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September 17, 2007Missiology

Meanings of Missional Part 4: The Mission of Missional

Rick Meigs came up and introduced himself at a conference I was leading in Portland. I always enjoy meeting insightful people I have read online.

I like Rick's missional icon, and I have used it here. Rick has also done a great job listing definitions of missional... Click on the graphic to take a look.

There are many definitions. Some people are not happy that we would try to create a definition at all. Others think it is already defined.

But, as Rick illustrates on his site, there are lots of ideas about what the word means. Some have expressed concern that the focus is becoming, "what missional means to me." A valid concern. But, in all the discussion of what it means to be missional, I thought the best thing was to ask those who first used the word. (Crazy idea, eh?) And, we ought to also understand the theological and missiological discussion that the early users say undergirded their work.

Much as I did with Francis DuBose, I laid out my quest to better understand the various uses of the word "missional" and asked Chuck Van Engen for his insights.

For background, see Preface, part 1, part 2, and part 3.

Chuck shares the concern that the word is bing used to mean so many things:

The word "missional" is now being used in so many senses -- many uses that have more to do with revitalization, re-engineering church, revival -- and little or nothing with mission the way I define mission. "When everything is mission, nothing is mission." Some folks think that my God's Missionary People that came out first in English in 1991 was the beginning of the original "missional" perspective...

Missional, Mission, and Guilt


It can be a driving motivator for some. It can also bend good sense and cause obsessive overcompensation. In the years after the Willingen Conference -or more pointedly, the years after the failure of the church during World War II - a kind of "Theology of Guilt" overwhelmed more balanced perceptions of missionaries, mission and the missional church, resulting in an - shall we say it? - anti-missionary idea of missions.

Upon seeing and graciously reviewing this post, Chuck Van Engen


This was particularly true of mainline (or oldline) Protestant denominations in the US. Everyone was reading Bonhoeffer at the time. Presbyterians stopped using the word "missionary" and spoke of "fraternal workers" And mainline mission agencies talked about "global sharing of resources" rather than speak about "mission." (The Fundamentalists and conservative Evangelicals were in another conceptual world at the time.)


"Missional" and "mission"

Chuck has written a marvelous essay on missions for a book I am co-editing with David Hesselgrave. The book title is Mission: God's Initiative in the World. I look forward to sharing that work with a much wider audience when the book is published. The chapter is, at this point, titled "Mission Described and Defined" An easy title, but a much more difficult task.

But since Van Engen has written extensively concerning the missio dei debate that swirled through missiological circles in the days following Willingen (see his 1996 book Mission on the Way), I wanted to add his comments on this issue to our discussion.

Chuck is credited by many as the first user of the term missional in the way we use today. Milfred Minatrea indicates Van Engen is the first in Shaped By God's Heart: The Passion and Practices of Missional Churches. That is not surprising because Chuck was the first to use it in a way that was widely distributed. Though Dubose was first, fewer people would have heard of Dubose.

In an e-mail Chuck Van Engen wrote (refer to my last post to understand the references to the International Missionary Council):

My understanding of 'missional' derives from what I would call a 'classical understanding' of mission: that women and men, through personal faith and conversion by the work of the Holy Spirit, would become disciples of Jesus Christ and responsible members of Christ's church. It is the understanding of mission that the early SVM and the International Missionary Council assumed and followed.

This is a more historical and more foundational view of "missional" than even the 'majority report' of Willingen. The shades of what I call 'mission from a guilty conscience' after WWII and the holocaust affected everyone at Willingen.

Chuck roots his missional ideas in what he sees as the biblical idea of mission. Chuck indicates that he chose not to continue to participate in the Gospel and Our Culture Network because his "missional" was nuanced a bit differently.

Van Engen wrote me:

I was part of the initial group that met with George Hunsberger to begin to think about the "Gospel and Our Culture" Network. I stepped out of that very early because I thought it was beginning to look like a throwback to the "Missionary Structures of the Congregation" of the 1960's WCC and NCCC. In the early 1960's this movement did not stimulate new mission outreach in the way I would define "mission" because it was primarily interested in examining the local congregation internally. That emphasis of the 1960s showed little understanding of the cultures outside the church and not much contextual analysis for re-evangelization and conversion of people of many cultures in No. America. In the "missionary structures of the congregation" of the 1960s there was little practical actual missionary perspective, action, or praxis offered for local congregations to be God's Missionary People. Johannes Blauw (also within the WCC at the time) wrote The Missionary Nature of the Church in 1962 with a much more "missional" (in my sense) view of the Church, a work that was ignored in the WCC and the NCCC interest in the "missionary structures of the congregation."

(For "When everything is mission, nothing is mission," Van Engen cites S. Neill, Creative Tension. London: Edinburgh House. 1959, p. 81; quoted by Johannes Blauw The Missionary Nature of the Church. G.R.: Eerdmans, 1962, p 109)

Blauw's work was also significant in the writings of Francis Bubose, though his concern was to use the word "missionary" in a bit different way than Blauw (which is why he 'first' coined the term missional).

And this is specifically my series: How we interpret and use the term "missional" says as much about our presuppositions as it does our reasoned conclusions. And, please note, Chuck is not criticizing the views of GOCN, just indicating that he was going a different direction with his missional ideas.

Part of that was built on a concern for the "Missionary Structures of the Congregation" and where those ideas went... based on their understand of the missio dei.

