Blues Brothers:  On the Missio Dei.When I I began a series examining the posts from the recent missional synchroblog in which I participated with a total of 50 bloggers (plus a few unofficial entries), I don’t think I fully thought through the question of just how much material there would be to interact with. Nevertheless, I’m past the halfway mark and most of the major concepts have been introduced already, so we might be able to pick up the pace. We shall see. As I sift through the many posts, I keep thinking back to the missional series I started last summer to better define the term. Like the synchroblog, it was born of a frustration with the misuse of the term that many of us began to observe more than a year ago now.

Picking up the present series where we left off, JR Rozko writes,

All things missional emerge from a certain understanding of the gospel and salvation. Missionally speaking, the gospel is not a message (much less a system of belief) to which we need to give intellectual assent to or decide for ourselves what to do with. Rather, it is the ongoing work of God in the world, the new reality inaugurated in Jesus, which addresses, by way of redemption, the whole of creation. It has everything to do with the Kingdom of God and spiritual formation (discipleship). This is a gospel which can never be known in abstraction but only by way of participation. Likewise, it is the good news that God invites us into his saving work – not as something we have (a characteristically American commodification), but as something we participate in.

Missional, when it is used to describe theology, indicates an understanding of all that relates to God through the lens (or hermeneutic) of the missio Dei, the mission of God in and to the world. Thus, as suggested in my masters thesis, “Restoring Hope to the Church in Western Culture, ”missional theology innately has a more narrative, as opposed to systematic or simply biblical, bent to it. That is to say, missional theology refuses to capitulate to the dominant Platonic or dualistic way of thinking which would contend that we can know things about God apart from a discerning participation in a life of faith (aka life as mission!).

As Miroslav Volf has said,

At the heart of every good theology lies not simply a plausible intellectual vision but more importantly a compelling account of a way of life, and that theology is therefore best done from within the pursuit of this way of life.

In his further elaboration, JR notes that “It is probably not an overstatement to say that to embrace a missional identity is akin to a Copernican Revolution – little wonder then that so many who really get what missional is all about are labeled heretics.” His final note before closing is that “missional theology and missional churches are better received in postmodern/post-Christian contexts. That is because these are places in which a co-opted and sentimentalized version of Christianity have lost their place at the center of a culture.”

I wasn’t familiar with JR’s blog before this exercise, but he’s turned in quite a good post describing missional — and let’s be honest, quoting Volf doesn’t hurt! In this post we again find emphasis on the Missio Dei and a mention of missional church’s preference for narrative theology. The missional shift is portrayed as a significant paradigm shift, and JR introduces an interesting observation about missional church being more accepted in post-Christian contexts than modern or Christendom ones. This is of interest in that it was a consideration of the shift from Christendom to post-Christendom which gave missional theology its birth and most of its early development. That said, missional church is seen as or at least attempts to be innately cross-cultural and timeless rather than being pre-modern, modern, or post-modern in particular (contra JR’s description). Conversely, Christendom eventually became so entwined with modernity that for some it is hard to accept one and not the other.

Kathy Escobar titled her contribution, “upside down, inside out & against everything business school teaches,” so I liked it already from the title. For a dose of her perspective she says by way of introduction,

i honestly do not use the word for one primary reason–the people i know who are really truly “missional” don’t talk about it too much & the people who are trying to catch the latest church-trend use it a lot. when we were planting the refuge a little over two years ago i had a few church leaders share with me how “they were becoming ‘missional’ and were we going to be, too?”, like it was the latest and greatest thing that no one had ever heard of before and surely we wanted to jump on the bandwagon. oh how that taps into all my church institution craziness! there i was, sitting across the table with leaders who had been in ministry, making decisions for churches for years and years i thought “you don’t even know, like really know, a poor person, do you? you have never ever been in close relationship with a single mom who just got beat up by her ex and is trying to raise her babies on $1,000 a month, have you? you have never held someone’s hand when they relapsed, have you? because if you had, you wouldn’t be asking me that question!” (sorry, but these are the things that get me a little amped up). Jesus was never about words without actions, hip & cool, or the latest trends. he was always about just doing it. he came for the sick, not the healthy, and he demonstrated what it meant to be in the deepest ugliest parts of people’s story and call out their dignity and value.

