Missions is not the same thing as ministry. Ministry includes missions, but the two are not one in the same. Just because one is working cross-culturally or ministering to people in one’s own community does not mean that one is doing missions. Ministry includes all the activities of the church carried out ‘in the name of Jesus,’ attending to the entire range of needs of people—social, physical, emotional and spiritual. Missions is focused specifically on the discipling and churching of the people who have not had the opportunity to hear the Good News.
According to Paul, the work of missions comprised of three things:
1. Preaching the gospel message to persons with intent of leading them to repentance and, thus, salvation
2. Planting of bodies of believers (churches) who were actively involved in ministry to one another and outreach
3. Cultivating these churches until they reached a point of maturity in Christ.
In Romans 15:19, 23, Paul said that he had fulfilled the ministry of the gospel from Jerusalem to Illyricum and that he no longer had any room for work in these regions. Paul had at most been in these regions for 15 years, so what did he mean?
It is conceivable that Paul’s meaning here was that he had left behind a number of churches in key places now capable of completing the work of evangelization and discipleship in the region (Timothy in Ephesus, Titus in Crete).
It is also conceivable that he meant all the existing people groups within the region now had a viable church or churches among them such that these churches could now finish the task of reaching their own people.
John Piper is very insightful on Paul on this point:
In fact, [Paul] goes so far as to say in Romans 15:23, ‘But now, since I no longer have any room for work in these regions…I hope to see you as I go to Spain.’ This is astonishing! How can he say not only that he has fulfilled the gospel in that region, but also that he has no more room for work? He is finished and going to Spain (15:24). What does this mean? It means that Paul’s conception of the missionary task is not merely the winning of more and more people to Christ (which he could have done very efficiently in these regions), but the reaching of more and more peoples or nations. His focus was not primarily on new geographic areas. Rather, he was gripped by the vision of unreached peoples. Romans 15:9-12 shows that his mind was saturated with OT texts that relate to the hope of the nations” (Let the Nations Be Glad!, 194).
If Piper’s interpretation of Romans 15 is accurate then it seems that missions is about laying the foundation among a people group—that is, the aim is to see spiritually mature, reproducing churches planted in strategic locations among a people group so that these churches themselves are capable of completing the task of evangelization among their own people and even moving beyond.
Ministry is not missions. Missions is taking the message of God’s purpose for humankind and proclaiming that message to the nations, specifically to the nations that have never heard. Missions goes beyond mere conversion of individuals to the planting of bodies of believers that are marked by outreach to the world and mutual ministry within the body.
Mathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their dog, Simba. You can follow him on Twitter @Mat_Gilbert.