May 17, 2011Missiology

Musings on the Missional Manifesto, Part 4: The Mission

It's time for another installment of "Musings on the Missional Manifesto." So far, we have looked at the first three affirmations on Scripture, the Gospel, and the Kingdom of God. Also, you may want to see Alan Hirsch and I discuss the Manifesto here.

I hope you've begun to see the heart behind the manifesto from the posts in this series. We are excited about the impact the manifesto could have on the work of God's mission in the world. Further, I want to think more about each of the affirmations. The affirmations are the work of the framers, but I wanted to weigh in with some of my own thoughts here at the blog. That is why we are taking the time to "muse" about them. I invite you to join the conversation in the comment section.

Today, we look at the fourth affirmation on mission. Here is how it reads:

We affirm that the missio Dei is the mission of the triune God to glorify Himself. God does so in this world by redeeming sinful humans and, in the future, restoring corrupted creation. The Father sent the Son to accomplish this redemption and sends the Spirit to apply this redemption to the hearts of men and women. Included in God's mission is the missio ecclesia whereby He empowers the church for witness and service that leads to witness. Believers are called to share the gospel with people so they can come to know Christ. Moving from God, through the church, to the world, God's redemptive work results in people of every tribe, tongue and nation responding in lifelong worship of the God. Ultimately the missio Dei will encompass all of creation when God creates a new heaven and new earth.

When we begin to talk about "the mission of the triune God to glorify Himself," it must start with the idea of the missio Dei. This important concept is a Latin phrase for the "sending of God" or the "mission of God."

During the past half a century, there has been significant shift from understanding mission as simply the geographical expansion of the Christian faith from the West to the non-Christian world towards a more expansive understanding of mission as God's mission—particularly within a Trinitarian theological framework. This tenet has become known as the missio Dei.

The genesis of the missio Dei concept is often ascribed by many to a lecture by theologian Karl Barth delivered at the Brandenburg Missionary Conference in 1932. John Flett, author of The Witness of God: The Trinity, Missio Dei, Karl Barth, and the Nature of Christian Community, has stated, that Barth actually never once used the term missio Dei but his lecture became identified as a critical turning point in the conversation. Bosch has rightly argued that the developments linked with the term missio Dei "would be difficult to imagine without the stimulus of Barth. His reorientation of Protestant theology during the twentieth century inevitably bled into missions." [1]

Many consider theologian Karl Hartenstein as the one who took Barth's thoughts and initiated the missio Dei focus at the Willingen Conference in 1952. At Willingen, Hartenstein put forth what many believe was the first modern treatment of the missio Dei concept when he said:

...mission today is called to examine itself in every way and always anew before God, to determine whether it is what it ought to be: missio Dei, the sending of God, that is the sending which Christ the Lord commands to the Apostles: "As the Father has sent me, so I send you" -and the response to the call passed along by the apostles to the church of all times on the basis of its Word: 'Go into all the world.'" The primary or decisive element with which Protestant mission stands and falls is the Lord of the mission, and the call of the living Lord to his community to serve the world. [2]

The use of the expression draws on the now prevailing missionary text of John 20:21 - Christ, in his own "sentness" commands the sending of the Christian community. Missio Dei, therefore, expresses this missionary existence of the Christian community. [3] David Bosch called this shift "decisive," as illustrated by its being "embraced by virtually all Christian persuasions." [4] In turn, missio Dei has become the milestone concept of the twentieth century's theology of mission. In other words, today just about everyone believes in the missio Dei idea as one rooted in scripture but more recently emphasized in theology.

It is important to note another important shift at Willingen in the development of the missio Dei, namely the Trinitarian grounding of mission for the local church. At Willingen, missiologist Leslie Newbigin wrote a report that stated that the missionary movement has its roots in the Triune God Himself.

Newbigin said that because, out of the depth of his love, the Father sent his Son, and the Christian community is, in the Spirit, called and commissioned by this sending. These actions of God entrust the members of Christ's body "to full participation in His redeeming mission," to the degree that "there is no participation in Christ without participation in His mission in the world." [5]

Here we find the fusion what is said in the affirmation on mission. In short, "mission" refers back to its fixed basis-- to the movement of the Father in sending his Son and Spirit. God who is ontologically "missionary" and, as God is the acting subject in his self-revelation, he maintains the initiative in this activity.

This divine missionary activity includes yet another noteworthy shift in thought: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit sending the church into the world. Mission is therefore God's work in the world; the church is viewed as an instrument for that mission. There is a church because there is a mission, not vice versa.

As the manifesto states, "Moving from God, through the church, to the world, God's redemptive work results in people of every tribe, tongue and nation responding in lifelong worship of the God. Ultimately the missio Dei will encompass all of creation when God creates a new heaven and new earth." This is the end game of the missio Dei: a redeemed people dwelling with God in a redeemed creation.

Now the missio Dei concept has not been without its problems. As I mentioned in my introductory post for this series, some took this idea in the 1960s and it shipwrecked much of the world mission enterprise by claiming that the missio Dei was larger than (or even in spite of) the church. Their concern was that the mission of God was more than church extension-- and they were partially right. Unfortunately, some began to define the mission of God outside the instrument of the local church and exclusively in the world and thus, usurped mission completely.

I think that Christians must focus more on the missio Dei but they must do so while avoiding the errors of those who discussed similar truths in an earlier generation. The New Testament undoubtedly places the mission of the church within the larger context of God's purpose to restore the whole creation (Rom. 8:18-25; Col. 1:20). But it also gives the church a focal occupation in the life of the Kingdom: God's biblically mandated vessel for His redemptive agenda in the world.

Is God at work in the world outside of the church? Yes. But, is God working savingly outside of the proclamation of the gospel (from people who make up the church)? No. Common grace is extended to all, and God is sovereignly working throughout the world in every age to accomplish his purposes. But Kingdom work is also mission work, and the church is essential for Kingdom work. The gospel is the source for redemption and the church is God's instrument to extend His Kingdom mission.

Next, we will look at the fifth affirmation on the church. Be sure to read the preamble and affirmations here, and then come back and weigh in with your thoughts in the comments.

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[1] David Bosch, Witness to the World: The Christian Mission in Theological Perspective (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1980), 167.

[2] Karl Hartenstein, "Wozu nötigt die Finanzlage der Mission," Evangelisches Missions- Magazin 79 (1934), 217-229, as quoted by Paul Flett, "God is a Missionary God: missio Dei, Karl Barth, and the Doctrine of the Trinity" (Ph.D. diss., Princeton Theological Seminary, 2007), 1.

[3] Flett, "God is a Missionary God," 184-185.

[4] David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shift in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991), 389, 390.

[5] John A. Mackay, "The Great Commission and the Church Today," Missions under the Cross, ed. Norman Goodall (London: Edinburgh House, 1953), 190.

[6] Bosch, Transforming Mission, 385-386.

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Musings on the Missional Manifesto, Part 4: The Mission