World mission is the ongoing event and activity of Christ’s Spirit through his body, the church, as its members make whole and culturally embodied disciples of Jesus among the nations by bearing witness to the good news of his redemptive kingdom and seeking obedience in the form of a repentant faith in his name according to our heavenly Father’s good pleasure and plan to save the world and consummate his new creation.


World mission is initiated and empowered by the Spirit of Christ within the body of Christ across the world. Its ultimate goal is the glorification of God among the nations as people become baptized disciples of Jesus who do everything that he commanded. Toward this disciple-making end, the particular activity of world mission is the church bearing witness in word and deed to the good news of Jesus’s redemptive kingdom in all the world and seeking the obedient responses of repentance and faith in Christ for the salvation of the elect and their reconciliation to God. As an event and activity of Christ’s Spirit, world mission is thus a story of what God has been doing and continues to do in the world both through the witnesses he has sent and also among those who have encountered and accepted his witnesses. The following essay will begin with an explanation of the logic behind its definition of world mission, then lay out a biblical case for the basis of world mission, and conclude with a brief discussion of world mission history.

Defining World Mission

Defining “world mission” immediately raises a host of important questions with many possible answers. Are we just talking about the work and activity of those identified as “missionaries”?

Whose mission are we talking about? God’s (missio Dei)? The church’s (missiones ecclesiae)? Both? And if both, then how?

Furthermore, “mission” has not always been used in a consistent way within the church. Before the Jesuits in the sixteenth century began to speak of “mission” as the spreading of their faith among those who were not Roman Catholic, the term was exclusively used in reference to the Trinitarian sending of the Son and Spirit. One cannot simply extract a direct definition from a prooftext in Scripture because the word “mission”—though rooted in the Latin verb mittere, which corresponds with the Greek verb apostellein (“to send”)—does not occur in the Bible as a noun.

Therefore, to insist upon a single, conclusive, and universal definition of “world mission” is unnecessary for our purposes. Various uses of it may understandably emphasize certain themes for certain reasons in certain contexts. Accepting this reality frees us to humbly pursue mutual clarity and enrichment with others as we diversely employ the term “world mission.”

The intention behind the operating definition of world mission in this essay is to pursue a simultaneously God-centered and church-focused understanding that acknowledges the related yet distinct missions of God and the church.

World mission is defined as an ongoing event and activity of Christ’s Spirit according to the Father’s pleasure and plan because it is not a work that humans simply set out to do by their own strength and will (1Cor 15:10–11; Col 1:28–29). World mission begins and ends according to the plan and action of God in creation unto new creation. Thus, it is important to define world mission in such a way that keeps God and the initiative and fulfillment of his Triune will at the center.

At the same time, defining world mission as an activity of Christ’s Spirit through the church distinguishes God’s comprehensive mission from the church’s related, yet distinct and specific, calling and responsibility within God’s plan and actions. God’s mission in the world is to glorify himself by saving the world and consummating his new creation. The church glorifies God and participates in his plan, not by saving the world and consummating his new creation alongside him as co-Saviors or co-consummators, but by bearing Spirit-filled witness to God’s kingdom among the nations in order that many might be saved by God himself and transformed into repentant and faithful disciples of Jesus (Acts 1:8; Matt 28:18–20).

While God alone saves, consummates new creation, and ushers in the shalom of his kingdom, both God and the church are involved in the making and forming of disciples. Disciples cannot be made apart from God’s Spirit drawing, illuminating, and regenerating or the church (as both institution and organism1) faithfully evangelizing, discipling, preaching, teaching, and administering the sacraments (John 6:37, 44, 65; Rom 10:13–15; Acts 26:15–18).

While world mission is an activity of God, it is not defined here as the entire activity of God; rather, it is defined as God’s particular activity through his witness-bearing church. As the Spirit empowers and moves the church to bear witness to the kingdom, the church continues to accomplish the specific task she was given: making disciples.

Stating the goal of world mission in this way does not preclude the goals of glorifying God, establishing churches, converting unbelievers, extinguishing injustice, or extending compassion; instead, it underscores the measurable and more holistic task that both God and the church work to accomplish in the activity of world mission: making whole, culturally embodied disciples of Christ among the nations.

