub benches for pews. The message was right; the going was right. People were converted, and the rest is history. But is it only history, or will you make it your future as well?

That's mission part 1, then, Proclaiming the authority of Jesus, we go.

To gain disciples for Jesus

Now for mission part 2, we 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 astounding 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.

And 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: daily conforming their lives to his life.

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 his teaching 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. Clear, authoritative Bible teaching remains fundamental to making disciples—and everyone of us continues to need discipling, no matter how long ago we started out.

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

A few weeks ago we had a church day at Woodley Baptist Church devoted to talking through some of our issues and hopes around mission.

We had an excellent facilitator from the Baptist Union to help us, 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 day we listed out the various ways in which 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.

How are we hoping to move 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?

I'm not sure we have good answers to these questions yet at WBC—we're working on it. I wonder how things work here at Boyn Hill. Is your situation similar: many, many friends and contacts, but few becoming disciples? As part of your church life, do you have a ways, at some point or another, to ask people the question: Will you make Jesus your Lord?

And this is only the start. When somebody does come to faith in Jesus, what are you going to do then? How do you plan to move them through baptism to discipleship: what does your teaching and nurturing programme look like? What is the faith journey of a person becoming a disciple at Boyn Hill Baptist Church? Have you thought about that?

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.

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?"

Do we truly believe that Jesus is with us, or is it just another part of the mission statement that we have forgotten?

Well, there's an easy way to find out: how are your prayer meetings?

Prayer is our way of calling on this Jesus who is with us. If he were not with us, there would be no point praying. If it were all down to us and our sheer hard work, there would be no point praying.

But if we believe that our mission is his mission, that Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth and that he is with us, then we are going to cast ourselves on him in prayer, aren't we? Prayer is the church working together with Jesus to accomplish his mission.

Do you believe that Jesus is with you? How are your prayer meetings?


It's great to celebrate a church anniversary, isn't it. But we have to remember that church is not about the past, it's about the future. The mission Jesus gave the church continues to the very end of the ageref.

The Great Commission gives us a mission statement which I've paraphrased this morning as Proclaiming the authority of Jesus, we go to gain disciples for Jesus, encouraged always by the presence of Jesus.

How does Boyn Hill Baptist Church plan to keep ruthlessly and relentlessly focused on this until he comes. How will you avoid mission creep and mission failure?