Defining Mission: Not Just Helping Programs

The following post is based on an excerpt from UM & Global blogmaster David W. Scott’s book, Crossing Boundaries: Sharing God’s Good News Through Mission.

Christians often interpret mission as helping in programmatic ways. While helping and formal programs are necessarily and always bad, this understanding of mission is limited and potentially problematic.

Thinking of mission as helping programs is limited, because it makes us miss the breadth of God’s mission in the world and the full spiritual significance of joining in that mission. Many Christians would say that we should help others because God calls us to love others. That is true: God does call us to love others. Yet to equate helping and love is to dramatically misunderstand love, both God’s and ours. Helping may be part of love, but it cannot be the entirety of love.

Take as an illustration love as expressed in a marriage. One of my “love languages” in my marriage is doing things for my wife—in other words, helping. Sometimes she really appreciates my help. When she comes home from a work trip and the house is picked up, the laundry put away, the kids have both been bathed, and the lawn is mowed, that can be a big relief for her. 

Other times, I think I get more out of doing the helping than she does being helped. That experience also has mission parallels—oftentimes our mission is more about how we feel than the impact on our mission partners.

Yet even when my wife appreciates my help, if helping was the only way I ever showed my love to her, if I never said I loved her, never spent time with her, never gave her gifts, never touched her, I would be more like a handyman and maid than a husband to her. I know that she would not find that a satisfying expression of love and, ultimately, I know I would not either. While I enjoy doing acts of service for her, I know there’s more to the relationship than that, and I want there to be more to the relationship than that.

While marriage is a special relationship, I think this insight applies to other forms of love as well. Others know that we love them not only because we serve them but because we spend time with them, share our treasures with them, and tell them how much they mean to us. Indeed, the ways we can show love to others go well beyond this list of “love languages” for romantic relationships. 

Love expressed through service is good, but it is not a complete love. To confine love to helping is a limited understanding of love. In the same way, seeing mission as helping gives a limited understanding of the love God has for us and the love God calls us to share with the world.

Our understanding of mission is especially limited if we think of helping only in programmatic terms. When we see mission as a program, then we limit it to only those times and those places where such programs occur. If mission is a program, then it cannot be a way of life. A way of life happens at all times and in any place. 

When we limit mission to specific programs, then it becomes easier to see mission as a small or optional component of the Christian faith and not a central aspect of how we live out our Christian calling. Yet, mission properly understood should be central to how we understand and practice our faith.

An understanding of mission as helping programs is not only limited but actually harmful at times. Such an understanding is especially problematic when we see helping as always flowing from the “haves” (the Christians in our congregation or group) to the “have-nots” (everybody else). 

As books such as When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert and Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton show, it is quite possible to set out to help others but to actually have the opposite effect, if we do so with improper understandings and attitudes. As Corbett and Fikkert explain, when we combine a material definition of poverty with a sense of the superiority of the materially nonpoor and a sense of the inferiority of the materially poor, then we end up doing harm—spiritually, emotionally, economically, and/or socially—to both the materially poor and the materially nonpoor.

Because this definition of mission as helping programs is limited and potentially harmful, it is important to develop a fuller and more robust understanding of mission. That is what I do in Crossing Boundaries: Sharing God’s Good News Through Mission.

By exploring the biblical basis of mission (in Chapters 1 and 2), I lay out a new definition of mission: Mission is cultivating relationships across boundaries for the sake of fostering conversations in word and deed about the nature of God’s good news. The book uses this definition to help churches rethink their own mission work, employing clear language, engaging writing, practical strategies, discussion questions, and additional resources.

While a full understanding of that definition of mission and how it can shape local churches’ engagement in mission is best grasped by reading the book, I will examine the four components of this definition – good news, relationships, crossing boundaries, and conversation – in an upcoming series of blog posts.


UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott serves as Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott’s own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries. This post is republished with permission from UM & Global, the collaborative blog of United Methodist Professors of Mission.


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