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Seminal Review: David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission

Seminal Review

David J. Bosch. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 1991.

Does this much-reviewed missiological classic, now nearly twenty years old, really deserve another look? As a professor of the theology of mission for nearly all of the last twenty years, I say “yes.” No one since has done what Bosch does in his magnum opus. The breadth and depth of (a) his treatment of historical theology as it relates to missiology; (b) his perspectives on the ever-evolving missionary paradigms from the First through the Twentieth Centuries; and (c) his organization of the current trends in missiology (under the heading “Elements of an Emerging Ecumenical Missionary Paradigm” in the all-important twelfth chapter, the heart of the book), combine to keep me coming back to Bosch again and again, despite the deficiencies. Other Bosch admirers like me (such as Norman E. Thomas in Classic Texts in Mission and World Christianity [Orbis, 1995] and Willem Saayman and Klippies Kritzinger in Mission in Bold Humility: David Bosch’s Work Reconsidered [Orbis, 1996]) highlight weaknesses in Transforming Mission, among them his omission of the work of women in missions and his mostly indirect engagement with theologians in the developing world. But no other book has taken its place.

One might think that it would not be difficult to find an outline of the key issues in the theology of mission that is more accessible to undergraduate students than Bosch’s somewhat unwieldy ”thirteen elements.” But alternative proposals have not impressed me as much. Christopher Wright’s The Mission of God (IVP Academic, 2006) is perhaps the most attractive challenger to come along lately. Wright’s approach, grounded in the Old Testament, more than makes up for Bosch’s scant attention (less than five pages) to mission in the Old Testament. Wright also addresses contemporary issues—such as the theology of ecology—that Bosch neglects (though surely he would have much to say on such matters were he alive today to revise the book). But Wright’s tripartite outline—“The God of Mission,” “The People of Mission,” and “The Arena of Mission”—doesn’t do it for me, maybe because parts two and three overlap so much. (On the other hand, Wright’s Chapter Five, “The Living God Confronts Idolatry,” is profoundly relevant.) The collection of essays edited by Andrew Walls and Cathy Ross (Mission in the 21st Century, Orbis, 2008) is organized around “The Five Marks of Mission”:

  1. To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
  2. To teach, baptise, and nurture new believers
  3. To respond to human need by loving service
  4. To seek to transform unjust structures of society
  5. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth. (Walls and Ross, xiv)

I like the outline, but the essays that flesh it out are uneven. Timothy Tennent’s brand new textbook, Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century (Kregel, 2010) is promising but ambitious. Tennent hangs the major features of an introduction to missions—including historical and strategic elements—on the framework of the theology of mission, which I appreciate. But I would still feel like I was cheating my students if I did not introduce them to Bosch’s more complete “thirteen elements,” presented as they are in the context of a rich and responsible historical theology.

It could be that the more accessible outline I seek is right under my nose, in Bosch’s concluding chapter in which he outlines the mission of God in terms of “six salvific events” in the New Testament: the incarnation, the cross, the resurrection, the ascension, Pentecost, and the Parousia (512-18). Each of those moments in and beyond the earthly ministry of Jesus illustrates a key feature of the mission of God from Genesis to Revelation. For example, the embodiment of the Word in the person of Jesus puts the “new” in New Testament, but the presence of God is a theme of the mission of God from the Garden of Eden to the Tabernacle and beyond. Likewise, the cross communicates the self-sacrificial love of God that ought to inspire and characterize his representatives as we pursue the same mission. Perhaps it would be better to organize a theology of mission course around these six touchstones rather than around the “thirteen elements.” I will have to think about that possibility. Either way, for the time being, I’m sticking with Bosch.

Monte Cox

Dean of the College of Bible and Religion

Harding University

Searcy, Arkansas, USA

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Review of Fred Peatross, Missio Dei

Fred Peatross. Missio Dei: In the Crisis of Christianity. Nashville: Cold Tree Press, 2007. 116 pp. $10.95.

Fred Peatross ministers to a traditional church in the fellowship of the Churches of Christ in Huntington, West Virginia. His other writings include Tradition, Opinion, and Truth: The Emerging Church of Christ (iUniverse, 2000) and articles and interviews for Wineskins.org.

Peatross’s purpose in Missio Dei is to provide a primer on what it means to be a missional church for those who have lived their faith lives in established, conventional churches. The content relies heavily on authors in the emerging church movement, particularly Alan Hirsch (The Forgotten Ways, Baker, 2007) and Michael Frost (Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture, Hendrickson, 2006).

Peatross’s beginning point is recognizing that Christianity in the West has lost its place as society’s centerpiece and is now a marginalized influence, often irrelevant to the emerging culture. Established churches have typically reacted to this dramatic disconnect from their societal neighbors by turning inward, developing a protective mindset to minimize moral and numeric erosion.

The alternative Peatross leads the reader toward is to leave the established, attractionally-based church behind and launch into the new, explorative mode of the missional church. The emerging, missional church will be defined by two primary characteristics: (1) a focus on kingdom growth over church growth as a missional measure and (2) an emphasis on birthing new gospel communities over resurrecting or revitalizing established churches. The theological impetus for this decision is summarized in Jesus’ parable of new wineskins for new wine (Matt 9:16-17) and God as a sending God (John 20:21).

This brief introduction (92 pp.) to missional thinking ends with some practical “lessons learned” that call exploring Christians to live their lives intentionally in the context of those who are not Christians. In this way the leavening influence of faith can seep into contexts of unbelief.

Peatross writes with a gentle spirit, and he will help any reader develop their love for those who do not yet live in relationship with Jesus. Missio Dei provides a brief, reasonably coherent introduction to the reader who is uninitiated into the stream of missional church literature, which is this book’s best use. For readers who are already familiar with Hirsch, Frost, or Brian McLaren, Missio Dei will add little to either their comprehension or practice.

Two points call into question the validity of Missio Dei as a book to recommend to serious readers. First, Peatross bases much of this work on the assertion that Christianity has been on a 250-year decline (10). This assertion comes across as naive in the face of the evidence provided by the eminent historian of world Christianity, Kenneth Scott Latourette, who describes the century of 1815-1914 as “The Great Century,” characterized by “abounding vitality and unprecedented expansion” (A History of Christianity, vol. 1 [San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1975], vii).

The second point is the curious absence of any discussion of worldview as a reason for the disconnect between existing churches that were planted to reach and minister to 20th-century people and the rising 21st-century people who think in a different worldview arena. Peatross hints at this in his discussion of online social networks but fails to bring the reader to an appreciation of why internet realities are important.

Stanley E. Granberg

Executive Director, Kairos Church Planting

Portland, Oregon, USA

Adjunct Faculty

Harding University Graduate School of Religion

Memphis, Tennessee, USA

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Review of Sherwood G. Lingenfelter, Leading Cross-Culturally

Sherwood G. Lingenfelter. Leading Cross-Culturally: Covenant Relationships for Effective Christian Leadership. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008. 175 pp. $16.99.

Sherwood Lingenfelter, Provost and Senior Vice President and Professor of Anthropology, School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, has provided us with an important work. This book, the third in a series that addresses Christian service in cross-cultural contexts (Ministering Cross-Culturally and Teaching Cross-Culturally are the earlier two volumes) continues the discussion of various types of Christian service in cross-cultural contexts but focuses on the important area of leadership.

The book is a series of case studies, with most chapters centering discussions of important topics by using a specific case study as a centerpiece. Topics that Lingenfelter addresses include a wide variety of leadership-related issues: vision and inspiration, partnership and priority setting, building trust, teamwork and covenant community, and empowerment through power-giving leadership. Interwoven through each chapter is the fundamental theme of empowering for effective leadership in cross-cultural contexts. Lingenfelter defines this theme as “inspiring people who come from two or more cultural traditions to participate with you in building a community of trust, and then to follow you and be empowered by you to achieve a compelling vision of faith” (155).

He states outright that his first task is to help readers understand their “personal culture of leadership” (8) and how this impacts every aspect of ministry. That is, those engaged in cross-cultural leadership must understand their own “default” culture vis-à-vis the cultures in which they work. Such self-awareness, Lingenfelter contends, opens up the possibilities of understanding critical areas of weakness and blindness. By doing so, God’s servants are better prepared to create understanding and to find greater opportunities for faithful and effective ministry. Conversely, leaders who do not grasp how default cultures pervade every ministry move and decision are seriously disadvantaged to carry out leadership and partnership goals. The book, to a large degree, is designed to do just that—to bring to light the tacit cultural assumptions of (primarily) Western leaders who interact with others from non-Western cultures.

Those familiar with Lingenfelter’s work will find much familiar material here. Notable is his consistent reminder that, at its core, the calling to Christian leadership and service is about submission to Christ. Everything ultimately stands or falls on this critical spiritual orientation. Also typical of Lingenfelter’s work is how he fluently interacts with and utilizes critical anthropological and leadership theory while drawing such theoretical discussions into tangible challenges and provocative insights. One primary way Lingenfelter accomplishes this is his use of grid and group theory (in Lingenfelter’s terms, “social game theory”) from British anthropologist Mary Douglas. Lingenfelter distills this theoretical framework in an easy-to-use fashion in order to frame issues involving cultural differences, especially as these differences affect leadership and partnering.

A significant portion of the book centers on the topic of power; namely, how missionaries and local leaders see power issues differently, how they configure their respective power-goals in often significantly different modes, and how power seeking is at the root of much leadership and partnership failure. Lest the reader think this is mere academic, theoretical rambling, Lingenfelter demonstrates in tangible ways how power inheres in all social relations, particularly those types of relationships to which we refer when using the terms leader and partner. In opposition to “power-seeking” forms of leadership, Lingenfelter advocates “power-giving.” This type of leadership challenges much of what most (I would think) take for granted as “leadership.” Among the important qualities of a power-giving leader are a commitment to relationality over against position, personalistic concerns over against authority and control, and use of trust and character influence over against “powering outcomes.” Ultimately, power-giving leadership is about placing Jesus at the center of our wills and leadership goals. This commitment to power-giving expresses itself forcefully in Lingenfelter’s notion of being responsible to rather than for, a critical distinction for those engaged in leadership of any kind. The careful attention to and elaboration upon the hidden, mostly tacit ways power is in play in leaders’ relationships constitute one of the great merits of this book.

Personally, I found the concluding chapter entitled “The Hope of Cross-Cultural Leadership” both challenging and encouraging. Here Lingenfelter reminds us all of the critically important point that our values, vision, and sense of mission are always eroding. The real challenge is to become intentional in renewing these in an ongoing way. Such renewal work “must be intentional, it must become part of our regular work, and it must continue over a substantive period” (165). One cannot merely read a book or simply gain a new level of understanding. Rather, the more difficult and essential leadership capacity is that of reminding and renewing ourselves of what it means to lead and serve.

Lingenfelter’s challenging and helpful volume is precisely the type of resource that can assist us all in the ongoing work of auditing and renewing our vision and values as they relate to our calling of leadership. The case studies would be ideal for any teacher of missions or missionaries-in-preparation to use in guiding reflection on culture, power, and leadership. All involved in or preparing to work in a different cultural context simply must read this book. Though Lingenfelter writes specifically to those ministering in cultures other than their own, what he describes increasingly represents important issues for leaders in North American churches who find, due to shifting demographics, that they too lead a cross-cultural community. Thus, this is an important book for all who engage in the work of Christian service and leadership. I recommend it highly.