The goal of world mission is not simply for the church to preach the gospel, administer the sacraments, and exercise church discipline as a faithful institution; nor is it simply for the church to end world hunger, parent orphans, and shelter the unsheltered as faithful followers of Jesus. These are all witness-bearing activities that serve the primary mission of making whole, culturally embodied disciples of Christ among the nations. This is how God and the church go about making disciples, “by bearing witness to the good news of his redemptive kingdom and seeking obedience in the form of a repentant faith in his name” while demonstrating how the gospel is the subversive fulfillment of every culture’s idols.2

In addition to affirming the agency of God and the church and making explicit the task they are both called to accomplish, this definition also deliberately focuses on the New Covenant age. This focus is not intended to suggest separate agendas or stark discontinuities within the plan and activity of God from creation to the Old Covenant and then to the New Covenant; any definition of world mission must take into account the entire historical plan of God. But limiting this discussion of world mission to the New Covenant age will help us focus on our present redemptive-historical age, “these last days” inaugurated by the first coming of Christ (Heb 1:1–2).

This New Covenant focus also emphasizes the distinct world character and global calling of the people of God which were only hinted at and foreshadowed before Christ and the outpouring of his Spirit at Pentecost. Keeping this focus in our operating definition will help us expand our understanding of world mission as not simply an ongoing event, activity, or task to be fulfilled by God and the church, but also as a story we are working together to tell.

Biblical Basis for World Mission

World mission finds its basis in the one Creator God of the cosmos who is worthy of all honor, glory, praise, and renown from among the nations of the world, all of whom are descended from Adam. World mission is rooted in the good pleasure and plan of God to reign over the nations as their one true God. Thus, the historical activity of world mission began when the Father sent forth his Word and Spirit to create the world. It continued when he created and sent out his image-bearing humanity to cultivate and protect the earth and to “[b]e fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion . . .” (Gen 1:1–2, 28; 2:15; John 1:1–3; Col 1:15–17).

And even when humanity wrongly and rebelliously exercised their dominion over the earth and worshiped and glorified the creature rather than the Creator, the foundation of world mission was not upended (Gen 3; cf. Rom 1:18–32). In fact, the basis and necessity of world mission was only further affirmed and intensified. In light of creation’s fall, John Piper has argued mission exists unto all the world because worship doesn’t exist across so much of creation.3

When creation fell under the curse of sin, God did not abandon his plan to advance creation into its consummate new creation reality and make disciples of his way for the purpose of providing abundant life. Neither the sins of humanity nor the schemes of the devil could thwart this plan. God indicated this when he foretold of the woman’s offspring who, while injuring his own body in the process, would mortally crush the head of the serpent (Gen 3:15). He also confirmed his purposes when he graciously preserved Noah and his family through the worldwide flood of judgement that cleansed the wicked from the earth (Gen 8).

Even as the descendants of Noah were divided into tribes and factions and numerous peoples at Babel when they chose to settle there rather than fruitfully multiply and fill the earth (Gen 11:1–9), God’s disciple-making intentions for the world and its nations did not change. He promised Abraham that he would not only make him a great nation and bless him and make his name great, but that he would also make him a blessing such that all the families of the earth would be blessed through his family (Gen 12:1–3).

Abraham’s family, the people of Israel, existed as a nation of disciples of the one true God, Yahweh. Their purpose was to showcase their covenant God who dwelt among them. They were to worship Yahweh alone amidst all the other nations and their gods (Exod 19:5–6; Lev 20:26; Deut 7:6; 26:19; 28:9; Ps 67). And even when Israel failed to walk in God’s way, the faithful of the Old Covenant age always had a sense that they were to be a light among the nations, bearing witness to the one true God and his righteousness and truth.