Van Engen expressed his concern on the subject of "missionary structures" and the missio dei here. He expained:

The concept of missio Dei that appears to be used with regularity among Evangelicals today was first articulated by Karl Barth in 1932 and, following Barth, by Karl Hartenstein in 1952. It was associated with a trinitarian view of mission at the IMC conference in Willingen, 1952. The concept was popularized by Georg Vicedom in 1958, became rather common currency in the ecumenical movement after Mexico City, 1963 (see Henry Van Dusen 1961; Georg Vicedom 1965). It was used as the conceptual foundation for the WCC and NCC discussion about "the missionary structures of the congregation" in 1963 (cf. Colin Williams 1963, 1964 and World Council of Churches 1968). In conciliar theology of mission the ship of missio Dei was eventually loaded with so much baggage it nearly sank.

I have removed some content (not reference) footnotes from this quote, so see the original for those. It is well worth your time.


H.H. Rosin and the definition of missio dei

It was Chuck Van Engen who directed me to the 1972 study prepared by H. H. Rosin entitled "Missio Dei: An Examination of the Origin, Contents and Function of the Term in Protestant Missiological Discussion" (Interuniversity Institute for Missiological and Ecumenical Research. Leiden 1972). This was a Dutch study commissioned to help resolve just the kinds of issues that have arisen around our current term 'missional.'

In it Rosin cites the meaning of the term in Latin, but points out that the Latin term was used far more in German texts than in English, and that it had already been invested with so much new content that the original meaning(s?) of the word had already been altered by usage. He attributes the first real usage of the term to Georg Vicedom, who used the term constantly in his book entitled (appropriately enough!) Missio Dei (1958).

It's interesting that Vicedom attributed the term to Willingen, when in fact the term missio dei can't be found in any articles or documents of that conference. But Willingen did not use the terms missional or missio dei, it was there that a minority position began to emerge which swelled into a majority position.

What was this position, exactly?

In essence, those espousing the missio dei concept understood mission as our participating in the sending of God. Fine, one might counter, but isn't that what the church had been doing for 1900 years? Not to this view. Instead, the concept of the sending (missio) became focused as being derived from the very nature of God, and not from the church. That is, mission was put in the context of the Trinity, as opposed to ecclesiology or soteriology. Mission is not, therefore, primarily an activity of the church, but an attribute of God. Mission is a movement of God to the world, the church being the instrument for mission.

There is church because there is mission, not vice versa.

Andrew Jones, who is one of my most frequently visited bloggers, reflects on his blog, www.tallskinikiwi.com:

'Mission Shaped Church' became popular in the United Kingdom. The book of the same title ties the history of the name to missio dei. Lesslie Newbigin did not use the missio Dei terminology very much but certainly helped in the formation of its thinking and impact on mission in a post-modern, post-Christendom society. Missio Dei, meaning the Mission of God, was coined by Karl Hartenstein in the 1950's, immediately after and in response to the International Missionary Council missions conference at Willingen, Germany. It tapped into the Trinitarian emphasis of Barth and Hartenstein in the 1930's and moved the thinking beyond the ecclesiocentrism and individualism of the time. The emphasis was put on God's mission rather than ours--we participate with the Triune God in what he is doing.

In other words, in the post-Willingen world missiologists returned to prior decades and brought Barth's ideas and emphasis back into the conversation. Future IMC meetings would adopt the emphasis more specifically. For example, George Vicedom popularized the missio Dei concept in the Mexico City Conference (1963) and in his text The Mission of God (1965). Jaques Matthey says, "Missio Dei has helped to overcome the ecclesiocentric approach which had been highlighted since the thirties (Tambaram). Missio Dei has been and can be a constant reminder that the church is not the ultimate goal of mission." Jaques Matthey's address at the 50th anniversary of the World Mission Conference Mission Festival and Congress, August 16-21, 2002

So -- where before, the classical concept of mission had been from God through the church to the world, now there were advocates of the belief that God addresses the world directly - and some took that too far to believe that the church is therefore not essential to that mission.

Now, it is important to note that concept of Trinitarian mission does not necessarily lead to the sidelining of the church. I think that it should not. But, whatever you say about whether it should, it still did.


The role of the church and evangelism in the missio Dei

Use whatever metaphor you want: The church was benched in favor of other players like 'liberation' and 'justice. The church was sidetracked like an old boxcar without the wheels to match speed with God's modern supertrain. (Van Engen reminded me that Donald McGavran said the "(airplane) of missions had been hijacked.")

The church was put out to pasture, to stand idly, chewing reflectively as it watched God encounter the world directly through many avenues - the other major world religions, the political aspirations of oppressed peoples, even the midnight raids of guerilla freedom-fighters.

This is definitely not your father's missions or mission anymore.

There was little talk about evangelism and church planting anymore, instead the shift away from ecclesiocentrism, well, kept shifting... and shifting... and shifting... and the church was soon excluded... and mission was eventually lost.

Hence, Van Engen's concern that our view of missional be rooted in the "classical view" of mission. As he explained the "source" of his definition:

My understanding of 'missional' derives from what I would call a 'classical understanding' of mission: that women and men, through personal faith and conversion by the work of the Holy Spirit, would become disciples of Jesus Christ and responsible members of Christ's church.

I will share Van Engen's full definition in my next post (more options for Rick's growing list of definitions, I am guessing).

Since I am trying to make my posts a bit shorter (good advice, Maynard!), on this note we'll pause - and come back to the discussion in the next post. I will share more from Van Engen and Rosin at that time.

Feel free to reflect on Van Engen, ask questions, or just give your thoughts... but, it seems to me that Dubose was focusing on the "missionary" aspect of missional, and Van Engen is focusing on the "mission." Both are essential and important, as is a rightly understood missio dei, in our understanding of missional.

More soon...

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Meanings of Missional Part 4: The Mission of Missional