Chris Flanders

Professor of Mission

Abilene Christian University

Abilene, Texas, USA

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Review of Glenn Rogers, The Role of Worldview in Missions and Multiethnic Ministry

Glenn Rogers. The Role of Worldview in Missions and Multiethnic Ministry. Bedford, TX: Mission and Ministry Resources, 2002. 216 pp. $14.95.

Anthropology has become the science of choice for missionaries as they have come to understand more and more the impact of worldview and culture on their work. In this book, Glenn Rogers seeks to identify the importance of understanding worldview in order to connect more effectively with those to whom we take the gospel. He approaches his task by beginning at the most fundamental level, by defining worldview anthropologically rather than cosmologically, as the term has come to be popularly used. A key element is his discussion of “REALITY” versus “reality” (36-39). He maintains that there are essentially two realities: “God’s true REALITY and our culturally perceived and interpreted reality” (37; italics original). Recognizing that what we see as reality is only part of the absolute reality experienced by God should lead us to “critical realism,” or an understanding that “different people interpret their world (their reality) differently (39). By Rogers’s definition, then, worldview is “the unconscious, deep-level assumptions people have about reality as they perceive it; assumptions about how the world works and how to relate to and interact with all the things, events and people encountered in life” (27). Later he suggests that “another way to think about worldview is as a filter though which portions of the REALITY that we experience will pass” (55). Our worldview, thus conceived, is much smaller than God’s, of course. However, our worldview is still the biggest and most foundational component of our awareness, including everything in our field of experience (e.g., how we eat and sleep, how we perceive time and space, etc.). Thus, Rogers rejects references to a “biblical worldview” or a “Christian worldview,” since those terms suggest a narrower set of concerns than the anthropological definition of worldview demands. He refers instead to a “contextualized Christian orientation” (62-63), which may be a subset of (or a component of) a particular person’s worldview.

Having laid that foundation, Rogers goes on to discuss theories of cross-cultural communication, conflict resolution and counseling, hermeneutics, evangelism, and multiethnic ministry; each time emphasizing the significance of worldview in these areas. In each of these chapters, he first lays a theoretical and historical foundation by defining terms and briefly describing the development of thought in that component of the missiological task. He provides vignettes and short case-studies to illustrate his points and ends each chapter with a brief summary to clarify the essential elements of the discussion. He closes the book with three appendices: “Discovering Worldview,” “The Role and Responsibility of the Receptor in the Communication Process as it Relates to Interpreting the Scriptures,” and “Ministry to People with a Postmodern Orientation in Their Worldview.”

Rogers’s book evidences significant thought and scholarship. The overall organization of the book shows a logical progression from the early chapters on worldview and culture through the application chapters on communication, counseling, ethnohermeneutics, and evangelism. He consistently supports his thesis throughout the book and clearly relates each discussion to worldview. The illustrations from his own work in Nigeria and from the experiences of others help flesh out his theory and stimulate application to real situations. The introductions and conclusions of each chapter are well-written and provide a clear sense of what the author intends to do and what he wants the reader to remember. Even the appendices are helpful, particularly Appendix C, which provides a thumbnail sketch of the development and fundamental tenets of postmodernism, along with a very brief (but quite insightful) snapshot of what ministry to postmoderns might look like.

Criticisms of the book are limited. In terms of content, one might wish for more vignettes or case studies which illustrate concrete positive examples of ministry based on awareness of worldview difference. The principles are there, but more specific ministry applications would make the book even more helpful. Further, there are places where Rogers seems to momentarily abandon his solid theoretical and practical foundation. For example, he claims on page 142 that “God has not provided believers with hermeneutical instructions” (some might question if that is entirely correct), but that “missionaries and multiethnic ministers . . . must rely on the Holy Spirit to teach them, making it clear what God would have them do regarding the customs or practices under consideration” (152). He offers no information on how one can be “clear” about what God wants one to do when the Holy Spirit “enlightens.” Further, the author has spent a significant amount of time in the book focusing on how the missionary or multiethnic minister can determine the best course of action based on research and understanding of another’s worldview, and now it appears that he is saying that when it is time to apply the principles outlined in the book, the Holy Spirit will prescribe a divine solution that trumps human understanding.

On a more technical level, while repetition of the major ideas in the summaries of each chapter are helpful, there is too much repetition throughout the body of the chapters themselves, much of which is unnecessary and some of which actually interrupts the flow of paragraphs. Further, there are a number of typographical and grammatical errors in the text—these do not befit a book which is as well-conceived and researched as this one.

Glenn Rogers has written a helpful work on worldview and ministry. He describes his objective in his introduction as “understanding what worldview is and how to work with people who have worldviews different from our own” (13). He has certainly met this objective. The book provides thoughtful and challenging insight into the complex interaction that is intercultural evangelism. It would be a useful tool in both academic and practical settings to stimulate discussion on ideology and praxis in missions and church planting, both domestic and foreign.

Mark A. Blackwelder

Director of Graduate Studies in Bible

Associate Professor of Bible and Missions

Freed-Hardeman University

Henderson, Tennessee, USA

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Transformation

Daniel’s ministry is founded upon his desire to have a more experiential worship of God, much like Renaissance artist Fra Angelico, who considered the act of painting his primary form of worship. To Daniel, the act of painting is not only a form of worship but also a visual tool for audiences to participate more fully in worship. The act of painting in worship gives Daniel great joy, not only in the act of service but also in the response from the audience. From his perspective as a worshipful artist, the mission of God is to worship in the way that best exemplifies your passion for Christ, his people, and the celebration.

Daniel Weber has been creating art since 1999. Whether privately or in front of a large audience, he induces thought provoking images through storytelling. He incorporates history, culture, politics, religion, and humor into every work of art. Daniel received his Masters of Fine Arts in Painting and Drawing from California State University, Fullerton. See more of Daniel’s ministry at: http://danielalexanderweber.com.

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Review of Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God

Christopher J. H. Wright. The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006. 581 pp. $40.00.

There are many books on mission theology, a large number of which make a strong biblical case for mission. There are several books now that present the Bible as a book of mission. But Christopher Wright’s book stands out among all of these for a couple of reasons. First, and most obvious, he approaches the subject from the vantage point of an Old Testament scholar, focusing primarily on the missio Dei theme that runs throughout the Hebrew Bible. Beginning with God’s call of Abraham to the final pages of Revelation, Wright argues that God’s mission to restore God’s creation underlies every page of Christian Scripture.

Second, Wright is less interested in merely listing well-established passages that seem to speak of God’s desire to reach out to the nations than he is to show that Israel’s purpose as a nation was to be God’s outpost, leading the rest of the nations back to God. Israel was to be both priest and prophet to the world. In short, we need to approach the entire Bible with a missional hermeneutic rather than see “mission” as one of many biblical themes. “Mission,” in fact, is the glue that holds the Testaments together.

The book is well-structured for this purpose, divided into four main sections. Part one looks at “The Bible and Mission.” Wright quotes Charles Taber in claiming that the Bible is itself a product of God’s mission. He helps the reader to view the text from a broader perspective in order to see how the mission extends from God to humanity to Israel to Jesus and then on to the Church.

Part two covers “The God of Mission.” Again, looking at the text through a wide-angle lens, Wright shows how God consistently revealed God’s self to and through God’s people and later through God’s Son. He is especially keen to show how idolatry corrupted the mission and was, therefore, consistently targeted by God’s spokespeople.

Part three has to do with “The People of Mission.” Here Wright goes into a detailed exposition of Abraham’s call in Genesis 12:1-3, with particular attention to the meaning of being a “blessing.” God’s people are to be the instrument through which God will bless all peoples. This theme emerges throughout the Old and New Testaments. He looks at the themes of redemption and restoration using the models of the Exodus and the Jubilee. Both models reveal that God’s mission is multi-dimensional. God is interested in every aspect of God’s creation and every facet of humanity: spiritual, rational, physical, and social. Thus, the modern distinction between a gospel of proclamation and a “social” gospel is both ill-conceived and unbiblical. The ethical behavior of God’s people goes far beyond wooden legalism: it is the means by which they can become distinctively attractive as God’s emissaries to the nations.

Finally, part four deals with “The Arena of Mission.” Of particular note here is Wright’s understanding of how being created in God’s image has missional significance. He concludes with an overview of mission from both an Old Testament and a New Testament viewpoint.

Wright’s book is both masterful and comprehensive. Normally, we find books on mission written from the perspective of theologians or missiologists. The strength of this book lies in the fact that it was written from the standpoint of a biblical scholar. If there is any weakness, it may be in his fairly light treatment of the New Testament texts; but even here I believe it was intentional. The New Testament and God’s mission have long been connected in the minds of missiologists. Old Testament texts have long been used either as isolated examples of God’s interest in mission (e.g., Jonah’s call to preach to Nineveh) or as proof that occasionally God took interest in the nations (Psalm 67, Solomon’s prayer of dedication for the Temple, and others.) Wright goes beyond using the Hebrew Bible for apologetic anecdotes and shows convincingly that “mission” is the central theme of all of Scripture, and that what we find of it in the New Testament is consistent with and founded upon what already was there in the Old.

Michael L. Sweeney

President

Assistant Professor of World Mission and New Testament

Emmanuel School of Religion

Johnson City, Tennessee, USA

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Missio Dei, Trinitarian Theology, and the Quest for a Post-Colonial Missiology

Missio Dei is the name given by theologians to the conception and practice of mission in a post-colonial world. Proposals related to missio Dei have appealed to and coincided with a rebirth in trinitarian theology. The present essay traces this conversation from Barth and Rahner to recent revising directions represented by Moltmann and Pannenberg, proposing that the way forward for understandings of missio Dei are tied to the reality of God constituted by dynamic, reciprocal, and open relations.

I am a self-professed “missional church” guy. I lead a graduate program in missional leadership, and I try to hang out where the missional church gang hangs out. I am in the finishing stages of a PhD in Congregational Mission and Leadership. Craig Van Gelder and Patrick Keifert are my professors. If there was a missional church lunch box and decoder ring, I would own them.

While I am happy with my new academic denomination, it is not without its problems. My computer’s spell-checker does not recognize the word missional. Nor do some of my colleagues who see it either as the latest buzzword, like seeker-sensitive and purpose-driven, or a curious conversation to which only missiologists must attend. Compounding the trouble surrounding this word is its less than disciplined use in the marketplace of churches where it can mean anything and everything. Everyone, it seems, is missional these days. This ubiquity threatens to stretch the word beyond its ability to mean anything substantive.

I am convinced, however, that this conversation is still worth attending despite all of its conceptual difficulties. The issues it addresses—an increasingly pluralistic North American culture, the social location of the church, the nature of the kingdom of God, practices of congregational leadership—are here to stay. Moreover, the resources used to respond to these issues go to the heart of Christian identity. Take, for instance, the statement of the authors of the seminal book Missional Church:

The basic thesis of this book is that the answer to the crisis of the North American church will not be found at the level of method and problem solving. We share the conviction of a growing consensus of Christians in North America that the problem is much more deeply rooted. It has to do with who we are and what we are for. The real issues in the current crisis of the Christian church are spiritual and theological. That is what this study is about.1

The theological medicine prescribed by these writers begins with recognizing that mission belongs not to the church but to God. Missio Dei, or mission of God, is the name given to this theological impulse at the heart of the missional church conversation. This emphasis has in turn situated conversations about mission smack dab in the middle of trinitarian and eschatological concerns—the life of God and God’s ultimate intentions for all of creation. This conversation is not a still stream moving slowly by but a roaring river full of implications for the life of the church.

