The churches of which I have been a part have all taken their missionary focus from the great commission of Matthew 28:19. Mission has then been defined as those actions and structures that are necessary to perform that great commission. Whilst this may be considered overly pragmatic and lacking in theological rigor I believe that the simplicity obtained by focusing upon a single, memorable Biblical verse provides vigor that rigor wouldn't. The aim of this essay is to briefly outline the mission pattern that develops from basing yourself upon this verse.
Mat 28:19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, (NKJV)
The first precept to be derived can be gleaned from the first word. We are to GO. We are not told where to go; that will differ from individual to individual. However we are told that candidates are not going to just drift into the church doors having been attracted by banners and posters. This was a message I first used almost two decades ago when I was exhorting a church to go out into our town to knock of every door to invite them to a Billy Graham crusade. A church of one hundred people knocked on 4,793 doors. I still remember the number; we had it taped on the church wall. Over ten buses were filled with people wanting to go. All it took was the 'Go' attitude.
The second precept is based upon the second word: 'therefore'. This refers back to the previous verse where Christ states He has all authority in heaven and earth. Our commission and mandate is based upon the authority of Christ. It may or may not be legal and acceptable where we happen to be but the authority of Christ trumps whatever authority may be objecting to our mission.
The third precept comes from the phrase 'make disciples.' We are to be mindful that we cannot save people; salvation is the work of the Holy Spirit. We are also not really performing the commission if we simply have a reaping ministry making alter calls. This is a slightly controversial issue that I have had to battle over from time to time. We should be teaching people the ways of God and encouraging them to lead Godly lives. The Holy Spirit will convict and save in due course. Of course 'preaching the Gospel' is entirely valid. However our commission is to provide people the information they need to answer that call.
Perhaps the most controversial issue is that statement: 'of all nations.' There is a temptation to assume that 'of all nations' really means every nation other than the one you happen to be in. I have heard it stated that unless a church has an international missionary focus then it is not fulfilling the great commission. To me this is a misunderstanding of the statement. If I tell my children that they are to 'pick up every toy in the house' then the presumption is that they are first and foremost responsible for picking up every toy in their room, then they are responsible for their toys in communal rooms and finally they should help out elsewhere where they can. I believe that mission should start at home and then if resources are over-abundant then 'excess' gift can profitably be shipped off to places that are low on resources.
Upon reflection for some groups it is actually the final part of the commission that is most controversial although it has never been so for churches I have been a part of. We are told to baptize those that have been saved. I don't think this is the end of our responsibility to new believers however it does define the end of the responsibility of mission. Once someone is baptized they are now a part of the universal church and the missionary function lets go and the teaching and nurturing component should take over. In fact Mat 28:20 teaches precisely that.
In practice this distinction can lead to a clean and organized structure within the outreach portion of a church and suitable allocation of gift. Thus the evangelists and personal workers lead the outreach. They connect with people, lead seekers groups and encourage attendance at 'gospel' services. Once saved the new converts go into baptismal or new believer classes designed for them that should rapidly lead to baptism and entry into the church. At this point the teachers, pastors and elders take over pulling the new church member deeper into the things of God.
The foregoing is really just an exposition of one verse; as such it must be weighed in the context of other scripture. However it is a simple, cogent explanation that can and has been used to invigorate mission as a task within local churches. It can be argued that it devalues a churches international outreach. However this is only the case if the local church is resource-starved. And I would argue that if a church is doing poorly then why export whatever it is they have?