Long Read: How Should We Relate Christian Mission to Christian Ministry?

Depending on who you ask, the Church of Scotland is either entering into an unprecedented series of cuts that will destroy its capacity for mission, or pivoting towards being a fully missional church. 

The purpose of this post is not to give my own view on the ongoing reforms – after all, who needs yet another view on it all? – but to do something that will hopefully be more useful to those within the Church of Scotland and of more interest to those outwith it: to provide an overview of how historic models of ministry can be integrated with the current drive towards mission. I cannot hope to give a definitive answer to the question of the relation between ministry and mission in this post. That requires a much fuller treatment, something I will be attempting in a new book project provisionally called Ministry and Mission in the Contemporary West. Yet hopefully the following will provide some way-markers by which readers can orientate themselves, and provide a basis for further discussion, critique and revision.

In short, here is what I believe the relation is between ministry and mission: the mission of God is to conform human beings to the likeness of Christ. God does this primarily through the ministries of Word and Sacrament, and the gifts given to Christ’s Body through the Holy Spirit. Yet because not all people are devout Christians, the shaping of humanity to the likeness of Christ often takes the form of mission. Because of the Father’s gracious decision to minister through Christ by the Spirit in the Christian Church, without Word and Sacrament and worship, successful mission is impossible, and therefore mission cannot be done without healthy Christian congregations.

The Turn Towards Mission

While it took the Scottish Church a few decades to realise how bad things were, most denominations now accept that Scotland is not only a mission field, but a very difficult one at that. This realisation has brought a great wave of activity, brainstorming, and agonising, as church leaders grope around for solutions to what appears to be the wholesale collapse of Christian faith in Scottish Society.

One of the ways in which churches are trying to cope is by becoming missional. For many years, there was not much clarity in the historic Scottish denominations about what mission and ‘being missional’ were all about. Recently, however, many have settled upon the Five Marks of Mission as offering a good guide. The Five Marks developed over a number of decades within the Anglican Communion, and have recently been adopted by the Church of England and the Church of Scotland in official documents.

Here is how the Five Marks are described:

The mission of the Church is the mission of Christ

  1. To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
  2. To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
  3. To respond to human need by loving service
  4. To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation
  5. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth

The Marks are a useful summary of Jesus’ teaching and witness regarding the work of God in the world, and are also helpful in uniting both historically ‘liberal’ and historically ‘evangelical’ concerns. Yet a common criticism of the Five Marks is that they do not appear to describe everything the Church does. Where, for example, is worship and prayer? Where are the sacraments? Moreover, being brief bullet-points, they do not explain how mission should relate to ministry, how what we have always done should relate to what we are now being asked to do. 

This lack of guidance can result in confusion, disorientation, and decreasing morale. In addition to all the other work they have to do, church leaders are now being asked to single-handedly forge their people into effective missionaries and transform the land. It can feel as if the weight of the world is upon their shoulders, while those who should help them bear the load are either absent, or are gradually excusing themselves from the struggle.

Yet what if there was another way? What if we have been putting too much strain on ourselves, while another was there to help? What if we could discover (or re-discover) the proper relation between ministry and mission, and find the sense of direction, and peace, and purpose that we crave?

What is Jesus Up To?

Ministry and mission both suffer in our context from a focus on what we do, what we say, what projects welaunch. This, however, is to look through the telescope at the wrong end. Before we ask any other question, the primary question that Christians should always ask is: what is Jesus up to? 

When we ask that question first, we get very different answers as to what ministry and mission is for, and how we should be doing it.

My own answer to the question of ‘What is Jesus up to?’ is that the main thing he is up to is conforming us to his likeness, or – to put it more simply – making us like himself. We learn in Genesis 1: 26 that God made human beings in God’s own likeness. We learn also in Colossians 1: 15 that Jesus is the image of the invisible God, and that he is the ‘firstborn’ over all of creation (including, of course, us). What this means is that Jesus came not only to reveal the Father, but to reveal us: to reveal what human beings should be, and what one day we will be. 

Jesus accomplishes the perfecting of human nature in his own person. By taking sinful flesh upon himself and redeeming it, he is the perfect human being. Yet there is more. For by his Spirit, the election of the Father, and the giving of faith in grace, we participate, even now, in his perfect humanity, and through the Spirit are gradually being conformed to the full likeness of Christ, becoming – haltingly, painfully, incrementally – all that we were created to be.