Missio Dei Matters

Missio Dei is more than an abstract exercise that allows missiologists to pass go and move on to strategic concerns. It is a response to real problems in the practice of mission. Missio Dei, it is hoped, forms a different kind of imagination for mission rooted in particular understandings of God, church, and world. This shift in imagination, in turn, offers a way past imperialist notions of mission for a post-colonial world.2

The significance, then, of defining the church in mission in relation to missio Dei is two-fold. First, it keeps the church from seeing its life as an end in itself. The church does not exist to propagate its own life or a particular cultural expression of Christianity, but to serve the interests of the inbreaking kingdom of God. The church is called always to give its life for the sake of something bigger than itself. Missio Dei, therefore, guards against a triumphalist church possessing an imperialist mission.

Craig Van Gelder makes this distinction nicely. The move to missio Dei “represents a fundamental reframing of God’s primary location in relation to the world. When one starts by focusing on the purpose of the church, the church tends to become the primary location of God, which makes the church itself responsible to carry out activities in the world on behalf of God.”3 Missio Dei, in contrast, makes the Spirit of God the active agent of mission in the world, not just mission to the world. Additionally, mission is more than just an activity of the church. Mission is the church’s identity. The authors of Missional Church describe this identity as a “people sent.”4

Second, missio Dei makes theology, not strategy, the first task of a missional church. More particularly, this theological priority has turned the church’s attention more fully to God as triune. Making the trinitarian nature of God the condition of possibility for the church’s engagement with the world has the potential to bring fresh resources to notions of mission, especially in a Western Christianity trying to shake the lingering effects of Christendom. Missio Dei matters.

Missio Dei and Trinitarian Theology

The term missio Dei has not been around forever. It arose among missiologists in the Twentieth Century. As indicated above, it was offered by some as a corrective to imperialistic forms of mission associated with Christendom. Karl Hartenstein, to whom many attribute introduction of the term missio Dei, played a prominent role in “The Missionary Obligations of the Church” working group at the International Mission Conference at Willingen, Germany (1952). The group produced a theological statement related to mission notable for its trinitarian grounding:

The missionary movement of which we are a part has its source in the Triune God Himself. Out of the depths of His love for us, the Father has sent forth his own beloved Son to reconcile all things to Himself, that we and all men might, through the Spirit, be made one in Him with the Father in that perfect love which is the very nature of God.5

According to David Bosch, after Willingen, “Mission was understood as being derived from the very nature of God. It was thus put in the context of the doctrine of the Trinity, not of ecclesiology or soteriology.”6 Thus, the conversation about missio Dei became a trinitarian conversation.

This is a significant shift given the fact that trinitarian conversations had fallen on hard times among theologians in the wake of the Enlightenment. Catherine LaCugna suggests that this lack of interest is attributable in large part to its separation from the life of the church. Trinity simply didn’t matter to the everyday practice of the faith. And this lack of practical meaning, for LaCugna, owed to the fact that trinitarian theology had increasingly become preoccupied with immanent (God’s inner life) rather than economic (God’s saving work) aspects. Trinitarian thought was too often abstract speculation about a reality distant from everyday experience.7

Karl Barth is often cited as the figure who brought trinitarian perspectives back to the forefront of theological conversation. For Barth, theology rests on the prior action of God in revelation, and what God reveals is God’s self. The starting place, therefore, in Barth’s massive Church Dogmatics is the revelation of God, and that God as triune. Trinity becomes central to his project—prolegomena—not simply a dogmatic topic at the end of a list of other dogmatic topics. From this starting point, Barth reduces the distance between the immanent and economic Trinity since what God reveals is God’s self.8

Barth’s voice was not alone in this respect. As Stanley Grenz suggests, the theologian most often associated with closing the gap between immanent and economic notions is Karl Rahner. Rahner, a Roman Catholic theologian, is known for “Rahner’s rule,” which declares that “the ‘economic’ Trinity is the ‘immanent’ Trinity and the ‘immanent’ Trinity is the ‘economic’ Trinity.” The relations between Father, Son, and Spirit are not stuck in some distant heaven but displayed in God’s saving action on creation’s behalf. While Barth and Rahner display impressive differences, “both sought to recast the doctrine of the Trinity in a manner that could open vistas for theological engagement in a modern world.”9

Early statements related to missio Dei reflected the impressive efforts of Barth and Rahner. The implications of their work for theology and mission were significant.10 For Barth, this gave the “work of God” priority over the work of the church. In turn, the church could no longer confuse its own life with God’s mission, including its cultural and national identities.

The achievement of these trinitarian statements, however, was not complete with regard to mission in a post-colonial world. Notice how Bosch summarizes the trinitarian thought that characterizes Willingen: “The classical doctrine on the missio Dei as God the Father sending the Son, and God the Father and Son sending the Spirit was expanded to include yet another ‘movement’: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit sending the church into the world.”11 What Bosch identifies as “classical doctrine” represents Western trinitarian thought, emphasizing the unity or oneness of God. This might be contrasted with Eastern or Orthodox views that begin not with God’s unity but with the three persons of Father, Son, and Spirit and their inter-relations.

These differences represent an important story related to both theology and mission. The trinitarian formulations represented by Nicea and other early Christian councils emerged in dialogue with Greek philosophy. The burden of these statements about God were related in part to the concerns of classical theism. In other words, before any descriptions of God’s life and work as found in Scripture, attributes related to a philosophical understanding of God needed to be accounted for. From this starting place, God must be undivided, simple, free, and impassable. God must be an absolute subject, all reality deriving from this undivided source—from the one to the many.

In Western theology, this meant starting with God as a unity of substance or being (ousia). However one understood the “threeness” of God, this unity of being was given priority. God was, therefore, expressed in the Johanine language of sending,12 as in Bosch’s summary above. Father sends the Son; Father and Son send the Spirit. All the arrows point in the same direction, the many proceeding from the one.

This understanding of Trinity is not without problems. Beginning with the one divine substance leads almost inevitably, according to Wolfhart Pannenberg, either to modalism or subordinationism.13 In other words, Father, Son, and Spirit are either seen as three modes (not persons) of the one ousia, or Son and Spirit are seen as subordinate to the Father. For Jürgen Moltmann, this philosophical understanding of God leaves theology susceptible to monism, everything proceeding from one source.14 If everything proceeds from one source, then there are only two options—subject or object, with us or against us, good or evil. Mission, in light of this understanding of God, is susceptible for both Pannenberg and Moltmann to imperialist strategies and methods.

Eastern trinitarian thought, in contrast, followed more closely the lead of the Cappadocians,15 who innovated notions of ontology related to God. The achievement of the Cappadocians, according to Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas, was to redefine personhood in relation to community. Persons are only persons in community. Being itself is not related to a persisting single-subject or substance (ousia), but being is a being-in-relation. According to the Cappadocians, it was not a single, shared substance (ousia) that constituted deity, but rather the three persons (hypostasis) in relation. God is, therefore, social and is defined by the communion (perochoresis) of three persons.16

While this marks a substantial shift in the classical understanding of God, the Eastern tradition does not fully escape the pressures of philosophical theism. As Pannenberg points out, Eastern theologians retained a single source concept of God by identifying the person of the Father as the one source of deity. What ties both classical trinitarian traditions together is a God defined by relations-of-origin.17 All the arrows, in relation to creation, still point in one direction.

This history is important related to current discussions of missio Dei. Both classical trinitarian traditions fit well a church identified with empire. The relationship between theology and social structure is complex and cannot be reduced to simple cause and effect formulas. But at the very least, there was a good fit between notions of God defined by relations-of-origin and missions flying under the banner of Christendom. The trinitarian imagination of the church did not provide an obvious critique to notions of mission that were colonial or imperialistic.

The question then related to Barth and the revival of the trinitarian tradition is, Would recovering classical understandings of God generate a new imagination about mission that avoids colonial or imperialistic tendencies? Barth and Rahner moved away from a preoccupation with the immanent Trinity and returned the actions of Father, Son, and Spirit revealed in Scripture to the center of trinitarian discourse. But they accepted other fundamental assumptions of “classic,” Western theology that had sponsored mission under Christendom in the first place. Recovering classic notions of God might not fully overcome the seeds of imagination related to colonialism.

The accomplishment of Willingen failed to sufficiently clarify the relationships between God, world, and church.18 In fact, divisions over the relationship between church and world deepened after Willingen. A “sending” Trinity left two basic options: (1) to see the church on the side of God, over/against the world or (2) to see the God-world relationship as primary, severely limiting the church’s place in God’s missional intent. A “sending” Trinity tends to limit the engagement of church and world to sender-receiver, or subject-object, which ultimately doesn’t deliver a church in mission from an instrumental relationship with world, even if that mission is seen as God’s mission. As I have written with others elsewhere:

The straight-line logic of either God-church-world or God-world-church finds a theological accomplice in straight-line Trinitarian thought, where all the arrows point in the same direction. Trinity conceived exclusively in terms of relations of origin lacks both the capacity to deliver a more dynamic, participatory God-world-church relationship and the imaginative capacity to fund mission in a post-colonial situation.19

While we might applaud the intention of Willingen and subsequent attempts to reposition understandings of mission in trinitarian theology, it is not enough simply to update classic trinitarian understandings that gave warrant for the very kind of mission we hope to avoid.

New Trinitarian Directions

Fortunately, the trickle that began with Barth and Rahner has become a mighty trinitarian stream. From Grenz’s perspective:

Whenever the story of theology in the last hundred years is told, the rediscovery of the doctrine of the Trinity that sprouted and then came to full bloom during the eight decades following the first World War must be given the center stage, and the rebirth of Trinitarian theology must be presented as one of the most far-reaching theological developments of the century.20

While Barth and Rahner remain pivotal figures in this story, Gary Simpson points beyond them to suggest a “revisionary direction proposed in some recent trinitarian thinking that will make an apostolic difference in the life and practice of today’s Christian congregations.”21

For many in the tradition of Western theology, this means paying greater attention to Orthodox trinitarian thought. This move usually begins with an appreciation for the theology of the Cappadocians, emphasizing the priority of the three persons. This is sometimes referred to as social trinitarianism. God doesn’t just have relationships, God is relational. The significance of a social understanding of the Trinity for many is that it provides warrant for a more communitarian ontology. In other words, God exists in community for the sake of community. Community, therefore, takes precedence over the individual. Reality rooted in the life of God is more fundamentally relational than instrumental. This is certainly a move forward.

The question is, how would social trinitarian perspectives impact understandings of mission? Put another way, how would a social Trinity alter our understandings of God, church, and world? Van Gelder illustrates the attempt to take cues from both “sending” and “social” trinitarian thought in defining mission. His approach is to merge the two perspectives. When brought together, “we begin to understand the church, through the redemptive work of Christ, as being created by the Spirit as a social community that is missionary by nature in being called and sent to participate in God’s mission in the world.”22 This certainly adds a social dimension to our understanding of God as a sending God. It does not necessarily, however, change the fundamental relationships between God, church, and world.

The Cappadocians did give priority to three persons (hypostasis) over the single substance (ousia) prioritized in Western theology. But, as we noted above, they were still concerned to preserve the impassability and subjectivity of deity by protecting the monarchy of the Father, a different way of naming a concept of God defined by relations-of-origin. Everything has its origin in the Father. The Father is eternally begetting the Son and spirating the Spirit. The Father is distant from creation, a massive ontological gulf separating them. Like Western theology, all of the arrows still point in one direction. Though Zizioulas updates this tradition in impressive ways, if anything the church recedes more deeply on the side of God in a God-world relationship marked by an impassable ontological gulf.23

It is not enough to augment “sending” with “social.” Notions of God, church, and world must be more fully participatory and mutually implicating to avoid the specter of paternal or imperialistic mission strategies. If all the good stuff is fully decided on the God side of the God-world relationship, and if the church is seen as mediate between God and world, then all that is left the church is a strategic relationship with the world. A more robust, participatory relationship between God, church, and world offers a new range of potential relations. And this begins with a more participatory view of the Trinity.

