Is There a Difference Between Mission and Ministry?

April 12, 2012

(Susan Hunt) - I hear a lot of people in churches use these terms – Mission and Ministry – interchangeably. However, after years of Mission work and church work, these have come to be two different things for me. There is not truly a black-and-white distinction between what is “ministry” and what is “Mission;” it’s more on a graduated scale. But the concepts of the two – and how we practice them within the church – are different.

Mission, in my understanding, is really God’s Mission: The redemption of the world. We were created to be in perfect relationship with him, but we do fall short. The Church is to be God’s partners in that Mission by proclaiming the Kingdom of God in both word and deed. We are to follow Jesus’ example of healing, feeding, teaching and preaching, especially to those who are not already within the church.

Ministry, on the other hand, is the work of the church – the activities that keep us going. Ministries provide a very important function within the church, but more for those who are already there or visiting. These are very necessary for the church to function through worship, administration, programming, maintenance, teaching and more.

The fine line between the two comes into play when we think of the people who are not yet followers of Jesus Christ but do visit or attend church. Some of our church ministries can be instrumental for helping people to become disciples. That nuance is not really where I am focusing my thoughts for this piece. Ministries of a church are certainly necessary and good, so please keep doing them.

Where the distinction is important, however, is when churches believe that their ministries (Bible studies, Sunday School, etc) are all that the church needs to be doing. Instead, if we follow both the example of Jesus and John Wesley, we are to be out in the world reaching out to those who do not know the loving presence of Jesus Christ in their lives.

The difference between mission and ministry reflects an internally focused church and an externally focused church. Where does your church focus your time and efforts? For the people who are already there, or on the people who still need to find their place there? If it’s only on the people who are already there, your church is missing out on a huge part of what discipleship means.

When we become disciples, our calling does not end there. Part of being a disciple and follower of Jesus Christ is making new disciples. And making new disciples requires going outside the church. Even John Wesley went to where the people were – he preached in the fields and factories where the masses were, just as Jesus did. Just see the example in Mark 6:30-44, where Jesus fed the 5,000. He had been spending time with just his 12 disciples, but when he saw the masses he had compassion on them and fed them all. Jesus met their physical needs in that miracle; through it he was also able to demonstrate the Glory of God.

I heard of a small church that started off with a ministry inside their church, but through God’s Grace it became a Mission, even if by accident. There were one or two young single mothers in this church, and the women’s group noticed that these young mothers needed help. Not completely with all the right motivations, the women’s group started a ministry in which the older women became “surrogate grandmothers.” The women cooked weekly meals, helped out with fun activities for the children, and held a Sunday school day a week that allowed the young moms to have a few hours away. Essentially, each young mom had a church “grandmother.” The grandmothers would also meet weekly to pray for the families and once a month, all the kids, moms and grandmothers would gather for a meal and Bible study.

Before long, another single mom who lived not far from the church – who had never attended there or any church – heard about what the church was doing for these moms in the church. She became a part of this program, too. It didn’t take too much longer for the ministry to grow and transform to include even more mothers from the neighborhood. It transformed the church and became a Mission because they came to realize that this was an opportunity for the church to share the love and hope of Jesus Christ with many people in their community. It was no longer a ministry within the church for themselves only. Instead, they poured themselves out to others for the sake of the Gospel. This surrogate grandmothers mission brought several new families into the church and, more importantly, into the Kingdom of God.

Take a moment to reflect on your own church’s programming. Who are the main beneficiaries? Your own members? Or those who are not yet members or may never be members? There are always more people who need to know the loving grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. What are you doing to reach out to them?