Throughout the Pauline and Pastoral Epistles of the New Testament, we learn that this process of witnessing to, and becoming confirmed to, the likeness of Jesus Christ is the primary purpose of ministry. We are consistently told to ‘have the mind of Christ’ (e.g. 1 Corinthians 2: 16; Philippians 2: 5) to be ‘conformed to the image of His Son’ (Romans 8) and to seek the ‘upbuilding’ of the Church (e.g. Ephesians 4). All of these are different ways of saying that the purpose of ministry is to help people become like Jesus, and be ‘conformed’ or ‘built up’ into his likeness.

What is Jesus Like?

This then begs the question: if our destiny is to be like Jesus, what is Jesus like? It is not possible to give a full account of the picture of Jesus witnessed in Scripture. Indeed, no human words can do justice to the beauty, and goodness, and truth and love of the Son of God, who is possessed of every perfection. For the sake of better understanding the relation between ministry and mission, however, and how we can participate in the perfected humanity of Christ, we can give the following summary:

  • Jesus’ perfection comes from his unique relationship to the Father
  • This relationship is marked by unconditional love, thanksgiving, praise and blessing
  • Jesus is perfectly obedient to every command of his Father, even when it is painful
  • Jesus invites people to share in the unique relationship he has with his Father, and does this through preaching, teaching and pastoral encounters
  • Jesus pleads with us to repent from our sin and self-sufficiency, and be born from above by the Spirit
  • Jesus reaches out to those whom society and the religious authorities have marginalised
  • Jesus invites us to forgive and be forgiven
  • Jesus challenges the arrogance and hypocrisy of the privileged
  • Jesus witnesses to a new world of justice, joy and peace

Jesus, in short, is animated by every possible human perfection, and through faith in him, we share in this perfection. His righteousness covers our sin, his Spirit begins to remake us in his image, and we begin to worship the Father truly as he does. Being like Jesus, therefore, is not only – or even primarily – how we become a better Christian, but how we become a better human being

The Ascended Ministry of Christ

It is a source of serious sadness and regret that, because of the type of Christianity that has predominated in Scotland, we often act as if the Ascension marked the point at which Christ died rather than being raised to glory, the moment that he ceased to be active, as opposed to the time when his action became almighty. If I had a pound for every time I have heard or read that said that the Ascension means that Christ has left us I would be a very rich man! Yet it is just the opposite. The Ascension marks the moment when Christ is not only present and active in 1st century Judea, but present and active in all times and place. The Ascension means that Jesus is still working, far more than any hard-pressed and stressed minister ever will.

Yet Jesus does not work without us. By incorporating us into his body and perfect humanity, he has graciously chosen to incorporate us into his work. He doesn’t incorporate us into his body and work by serving us in a foodbank, or by supporting us emotionally through pastoral care, or by involving us in creation care. These may all make it easier to accept him, or easier to be conformed to his likeness, but none of these things will actually achieve it. Rather, he incorporates us into his body, and shapes us for ministry and mission with him, through Word and Sacrament.

Word and Sacrament have fallen on hard times in the Scottish Church. In previous generations, hearing the word and receiving the sacraments was something as essential and basic as bread and water, something that a person had to do, and which they would endure serious hardships to procure. Yet for many today, they are now, at best, a luxury, the cherry on the top of an otherwise sweet and pleasant life. Yet while God is always with the Christian no matter where they are, there is no guarantee that they are living fully in Christ, are being conformed to his likeness, and being fitted for ministry and mission unless they are regularly receiving his Word and Sacrament in a local church community.

Word and Sacrament are the tools by which the Ascended Christ shapes us. They are like the hammer and chisel in the hands of the sculptor; the smoothing and shaping hands of the potter at the wheel; the mould that the molten metal is poured into. Without Word and Sacrament we are lumps of marble, clay, and metal. Fine up to a point, but failing to fulfil our potential and our destiny. Yet by them, we are shaped and crafted into the people we were created to be in Christ, becoming images of the image of God, and blessing the world through our presence.

Word and Sacrament, therefore, are not the utterings of small women and men who stand at the front of the church and say what is on their minds, Rather, they are the swords of truth and the food of heaven, fallen human words and actions that, by the grace of the Spirit, are used by God to unite us with his Son, give us his Spirit, and furnish them with giftings to bless the world.