The prophets spoke of a final time when nations would be drawn to the house of the Lord, the house of the God of Jacob, to learn Yahweh’s ways and walk in his paths (Isa 2:2–3). They also anticipated a Servant figure, chosen by the Lord, who would restore Israel and bring light and justice to all nations, even salvation to the ends of the earth (Isa 42, 49, 52). Thus, in the Old Covenant, the people of God bore a more passive, attractional, and centripetal witness to the world, one distinct from the more active, outreaching, and centrifugal witness of God’s people and Spirit in the New Covenant.

But in the fullness of time (Gal 4:4), when Israel was under the occupation of the Roman empire and the Jewish diaspora had spread far and wide, the Servant of Israel, the Messiah, came in the person of Jesus Christ of Nazareth to inaugurate the New Covenant age. And to the surprise of many, his ministry often extended beyond his own Jewish people in Israel (cf. Matt 15:21–28; Mark 5:1–20; Luke 7:1–10; John 4). Bearing the curse of sin, as though an outsider to Jerusalem, Jesus became for his people the propitiating Lamb of God who took away not just the sins of Israel, but the sins of the whole world as well (John 1:29; 1Jn 2:2).

Then, after Christ—the second and last Adam—rose again from the dead as the firstfruits of new creation (1Cor 15:20, 23), all authority in heaven and on earth was given to him. And as he was about to ascend to the right hand of God the Father Almighty, he told his disciples that they would be his witnesses from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth and commissioned them to go and make disciples of the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit, and teaching them to do everything he had commanded (Matt 28:18–20; Acts 1:8).

The Spirit was poured out at Pentecost, empowering Christ’s disciples’ obedience to his commission and call (Acts 2). Whereas human diversity had resulted in tribalism because of the sin at Babel, harmony founded on unity now existed through the work of the Spirit at Pentecost, and the potential for the redemption of every culture and people was made manifest like never before. Pentecost marked both the fulfillment of what God had revealed about his heart for the nations in the Old Covenant and the commencement of world mission as we know it in these last days of the New Covenant.

As she bears witness to the gospel of Christ among the nations in these last days, the church continues to participate in world mission—never perfectly, yet always with the Spirit’s indwelling presence and power advancing this ongoing event, activity, task, and story. She continues in this work because it is explicit in the gospel of Jesus Christ itself and its new creation promise that God’s desire is for people from every nation, tribe, and tongue to receive and believe his good news and worship him, both for their own good and for his own glory (Rom 1:5, 16; ch. 11; 15:8ff; Eph 2:11ff; Rev 7:9–12).

World Mission History

The course of world mission history was clearly foretold by the resurrected Christ before his ascension. When asked about the restoration of the kingdom and the end of history, he told his disciples that they would receive power from the Spirit and be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).

The ideal of world mission history is to record this ongoing activity of God in and through his witness-bearing church as they make whole disciples of the nations. This is what we have in the book of Acts and much of the New Testament—a record of how God sent the early church out, even by means of persecution, and used them to bear witness and make many disciples among the Jewish diaspora and the Gentiles.

Unlike the New Testament, however, recorded world mission history since the close of the canon is not inspired by the Holy Spirit. World mission history after the events of the New Testament is subject to fallible interpretations concerning what God has continued to do in the world; therefore, all subsequent world mission history, though valuable, should be careful not to overstate the perceived advancements of Christian mission or to overestimate the perceived setbacks the church has faced.

Still, accounts and records of world mission history are important for helping the church celebrate and remember what God has done and learn from past experiences. For example,4 one helpful way that world mission history has been organized and told is by highlighting advancements that were made during the following eras:

