Some ideas on what the church is in relation to mission hass been taken from some dusty theologians and missiologists. Without attributing any of these selections as being direct source material for current missional thought, I took a browse through my own personal library to see what I might find as examples of thinking which parallels some of the missional thought which I have been describing. I’ve therefore dipped into a variety of authors and found ideas which are fundamentally missional, but which predate the current conversation and use of the term “missional” — indeed, none of these use the word. In this survey, I will make some minor comment on the selections, but overall they are given to illustrate that the concept of “missional” is not new nor does it represent fundamentally groundbreaking theology or methodology. It is, however, somewhat revolutionary if it represents views and practices we have not held or acted upon until more recent realizations of the attendant implications.
John R.W. Stott writing as an evanglical in Christian Mission in the Modern World (1975) begins with
the wisdom of Alice–of Alice in Wonderland, that is, or more precisely of Alice Through the Looking Glass. You may recall her spirited exchange with Humpty Dumpty.
“‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.’
‘The question is’, said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean different things.’
‘The question is’, said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master–that’s all.’”
It is instructive to ponder this conversation. Alice and Humpty Dumpty begin by discussing the word ‘glory’ (which Humpty Dumpty told Alice with a contemptuous smile she did not understand until he told her what it meant), then the word ‘impenetrability’ (which Humpty Dumpty pressed into meaning so many things that he added ‘When I make a word do a lot of work like that, I always pay it extra’), and finally the poem ‘jabberwocky’ (which prompted Humpty Dumpty to say that some words are ‘like a portmanteau–there are two meanings packed up into one word’).
Americans might well dub Humpty Dumpty a ‘sophmore’, for he was a strange mixture of wisdom and folly, sense and nonsense. He was entirely right that some words are like portmanteaux, and that others deserve extra pay because of the amount of work they have to do. But he was entirely wrong to imagine that he was the master of words and could impose meanings on them arbitrarily, according to his own whimsical choice.
Yet (dare I say it) some modern theologians appear to be as perverse as Humpty Dumpty in their use of biblical words.
It is not disputed that time changes the meaning of words. ‘The ideal of “timeless English”‘, wrote C.S. Lewis in one of his Letters to Malcolm (Collins) ‘is sheer nonsense. No living language can be timeless. You might as well ask for a motionless river.’
(pp.12-13) The connection between Humpty Dumpty’s shifting language and our consideration of “missional” is clear, and I include it for that reason. Words can be slippery, and if we thought missional was a slippery term, we’ve been prompted to look further at Missio Dei as an even slipperier shifting term. Next, Stott moves on to recount some of the history of the definition of “mission,” in which is found some discussion of Missio Dei. He doesn’t camp on that term, but writes, “All of us should be able to agree that mission arises primarily out of the nature not of the church but of God himself. The living God of the Bible is a sending God.” (p.21) He cites Johannes Blauw as the first to use the term “centrifugal” to describe the church’s mission; J.G. Davies then applied the term to God himself. I like this imagery, where the chuch behaves like God himself — in a centrifugal way, in order that others might feel a centripetal pull. Stott calls the Johannine form of the Great Commission “the crucial form,” and it clearly fits this line of thinking best. He speaks of the sending within the trinity, and then of Christ’s sending of his church.
And now he sends us ‘into the world’, to identify with others as he identified with us (though without losing our Christian identity), to become vulnerable as he did. It is surely one of the most characteristic falures of us as Christians, not least of us who are called evangelical Christians, that we seldom seem to take seriously this principle of the Incarnation. ‘As our Lord took on our flesh’, runs the report from [the Meeting of the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism in] Mexico City 1963, ‘so he calls his Church to take on the secular world. This is easy to say and sacrificial to do’ (Witness in Six Contenents p.151). It comes more natural to us to shout the gospel at people from a distance than to involve ourselves deeply in their lives, to think ourselves into their culture and their problems, and to feel with them in their pains. Yet this implication of our Lord’s example is inescapable. As the Lausanne Covenant put it: ‘We affirm that Christ sends his redeemed people into the world as the Father sent him, and that this calls for a similar deep and costly penetration of the world’ (para. 6).