Moltmann, Pannenberg, and a Participatory Trinity

I find more hope for a post-colonial missiology in the work of theologians whom Grenz groups under the heading “The Trinity as the Fullness of History.”24 I want to focus particularly on the work of Moltmann and Pannenberg in these respects. These important theologians diverge at significant points, but they hold in common three emphases that are promising for understanding missio Dei.

First, by choosing a biblical starting place as opposed to philosophical, they establish the priority of three persons without the encumbrances of an exclusively relations-of-origin viewpoint of God.25 God’s identity is not defined beforehand in relation to speculative attributes or characteristics, but precisely through the activity of Father, Son, and Spirit within history. God is not a persisting subject over against creation as object. God is revealed as a character in the drama of history. For both, the three persons of the Trinity are revealed as differentiated and related through the “history of the Son.”26 As Pannenberg puts it, “The persons simply are what they are in their relations to one another, which both distinguish them from one another and bring them into communion with one another.”27

Second, the relations of Father, Son, and Spirit are seen most clearly in relation to the kingdom of God. For Pannenberg, the drama of the kingdom reveals a much richer set of relations in the Trinity than relations-of-origin:

The Father does not merely beget the Son. He also hands over his Kingdom to him and receives it back from him. The Son is not merely begotten of the Father. He is also obedient to him and therefore glorifies him as the one God. The Spirit is not just breathed. He also fills the Son and glorifies him in his obedience to the Father, thereby glorifying the Father himself. In so doing he leads into all truth (John 16:13) and searches out the deep things of Godhead (1 Cor 2:10-11).28

In similar fashion, Moltmann demonstrates that at various points in the history of the kingdom we find Father, Son, and Spirit in manifold and reciprocal relations to one another. The sequence of relations changes from one kingdom scene to another.

In the sending, delivering up and resurrection of Christ we find this sequence:

Father-Spirit-Son

In the lordship of Christ and the sending of the Spirit the sequence is:

Father-Son-Spirit

But when we are considering the eschatological consummation and glorification, the sequence has to be:

Spirit-Son-Father.29

The activity of the three persons in relation to the kingdom, therefore, reveals a robust interdependence. As Pannenberg describes it, Father, Son, and Spirit represent “a richly structured nexus of relationships.”30 The Trinity cannot be accounted for only in relation to the eternal begetting and spirating of the Father. The relationships of Father, Son, and Spirit are mutual, reciprocal, and diverse. All of the arrows do not point in the same direction, whether from a persisting substance (ousia) or from a monarchial Father.

This view of Trinity is social to be sure. The relations of the three precede any understanding of the unity of God.31 God is social, each person open to the other. But God is also open—open to history, open to creation, open to the stranger. The same kind of dynamic nexus of relationships that characterizes Father, Son, and Spirit applies to creation as well. The world constituted by a triune God is a participatory drama with multiple characters. As Father, Son, and Spirit, God is not only acting on the world, sending to the world, but God is also for the world, with the world, and through the world. God is no longer a series of one-way sendings in a straight line but a participatory God making room for the other with movement in all directions.

Moltmann is particularly compelling at this point. In contrast to Barth, who defines God’s freedom in relation to self-sufficiency (God did not have to create the world), Moltmann defines God’s freedom as the capacity to be true to God’s self. And in this case that means being true to God’s being as love. Creation is not incidental to God, but at the very heart of what it means for God to be triune. Creation is not merely an outward act of God external to God’s identity, but an act of making room precisely within the loving relations of Father, Son, and Spirit. God’s love demands an Other. “In his creative love God is united with creation, which is his Other, giving it space, time and liberty in his own infinite life.”32 Creation is more than simply the target at the end of all the divine arrows. Creation is constitutive of God’s identity as love. The world participates in the life of God as more than just an object to God as single-acting-subject.

This trinitarian theology of participation33 bears significant implications for notions of identity. God’s identity is established within history in relation to creation, not decided by a list of attributes that establishes God’s identity apart from history. God is righteous and full of steadfast love, not simple and undivided. In the same way, the church’s identity is an identity in time and space, not an essence constituting a pure church apart from the actual life of the church. The church’s identity, especially as a church in mission, is defined in relation to the world. The church does not know its identity apart from loving God and neighbor. In a trinitarian theology of participation, the church not only takes God to the world, but discovers God there in dynamic participation. The relationship between church and world is more than simply strategic—it is inescapably and always relational and theological.

Trinity and Mission

Simpson held out the promise that revising directions in trinitarian theology would make an “apostolic difference” in the life of the church. Is this indeed the case? And if it is the case, what is the difference? Wouldn’t it just be easier to say, “Stop being imperialistic!”? Is it really necessary to think this closely about the nature of the Trinity? Is this really practical?

Admittedly, the relationship between theological innovation and changes in practice is dynamic and cannot be reduced to a cause and effect relationship. However, it is also the case that a shift of the magnitude represented by a post-colonial missiology only comes with a deep shift in imagination. Such a shift requires a revision, not just an updating, of theological sources.

More to the point, the Trinity is not simply a theory that then dictates a certain set of practices. The Trinity is an actual social reality in which we participate. Theology, in this sense, is a practice, a particular way of engaging God’s world. God’s life as triune is something in which we participate and through our participation come to saving knowledge with and through others. This kind of understanding of theology would call into question theories of mission that reduce theology to some prior theory that eventually gives way to strategy—the real payoff of missiology. Instead, missiology is participation in the life and purposes of God, which are immediately implicated by the world. In other words, theology isn’t determined first and subsequently applied to the world. Theology is participating with God in the actual conditions of the world. Because of God’s participatory life, the world is a partner in theological discernment, not simply theology’s destination.

This understanding of theology is a major shift and requires extended attention. Martin Heidegger points out that the very same philosophical project that gave us classical theism is also deeply embedded in the thought structures and languages of Western civilization. Our language can hardly express anything other than a world defined by subjects and objects.34 An understanding of God as participatory will have to travel in relation to a different grammar. Christians learn their grammar in worship.

A missional church, therefore, must make conscious efforts to practice its faith with trinitarian understandings in view. This sounds obvious, but in many congregations, especially those of the free-church tradition, this is hardly evident. This attentiveness to language, however, must go beyond merely mentioning Father, Son, and Spirit (though that would be an improvement for some); it must enact a sense of participation with and for the world. This enactment will lead in many directions. One shift, however, that might pay immediate dividends is to limit our language of “to the world” and increase our usage of phrases like “with the world” or “for the world.”

This kind of language is appropriate given our discussion of identity above. A missional church does not know its identity completely apart from its actual setting in time and space. It is not uncommon these days to see congregational “mission statements” written on bulletin mastheads or hanging from banners in our church buildings. Too often, these statements are written apart from any knowledge or input from the congregation’s immediate context. In a sending view of God and mission, this is unnecessary. Because God’s identity is determined beforehand in relation to persisting qualities, all the “good stuff” is taken to the world, not discovered in participation with the world. Because the church is imagined on the side of God in this series of arrows, the church does not need its neighbor to determine its identity in the world. All that is left in terms of the relationship between God and world is strategy.

In contrast, a missional congregation does not merely take God to the world, but participates in the life of the world expecting to find God more deeply. The nature and shape of mission is not already decided but must be discerned in relation to God’s participation in the world. The resources of the gospel are needed for this work of discernment. Clearly, not everything that appears in the world is an appearance of God’s redemptive concern for creation. Still, the church does not have the market cornered on God’s activity in the world. The church participates in the world to discern its life in mission precisely through giving its life away.

I work with several congregations in processes designed to lead them into missional innovation.35 It is rare to find a congregation that does not have an instrumental notion of the world around them. Strangers are prospects, bits of demographic data, to be turned into a plan of “outreach.” Beyond the barest demographic detail, most congregations have little idea who their neighbors actually are. There are massive untested assumptions about the lives and concerns of those around them. Not surprisingly, their neighbors seldom know anything about them either.

Some missional congregations are learning to see their neighbors as co-informants related to God’s missional intentions for the world. These congregations are becoming more adept at asking new questions. Instead of asking only the question, “How can we get these people to belong to us?” missional congregations learn also to ask, “How in the name of the Triune God do we belong to these people?”

Here the church mimics the life of God. The church’s life is a making room for the other. It is a life of hospitality. This life of hospitality is more than inviting others to church and treating them well. Because the church expects that the Spirit of God is already working in the world toward the final consummation of the kingdom of God, the church learns to expect God’s hospitality on someone else’s terms. As my colleague John Ogren has written:

Our view of participation suggests that the church is always the guest of God, missional churches will be ready to move outside the role of host and the comfort zone of home turf. Following the example of Jesus, missional congregations will be willing to assume the vulnerability of the role of guest, so that the world may share more fully the hospitality of God.36

Practices of discernment with the world coupled with notions of hospitality rooted in the life of God are properly pneumatological. That is, they require a cultivation of the gifts and fruit of the Spirit to discern the leading of the Spirit in God’s mission. The fruit of the Spirit does not lead to self-sufficient agents who acquire their identity in relation to autonomy. Rather, the fruit of the Spirit requires both vulnerability and response, a being-in-relation.

These themes of mission rooted in participation in the life of the Triune God can be extended indefinitely, the proper subject of further reflections on Trinity and Mission. These few insights are offered to demonstrate that a theology of participation renders the world as more than the object of the church’s paternal concern. Understanding the world as constitutive of the church’s own participation in the life of God is a necessary move in overcoming the legacy of imperialistic mission. Missio Dei, to the extent that it moves beyond classical notions of the Triune God rooted in philosophical notions, serves as a vital impulse in the renewal of both theological and missional practice.

Dr. Mark Love is Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Mark served congregations in Texas and Oregon full-time for 17 years before finding his place in the academy. In addition to teaching courses in evangelism, missional ecclesiology, and congregational transformation, Mark works extensively with congregations pursuing missional innovation. He can be contacted at mlove@rc.edu.

Bibliography

Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics. Edited by Thomas F. Torrance. Translated by Geoffrey William Bromiley. 2nd ed. 5 vols. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1975.

Bosch, David J. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. American Society of Missiology Series 16. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991.

Guder, Darrell L., ed. The Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.

Goodall, Norman, ed. Missions Under the Cross. New York: Friendship Press, 1953.

Grenz, Stanley J. Rediscovering the Triune God: The Trinity in Contemporary Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by Joan Stambaugh. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1996.

Hagley, Scott, Jannie Swart, John Ogren, and Mark Love. “Toward a Missional Theology of Participation: Ecumenical Reflections on Contributions to Trinity, Mission, and Church.” Missiology: An International Review 37, no. 1 (2009): 75-87.

Keifert, Patrick. We are Here Now: A New Missional Era, a Missional Journey of Spiritual Discovery. Eagle, ID: Allelon, 2006.

LaCugna, Catherine. God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life. New York: Harper Collins, 1993.

Moltmann, Jürgen. The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981.

Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Systematic Theology. Vol 1. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991.