The Gifts of the Spirit

For it is not enough that we as individuals become like Jesus through Word and Sacrament. Rather, God wishes to fill us with the Holy Spirit, that we might play particular roles in the ministry of Christ and his Church. For we were not created to become like Jesus in some ‘general’ or ‘abstract’ way, but in a way that is particular to each of us. As Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12, Christians are not created to be identical to each other, but different. While Christ contains every perfection and gift in his own person, because we are not God, his perfected humanity manifests differently in each individual. Some are creative, some are analytical, some are pastoral, some are managerial. The Spirit realises our likeness to Christ in as many ways as there are individual Christians, and as the Spirit increases our dependency and conformity to Christ, so we develop a unique palate of giftings.

Yet these giftings and talents are not for us alone, but for all. Indeed, they are designed to make us dependent on each other, even to the extent of our weaknesses being a blessing to others (cf. 1 Corinthians 12: 23-24). After enumerating the giftings of the Spirit, Paul goes on in 1 Corinthians 13 to show how every gift is useless and self-indulgent and pointless unless it is shaped by the love of the Spirit. Our giftings are only fully developed, and our potential as individuals only fulfilled, when we live for others, and use our gifts for the benefits of all

The Relation Between Ministry and Mission

Within the life of the Church, these giftings are used to maintain the health of the body, allowing people to teach, pray, enable fellowship, disciple, and exercise pastoral care. 

Yet not all people are Christians, and not all people are being shaped by the ministry of Christ through Word and Sacrament. For this reason, the gifts that are given by the Spirit through Word and Sacrament are also used by Christ for the benefit of non-Christians. This is called mission. This use of Spiritual gifts for the benefit of the non-Christian world is possible because the gifts are, as we have seen, to be used in a spirit of self-sacrificial love. Just as Jesus did not (with due respect to some trends in Reformed theology) discriminate against some groups of people but gave his life for the world, so the Church gives its life not only for itself but for all. This is how the gifts of love poured into our hearts by the Spirit ‘overflow’, and have as their object not only those who are currently being conformed to Jesus’ likeness but to all people created in his image. One day, when Christ returns, all ministry and mission will cease, and God will be all in all. Until that day, however, or until all the world is truly Christian, the gifts of the spirit given through Christ’s ministry in Word and Sacrament will also be used in mission, that all might see and believe.

Because of the importance of worship, Word, Sacrament, and the life of the congregation to mission, in Mission in Contemporary Scotland I presented a synthesis of the historic – ministerial – marks of the Church with the contemporary Five Marks of Mission. Others might frame them slightly differently, but they are an attempt to give expression to the vital importance of Word, Sacrament and worship for the life not only of the Church but the life of mission. They are:

  1. To glorify Father, Son and Holy Spirit in worship and prayer
  2. To proclaim the catholic or universal faith
  3. To celebrate the sacraments as signs and foretastes of the new creation
  4. To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
  5. To respond to human need by loving service
  6. To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation
  7. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth

Rather than thinking only about the ‘Marks of Mission’, I think it better to think of the ‘Marks of the Church’, visible activities that flow from our identity in Christ and his apostles as one, holy, catholic and apostolic. As I argue in the book, it is impossible for any one congregation or denomination to meet all these marks, which is just the point: we only meet them, and witness their extraordinary results, as a united Church!

Provisional Conclusions

From the foregoing, we can draw the following theological conclusions about the relation between ministry and mission:

  • The Father’s mission to conform human being to the likeness of his Son through the Spirit, and recreate the earth, is the horizon and primary context for all Christian activity
  • The Church exists between the Ascension and Return (Parousia) of Christ to work with God to conform human beings to the likeness of the Son
  • This work is called ministry, and is possible only because Christ is working in space and time to draw all people to himself
  • Human beings are shaped to become like Jesus primarily through Word, Sacrament and the life of the congregation, where we are addressed by Christ the Prophet, reconciled by Christ the Priest, and ruled by Christ the King
  • If all people were sincere Christians, then ministry alone would be sufficient between Ascension and Parousia, with Word, Sacrament, Discipleship and Pastoral Care being sufficient to shape people to Christ’s likeness
  • Yet because not all people are sincere Christians, ministry in our time often takes the form of mission
  • Mission is the saving work of Christ and his Church that is directed towards the non-Christian world, but which is closely related to the work of ministry.
  • Both ministry and mission have the same end: the conforming of all humanity to the likeness of Christ
  • Without ministry, our participation in God’s mission is impossible, as participation in God’s mission is only successful when we are becoming more and more like Jesus, imbued with the gifts of the Spirit, and are receiving sufficient practical and emotional support from our brothers and sisters in the faith
  • If we attempt mission without Word, Sacrament, worship and the Church we will fail, as we will be doing mission in our own strength and in our own wisdom, and not through the Ascended Christ who is the primary minister and missionary of the Church