(p.25) At the suggestion that someone may still insist that the Great Commission relates exclusively to evangelism, he turns to the Great Commandment, (p.29) stating that some behave as if the two were thought identical, such that sharing the gospel fulfills the responsibility to love someone, but he rejects the idea. “The Great Commission neigher explains, nor exhausts, nor supersedes the Great Commandment. What it does is to addd to the requirement of neighbour-love and neighbour-service a new and urgent Christian dimension.”
‘Mission’, then, is not a word for everything the church does. ‘The church is mission’ sounds fine, but it’s an overstatement. For the church is a worshipping as well as a serving community, and although worship and service belong together they are not to be confused. …’Mission’ describes rather everything that the church is sent into the world to do.
(p.30) More recently, it has been popularly suggested (see The Purpose-Driven Church) the the church has, in fact, five purposes as drawn from the Great Commission and the Great Commandment. While these five tasks or purposes do exist in the church, I must say I like the summary here from Stott, with the implication that the Great Commission rests upon and is interpreted by the Great Commandment, rather than standing alongside as an add-on or parallel purpose.
Edward Dayton and David Fraser‘s essay, “Mission and the Church” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement : A Reader (1981) was quoted yesterday, but I want to revisit it here.
[T]here is disagreement over the priority of the various elements involved in carrying out mission, over what is means and what is end, over the very understanding of the concepts of the Bible as they are utilized to build the foundation for a theology and practice of mission.
We are convinced that only a theology of the Kingdom of God can bring coeherence and order to the debate. Jesus’ proclamation of the good news of the Kingdom of God is the basis and content of mission. God is bringing about the extension of his rule over an unruly world. The Missio Dei is the Kingdom of God and the integrating aim of mission.
(p.559) Earlier in the essay (p.555-556), they state,
There are so many important and necessary things that the Church is to be and do that the center about which they all revolve can be lost if one aspect or facet is considered apart from the others. In the end all these images and commands are rooted in teh reality that the Church is a result of and a partcipant in the mission of God. God is acting in history to bring about his redemption and reign over a creation in rebeillion. God has miraculously revealed himself by acting in history in the person of Jesus Christ and through his people. The Church is both a result of and a copartner with God in the process of effecting the Kingdom of God here on earth.
To express and define the essence of the mission of the Church is to delineate the Missio Dei. The Church’s mission is its participation in and cooperation with what God is graciously doing redemptively here on the earth. It is to be a sign of the presence of the Kingdom in word and deed. …The mission of the Church must be understood and defined in terms of the triune God whose creation and agent in the world is the Church of Jesus Christ.
Yesterday I mentioned the association of the Kingdom of God with the Missio Dei, but stopped just short of crafting a definition that related the two more directly. I did, however, wish to point out that it has been done, and those of us who have been taught to read the Bible with a “Kingdom of God hermeneutic” may continue to do so within the missional conversation. Some missional writers are suggesting the use of a missional hermeneutic, reading scripture through missional eyes. I would suggest that this is not necessary if one understands the Kingdom of God as being related to the mission of God. Can I mention the Kingdom of God without reference to–no, I can’t. Reaching to the shelf above me, I extract my copy of George E. Ladd’s A Theology of the New Testament, and referring to the introduction I confirm for you that it speaks of the Bible as “primarily a story about God and his concern for men. It exists only because of the divine initiative realizing itself in a series of divine acts whose objective is human redemption.” (p.26) The thread of God’s action in history and our participation in the story can be seen to bind the Missio Dei to the Kingdom of God and our approach to reading and understanding the Bible as the record of these events relating to “God’s own mission” (the short definition of Missio Dei). If Jesus preached the message of the Kingdom and sent us likewise, the connection is complete.
