When I was growing up in the church, "mission" (if we talked about it at all) meant evangelism. It meant sharing a message about sin, faith, and eternity. Mission was about saving souls. And so we'd carry tracts with us to school for classmates and leave them on restaurant tables with our tip; we'd go door to door in neighborhoods asking people questions about Jesus; we'd memorize scriptures that could sum up this gospel; and we'd generously support missionaries serving overseas. Occasionally, those missionaries would do some odd, side-tasks, like teaching English in schools around the world, or leading sports camps for a community's children, but the heart of the mission, the reason we sent them out there, was to share "the gospel," in a very John 3:16/Romans Road sense of the word. That was what "mission" meant.
But over the years my idea of "mission" has expanded.
It expanded as I learned to use a chainsaw and helped clear debris at people's homes after Hurricane Gustav. It expanded as I read the gospel of Luke and Jesus' manifesto about bringing good news to the poor (Luke 4:16-21). It expanded as I learned that my money is God's money, given to me to help others, not to spoil myself. It expanded as I connected Martin Luther King Jr.'s demand that "justice roll down like water" to the Old Testament prophet Amos (5:24). It expanded as I spent time studying scripture and praying with "the least of these" (Matt 25:31-46) living behind bars, and heard about their dreams, their regrets, and their struggles.
Over the years, these experiences stretched my understanding of mission, and today I believe that "mission" means bringing good news and blessing to the world in Jesus' name.
Mission means telling your friend, whose choices are destroying his life, how you found a better way with Jesus.
Mission means delivering sandbags to people who are watching the water get closer and closer to their front door.
Mission means taking bags of dog food to the local shelter, so the creatures God called "good" don't go hungry.
Mission means treating folks who are homeless to a trip to the beach and a pizza dinner in the heat of summer.
That's what Pope Francis has been doing lately. I read this about a bus from the Vatican that, each afternoon, picks up 10 homeless individuals, and gives them a ride to the beach (towels and swimsuits included!). After some fun in the sun, the group stops at a local pizzeria on their way back to Rome. (Once back in the city, the archbishop and others deliver free dinners to the hungry. You can read about more of Francis's efforts to serve the poor in the article above.)
An afternoon at the beach may sound a little superfluous—after all, these men and women don't have anywhere to live! Shouldn't we focus our energies on that? Obviously that's important. But, at the same time, God doesn't just want people to survive. God wants people to thrive, to experience joy, to have life "more abundantly" (John 10:10).
I don't think I'll ever forget a story Rob Bell shared, in his book Sex God, about the liberation of a concentration camp at the close of World War II. The Allies who liberated the camp were totally unprepared to begin to address the horrors they found there. They didn't have the supplies of food and medicine and clothing that they needed for the prisoners they'd freed. One thing they did have, for whatever reason, was lipstick. Probably not the top of their priority list. People were sick; people were starving; people were suffering the effects of malnourishment - what good was lipstick gonna do? But when women from the camp found the lipstick and started putting it on, there was a transformation. The Nazis had treated these people like they were sub-human, like their lives didn't matter at all. A little human luxury like wearing lipstick? That reminded these women that they were human beings, that they were people of worth. The lipstick wasn't going to help their physical survival, but it was going to help them learn to thrive again.
Taking a homeless man to the beach and out for pizza reminds them that there's more to life than scraping to get by, and that people love you and want you to flourish. I hope that, there on the beaches in Italy, those men and women feel a little more like someone made in the image of God. As the archbishop who's driving these groups to the beach said, "We are not solving the problems of the homeless in Rome, but at least we are giving them back a little dignity."
People are being blessed; they're having some good news proclaimed to them, and it's being done by the Church in the name of Jesus Christ.
And that is mission.