Ink Spots Yesterday Ed Stetzer addressed the background subject of the Missio Dei. In my own treatment of the missional definition, I’ve glossed over the less recent missiological history somewhat intentionally, knowing that Ed was working through a thorough enough approach that I wouldn’t need to repeat any primary research. It was my intent instead to engage with his work as he presented it through his blog posts. I don’t think I need to go back and recant anything (yet!) because of this approach, but I will adjust as necessary and flesh out some of my words as need be… and this is one of those times.

One thing I really liked about Ed’s post was his image of the “Missional Rorschach Test.” Like the Rorschach ink blots, they have no absolute meaning except as they are so infused by the viewer based upon external criteria. Stetzer says, “For the missional Rorschach Test, the question may be built around what you think the mission is, and how it is best lived out related to the church, mission, and culture.” He correctly notes that Mission, Missions, and Missional are all related, but not synonymous terms.

Defining the meaning of the term Missional at some point necessarily relates to the terms Missio Dei, the Kingdom of God, and the Gospel. The word Missional is very like these terms in at least one important way: they are in common usage, but retain something of a slippery definition. Each of these terms is variously defined such that we get the concept or gist of the word, but are very likely to quibble with certain of the definitions. This one omits a certain concept or adds a troubling one or whatever. At the heart of it though, we understand for the most part that we’re talking about the same thing, even if we don’t define it in exactly the same way.

Johannes C.  Hoekendijk The major import of Ed’s post is his discussion of the Missio Dei and why it makes some evangelicals nervous based on past associations of the term. It gained popularity as being conta-ecclesiocentrism, and the Willingen Report should have alleviated much of the concern, but I suppose the association of the term with the ideas of J.C. Hoekendijk and his ilk even after Willingen left an ongoing distaste. Hoekindijk was a contemporary of the more oft-quoted Lesslie Newbigin, and in the early 50’s foretold the fall of Christendom, which he felt was necessary as it had corrupted the Biblical concept of church. In his view the salvation was to be understood through the Old Testament concept of shalom as a blend of peace, integrity, justice, community, and harmony. It should be no real surprise if evangelicals saw the direction this leads as too much emphasis on a social gospel. (Ed’s post has more in-depth info and links on this, and a bit of dialogue in the comments with some additional background.)

A first-hand report on Willingen II by Ed Schroeder notes that the 50th Anniversary Congress on “Missio Dei” was held in 2002, exactly 50 years after the the first congress

in Willingen, a small German town in Hesse, [where] the International Missionary Council from 40-some countries gathered for the first post-WW II international gathering on Christian Missions. Curiously enough the final statement of Willingen I in 1952 didn’t use the term “missio Dei,” but focused its rhetoric on “the mission of the Triune God.” But some reporter, so we were told (probably a German!), used the Latin term in place of “the mission of the Triune God,” and it stuck. Missio Dei has been the shibboleth in mission rhetoric ever since. Willingen II promotional material called participants to reexamine the term focusing on

  1. what it means,
  2. how it’s been used in the intervening half century (for good or ill) and
  3. 3. what its promise is for Christian mission in the 3rd millennium.

Major presentations and presenters were:

  1. Understanding and Misunderstanding of Missio Dei in European Churches and Missiology (T. Engelsviken, Norway)
  2. Missio Dei in Practice: The Struggle for Liberation, Dignity and Justice in African Societies (K. Nuernberger, South Africa)
  3. The History and Importance of World Mission Conferences in the 20th Century (W. Guenther, Germany)
  4. Missio Dei – Its Unfolding and Limitations in the Korean Context (S. Chai, South Korea)
  5. Missio Dei – The Poor as Mediators of the Kingdom of God and Subjects of the Church (P. Suess, Brazil)
  6. Missio Dei Today – Identity of Christian Mission (T. Sundermeier, Germany)

Schroeder notes that “Willingen I articulated the ‘mission of the Triune God’ as God’s salvation project for the world with ‘God the sender, Jesus the Christ the one sent, and the Holy Spirit now keeping God’s mission going through history.'” — this can be understood to be a definition of Missio Dei as of the 1952 Willingen congress. Willingen II did not seek to redefine the term, though it is clear that it was the major topic of the congress despite its absence from the Willingen I summary statement. Schroeder notes that presenters held to “the ecumenical ‘party line’ that Missio Dei includes both explicit evangelism and social action. Thus any radical polarization between the social action emphasis of World Council of Churches ecumenism, on the one hand, and the evangelization emphasis of Lausanne-linked evangelicals is a no-no.” In his report, he longs for more Lutheran theology to be imposed upon the understanding of mission, and by his explanation, the influences would be one which evangelicals would agree, namely, that if the social and spiritual gospels are equal, the spiritual one just just a little but more equal for its primacy. Nevertheless, of Missio Dei, he observes,

The current use of the concept (which may not be what Willingen I intended) across the missiological spectrum — from Mennonites and Evangelicals to Mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics — sees God’s mission to be all the good things God is doing in and for the world, with Jesus the Christ as God’s grand finale in that mission. Christians thus are called to “join in God’s mission” with its accents on peace, justice, wholeness of human life and care for the environment — along with salvation for sinners. Important for Lutheran perceptions is to note that there is no fundamental distinction between God’s salvation agenda in Christ and all the other good things — care and preservation — that God is doing throughout creation. It is finally a “unitary” vision of Missio Dei. There is no paradox, no tension, between any parts of God’s work in the world. If God is ambidextrous, he’s playing the same game with both hands.