David Watson wrote I Believe in the Church (1978), and it became a popular text on ecclesiology. In this work, he wrote,
God is a missionary. His redemptive work in the world is missionary work. The Latin for “sending” is missio; and in his love for us God sent, or ‘missioned’, his Son. Likewise Jesus told his disciples, ‘As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’ And he gave them the gift of the Spirit to empower them for this missionary task. Every Christian is therefore inescapably a missionary for Christ.
In view of this, it is tragic that many church members think of missionary work as something quite distinct and special compared with the life and work of the ordinary local church.
the ‘ordinary’ Christian is called by God to be a missionary where he lives and works. Whether he realises it or not, and for better or for worse, he is a witness for Christ, and must accept the full responsibilities of this calling.
Certainly the church of God is not designed as a club whose activities are purely for the enjoyment of its members. As William Temple once remarked, ‘it is the only society on earth which exists for the benefit of the non-members.’ It is impossible to divorce the work of the church from the work of mission. ‘The church exists by mission as fire exists by burning,’ to quote Emil Brunner’s famous remark.
Having stressed the primacy of missionary work in the agenda of the church, it is important to see that the aim of missionary work is not just to win individuals for Christ; it is to extend the kingdom of God, or to build up God’s church. God aims to people this earth with his new society that centres on his Son Jesus Christ. Only in this way will ‘the earth be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea’. The church must be invovled in mission; and mission must be concerned with the church. ‘An unchurchly mission is as much a monstrosity as unmissionary church.’ [quoting Lesslie newbigin from Household of God]
In every generation, and in every part of the world, the word has to become flesh before people can see the truth and reality of God. In this word-resistant age, it is not enough to throw biblical statements at the outsider. For most folk, God-words are empty words. But when the word can be demonstrated in our lives, relationships, lifestyle and love, the presence of the living Christ will be clearly manifested and perceived.
(pp.298-301) Watson notes the church is externally-purposed, and derives that purpose from a sending God. Mission and the existence of the church are intricately woven, and each believer is a missionary with a call to participate in God’s mission. Not only this, but the incarnational impulse is seen in the call to make the word flesh in every generation. Although I quote more missiologists, this one is significant in that I’m quoting a theologian and Anglican priest to illustrate that the view is the same outside of missiological circles. (See also Stott.)
Roland Allen was an Anglican missionary in China from 1895 to 1903, and wrote much missiological theory thereafter. His work did not have wide acceptance when it first appeared, and he told his son that his work would come into its own around the year 1960. He was right. I quote here from The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church:
I said… that we have two organizations for missionary work, one modern, the missionary society, the other ancient, the Church. But when we consider the organization of the Church today as an organization for missionary work, we must not expect to find it unimpaired in its original purity. In the beginning the Church was a missionary society: it added to its numbers mainly by the life and speech of itsmembers attracting to it those who were outside. Where they went churches were organized, where they settled, men who had never heard of the Church saw the Church, and, being attracted by the life, or by the speech, of its members, learned its secret, joined it, and were welcomed into it. Today members of the Church are scattered all over the world, but they do not carry the Church with them in their own personse, they were not organized, they very often do not desire the conversion of those among whom they live, they do not welcome them into the Church. So societies are formed to do this for them. The Church, as a Church, is not a missionary society enlarging its borders by multiplying local churches; so societies are formed within it to do its work for it. Obviously they cannot do it properly.
We may compare the relation of the societies to the Church with the institution of divorce in relation to marriage. Just as divorce was permitted for the hardness of men’s hearts because they were unable to observe the divine institution of marriage in its original perfection, so the organization of missionary societies was permitted for the hardness of our hearts, because we had lost the power to appreciate and to use the divine organization of the Church in its simplicity for the purpose for which it was first created.
the divine institution of the Christian Church as a missionary society is the proper heritage of churchmen and we may yet recover it; but at the moment we must confess that we have it not. We should see it restored tomorrow in the mission field, if only we would establish churches there today.
