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Apostolic Imagination: Rethinking the Language of Mission

Apostolic Imagination: Rethinking the Language of Mission

I recently started a series addressing the need to rethink contemporary evangelical missions. In this post, I ask that we rethink our language.
The language of mission, missionary, and missions finds its origin in the sixteenth century. Originally applied to the Jesuits, such language is rooted in Latin referring to someone sent. Shortly after the Church’s use of this terminology, mission also became equated with diplomacy, politics, and business in a foreign land.
Of course, the use of extra-biblical terminology is not necessarily a bad thing. The Church has often used such language to express Herself (e.g., Trinity). However, if there is a biblical equivalent, then why not ground Great Commission labors in such terminology? The Church should always be on a journey of speaking as biblically as possible when it comes to matters of doctrine and practice. Whether it is Christology, Theology Proper, or Ecclesiology, linguistic accuracy is most pleasing to God. We should remember Jesus was concerned with jots and tittles (Matt 5:18) and Paul with a singular rather than a plural form (Gal 3:16).
The beauty is that the language of sending existed long before the Renaissance. It existed long before colonization became wed to Christianization. The term apostolos is the New Testament equivalent. Certain members of the Church, in addition to the Twelve and Paul (e.g., Acts 14:14), were sent to do the work of evangelists, teach new disciples obedience in community, and appoint elders for local expressions of Christ’s universal body (Acts 13-14; Titus 1:5).

This apostolic language should be the foundation and framework for the Church’s understanding of missionary. The identity and practice of the apostolic is found in the Triune God and thus intimately connected to the missio Dei.

The further we move away from biblical language and definition, the greater the likelihood we will move away from biblical identity and practice.
In the first century, the language of the apostolic was woven into the Great Commission. What we find in the Scriptures is a narrower understanding of what the Church now defines as missions and missionary.
Denny Spitters and Matthew Ellison note their concern with our contemporary nomenclature:
“[W]e are concerned that an uncritical use of words, and in particular a lack of shared definition for the words mission, missions, missionary, and missional, has led to a distortion of Jesus’ biblical mandate, ushered in an everything-is-missions paradigm, and moved missions from the initiation and oversight of local churches to make it the domain of individual believers responding to individualized callings” (When Everything is Missions, 23).
I do not expect the Church to abandon 400 years of terminology–at least not overnight. Imagine the cost to mission agencies just to change their letterheads and business cards? Paradigm shifts are expensive!
Great Commission labors in a post-colonial age require a paradigm shift. The transition begins with a return to the Word for our words.


  1. What language do I predominantly use when speaking about mission/missionary?  Do the words I choose reflect the sending nature of the biblical apostolic language found in Scripture?
  2. How can I recalibrate my language to catalyze and motivate the whole church to be “sent” for multiplication and Kingdom advancement?
  3. Identify ways to intentionally use apostolic language within your network, organization, or church to unleash the church to advance the Gospel.

This article is an excerpt from JD Payne’s website,  Missiologically Thinking: Equipping the Church for the Multiplication of Disciples, Leaders, and Churches.  Reflection questions by the editor.