Missions v. Ministry

Cedars explores the debate discussing the difference between missions and ministry

by Callahan Jones

But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated. When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful. And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” - Matthew 28:16-20, NASV

It was this instruction from Jesus, “The Great Commission,” that sent Christianity out across the globe and it is the command that drives mission efforts today.

Over the last several decades, there has been a shift in the church’s overall approach to missions. Partially kick-started with the coining of the term “10/40 Window” by Christian missionary strategist Luis Bush in 1990, churches, mission boards and missionaries throughout the United States started to think about what “missions” really meant.

Over time, many began to develop a very specific view of what missions is, sparking the debate that is now known as “Missions v. Ministry.”

The concept of the 10/40 Window is important in the debate, according to Daniel Sterkenburg, associate professor of international business at Cedarville University. Sterkenburg was raised in a missionary family. He is also the university’s resident expert on the intersection and synergy of international business and mission work.

“In understanding where everybody is coming from, one needs to understand the 10/40 Window because the shifts towards what we’re seeing today are happening largely because of it,” said Sterkenburg.

The 10/40 Window is the section of the globe located between 10 and 40 degrees north of the equator. Ignoring America, it is the area of the globe that experiences the most poverty and crime and also has the least access to Christian resources and the Gospel as a whole. The area contains the poorest countries in the world and is primarily Muslim, Hindu, atheist and practitioners of various tribal religions. It also boasts almost two-thirds of the world’s population, mainly due to the window containing both China and India.

Since the conception of the 10/40 Window, many missionaries and mission boards have transferred almost all of their attention to the areas contained within it. This includes the  Independent Baptist Mission board and Wycliffe Bible Translators.

The debate seeks to find where the line lies between pure mission work and what could be considered simply ministry. One popular view is that ministry cannot be considered missions unless it is specifically targeted at spreading the Gospel to people groups that do not have it at all. Mission agencies that are mainly focused on the 10/40 Window consistently believe true missions are to unreached groups, IBM and Wycliffe included.

“It’s not a question of location, it’s the spiritual condition of the group and the context of the area that you’re targeting that determines whether or not it’s really a mission operations,” said Dr. Don Grigorenko, professor of missions and intercultural studies at Cedarville, former long-term missionary to Nepal and proponent of this view.

Grigorenko explained this viewpoint holds that anybody who is not spending their time in a locale that is largely of a non-Christian religious make up or does not have large Christian infrastructure in place is not a missionary. They would instead simply be in ministry to the church that already exists there.

This position also holds that Western missionaries are borderline wasting their time in such places as Ukraine and Peru, as these areas already have localized Christians and churches who are much better suited to ministering to their fellow locals than Western missionaries could ever be.

“What you’ve got to ask is, ‘Is there a growing and multiplying church with the country’s own people reaching their own?’” said Grigorenko. “If not, then you have a mission field. If that’s already there, it’s simply not a mission field. You’re serving the ministry that’s already there.”

On the other side of the debate are those who don’t really think the debate exists at all. This belief would say that there is a very loose line or no line at all between mission work and ministry. They are one and the same.

“While there is something to be said for the 10/40 Window and the challenges and needs it presents, Christians abroad need to remember that the rest of the world has needs as well,” said Sterkenburg, whose parents were missionaries in Brazil for much of their adult lives.

He holds that the overarching theme of the Great Commission should be the only test for what is defined as missions and that it should be defined in a much larger way than the other side would suggest. Regardless of how churched an area is, or how established Christianity is there, there’s still people there that need Christ and if a person is there with the intent to offer the Gospel to them, it could be missions.

Some also hold great concern for the countries outside of the 10/40 Window, especially those that are in the same situation as the countries in the window but happen to be in the wrong physical location.

Both sides, however, seem to share similar philosophies toward a somewhat controversial topic that falls into the debate almost by accident: short-term missions trips.

Both sides would tell you that almost no short-term missions trips can really be treated at missions, but for different reasons.

“Short-term missions don’t go to unreached places, they go to reached places, almost every time,” said Grigorenko. “They’re sometimes nice ministry opportunities or cultural experiences, but I think I would struggle to call the majority of them actual missions.”

Sterkenburg said similar things about short-term mission trips but with some caveats and different motivations.

“I think the there’s a lot of dangers with short-term missions trips. We don’t want to send a bunch of kids out to a field where they’re going to inconvenience a missionary,” said Sterkenburg. “And I think that’s what can happen a lot of the time, because churches aren’t careful.”

Sterkenburg also expressed doubts about the costs of mission trips.

“Instead of sending 10 kids out somewhere at the price of $2,000 each to build five walls, why not give the missionaries $20,000 that they can spend on professional builders in the area who could put up more walls in a faster time?” Sterkenburg said.

Most of the controversy from both sides surrounding short-term trips generally involves both the preparedness of the missionaries to handle a group and also the group’s motivation and preparedness. However, much of this debate simply centers around the church’s research into the trip and their motivations behind it.

Whether there truly is a definition for missions is another thing that is yet to be seen. Perhaps one day, people will come to an agreement on it. Or maybe not.

“In order for there to be a solid answer, I think you need to be able to point to the Bible for the definition and it really isn’t there,” Sterkenburg said.


Callahan Jones is a sophomore journalism major and a writer and the Web Content Editor for Cedars. In his free time, he enjoys drinking coffee, collecting headphones and playing Magic: The Gathering competitively.

1 Reply to "Missions v. Ministry"

  • comment-avatar
    Maryam Ghaemi November 21, 2019 (10:38 pm)

    Thank you for all the challenges you are doing to share the truth for the world