Simpson, Gary. “No Trinity, No Mission: The Apostolic Difference of Revisioning the Trinity.” Word and World 18 (1998): 264-71.

Van Gelder, Craig. The Ministry of the Missional Church: A Community Led by the Spirit. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007.

Zizioulas, John D. Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985.

________. Communion and Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church. London: T. & T. Clark, 2006.

1 Darrell L. Guder, ed., The Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 3.

2 By “imperialist notions of mission” I have in mind practices of mission wed to Christendom that failed to distinguish the interests of the gospel from the concerns of the empire. Taking Christ to the world was indistinguishable from taking them Western culture. As a result, local cultural practices and perspectives were largely seen as inferior, needing to be replaced with more civilized practice. In its worst forms, locals were converted through coercion, colonized, and exploited for Western gain.

3 Craig Van Gelder, The Ministry of the Missional Church: A Community Led by the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 18-19.

4 Guder, The Missional Church. This stands in contrast to seeing the church as “a place where things happen.” I will suggest later in the paper that the image of sending, while biblical and appropriate, has its limits.

5 Norman Goodall, ed., Missions under the Cross (New York: Friendship Press, 1953), 189.

6 David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, American Society of Missiology Series 16 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991), 390. My professor, Craig Van Gelder, suggests in his classes that the missional church conversation in North America might well be shifting from ecclesiology to theology.

7 Catherine LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (New York: Harper Collins, 1973). I appreciate LaCugna’s narrative and agree with most of it. However, I would suggest that Trinity was practical, perfectly suited for Christendom. Its practicality may not have appeared prominent in the imagination of most Christians, but it formed the basic framework of the faith in very powerful ways.

8 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, ed. Thomas F. Torrance, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, 2nd ed., 5 vols. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1975).

9 Stanley J. Grenz, Rediscovering the Triune God: The Trinity in Contemporary Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 56-57.

10 The theological implications move beyond what Barth and Rahner themselves envisioned. At the very least, their work moved speculation about the immanent life of God away from some prior philosophical set of principles and toward the actual history of the Trinity found in the biblical witness. This in turn allowed salvation to be seen in social terms, as a participation in the very life of God.

11 Bosch, Transforming Mission, 390.

12 I certainly am not denying the importance of sending language in Scripture related to defining the relations of Father, Son, and Spirit. I would simply say that this language is not the only way Scripture defines those relations, and that the language of sending must be understood in light of other biblical pictures of God.

13 Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 298.

14 Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981), 62-63.

15 The Cappadocian fathers are Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzus, leading theologians of the Fourth Century. Their contributions in trinitarian thought are significant and are represented in the final version of the Nicene creed.

16 See John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985), 88.

17 Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, 259-99.

18 See Scott Hagley, Jannie Swart, John Ogren, and Mark Love, “Toward a Missional Theology of Participation: Ecumenical Reflections on Contributions to Trinity, Mission, and Church,” Missiology: An International Review 37, no. 1 (2009).

19 Ibid., 77.

20 Grenz, Rediscovering the Triune God, 1.

21 Gary Simpson, “No Trinity, No Mission: The Apostolic Difference of Revisioning the Trinity,” Word and World 18 (1998): 265.

22 Van Gelder, The Ministry of the Missional Church, 88. Notice here that the church is constituted by the Spirit, and, therefore, on the God side of the God-world relationship.

23 John D. Zizioulas, Communion and Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church (London: T. & T. Clark, 2006). The identification of God and church is almost complete. Personhood is only a category for the baptized safely within the ark of the church. Zizioulas’s eschatology is, in my opinion, over realized. There is no emphasis on the coming kingdom of God.

24 Grenz, Rediscovering the Triune God, 72-116. Grenz places Jürgen Moltmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and Robert Jenson in this category.

25 Moltmann insists, “If the biblical testimony is chosen as the point of departure, then we shall have to start from the three Persons of the history of Christ. If philosophical logic is made the starting point, then the enquirer proceeds from the One God.” Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 149.

26 Ibid.

27 Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, 305.

28 Ibid., 320.

29 Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 94.

30 Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, 289.

31 Both Moltmann and Pannenberg suggest that the unity of God will not be fully known or revealed until the final act of the kingdom, the consummation or glorification of God in the eschaton.

32 Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 114. Moltmann accepts the label of panentheism at this point. Creation is not divine (pantheism), but finds its life within the divine life.

33 Hagley, et al., “Missional Theology of Participation.”

34 Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1996).

35 I work with Church Innovations in a three year process, Partnership for Missional Church. For a detailed explanation of PMC, see Patrick Keifert, We are Here Now: A New Missional Era, a Missional Journey of Spiritual Discovery (Eagle, ID: Allelon, 2006).

36 Hagley, et al., “Missional Theology of Participation,” 87.

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Reactions to Van Rheenen, Love, and Missio Dei from the Bronx

What’s it all about? The missionary enterprise faces significant challenges. Religious consumerism, established traditions, and personal temptations for self-fulfillment are difficult to overcome. However, the church is called to participate in God’s mission and to recognize that the mission is indeed God’s. Christian workers begin the missionary task by asking certain questions. Reflecting on the nature of God and imitation of that nature, practitioners of mission learn to listen to God’s leading while interpreting the culture. As a result, missional methodologies are shaped first by theological dialogue.

What’s It All About?

My first involvement with a brand new church planting project was in 1993 in an impoverished section of Memphis, TN. Since that time, I’ve had various degrees of interaction with church planting of various shapes and sizes. In 2001 I began the roller-coaster ride of a lifetime as a new church planter in New York City. Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to enter the dialogue on the missionary enterprise, especially in Western contexts. I’ve been grateful to be part of the conversation, but during this time some of the dialogue on church planting has raised concerns for me. I have found myself in workshops and forums where planting new churches was emphasized as a solution for institutional survival. Maintaining the life of the tradition was foundational to the conversations. As various Christian traditions face either potential or real decline in a changing culture, planting new churches is a viable solution. This makes perfect sense. Growth counters decline. However, the mission of the church does not really belong to the church but rather belongs to God. Any emphasis that is overwhelmingly placed on the survival or advancement of a singular denomination, organization, or particular tradition misses the central concern for these types of activities. Church planting, personal evangelism, and social justice initiatives are kingdom activities that represent participation in the missio Dei.

Staying on Mission

During the summer of 2008, I was in the car riding through the Bronx with one of our college interns. We were on our way to a Bible study, and as we rode together, I was explaining some of the challenges of working with the high turnover that takes place in ministry in the city. People are regularly seeking ways to relocate out of the Bronx. Individuals’ job schedules change. Families are under stress. There are numerous competing messages, and, sadly, some simply fall away. I ran through some of these challenges, and as we were getting out of the car, the student became the teacher as he commented, “You have to have a kingdom perspective here, or you’ll go crazy.” In one sentence he prophetically uttered both a theological mandate and a key to my mental sanity as a missiologist in the city. The crucial task for an evangelist in any context is God’s mission. All communities, institutions, or careers are subservient to that one true reality.

The mission of God is a central concern for God’s people, especially if the church is indeed to be a missional community. Debates may abound over what the priorities of the church should be. Evangelism? Community? Social justice? Worship? The answer is likely, “Yes to all.” Despite obvious attempts to do so, these functions cannot be easily divided and prioritized. They are each interwoven into the tapestry of the missio Dei as God’s kingdom breaks into human history. The central aspect of each of these activities is God’s missional agenda. Mission is ultimately the pursuit of connecting the created with their Creator and restoring the glory of God in the hearts of people. Mission is not a program of the church but the DNA of God’s call to participation with him. Every activity of the church bears witness to God’s redemptive purpose. It requires proclamation of the good news of God’s kingdom. Humans are called into an alternative story that points to the reality of their Creator and his sovereignty. Individuals and communities are transformed into representatives of God’s reign. These communities possess a shared purpose for experiencing and representing the reign of God in their midst. Mission shines a light on dark places in our world, and it leads to worship as it brings the glory of God into hearts that do not yet glorify him. Mission is a central concern for the church because the aim of God’s mission is the expansion of his redemptive reign in every crack and crevice of human societies. The kingdom of God is here and now, and yet the kingdom of God is also not fully realized. Until God’s reign is made complete, bearing witness is a key act of worship. God’s people continually call fellow human beings who do not yet worship nor submit to God to recognize God on his throne and to submit to him as the Sovereign Lord.

Just as Gailyn Van Rheenen emphasizes, being sent is at the heart of mission.1 God redeems humanity through incarnational encounter. “The Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14 NRSV). The Father sent Jesus into human culture bound by time and space. He modeled mission for a group of his followers and sent them out empowered and led by the Holy Spirit. This narrative forms us as we are sent by the Holy Spirit into a world full of both the brokenness of sin and the beauty of God’s creative genius. To participate in the missio Dei is to play a role in the movement of God’s redemptive action in every corner of human society. It is God’s mission, and it only belongs to the church to the extent that the church is participating in the mission of God. This may be particularly challenging to career ministers. It seems to be human nature to seek our self-worth in our work and in our personal accomplishments. There is an innate desire to build, and the temptation to erect our own Babels under the auspices of Christian mission is often present. However, the transformation of Peter, James, and John’s misplaced zeal into an obedient witness plays itself out again in every generation. Today, God is on the move in every corner of our world.

Embracing the mission of God in an age of globalization opens up the missional conversation to the wider body of contributions. Many cell church leaders and church growth gurus have looked to South Korea to draw lessons from the quintessential megachurch. Those desiring church planting movements look to Cambodia, China, or India, and many European churches are experiencing revitalization as they receive refugees of the African diaspora. North Americans look across the Atlantic as they learn to navigate post-Christendom contexts from a new generation of churches in Europe. As the West encounters increasing pluralism in the shadow of politicized culture wars, Christians in the East who have lived side by side with Muslims or Hindus for centuries may provide some lessons for peaceful coexistence and witness. No one nation or culture holds a monopoly as the master of missional enterprise, and these examples are only meant to highlight that fact. In a global society, a collective intelligence may emerge as a new humanity transcending borders collaborates together as participants in the mission of God.

The Continuing Conversation

Conversations around the missional church are not without precedent. This present conversation joins a wider global discourse. For example, several years before discussions on the missional church emerged in the United States, the Latin American Theological Fraternity and theologians such as René Padilla emphasized integral mission. Integral mission raises the holistic and universal nature of mission. Padilla states that “all churches send and all churches receive” in order to address the dichotomy between what have traditionally been sending and receiving nations.2 Western nations, particularly the United States, possess the status of “home” while the majority world is a “mission field.” Such a dichotomy has largely undermined the church’s role as a missionary agent within Western society while simultaneously nursing an ongoing dependency among receiving nations. Padilla correctly argues against this dichotomy and for greater holism. He writes: “The whole world is a mission field, and every human need is an opportunity for missionary service.”3 Padilla further contends that “every Christian is called to follow Jesus Christ and to be committed to God’s mission in the world . . . . The Christian life in all its dimensions, on both the individual and community levels, is the primary witness to the universal lordship of Jesus Christ and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.”4 Latin American theologians, such as René Padilla, have argued for some time for a church that is holistic and missional by nature.

Current conversations revolving around the missional church do not need to begin from scratch. Such theological voices from Latin America reflect several years of calling upon the church as a universal missional community. When our understanding of mission shifts from the church’s mission to the mission of God, we are empowered to surrender our sense of possession of the mission and see ourselves as part of a larger play on the global stage. The mission of God incorporates a rich and diverse tapestry of voices from all nations around the globe, each challenged to answer the same universal call.

