Like most pastors, I’ve read a fair share of leadership books. From Jim Collins to Patrick Lencioni to Ben Horowitz, along with their Christian counterparts Andy Stanley, John C. Maxwell, and Craig Groeschel—these authors do a fantastic job of passing on important management principles to church leaders.
But for all their virtues, most of these books fail to paint the whole picture of church leadership. I think I know why.
Most of the time, leadership discussions center around mission. How do we accomplish the mission? Become missional? Embrace the mission? Empower the people to “live on mission”? Over the past twenty years, we’ve heard this language over and over. What’s commendable here is the emphasis on doing something in the name of Christ for the glory of God. But what’s missing from this talk about “mission” is what the mission even is.
Of course, there’s a strong biblical basis for this emphasis. The word “mission” comes from the Latin missio, which is a translation of the Greek apostello, “to send.” From that Greek word, we get our transliteration “apostle.” In a very real way, our idea of “missionaries” is conceptually—and etymologically—linked to apostleship. To be an apostle is to be a missionary—on a mission. “As the Father has sent [apostello] me, even so I am sending you” (Jn. 20:21). Clearly, the Bible states that we’re on a mission.
But again, what mission are we on?
I’m afraid we may have overused the word to the point of meaninglessness. If we don’t qualify what we say, we inadvertently fill our words with unintentional meaning, to detrimental effect. “Mission,” to most of us, sounds like a corporate campaign or a military operation. (“Mission accomplished!”) It sounds like results to pursue, targets to aim for, and metrics to hit. In this understanding, the mission is to grow the ministry, grow the church, see more people attend—more dollars, more initiatives, and more churches. While these are good goals (don’t get me wrong; I want them too), they don’t capture the point of it all. If this is our definition of “mission,” then at best, we’re merely scaling up our own program without seeking the kingdom of God; at worst, we’re opening ourselves up to power plays and corruption.
Take the most recent controversy at the Southern Baptist Convention. Hundreds of cases of sexual abuse were systematically catalogued and then swept under the rug by powerful SBC leaders. How could this have happened? According to Russel Moore, the reason was “the mission.” According to these church leaders, investigating abuse in their congregations would have been “a tool of the Devil to ‘distract’ from mission.” Thus those cases were dismissed as not being worth the time. Hundreds of families were systematically destroyed because of an over-emphasis on the mission of God.
This story has played out over and over, including within Calvary Chapel. How many times have you heard of a leader who committed adultery or domineered over their staff while people excused it—because, “Well, he’s effective at accomplishing the mission.”
I believe we need a better word than “mission.”
I want to propose the word intercession.
When you think of intercession, don’t just think of prayer meetings. Indeed, the concept in Hebrew and Greek is much more broad. The word pagha means acting on behalf of someone else’s good—intervention. Or palal, which is often translated “mediate,” conveys appealing to a higher power—a judge, king, or God—to appeal for another person’s good. The Greek entychano means to petition someone in authority on behalf of someone who can’t do it themselves. This is the word that Paul uses in describing the work of the Son and Spirit today: “the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God…” and “[Christ Jesus] is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Rom. 8:27, 34).
Intercession is a relational term. Embedded is the idea that you’re accomplishing a task on behalf of someone who cannot accomplish it themselves. It signifies mercy, grace, and love. It’s more than a type of prayer; it’s a type of action. Perhaps that’s why the New Testament emphasizes Christ’s own intercession. Jesus, reigning in the heavens, is still on a prayer-filled mission of love on behalf of others.
Intercession is also the shape of the gospel. Isaiah proclaims that Jesus “bore the sin of many, and makes intercessionfor the transgressors” (Isa. 53:12). Hebrews depicts Christ as the eternal intercessor (Heb. 7:24-25). Unlike former priests who made repeated sacrifices, Christ made one final sacrifice in order to perfectly atone for sin. On the basis of his own atonement, he intervened and accomplished salvation for us. Now we can access God’s presence in Jesus’ name (Jn. 16:24). Intercession is the pattern of grace.
Intercession is the heart of God. He acts on behalf of others to deliver Israel from slavery, the remnant from exile, and us from Sin. God is not only our “higher power” to whom intercessors appeal; God himself is the intercessor, intervening for us each day. This is why the Bible continually tells us to intercede—pray for—others.
All this points to a simple yet profound pattern for mission. Mission is not just about accomplishing a goal, or hitting a target, or measuring a result. It’s definitely not just about growing our churches. It’s about intercession. It would have been harder for the SBC to ignore their systemic sins if their question was, “Will this distract us from interceding for our people?” Intercession is scaffolding for a stronger missional structure, rebar for a more solid missional foundation. The pattern of appealing to a higher power on behalf of someone who cannot do it themselves—that’s the shape of biblical mission. It’s the shape of Christ’s work on the cross and the shape of the Spirit’s work today. It’s the shape of the Gospel and the shape of God’s heart.
Obviously, I’m not going to convince everyone to use the term intercession instead of mission. Because of its biblical basis, “mission” will continue to be the word of choice. But my point is that we should not merely say, “We’re on a mission!” and “Let’s accomplish the mission!” We should be diligent to define the mission we’re on, and to anchor it in the shape of God’s own mission. I believe the word intercession can help us frame what that mission looks like.
Let me conclude with three simple takeaways for church leaders.
First, teach on intercession. Instead of framing mission as “Let’s go do this thing!” without first understanding why, we must explain the heart behind the task. God is acting on behalf of broken people to bring salvation, victory, renewal. He wants us to participate in that mission of interceding on behalf of the world.
Second, make prayer central. I don’t want to give the idea that intercession is a pattern only; it is also a power. Clearly, Jesus wanted to inspire intercessory prayer among his followers. Any effective mission must be fueled by prayer—which spills out into our own care and action, and God’s own power and presence. At Calvary Fellowship, we are already doing this in our Communities (small groups), and trying to exemplify it as Elders and Deacons.
Lastly, do mission that looks like intercession. Examples would be mediating between warring parties—reconciliation (see 2 Cor. 5); advocating for the needy; expanding your Care Ministry; participating in shalom-bringing initiatives in the city; serving neighbors; inviting the lonely into community; and proclaiming the gospel—which is the announcement of an interceding King who lives eternally to make intercession for us.