(Kathy has that Jonny Baker “Shift key? What’s a shift key?” thing goin’ on.) Getting down to a definition, she writes,

missional–individually & corporately–is:
* a way of living. it is a way of the heart, and is something that is better left unsaid in words and promotional materials and said loudly in humble, simple, natural actions that actually don’t get any press.
* the upside down inside out and beautifully uncomfortable ways of the kingdom that are completely counter-intuitive to the worldly principles of business school that have infiltrated our church culture.
* messy, chaotic, situational, and in many ways utterly unmeasurable.
* embracing not only in action but in the core DNA of our hearts the values of the beatitudes in matthew 5 (spiritual poverty, the ability to mourn & feel, humility & gentleness, advocacy & social justice, mercy & compassion, and sacrifice at great costs)

Expanding on this, Kathy lists “core principles from the beattitudes [which] are woven intricately and deeply into the fabric of our hearts, our communities:” spiritual poverty, an honest realization that we really need God; an uncanny ability to feel, comfort, and enter into others’ pain; incredible humility; a deep passion for advocacy; motivated by Christ’s love, not power or prestige or weird christian kudos; active networkers & bridge builders; and viewed as stupid, slow, non-strategic & crazy.

I really liked Kathy’s anti-institutional tone, which resonates with me just a little ;^) Like JR’s blog, I’ve now subscribed to hers in my reader. She doesn’t get bogged down in the academic terms that some of us love, but she portrays an inderstanding of missional that is innately incarnational, is concerned for social justice, is contextual, and emits from core beliefs and values (DNA). Her post fits well with Erika Haub’s. Quite importantly, she brings the Beattitudes into play; the Sermon on the Mount is in fact a key text for missional church.

Len Hjalmarson roots missional in the Missio Dei, saying that

joining in the missio Dei is not a call to productivity. It is the call to know and be known and to allow God’s joy to fill us, so that all we do is an expression of his life in us. When we abide in the house of love mission becomes a spontaneous expression of the dance of God in emptiness (it’s no coincidence that Philippians 2 contains an early hymn).

Those of us in any of the streams of renewal, whether it be missional, monastic, or emergent, are tempted to become activists in view of the need for change. But Nouwen would remind us that the world desperately needs “irrelevant” leaders. Elizabeth O’Connor writes,

We are not called primarily to create new structures for the church in this age; we are not called primarily to a program of service, or to dream dreams or have visions. We are called first of all to belong to [worship] .. to belong to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and to keep our lives warmed at the hearth of his life. It is there the fire will be lit which will create new structures and programs of service that will draw others into the circle to dream dreams and have visions. (Call to Commitment, 94).

Earlier in his post, Len quotes Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, “The [spiritual] life is by its very nature ‘ordinary.’ It is precisely the ordinariness of … life that makes true conversion possible. When a person is no longer distracted by the emotional illusions that passing trends and extraordinary events create, she has the opportunity to cultivate a life of the Spirit.”

Len is a prolific blogger and writer, so has read and written much on missional subjects. Here he emphasizes the Missio Dei and the ordinariness of missional life. The tone of the passages quoted above does suggest an emphasis not on building grand structures (real or metaphoric), but on simply knowing and following God… which if done honestly will lead to a missional life.

Makeesha Fisher shouts two words in her post title, “go” and “do.” She offers a series of three-word definitions of missional:

live well here
eat drink laugh
colabor with God
Jesus is them
Jesus is me
walk the path
listen to others
learn from others
eat with sinners
live on purpose

and the number one 3-word definition of missional


She elaborates a bit and then continues this list-type approach, emphasizing the difference between mission (as in missionary or evangelistic) and missional.

So when I say get out there, here’s the paradigm shift from the ‘then me’ to ‘now me’.

“mission” Then:
get out there to talk
get out there to teach
get out there to judge
get out there to save
get out there with a closed posture of protecting myself
get out there to bring back into the church

“missional” Now:
get out there to listen
get out there to learn
get out there to accept
get out there to be saved
get out there with an open posture of Christ
get out there to be the church

Makeesha tackles the whole “church without walls” idea in saying that missional is in essence a going out or a sending (incarnation) to be among people rather than remain cloistered within the church. These emphases are by now familiar, but I like how she is able to distill it down to brief phrases.