Finding Our Way

I applaud holistic views of mission. Nevertheless, I also insist that making disciples through planting Christian faith communities should be the key practice of the missionary enterprise because communities of faith in Jesus Christ are the primary agents for accomplishing the tasks that reflect the kingdom gospel. Admittedly, my point is negated if the church is characterized by consumerism and entrenched in programmatic maintenance. However, if the church is faithful as a community shaped by a biblical framework for mission, it is a force for transformation and eternal hope.

I find it fascinating when I am asked whether my ministry, as an organic church planter in an urban context, involves social justice. It is difficult to answer without some nuance, because if I respond by considering what I suspect to be the prevailing cultural assumptions, I suppose I have very little to report. Oftentimes we think of social justice as a programmatic response that clearly addresses a recognized physical need in society. However, as a missiologist, I’m compelled to respond with my real answer. “Yes,” church planting in urban settings is also a work of justice because we are making new disciples of Jesus and developing Christian community. When shaped by the gospel, these individuals and communities represent the agency of the kingdom of God bringing transformational power to human culture. Such communities care holistically for both body and soul. By generating a gospel-shaped community in an urban society, we are bringing a truly holistic force to the city. The church has a biblical mandate to be deeply concerned about justice—and about eternal salvation.

For whatever reason, as a youth I was formed by Matthew 25 just as much as I was shaped by Matthew 28, and now as a church planter I recognize that the primary agent for societal transformation (i.e., social justice) and personal salvation (i.e., evangelism) is vibrant communities of faith in Jesus Christ. When we promote a reductionist gospel, it often becomes either divorced from social justice on the one hand or from evangelistic proclamation on the other. The mission of God, however, is driven by the gospel of the kingdom, and the gospel of the kingdom invades every sphere of human existence—body and soul. Communities representing the gospel are ambassadors of God’s reconciling power in the world.

Paul the apostle understood the importance of the Christian community as an agent of the missio Dei. As he traveled all over the Mediterranean region, he established beach heads of God’s kingdom. As a result of the church being present in a city, all sorts of initiatives are born out of that community sharing the concerns of the kingdom of God. At the heart of missional activity is the gospel that confronts, transforms, and saves.

Our faith community in the Bronx has hosted marriage seminars that have indeed helped people, but such events do not compare to seeing marriages transformed through participation in small relational communities gathered in the presence of Christ. We’ve partnered with food and clothing programs that have done much good in our struggling city neighborhoods, but the gospel is shared in unspeakable ways when a small house church responds by spontaneously emptying their pockets for a struggling family. The people of God form a community that brings healing where there is brokenness, a prophetic voice where there is corruption, proclamation of salvation where souls are lost, and community where there is isolation. Establishing and multiplying communities like these is an imperative of the church today. The missional church represents the participation of God’s people in the missio Dei. However, this brings me back to my opening thoughts. Are we planting churches that are primarily driven by preserving a brand or uplifting religious careers, or are we captivated by the mission of God? This is an important question, and asking these sorts of questions clearly leads us to evaluate what we have been up to so far. Stuart Murray writes:

Simply planting churches of the kind we already have is not the answer. Churches have been leaking hundreds of members each week for many years. Planting more of these kinds of churches is not a mission strategy worth pursuing. But planting new kinds of churches may be a key to effective mission and a catalyst for the renewal of existing churches.5

Dodging Consumerism

An important corrective for the church is to recognize that planting churches that are consumer-driven is not actually participation in God’s mission. In contrast, such a practice may only promote self-centeredness. Creating an exchange of religious goods and services does little to realize the kingdom of God in our midst. Church planters are faced with a significant decision to focus on making and equipping disciples of Jesus to become agents of the missio Dei rather than becoming overwhelmed with programmatic maintenance or enslaved to the demands of religious consumers. This requires strategic decisions that emerge from theological reflection, the cultural context, and careful attention to the leadership of the Holy Spirit. God is seeking to redeem and transform, and the Christian community is his primary agent for the task. Ultimately, the people of God must cross boundaries to restore God’s glory in human hearts. As participants in the missio Dei, our drive is to make disciples of Jesus Christ and to see these disciples form communities that reflect the good news of the kingdom of God. God’s people are to manifest God’s kingdom in the world. Only then does the church find itself swept up in God’s drama of redemption. Building our own kingdoms will always fall short of the realization of the missio Dei. To participate in the mission of God is to realize his kingdom come. For the community of faith to live into this call, we pause and ask, “What is shaping our communities?”

Mark Love’s statement that “missio Dei makes theology, not strategy, the first task of a missional church” is an important declaration.6 We don’t begin with our marketing messages or our inherent desire to carry on meaningful traditions. As Alan Hirsch points out, missional workers must begin with christology, which then determines their missiology, and missiology determines their ecclesiology in a given context.7 Following this sequence really changes everything. We cannot begin the missionary task with our previous assumptions about the shape of the church or our own preferences for religious ritual. Rather, mission flows from the person of God through his people into a lost world.

Anthropological research and church strategies will continue to have prominence as we seek to contextualize the gospel and help the church to behave incarnationally in specific settings. Exegeting culture is an important facet of our participation in mission. However, participation in the missio Dei begins with our understanding of God, how we relate to him, and his vision for the world. All missional activity grows out of that relationship. As Love discusses in his article, church planting is—or perhaps should be—under the influence of a trinitarian worldview. Therefore, our particular relationship to the Trinity matters.

Reflecting the Nature of God

If our trinitarian view is of God as a social Being, that view is likely reflected in the manner in which we participate in mission. A relational view of the Trinity may lead to relational approaches to evangelism as opposed to methods that feel cold or detached. As we reflect a God who, by his nature, is community, a church may place a significant emphasis on relational approaches to ministry. A relational view of the Triune God then naturally flows toward the anthropological work of forming our particular missiology in a specific context. As we relate to God who is community, we then ask, “How do”–or perhaps, “How would”–“people in this cultural setting express love, forgiveness, witness, and similar acts of grace?” Before we can imagine the church in our setting, we must be awake to God’s nature as well as grasp the social dynamics of the culture around us.

I’m increasingly convinced that we are formed by our experiences far more than we realize. A year ago, I was interviewing a seeker participating in our church network. I asked two separate questions. One was about her experiences with this church community and the other was about her evolving faith in God. Later, as I went over the content of the interview, I realized that there was a common thread connecting her experience with the Christian community and how she was learning to relate to God. She explained that she was growing through the one-on-one interactions that took place in a small relational church setting. Then, when asked about her emerging faith in God, she continued to discuss how she was learning to relate to God in a one-on-one manner. She described her experience as personal and less “sterile” than previous religious encounters. Her description of her evolving relationship with God paralleled her experience in this type of faith community. There appeared to be a strong connection between her community experience and how she was beginning to relate to God. While Scripture was beginning to transform her worldview, her theology was being formed at least as much by her particular experience with God’s people. If the popular saying “the medium is the message” is true, our methods do matter. However, we need to make sure we are asking the right questions. Rather than asking, “How do I grow this church?” we instead contemplate, “What will facilitate people having a relationship with God and joining his mission?”

Similarly, David Watson points out in a Shapevine.com interview that the spiritual DNA during conversion influences the ongoing issues facing Christian discipleship. He explains that when someone comes to faith because they were hit with a confrontational message and had an inspirational experience in the context of an event, they will learn quickly to depend on these sorts of experiences in order to maintain their faithfulness because they constantly seek to remain inspired. However, Watson argues that discipling relationships are likely to result in a much more proactive faith experience leading to participation in mission.8 For missional workers, this raises the question, “How does our approach to mission reflect the nature of God?”

I see the move toward a relational understanding of the Triune God as a positive step. Rooting our missional orientation in the missio Dei, we focus our practices upon imitation of God. If we begin by seeing God as a relational Being, we are likely to see missional activity begin to emerge from a theological worldview that is inherently relational as well. Mission arises out of our own journey with the Holy Spirit. In the Book of Acts, it is clearly the Holy Spirit that is leading the charge of God’s mission into the world. In many cases, the first-century church is trying to keep up and catch on to what the Holy Spirit is doing. The point here is simple and yet quite challenging. God is passionate about his mission to the world, but we can only grasp our part in his mission as we keep in step with his Spirit. Impersonal approaches to mission may accomplish significant growth of a particular institution, but if God is relational, it is difficult to affirm that these approaches reflect the genuine character of the missio Dei.

My colleague in New York City, Hugo Monroy, often points out that the nature of God concerns the personal rather than the impersonal. Too often, our practices of mission are impersonal, but incarnation insists on a deeply relational understanding of God. Time and space encounter eternity in the expression of the incarnation. If we take theology seriously as the beginning point and if we begin with a foundational understanding that God is relational in his very nature, we will likely adopt strategies that are also, in their essence, relational. Whatever ecclesiological model is chosen, as missional strategies emerge we reflect upon how a particular expression or activity reflects the nature of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in relationship to our world.

This is precisely why discussions about church models are merely secondary, if not tertiary. These discussions are not without merit or necessity, but they must take their proper place. Van Rheenen tells the story of a church planter named Jim. Jim asks the question, “How can we meet the needs of the people of this community and make this church grow?” The church does grow, but, as Van Rheenen explains, largely becomes a vendor of religious goods and services rather than a living expression of the kingdom of God. In the end, Jim privately contemplates, “What have I created?”9 This is an example of beginning with the wrong questions. I’ve heard similar stories repeatedly told in private conversations all over North America. Beginning with theological questions concerning the kingdom of God and moving into mission as a participant in God’s redemptive narrative would likely lead to a different set of considerations at the start of a church. Church models and strategies are important, but they must be an outcome of the theological and cultural questions explored by the missionary practitioner.

When the rubber meets the road, missional workers have to make choices. We have to decide what our priorities are. We have to decide how we’re going to deal with the forces that come to bear upon us. We were promised that participation in God’s mission would bring with it trouble, but not every challenge faced by missional workers is from the world. When a missionary crosses borders into another nation, he takes significant time to learn the language, become immersed in the host culture, and bond with the local people. When a church planter comes to New York City to evangelize unreached people, however, he often finds himself feeling under pressure to produce quickly in order to keep his funding. As a result, he quickly gathers existing Christians into a new group, establishes a brand, and launches a public worship service while the original intention to reach unreached peoples in the city fades into the background. In the current religious climate, missional workers make sacrifices and missional communities are forced to address systemic cultural shifts in order to place participation in the missio Dei at the center of their communal life and operations.

Conclusion

As the church participates in the missio Dei, the formation of missional practice does not begin with tradition—as rich as a tradition might actually be—nor is the beginning point for a church’s missional life to develop effective recruitment strategies. Rather, mission begins with the very nature of God, his incarnation in Jesus Christ, and his ongoing activity through the Holy Spirit. The driving questions for the missionary enterprise focus on reflections on God’s nature, and a key task is to discover God’s present movement in the surrounding culture and find our place in his unfolding narrative of redemption. As the church aligns its own nature with the nature of God, the church itself is transformed and the world encounters a community with unveiled faces that reflect the glory of the living God.

Dr. Jared Looney serves as a missional catalyst in New York City where he planted an organic church network. Jared lives in the Bronx with his wife, Hylma, and daughter, Adalia, and he is passionate about seeing God’s mission advance in the hands of ordinary believers. He holds a doctor of missiology from Fuller Theological Seminary. To connect with Jared, e-mail him at jared@bronxfellowship.org.

Bibliography

Hirsch, Alan. The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006.