  1. Expansion in the Premodern Era (AD 30–1500)
    • Mission before Christendom (AD 30–313)
      • During the Pax Romana, the early apostolic church moved outward, bearing costly and provocative witness to the gospel of Christ’s kingdom and navigating a third way beyond the cultural divide between Jews and Gentiles, which often led to their persecution and martyrdom.
    • Mission and Christendom (AD 313–1500)
      • After Constantine issued an edict of religious tolerance, Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, which led to confusion over, and often a conflation of, the kingdom of God and European empires. While many came to genuine faith through faithful and organic Christian witness and Bible translation, many others became cultural Christians, either for political and social advantage or at the point of a sword.
    • Mission beyond Christendom (AD 33–1500)
      • Outside of Western Christendom, Christianity also spread and grew to varying degrees in Mesopotamia, Persia, India, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Ethiopia, Armenia, Afghanistan, Tajikstan, Tibet, and China, with Ethiopia and Armenia becoming majority Christian nations before many Western nations.
  2. Expansion in the Era of Discovery and Colonialism (AD 1500–1900)
    • The Extension of Christendom
      • The Great European migration spread Christianity across the globe to Asia, Africa, and the Americas, but it often did so with un-Christian, greedy, racist, and nationalistic attachments, such as slave trade and labor.
    • Colonialism and the “Great (Nineteenth) Century”
      • As the North Atlantic nations subjected other nations to their political control and European culture, many missionaries believed that international trade was opening doors to take Christianity to the nations. While witness-bearing efforts were often perceived as (ironically) protected by Western weaponry, God still used faithful and innovative witnesses and moved among receiving peoples to make disciples who would then make Christianity their own culturally embodied faith.
    • The Revivalists’ Impact
      • Following the revivals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Western Protestant movements like the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions were started to passionately and creatively pursue the evangelization of the world.
  3. Expansion to and from Every Continent (AD 1900–present)
    • Emergence of World Christianity
      • Full of pre-World War optimism, Protestants stressed cooperation and even began to speak of the evangelization of the world “in this generation” at the Edinburgh Missionary Conference of 1910. While the enthusiasm of these mostly Western missionaries was deflated by the Great Depression, two World Wars, and Protestant divisions between mainline and evangelical churches, World Christianity would grow in ways that few of the Edinburgh delegates could have imagined as influential non-Western indigenous church leaders began to emerge abroad. By the end of the twentieth century, the locus of Christianity had shifted to the Majority World, with missionaries now being sent to and from both Western and Majority-World nations. With the rise of world Christianity, mainline and evangelical Protestants, Pentecostals and charismatics, and the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics have become increasingly interested in missiological discussions about the unity and diversity of the faith, about religious “others” in secular and pluralistic societies, and about the church’s social and political responsibilities in the face of injustice, among many other topics.

Although this chronology of highlights in world mission history serves a helpful purpose, it is important to emphasize that good world mission history does not simply focus on sending institutions and officially sent missionaries and their victories and spectacular accomplishments. In reality, so much of what God has done to make disciples among the nations through his church has simply been to use faithful families who transmit their faith and ordinary lay Christians who migrate for various reasons that have nothing to do with vocational missionary service.5 Good world mission history tells these seemingly more mundane stories as well.

World mission history should also record the setbacks, limitations, and sins of the church, mission agencies, and missionaries, such as complicity in promoting racial hierarchies, Western supremacy, and greedy imperialistic politics that only served nationalistic interests. Such history-telling can help the church repent of and learn from her mistakes.

World mission historians would also do well to heed the example of scholars such as Lamin Sanneh, who has examined the history of world mission not only from the perspectives of those who brought their gospel witness to others, but also from the perspectives of those who received the gospel witnesses sent to them.6 World mission is so much more than sending people to bear witness for the purpose of making uniform converts. World mission involves real people receiving and thoughtfully engaging with God’s witnesses and the Holy Spirit leading new peoples to creatively internalize, contextualize, translate, and apply the gospel in fresh ways as culturally embodied disciples of Jesus.


1For more on the church in its dual form, see Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4, Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, ed. John Bolt (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 329–32.
2For more on the “subversive fulfillment” method of bearing winsome and compelling witness to Christ and his kingdom over and against the idols of this world, see Daniel Strange, Their Rock Is Not Like Our Rock: A Theology of Religions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014).
3See John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad! The Supremacy of God in Missions (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 17.
4See A. Scott Moreau, Gary R. Corwin, and Gary B. McGee, Introducing World Missions: A Biblical Historical, and Practical Survey (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015).
5See Jehu J. Hanciles, Migration and the Making of Global Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2021).
6See Lamin Sanneh, Disciples of All Nations: Pillars of World Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) and Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009).

Further Reading

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