These theological conclusions also give rise to certain practical conclusions:

  • The Church is vital for the mission of God. If the mission of God is to make people like Jesus, then the Church – which is the incomplete realisation of that goal – is of great importance as sign, instrument, and foretaste of all that human life should be.
  • Churches can’t do mission without ministry. As such, there must be adequate prevision for Word, Sacrament and worship to enable people to shaped, supported, and equipped for mission
  • The one who proclaims the Word and celebrates the Sacraments is not the primary minister or missionary in the Church. The purpose of Christian leaders is to work with Christ, not to take the place of Christ. Only Christ is High Priest, and he is the primary minister of every congregation and denomination. In addition, the purpose of Christian leaders is not to be the sole minister in a congregation or locality, but to enable the ministries and missional activity of others. Christ and the congregation are primary, and Christian leaders should not even attempt to do all ministry and mission themselves.
  • The Church should not give up all its resources for purely ‘missional’ projects, especially if they do not involve the Church
  • The Church must devote more attention to making disciples/evangelism. Belief is not an optional extra for a Church(!), but the primary means in which Jesus is like the Father and we are like Jesus. Jesus’ primary message was about the unique and privileged relationship of love and praise he had with the Father, and so we must work with Christ to call people into that saving relationship
  • Nevertheless, much follows from this foundational relationship of love and praise, including service, challenging injustice, and witnessing to a recreated world. As such, other forms of mission are also essential.

So What?

Hopefully you have been in general agreement with what has been written so far. Yet you might be thinking to yourself ‘All very good. But what difference does it make? How is any of this going to help me keep my church afloat, or reach people in my community?”

This is where I have some bad news. Because of the historical baggage I have explored in Chapters 2 and 3 of Mission in Contemporary Scotland, and slightly more fully in The Scottish Ideal, Scottish Christianity – and in particular Scottish Reformed Christianity – has historically marginalised the ministries and mission of the whole people of God. This was done for noble reasons, yet the effect was to increasingly restrict ministry and mission to trained Christian professionals known as ministers or clergy. Under the old way of doing things, the purpose of the people of God was – perversely – to support the ministry of professional ministers, rather than the minister supporting their ministries! The result is that we have had centuries of ministerial infantilisation, with the people of God deprived of their initiative and authorisation to witness and serve in an organic and natural way.

Changing this culture overnight is impossible. It will require years of effort, just at the same time as our people are getting older and – understandably – don’t want to jump through a succession of mental and spiritual hoops to adapt to changed circumstances. For that reason – and despite some pushback – I maintain the belief expressed in my last post that, for some churches, the well may simply be dry, and that the only solution is working with the whole Body of Christ in Scotland to fulfil the ministry and mission that Christ is currently engaged in.

Nevertheless, even for the historic denominations, not all is yet lost. Christ loves every part of his Body, and is standing at the door pleading with us to be changed before it is too late. The traditional denominations of Scotland have charisms and resources that newer churches lack, and the future of Scottish Christianity is not a monochrome charismatic evangelicalism but a mosaic of shining practices and traditions that, together, reveal the full image and body of the Son of God.

As such, here are some things that all denominations can be doing right now to better integrate ministry and mission, and work with Christ to transform Scotland into his likeness.

  1. Pray

There are two serious errors concerning prayer that everyone in the Church needs to discard if we are to be effective in ministry and mission in this day and age. The first is that prayer is primarily something that we do. Prayer is not fundamentally something that we do, but which Christ does. When we pray in his name by the Spirit, our weak, ignorant, and self-indulgent prayers are lifted up, transformed, and amplified by our Great High Priest before the throne of the Father. As such, prayer is powerful, not because we are powerful but because Christ and the Spirit are. 

The second error is thinking that prayer is primarily about listing things we want to see happen, however altruistic they may be. That is certainly a large part of what the content of prayer is, but it is not its form or even its principal aim. The primary purpose of prayer is to participate in and experience the relationship Jesus has with the Father. This is what it means to be a son or daughter of God, to know the love, and forgiveness, and strength of the Living God in a way similar to how Jesus knows it. It is only because we are in this relationship created by Jesus that the Father answers our prayers, and so before we ask God for things we must first be intentional about owning and entering into this relationship.