For my own definition of Missio Dei, I find myself wanting to refer to it as “the extension of the Kingdom of God,” but in so saying I would probably rephrase it much along the lines of the definition offered in Willingen I. That is, God has a purpose, a mission. That he is triune means he can send himself on this mission, and that he includes us as the church in his purposes, he can so send us as well. The task of spreading the Kingdom includes the spread of peace, justice, salvation, healing, freedom, liberation, and many other terms we could add to speak of both the physical and spiritual benefits which flow from the extension of God’s rule and reign. I’m quite happy to stick with the definition we’ve got for Missio Dei, with me saying quietly in the background, “YES! That’s the Kingdom!” To participate in this is to be missional.

Returning to the concept of Missio Dei as having roots in the ecclesiocentric Tambaram congress (1938, preceding Willingen I; see Stetzer’s post), I quote Guder from Missional Church, p.4:

This ecclesiocentric understanding of mission has been replaced during this century by a profoundly theocentric reconceptualization of Christian mission. We have come to see that mission is not merely an activity of the church. Rather, mission is the result of God’s initiative, rooted in God’s purposes to restore and heal creation. “Mission” means “sending” and it is the central biblical theme describing the purpose of God’s action in human history.

Guder continues, but in essence he’s giving a longer definition of the Missio Dei, and distancing it from an ecclesiocentric understanding toward a theocentric one… much as Willingen I did. In summing up, Guder quotes Bosch, who introduces the Missio Dei concept by name. Both speak of the trinity and of God as a Missionary (or Sending) God.

These are the essential concepts surrounding the term Missio Dei, and I think I’ve fleshed out as much as is necessary to describe what it means as used by me and others. As I understand the contemporary use of the term in missional circles, there seems in my mind no major connection beyond the simple concept of the definition into a larger theological context likely to give evangelicals the heebie-jeebies to any greater extent than the emerging church connections already do. If some who use the term wish to stipulate that it is equally social action and proclamation with the add-on butproclamationismoreequal, I’ve no beef provided that neither is ignored, and we can move onto the “okay, let’s get on with it now” part. Still, I want to close with a quote from Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten:

We refuse to take sides in the polarization between evangliecal-minded and ecumenical-minded theologians who needlessly restrict the gospel either to its vertical dimension of personal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ or its horizontal dimension of human liberation through the creation of a just social order. It is painful to hear leading evangelicals sneer at the concerns of the ecumenical people who connect mission to liberation, revolution, humanization, dialogue, secularization, socialization, and the like. For the deepest human longings and profoundest social needs are gathered up and reflected in such slogans. To dismiss them to a place of secondary importance is to pass by on the other side while modern man lies in the ditch bleeding to death. It is equally disturbing when ecumenical voices fail to find the language to underscore the permanent relevance of gospel proclamation in sermon and sacraments, in words of witness as well as deeds which lead to personal conversion and the spread of Christianity. In stressing now the social dimensions of the gospel we do not diminish one bit of its depth dimension in personal life and the koinonia of faith and worship. A theology of the gospel includes both forgiveness and freedom, both faith and food.

[Carl E. Braaten, The flaming center: A theology of the Christian mission (Fortress Press, 1977), pp.3-4, quoted in “Mission and the Church” by Edward Dayton and David Fraser, in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement : A Reader, Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, editors (William Carey Library Publishers, 1981), pp.556-557.]

The Missio Dei then necessitates a conception of a trinitarian God with missionary intent, who engages us as participants in his mission for the salvation of the world. Implied is some balance between the spiritual and physical effects of salvation (Gospel) and the application that the purpose of the church is participation in the mission of God. It would not however be my intention here to produce a thorough definition of Missio Dei in replacement of the existing ones, but simply to point out the major headings in what I understand as central to those definitions and their connection to the missional conversation.

Lastly, I want to introduce an idea that touches on a significant point in history where resides the some of the ideas I’ve been mulling over for a while now. In this post today, we’re reaching back to the early 1950’s and finding that the fall of Christendom was already anticipated as missiologists surveyed the moral, philosophical, social, and political landscape. It was already realized that some change would be necessary for the church, and a re-affirmation of the church’s mission as bound up with God’s mission was considered as a counter-balance to an ecclesiocentric idea of the church’s purpose. What took place over the following two decades was indeed the erosion of Christendom and the rise of humanism. The church produced two responses — the Jesus People and the Church Growth Movement. One lacked structure and was given so some error here and there, but flowed into places like the Vineyard, neo-Pentecostal, Charismatic, and “Third-Wave” movements before eventually making peace with evangelicalism and mainline denominations. The Church Growth Movement carried on through the whole time, coming to a place significant influence through the 1980s. Many megachurches were born.

Somewhere along the line was the quiet voice of the missiologists who sought to define the church in light of God’s mission… and to a large degree, this voice only found very few ears outside of the modern missionary movement and the various missionaries and mission boards who carried out a parachurch mission which they saw as largely the work of the church participating in the mission of God, or Missio Dei. Some denominations were aligned with missionary boards and endeavours, but they remained separate arms of the denomination.

So… we can launch into a discussion of what happened in the 50’s and 60’s as the church’s efforts to engage culture diverged into separate streams, but before we do, we should consider the Missio Dei as I’ve described it and as Ed has engaged it as well. Anything to add, restate, clarify, or re-frame?

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