Love, Mark. “Missio Dei, Trinitarian Theology, and the Quest for a Post-Colonial Missiology.” Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 1 (August 2010): 53-70.

Murray, Stuart. Church Planting: Laying Foundations. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001.

Padilla, René. “What is Integral Mission?” Del Camino Network. http://lareddelcamino.net/en/images/Articles/what%20is%20integral%20mission%20cr%20padilla.pdf. Accessed on March 15, 2010.

Van Rheenen, Gailyn. “From Theology to Practice: Participating in the Missio Dei.” Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 1 (August 2010): 30-51.

Watson, David. “Church Planting Today.” Interview by L. Ford. Video Exclusives.
http://www.shapevine.com/index2.php.

1 See Gailyn Van Rheenen’s article in the present issue, 33-37.

2René Padilla, “What is Integral Mission?” Del Camino Network,

http://lareddelcamino.net/en/images/Articles/what%20is%20integral%20mission%20cr%20padilla.pdf.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Stuart Murray, Church Planting: Laying Foundations (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001), 25.

6 See Mark Love’s article in the current issue, 55.

7 Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), 142-43.

8 David Watson, “Church Planting Today,” interview by L. Ford, Video Exclusives, http://www.shapevine.com/index2.php; browse the thumbnails to select the video.

9 Van Rheenen, 31.

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Reactions to Van Rheenen, Love, and Missio Dei from the Bush

Reflecting from a Folk Muslim context in sub-Saharan Africa, and in response to articles written by Mark Love and Gailyn Van Rheenen, the author questions the value of trinitarian language, traditional definitions of syncretism, and Western hermeneutical assumptions in narrative theologies. A post-colonial theology of missio Dei could help us move beyond modern, power-structured forms of mission and cultivate open congregations gathered around work and life together, not homogeneous belief or culture.

Recently, a young man in my congregation woke up in the middle of the night only to see his wife walking out of their two bedroom mud house. He followed her out into the night air calling her name. No response. He took hold of her arm and she lurched away from him screaming. “Where are you going?” he asked. The deranged wife responded in gibberish. He only caught that she wanted to go out into the bush, alone. Only with the help of his neighbors was the husband able to force her physically back into the house, where she collapsed.

The following morning, I came to visit after hearing of the event from my neighbor. I found the husband attending to a quiet but at present calm woman with a vacant gaze. There was tangible worry and fear in the room. After all, this had all the signs of witchcraft, and the antagonist could have been a neighbor. We discussed what happened and the husband said he had found medicine. He showed me an old wine bottle that was full of water. At the bottom of the bottle, shreds of soaked paper slowly dissolved in the water. Of course, this was not just ordinary paper. On the paper were inscribed Arabic words of power. For a people who have merged and mingled the worlds of Animism and Islam, such a concoction is surely as effective as a glass of scotch after a hard day on Wall Street. By having her drink words of divine power, they planned to rid his wife of the curse within her mind. I also learned in the conversation that the wife’s family had a dream. In the dream, the one who was sending the curses had managed to enter the house, but if they moved the wife to her mother’s house, then the curse would not find her. That afternoon, they moved the wife to her mother’s. A week later, I found them both happy and sane. The curse had been lifted.

I vaguely remember studying David Bosch’s paradigms in undergraduate school.1 I recall preaching about God’s mission, looking to join God’s mission, and enjoying the mildly post-modern explorations of Stanley Grenz’s trinitarian communitarianism during my graduate studies.2 I must confess, however, to being post-missional and post-trinitarian. I suppose there is nothing new in such a statement. After all, the Western philosophical world seems to be in a competition over who can be more “post” than the other. But I am not a passionless pew-pusher. Neither am I a secular sociologist bitter about my past. I am what many would call a missionary in sub-Saharan Africa, though I might be inclined to call myself a post-missionary. I say all of this not to trump theory with experience, but to offer a perspective forged in reaction to my neighbor. In the following essay, I would like to reflect on the missio Dei from the place where I sit. I live and work among a Folk Muslim people who hoe a dying ground for subsistence and who are working to navigate the encroaching, unstoppable force of globalization. Organized around the theme of missio Dei, I will intersect my context with my reading of Love and Van Rheenen’s articles along the following sub-divisions: (1) colonialism and missio Dei, (2) narrative theology of missio Dei, (3) human syncretism and missio Dei, (4) trinitarian theology and missio Dei, and (5) missional church and missio Dei.

Colonialism and Missio Dei

Missio Dei in its plebeian sense is a concern of all human beings on the planet, regardless of religion. What is going on here? What is the point of my life? Is there divine intent on earth? A majority of religious revelations are an attempt to answer such questions and thereby explain God’s plan. From this perspective, “What is God’s mission” is a universal question that we have been asking for thousands of years. But in a more narrowly defined, theologically evangelical orientation, missio Dei is an interpretive strategy forged from a systematic reading of the diverse biblical writings. Consequently, it is (to use George Lindbeck’s words3) a second-order description of sacred texts. I would suggest that since missio Dei is a reflection from the Bible, we can find cultural aspects embedded within this theological construction. As a dominant Western key in missiology, missio Dei has a structural dualism that is expressed through word pairs such as: God/world, church/world, call/send, saved/unsaved, here/there, and so forth.

The dualistic nature of missio Dei cultivates colonialism. If the lost are always “out there,” then we will always set up the church and her members as imperialistic managers of God’s kingdom. I have had the gospel preached to me by an Imam. I was convicted, and my life was changed. I was deathly ill of cerebral malaria, and an Imam prayed for my recovery. I will return to how we can speak of the characters in missio Dei. But for now, let me at least argue that the dualistic tendency of us/them, church/world, and sent/receiver is unhealthy and born out of ignorance of many biblical stories. I am reminded of the conversation Jesus had with the Syro-phoenician woman in Mark 7. Jesus learned about the nature of the kingdom of God from this woman. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mark 7:28).4 When we read a parable, or quote the narrative, the Spirit of God swells into dialogue instead of monologue. It is the encounter, the event, that opens up a space for the kingdom to grow within all participants. In this sense, we are not sent but simply asked to be open to the event of God’s kingdom when it pierces our reality. I am again reminded of Jesus’ beautiful simplification of religion: love God/love your neighbor (Matt 22:36-40). Living with mission is simply loving your neighbor and allowing love to open a space for all participants to witness to the kingdom among us. Believing in missio Dei is more about reception. I am not sent to my stricken friend and his wife in the name of God. Rather, my love calls me to their doorstep. Our common life opens the possibility of the kingdom to germinate again in that place. I have nothing to give to my friend in a religiously cognitive, doctrinarian sense. Rather, our relationship creates the space for all of us to receive from the Great Physician. This is God’s mission, not mine. I need it just as much as my neighbor.

One final thought that disrupts this colonial, linear sender/receiver dualism is the sense of being a witness. We often think of witnessing to people as a kind of mini-sermon. We formulate an info-packet that combines certain doctrinal concepts with our lived experience in order to draw others into similar beliefs and hopefully similar experiences. I am not against sharing our lives with each other—this is essential to healthy community life. But if it becomes the way in which we allow individuals to enter our community it becomes imperialistic. I have learned from my experience here in sub-Saharan Africa that witnessing to the kingdom of God is a kind of typological, public interpretive act, an event that again transforms all participants. I have seen the story of the Good Samaritan acted out in front of me among Muslims. The experience was again a kind of event that interrupted my life and brought me to my knees. As a witness, I am obliged to tell my fellow friends that this moment is like that moment long ago. What we just saw, what you just did, is like what Jesus taught us. The performance of God’s kingdom surprises us. My job is not to leave it in the dark but to identify what just happened as holy. God just walked by! The kingdom is at hand!

Narrative Theology of Missio Dei

I appreciate Gailyn Van Rheenen’s emphasis on narrative theology as it pertains to missio Dei.5 But it is not sufficiently committed. God’s mission is often put into the “narrative” of creation, fall (under which the entire history of Israel is usually subsumed), incarnation, the age of the church, and Christ’s second coming. Yet contrary to popular opinion, the narrative of sacred Scripture, though written with an already existing interpretation, is open and pliable. The narrative of the Bible is diverse enough to allow multiple interpretations and arrangements. Furthermore, organizations like New Tribes Mission (referenced in Van Rheenen’s article) construct highly stylized, doctrinally laden forms of telling the story. These forms of storytelling are cloaked in Western doctrine and theology. Many of these narratives or missiological programs constrict the biblical text into a predetermined doctrinal outcome. These systematic, metanarrative constructions give answer to God’s intentions in a kind of true/false structure. Jesus’ own way of communicating God’s kingdom was unsystematic, ad hoc, and open to confusion and dialogue. If we are committed to the biblical narrative, why can we not tell the story and nurture the work of interpretation within our neighbor? Why do we also have to domesticate it for them?

I have been in sub-Saharan Africa long enough to know that people read stories differently. We notice different aspects. In general, literate readers are much more prone to abstraction, while oral peoples are more likely to interpret typologically, looking for the immediate connection in their own reality. There are also diverse ways of using a sacred text—from submerging it in water for medicine, to dissecting its parts and tracing etymologies, to arguing with the veracity of the text. The particular systematic way of talking about missio Dei is already hermeneutically sealed. Instead of assuming we know what God’s mission is all about, I would prefer a more ad hoc approach to the matter. When we “open” a sacred text in my context, it is often performed or merely spoken into the air for all to hear. After the reading, the meaning of the words becomes the responsibility of the community. Such an open-ended conversation is an attempt to place the job of imaginative interpretation in the hands of the hearers. Let me add that these hearers may be Christianized, Muslim, or Animist. The only pre-hermeneutical decision offered is the reader’s choice of the passage and its relationship to the day and work in front of the community. This opens up the door for debate about proper interpretation strategies and epistemology, but I believe we must be honest with the implications of post-colonial missional activities. I propose that we read specific stories with our neighbors and discover together—in this place, at this time—what God is doing or not doing.

Human Syncretism and Missio Dei

Syncretism has been used to legitimate Western colonial power and discourage non-Western or indigenous hermeneutics of sacred texts. I do not share Van Rheenen’s concern about syncretism as a blending of popular culture and biblical truth due to my divergent perspective on syncretism.6 Our old definitions of syncretism often connoted a static view of culture. We were worried about foreign “worldviews” entering and polluting the Christian worldview. But I believe human beings are constantly shaping their beliefs and actions in response to experience. Culture and even our beliefs are in flux and in dynamic relationship to the world around us. If my wife gets sick, will I go soak a bit of the Gospel of Mark and have her drink it? No, I will probably look up something on the Internet or call a trusted Western physician. But that does not mean I am ready to call Arabic tea syncretistic and attempt to show the falseness of such behavior and the beliefs imbedded therein. My friend is attempting to navigate his way through a difficult situation based on tools within his cultural toolbox. What matters to him is not so much that Arabic tea works but the existential moment. The event has pierced his reality, and he looks for a way to respond. Fundamentally, this experience and his response will be another layer in his identity. We are all syncretistic because syncretism is about the formation of identity in lived experience. Syncretism is not about wrong answers. As a friend, as a fellow seeker of God, my interest is to help him maneuver through this experience, grow, and be healed. In this light, culture is the ecosystem by which we survive the world. Sacred texts offer tools to live within those environments. But the environment will cause the tools to be used differently. There are many people in the world who need to be given space as they integrate sacred narratives into their lives. Imagine the personal struggle to integrate foreign, biblical stories of God into a Muslim-dominated culture, complicated by animistic concerns for managing ancestors and impersonal powers! The hermeneutical process to internalize new narratives or reshape public practice by new biblical challenges is not a linear process that we can somehow predict, control, and moralize. Consequently, I’m not so worried about Arabic tea. Rather, I’m concerned about how fear can be managed, God can be identified within the context, and healing can occur.