It is when we remember that Christ and the Spirit pray with us, and that we have been allowed to share in a unique relationship with the Father, that we can then pray with confidence: to pray for renewal, to pray for justice, to pray for the restoration of the earth.

2. Help Your Congregation Discover the Truth

As we are praying through Christ to the Father by the Spirit, we can tell our congregations the truth: that Christian leaders exist to support the ministries of others, that Christ is present and active as prophet, priest, and king, working to shape them into his likeness, and that all they need do is to discern how he is working in their lives and in their community and to join in. 

This, however, is sometimes easier said than done, and most Christian denominations – with the possible exception of some Baptists and Quakers – are not very good at doing it. Nevertheless, it is possible, and many good works have been written about how to go about it both individually and corporately (Discerning God’s Will Together and How to Pioneer are good places to start).

3. Give Church Members Opportunities to Serve

If Christian leadership exists to equip the ministries of others, then that must be backed up with opportunities to minister and serve! This means allowing more participation in the leading of worship, and also encouraging and equipping the missional passions of others. To take a personal example, one of our elders had long hoped to start a tutoring programme to support marginalised young people, and to do so as a Christian undertaking. She had not initially received much encouragement from others, but when I learned of it I supported it and helped her launch it. It is now going well, and will hopefully be rolled out to other places.

4. Reform Education and Training

As I explored in The Scottish Ideal, the Reformed tradition in Scotland has not been very successful at providing adequate education and training for anyone in the Church, but particularly members and elders. This must stop. The Church will not pivot towards a more missional mindset – or even a healthy ministerial one! – without a massive culture change, something that can only be affected through education and training. While we cannot hope to train all – although that would be the ideal – if enough key leaders are trained and equipped then a critical mass may be reached, and wider culture change follow.

5. Have the – Full – Mind of Christ 

The days of giving away the Church’s money to organisations and projects that have no relation to the ministry of Christ are over. We are not called to be social workers, or secular mediators, or counsellors but – as the Archbishop of York has recently reminded the Lambeth Conference – disciples who make disciples. We are called to represent the whole Christ, not only the bits of Christ that are acceptable to the secular mind (whether that secular mind be in us or in our neighbours). Jesus is the same today as he was when he rose and ascended, and he is engaged in the same ministry and mission as he was then. Separating worship and discipleship from service, justice and creation care is simply not an option, and everything the Church does must be done in Jesus’ name and with his full mission in mind.

6. Work with Your Brothers and Sisters

Local ecumenism can be hard, because many in the Church cling to the traditions and habits of sinful men and women rather than the Living God (cf. Mark 7: 7-9). Yet there is no other option if we are to fulfil the full calling of the Church in contemporary Scotland, and to reveal Christ to our neighbours. Currently, the Body of Christ is broken and separated, its members, charisms, and resources scattered across hundreds of denominations (that is no exaggeration, there really are hundreds). Yet Christ is clear that the world will only believe that he has been sent by the Father when the world sees that we are united in love for him and for each other (John 17: 22-23). Ecumenism is not an optional extra for Christians, the sort of thing that nice middle-class people who don’t live in the real world like to do, but an essential component of any missional strategy to the people of Scotland. By knitting Christ’s severed body together, the fullness of his image will become clearer, and Scotland will see and believe.


None of this is easy, and no outcomes can be guaranteed. Yet this is, I believe, what Jesus is up to in contemporary Scotland, and what he calls us to work with him to do in our ministry and mission. Moreover, in all of this, we do not work alone. We have our fellow Christians within our congregations to help with the work, our brothers and sisters in other denominations, and – above all – Christ himself, our Great High Priest, the primary minister and missionary of the Church. For even if the earthly tent of the institutional Church is destroyed, and even if we die having failed to achieve all we wanted to, we have a Temple in heaven not made with human hands, even the Lord Jesus Christ himself, in whose Body we live and move and have our being. He is our eternal Prophet, Priest and King, and even if the whole world ignores our preaching, our sacraments and our church, he will come with glory upon the clouds to complete his mission, and conform all creation to his perfect likeness.

To Him, and to the Father, and to the Spirit, be given all honour, all power, all glory and all dominion, world without end. Amen.

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