Malcolm Lanham writes,

The word actually does mean for one to act as a missionary would act. But what does that mean? What does that look like? As somebody that has been and currently serving as a missionary… it means something like this:
• we focus on the community that God has called us and sent us to serve,
• it means that we relocate and live amongst the community, the people that God has called and sent us to,
• it means that being a missionary… we have to learn to communicate the Gospel in ways that does not water down the message, but actually contextualize it in such a way that it is relevant to the lives of the people around you.
• it means, that we are going to have to earn the right to be heard by BEING Jesus, DOING what would have done, so that way we can TAKE Jesus to everybody. This means that our lives and our actions are going to speak to others about Jesus… and when we do this… we will earn the right for people to listen about Jesus. This is a process… this is not some cute formula for making disciples… it is about the long term aspects of making disciples.

Malcolm takes a missiological approach as well, defining the term through the lens of “missionary.” The practical applications he lists include much the same emphases we have already considered, such as contextualization and incarnation. I’m not clear on where he would stand as regards proclamation, as it may sound as though much of the effort is toward that goal. For better or worse, to a significant degree this often seems to be the result of approaching missional from a missiological or evangelistic framework rather than an ecclesiological one.

Mark Berry writes,

Being Missional – or spending each day with God in God’s workplace!
In short a “Missional” faith is one which has it’s core value as transformation, it sees the purpose of faith as more than a place on Heaven guest-list but about being agents of heaven here and now. Another starting place for us would be the “5 marks of mission”
* To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
* To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
* To respond to human need by loving service
* To seek to transform unjust structures of society
* To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth
This means so much more than “Evangelism” it means being peacemakers in the whole of creation. Evangelism is there, in “proclaiming the Good News”, but even there proclamation is more than simple verbal “preaching”, it is being and bearing witness to the possibility of reconciliation with the Creator, it is being and bearing the image of God in the world in every aspect of living.

He links missional with the Missio Dei and living a holistic life, transforming culture and “living the principles of the sermon on the mount,” and being agents of the Kingdom of God. “[T]o be MIssional means not being satisfied with the World or Christendom, and seeing the opportunity of being part of the process of change as exiting… to be Missional means being a revolutionary… …seeing life as a service to God and to Creation.” He describes the missional life as that of an exile, a vagabond, or a pilgrim, he defines each term, including quotations as Bible texts for each. He speaks of community reflecting the trinity and living as a shalom people.

Mark’s post seems to begin with proclamation as well, but he tempers any interpretation of that being the main thing in missional engagement. Again we have the recurrence of the Trinity, the Sermon on the Mount, the Missio Dei, the Kingdom of God, societal transformation, and justice. Notably, he adds the metaphor of pilgrims, vagabonds, and exiles. This is a common understanding of missional living, but this is its first specific mention in our list of posts.

I’ve been quoting far too liberally, perhaps… but this post has gotten long enough now as a result. We’ll try to pick up the pace in the next installment… bud haven’t I already said that? The summary list now looks like this:

  • the term missional is misused by many who don’t understand it;
  • missional church is not the same as emerging church;
  • simply adding the term doesn’t make it so;
  • missional is incarnational;
  • individual missional engagement, not just corporate engagement, matters;
  • missional church roots itself in history by taking a long view of its engagement;
  • missional church is in the hands of the so-called “laity”;
  • missional is a buzz-word only to those who don’t have it in their DNA;
  • missional engagement thrives in the context of third places;
  • missional is a paradigm that should be innate to every healthy church;
  • the missio Dei institutes the missiones ecclesiae;
  • missional builds communitas;
  • the mission is to extend the Kingdom of God;
  • missional engagement takes place within the ordinary, everyday rhythm of life;
  • missional seeks to bring justice to “the other”;
  • missional is contextual, but also at times counter-cultural;
  • missional sees no dichotomy between mission and everyday life;
  • missional attempts to transcend relegation to a specific era such as pre-modernity, modernity, or post-modernity;
  • missional church gravitates toward narrative theology and toward the gospels, particularly the Sermon on the Mount; and
  • the missional life is likened to that of a pilgrim, an exile, or a vagabond.

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