(pp.117-118) Allen offers what will be to some a surprising suggestion that parachurch missionary societies are an accommodation by God for disobedience of the church, and should not continue. His reasoning ties in very tightly with the impetus for missional church. That is, if the church’s function is mission, and it fulfills this function through its natural missional behaviour, then the missionary societies and parachurch organizations of which Allen speaks would be unnecessary, though their necessary work would continue and actually increase.
Harry R. Boer speaks even more strongly in his Pentecost and Missions (1961, o/p), a doctoral thesis considering the role of the Holy Spirit in mission. It was an important work on the subject, and he resonated strongly with Roland Allen.
So long as God’s kingdom is in process of becoming, that is, so long as God gives His Church a task to discharge in history, we shall have to concern ourselves with the question of missionary method. Essentially this means: how must the Church that now is express her witness in such a manner that she may most effectively contribute to the manifestation of the perfect universal Church that one day shall be?
Whereas the early Church preserved herself by witness and expansion, the later Church frequently succumbed to the temptation, inherent in her view of the new Testament, to preserve herself by an exclusive emphasis on the strengthening of her internal structure through elaborate instruction in doctrine and by laying down credal boundaries beyond which no one could venture with impunity. in the course of this development the Holy Spirit as Spirit of witness was allowed to recede into the background, at least in His missionary aspect. But since the Spirit is a Spirit of witness not only to the Church but also to the world, the limitation of His witness to intra-Church witness prevented Him from fully and powerfully expressing Himself in teh Church that wanted him only in part. As a result the Church was cast upon a period of spiritual lethargy and ineffectiveness manifesting itself in unwholesome preoccupation with herself, in sharp and loveless controversies, and in well-nigh total unconcern for the vast unconverted world outside her doors. When the Church tries to bottle up the Spirit within herself she acts contrary both to her own and to His nature. For it is the nature of the Church ever to be enlarging her borders, and it is the nature of the Spirit to transmit His life to ever-widening circles. When the Church does not recognize this law of her being and of the being of the Spirit, the Spirit is quenched and He withdraws Himself, and the depoist of religiosity that is left becumes a putrefaction in the lives of those who have grieved Him.
We must cease preaching the Great Commission as a command to be obeyed but must present it as a law that expresses the nature that governs the life of the Church. So long as the Church is seen as a body that meets for edification and praise which also has the task of obeying the missionary command, no great deployment of missionary power is to be expected. …[The Great Commission] is a command that has been given because the Church has the power to obey it, because the Spirit has been given to the Church, because it is of her essence and nature to be a witnessing body.
(p.208-210, 217) Boer utters some fairly harsh words in an indictment of the church, but I wanted to include his work for his understanding of the purpose of the church by its nature and its connection to Pentecost. I self-identify as post-charismatic, and several of us have reserved some online time this coming October to bring matters of the Holy Spirit and his gifts into the context of the missional conversation. So far, there has been little discussion of a missional pneumatology, but we are inviting dialogue of this type. (Please contact me if you would like to participate in these virtual discussions.) I want to point out here that our mission was born at the same moment as the church was born. The disciples had received a commission from Jesus, but were told to wait for the Holy Spirit. That Pentecost marks the inception of the church is little argued, but it is instructive that it occurred in an intensely missionary context, and birthed the church’s participation in mission from its very inception.
We’ve covered a fair bit of ground with this brief survey of authors who didn’t know they were missional… and in so doing, we’ve highlighted but a very few of very many such passages and sentiments that we could unearth to show the roots of missional thought. In this way, a missional emphasis may be seen as heeding a very old call — not reinventing the wheel, but if anything, recovering it from decades of misunderstanding its nature. As we remove some of the notions and ideals added in different seasons by movements who thought them important, it become more rounded again… and much more shaped in accordance with its purpose. Here we discover that the participatory call is not only corporate but individual as well, and we can not delay until others to recognize it without denying our own mandate within the greater call.
I’m obviously echoing many of the themes I’ve covered so far in my consideration of what the term “missional” fundamentally means. Which of the preceding texts (or others) are fundamentally helpful in understanding the purpose of the church and its mission along the path to understanding missional engagement?