Trinitarian Theology and Missio Dei

Allow me to reflect upon the trinitarian theology that is emerging out of missional theology. I would like to offer four reasons for why I am post-trinitarian and why this theological dogma is not helpful in missiology.

First, trinitarian theology is a second-order description of the essential biblical narrative. Like all theologies, it is not sacred but human reflection on the story. Consequently, I am not against trinitarian formulations as if they were statements of error but merely recognize that these statements are contextual. Trinitarian formulations are hypotheses based on readings of the biblical narrative. As already noted in Mark Love’s article, trinitarian theology has been a kind of religious, Western philosophical exposition over themes such as unity and personhood.7 Despite the beautiful and appealing philosophical work many have done, trinitarian theology is often dumbed down by missionaries into a kind of lesson we give to people about “who God is.” In other words, we are still fixated on the inner life of God (immanent trinitarianism). Instead of exploring who God is based upon what we see God doing (economic trinitarianism), we end up falling into a kind of theological abstraction. Again, I am okay with local theologies, even if they are abstract. But because trinitarian theology is so culturally laden, it is inappropriate to use as a key to how we interact with the world.

Second, I am going to have to play the Muslim card again. Trinitarian discussions with Muslims just are not helpful. The single, dogmatic Muslim appeal “God is one!” is not interested in such philosophical abstractions. My neighbor does not need to agree on the Trinity for him to be part of the kingdom. Even if we want to say that the Trinity is embedded in the narrative of the Bible, we still have to admit that it is an abstraction from the narrative. There is no Trinity. There is simply a character in the divine drama called Jesus who speaks to the Father in the garden. Living among an oral people, this level of abstraction is extremely foreign and not useful for spiritual development. No matter how nuanced the poetics of trinitarianism have become, reality simplifies the issue into two camps: those who believe in three gods and those who believe in one. I used to carry the sleek trinitarian card myself, but I have been called to let go of it. Trinitarianism might open wonderful doors of dialogue with Hindus, but it is not helpful where I live. My beliefs are local. I can understand its attractive qualities, but the reality I engage finds it false.

Third, trinitarian theology hides a dangerous concern for nailing down Jesus’ ontology. I am a follower of Jesus. I try to be. But I am called to follow Jesus, not explain how God’s mystery works. The only reason we have the Trinity is because we need to find a spot for Jesus. The Council of Nicea was a violent leveling of the conversation. But even the conversation had devolved into explaining God instead of following God. Why can we not allow the various terms for Jesus to fill our vocabularies in the local contexts where we live and work? Speaking of Jesus as prophet and Messiah are very helpful words in my context. I’m not reducing Jesus by using them. I’m sticking to the narrative. On a philosophical level, there are traces of modernity’s obsession with ontology within trinitarianism. God—God’s naked being exposed for the world to ogle—is not to be explained. God is to be engaged. God exposes us. We can speak of God like we speak of the effects of wind, but we cannot dissect the wind, or God.

Fourth, trinitarian theology limits the narrative’s characters and therefore the Scriptures as well. As mentioned in Mark Love’s article, new theologies of the Trinity have worked to dislodge the linear movement of the three characters. I applaud these works but find two problems.

One, the interdependence revealed within the Godhead is not consistently applied. By shuffling the order (Father-Son-Spirit; Spirit-Son-Father; Father-Spirit-Son), Moltmann shows a beautiful interdependence within God.8 But the language of “interdependence” is not applied to God’s dealing with the world. If God’s inner life is built upon a kind of cooperation, then God’s invitation to the world should also fit within this assumption of interdependence. From this model, God is not only making room for the other (i.e., the world) but is also dependent upon the world. This might go too far into process theology for some, but on a purely theoretical level, I find it helpful in my life in sub-Saharan Africa. God was dependent upon Moses to respond to the burning bush. Moses could have walked away from the event. God needs us to interpret God’s self into the world around us. A trinitarian God centered on interdependence is dependent upon the world for further self-disclosure, in the same way the world is dependent upon God for further redemption. This might be the deconstructive element within missio Dei, but I find it helpful. Yes, this is God’s mission, but let us not forget God’s presence is always an act of interpretation. To some extent, we must take responsibility for our actions and hermeneutical projects. The crucifixion, in this light, is a reminder of the dangerous ability we have to kill God. If we do not take responsibility to become part of God’s life, then God’s life will suffer and be miscommunicated or forgotten.

Two, threeness limits the characters in the divine drama. The historical way of explaining God’s trinitarian nature leaves out the primordial. In the beginning, God hovered over already existing waters. There is an element disturbingly missing in trinitarian theology. It is all God and humans. In the end, I would think it simpler to talk about a kind of interdependent dualism of God and world. But let me at least suggest that creation is a left-out character. We work with people who are suffering because the creation is suffering. We are not being stewards of creation—we leave the earth out of the trinitarian dance. But the groans of creation are also our groans. The people suffer because the land suffers. There is no divine drama without the stage. This is not about making sure we give a nod to the environmentalists because it is politically correct. Where I live, the land kills and gives life. There must be an integration of God’s life into the life of the soil.

Finally, the reason many churches objectify the “world” into demographic points is not because of a paternal trinitarian theology. The problem is soteriological. We have objectified the planet into the saved and the lost. Therefore, the move from linear to interdependent should be driven more by soteriology. Put differently, our trinitarian views will change when we change our soteriology, because Christians spend more time dividing their world up according to questions about eternity, salvation, and damnation than the structure of God’s life. Consequently, it is more pressing to talk about what we mean by salvation, heaven, and hell than to reformulate the structure of the Trinity. I can only listen and belong to my Imam friend if I first change my soteriology.

Missional Church and Missio Dei

A common application of current missiology, including specific interpretations of missio Dei, has centered on the concept of missional churches. A healthy movement of theologically aligning the identity of the church with God’s mission, missional church theology has integrated community, congregational theology, and missio Dei. This movement also providing a critique of modern church practice. However, the movement has been cultivated in a context where church culture is assumed and is even in the majority. This sociological context has shaped the theology in ways not useful for a missiology in other contexts. I live in an area where the Western form of church is absent. The majority of the people are Folk Muslim. I have learned to live without the division of church and world. Consequently, I do not deal with trying to help churches shift from objectifying the world to living with the world, as American missional churches do. My friend, mentioned at the beginning, is part of my congregation because he and I live in the same village. Our lives are intertwined and we are in community despite our differences. For this reason, I must argue that we do not learn the language of God in worship. If we believe that God is in essence relational—if God is love—then we learn about God not by speaking God-speak in homogeneous gatherings cut off from the world but in diverse conversation out in the field. I have come back to the States on furlough after being away for three years and have been literally unable to understand what my fellow brother is saying because his religious language has become so hermetical. I have learned to talk about God, argue about God, and listen to God literally out in the field. In the context of work or play, I have been part of discussions about who God is, the existence of Satan, and predeterminism. These concepts and characters only matter out in the world. We learn to talk about God only in the world, not in church. This has huge implications for religious practice in the West and missiological theory.

Final Thoughts

The recent theological turn of missiology is healthy. In the past, we were driven by strategy. But I still believe the strategy was shaped and driven by deeper theological values. All the evangelistic strategies of the door-knocking era were still empowered by a certain soteriology. Consequently, I do favor more explicitly and publicly naming the theology that drives missiology. However, I am afraid that if we are not careful, an overly theological missiology will domesticate a very useful, marginal discipline. Missiology has been an aid for us to hear from anthropology, ecology, community development, and even history. These are the strangers of the academic theological world that we should continue to offer hospitality. The interdisciplinary nature of missiology has kept us on our toes. I suggest we not isolate missiology and therefore ourselves by allowing theology to overshadow and silence the voices from the outside. This is God’s mission and God often chooses those in the margins to carry the message. Missiology helps keep our ears tuned to be able to hear everyone from an ancient Semitic donkey to a secular anthropologist.

Kyle Holton lives with his family in northern Mozambique. He is married to Ginger Holton and has three children: Asher, Eli, and Eden. They have lived among the Yao of the region since 2004. Along with their colleagues, they have helped establish a non-profit organization called Malo Ga Kujilana, which means “place of reconciliation.” The organization is composed of local families who manage a sustainable, natural resource center and work to seed the kingdom of God among their neighbors in the community. Find out more at: http://kujilana.org.

Bibliography

Bosch, David. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. American Society of Missiology Series 16. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991.

Grenz, Stanley J. Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000).

Lindbeck, George A. The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1984).

Love, Mark. “Missio Dei, Trinitarian Theology, and the Quest for a Post-Colonial Missiology,” Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 1 (August 2010): 53-70.

Van Rheenen, Gailyn. “From Theology to Practice: Participating in the Missio Dei,” Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 1 (August 2010): 30-51.

1 David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, American Society of Missiology Series 16 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991), 390.

2 Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000).

3 George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1984).

4 The NRSV is used in all biblical quotations.

5 See Gailyn Van Rheenen’s article in the present issue, 33-37.

6 Van Rheenen, 31.

7 See Mark Love’s article in the present issue, 57-9.

8 Love, 63-64.

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Following God’s Tune into the Australian Rock Scene

“New Day”

by Sunset Riot

To me, the missio Dei is the core expression, the heartfelt desire, of the message that a loving Father is trying to get across to his beloved children. To do so he chose a specific time, a specific place, and a specific way to communicate his love. The time, place, and circumstance—from the manger to the cross and open tomb—are vastly different from my own routine. As I walk from my morning train to the office I am surrounded by crowds of people, all going somewhere or late for something. As I buy my groceries I am surrounded by throngs of people all on budgets and schedules and with a million things occupying their already crowded minds. As I go about my countless daily activities, surrounded by many different people, most of whom I will never even speak to, I am reminded that one thing has not changed from his day to mine: his people are still walking upon his earth, further from him than he would like, further than he ever intended. The Father still longs for his children; still, after all this time, like a mother waiting for her grown child to come visit after a long absence or two lovers being reunited after a stint apart. His heart yearns to spend time with us.

To put the mission of the Almighty effectively into practice in my daily life I need to break down the walls of my “routine,” see past the cultural differences of those who worship him in a different way, and learn to look through the eyes of a Father who doesn’t see crowds but rather individuals, who isn’t blinded by budgets and lists and “to-do’s” but instead sees hearts—hearts longing for completion and love and acceptance.

The missio Dei happens in its purest form, in my opinion, where his created beings live within the sphere of influence in which he has created them. I live and work within an industry that seeks freedom and glorifies the rebel attitude. My participation in God’s mission among this culture happens when I rebel against the mindset that says I must adhere to and glorify the “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” lifestyle. True freedom is not being bound to carnal lust but instead choosing to follow the Father’s guidance in all areas, which includes natural desires.

Del is a vocalist for Sunset Riot, a rock band in Sydney, Australia. His aim is to use music to weave the message of God’s love into an industry that is often filled with darkness, greed, and debauchery. His band, Sunset Riot, while made up of believing members, plays in pubs, clubs, and bars as well as youth groups and schools. It is his firm belief that the missio Dei belongs amongst the people at a very grassroots level: change begins with belief. See Sunset Riot’s webpage at http://sunsetriot.com.au and meet them (in a social networking sort of way) at http://facebook.com/sunsetriot.