In the introduction of Jennings’ The Christian Imagination, he recounts the story of two neighbourhood missionaries visiting his God-loving-Jesus-following black mother on an evangelistic mission. In classic hit-them-hard evangelism they entered the yard on a mission, with various possible interpretations of this word fitting for the sentence, and, believing that they were on God’s mission, were entirely focused. So focused were they, that they never stopped to find out whether this women had any connection to the church, not to mention that she was the heart and soul of a local Baptist congregation. At one point his mother interrupted them to share the good news that she indeed was a God-loving-Jesus-following kind of person, but this only temporarily had them loose sight of their mission, before they continued with their pre-recited speech…

It has become customary to create caricatures of these kind of scenes, an exercise which I have participated in in the past. For the moment however, I want to move past this scene. By sharing some version of this scene, and then rejecting it, we might be falsely cleansing our names from being carriers of the white middle-class messiah into a world where messiah of the poor has long been awaiting us. I believe that the danger of middle class Christians carrying a rich messiah into a world, without noticing their own need for salvation has not ended.

Many would call this the “age of mission”. We quote writers who talks about the “missio Dei”, and we even find ourselves in this weird almost middle-ages kind of place where churches are starting to use this Latin phrase in church communication. This is the age in which we are rediscovering the so-called long-lost ideal pre-Constantinian church on a God’s mission. Now, don’t get me wrong, this might be one of the most important developments in the history of the church, although far better descriptions should be given than the previous sentence, but there is a very real danger when the white middle-class church re-position ourselves as the center of this rediscovery.

Note: when I use mission in the next paragraph or two I thinking primarily of mission as development, as Bosch described it. Although Bosch himself rejected this idea, my observation is that this remain dominant in much of what is being called mission within the white middle-class South African church. The coming paragraphs is only relevant as far as this approach remain dominant. The question of whether this is indeed dominant rests on a lived theology, rather than what gets written. The test is not whether you can quote the emerging paradigm of mission, but whether what you are doing has broken with the notion of mission as development.

The problem arise when the very thing which we claim to be the element assisting the white middle-class church in breaking with white middle-class Christianity with colonial Christianity, is that which is keeping it in place. Mission become a kind of fetish keeping the privileged white position in place. In stead of radically challenging the systems which keep the poor poor, the church attempt to contribute by working within this very system and making it “better”. Our mission does not serve to end the oppression of poverty, but rather serve as a vehicle to allow white middle-class Christians not to face the fact that our own privilege is inherently tied in with the oppressed position of others.

In short: I do mission in order to continue my existence in an unjust world. I do mission so that I do not need to face the fact that who I am is tied in with the oppression of others.

Now I come to the “danger” part. The moment we go on “the missio Dei” (see this classic picture from a number of years ago), our mission gets elevated above critique. Similar to the neighbourhood evangelists, we cannot hear when we are told that our very mission is keeping injustice in place, rather than working towards the dismantling of unjust systems. Mission might make us immune to the fact that the most important task of the white middle-class church is listening to how we are embedded within a system of injustice, is our own conversion.

Note: I do not for a moment deny that their is something even worse that mission as development: namely the very injustice which I claim this form of mission might be hiding. Neither do I deny that even worse forms of mission (mission as exclusively the salvation of souls, or mission as charity) exist, and function in the same way as described above, with even less contribution to the very real lives of people. I do however worry about a rising notion of mission which promise a salvation for the world which frowns upon radical transformation of systems which are responsible for injustice, and which are embedded within a theological framework which seems elevated above critique.


on the primacy of mission:

October 20, 2008

Why is mission so central at this stage? Should it be? Is it possible that as missiologists we should “dethrone” mission from its current position of privilege in theological talk? Why the missional church? Why the missio Dei? And why am I even asking these questions?

I didn’t follow much why back with the Christology, Ecclesiology, Missiology argument raging on. But from what I gather many today seem to say something in the line of “Christology forms our Missiology forms our Ecclesiology”, right? But how do we come to this?

It was Andries van Aarde’s Fatherless in Galilee that pointed me in the direction of the idea of a “Christology from the side”. Where a “high Christology” tend to work out our Christology from the faith-language (read “dogma”, “theology” etc.) of the Bible and church and a low Christology tend to construct Christology from the historical reconstructions on the life of Jesus, a Christology from the side focus on how the contemporaries of Jesus would have seen Jesus (I’ve typed this from memory after reading the book almost a year ago, so I hope I got it somewhat right).

The relation Christology-Missiology-Ecclesiology seem to come from a high view of theology, I think. Where some worked out idea on Christology (whether high or low) should give rise to our understanding of mission (which if you read the work of David Bosch, is quite difficult to do without an idea about who is doing this mission, but I’ll leave that part for now), understood very broadly, which should then form our thinking on church. Looking from the side, tracing the narrative of the Jesus-movement and early church, I have some doubts whether we will come to the same conclusion:

From the side we see the this guy Jesus, a sort-off Rabbi who calls those who didn’t make the usual Rabbi cut to follow him. This group was formed by the words and actions of Jesus, the way in which Jesus interacted with the culture within which he found himself. The events surrounding Easter round-about 27AD or so happened, and we then find this already formed community of Jesus-followers remaining in community. If we follow the Acts-narrative, it is within this community that the implications of being a community living in the way of Jesus is then worked out. Acts 6 – If we are community, how do we care for those of other ethnic backgrounds? Acts 13 – How do we create similar communities in other places? And later in Acts the implication of being in this community in a time of famine is also worked out.

From the side I see a not-so-average-Rabbi calling not-so-average-disciples, teaching them his anything-but-average-ways. These not-so-average-disciples continue the community, not because the community should perform some strategic function within the strategic plan which the Rabbi (didn’t?) lay out for the world, but because this community continues to seek for the ways of this Rabbi, which was recognized as Jesus the Lord.

Looking from the side, I doubt whether we see an early Christian community getting together because this is seen as the implication of the message of Jesus. I doubt whether a number of scared disciples get together after the crucifixion because the preaching on the kingdom of God had as implication that communities should be formed. Rather, a shared experience surrounding Jesus bring these people together, and the words and actions of Jesus in relation to his culture force them to consider their own words and actions.

If our task is to write a systematic treatise on theology we might end up with mission being primary, forming a centerpiece of the puzzle. If we tell the story of how it came to be, then, looking from the side, mission could be almost missing, the centre pieces rather being occupied by Jesus and the community who gathered around him and because of him. Rather, what we consider as mission today then seems to ooze out everywhere.

Well, OK, late-night ramblings after some heavy theological discussions earlier… but such is the nature of a blog

Probably the worst title for a post that I’ve ever chosen. It’s from David Bosch’s magnus opumTransforming Mission. This is the largest synchroblog I’ve ever taken part in. The topic: missional. There is some fine names on the list of people who will contribute today, you can find them at the bottom. I believe you will find some good definitions on the term, so I’ll leave that to others. The question I would rather like to ask is: “Why the missional church?”.

The missio Deihas become an ever more popular topic over the past years. Also in emerging circles, which interest me very much, it’s very popular. Sometimes I find that Bosch seem to be credited for this concept. I’m not exactly sure why. Alan Hirsch called it Bosch’s greatest gift to us, and Nelus Nimandt in a recent article said that emerging churches has learned greatly from Bosch’s thoughts on the missio Dei. I might not be the Bosch expert, so maybe I’m missing something, but as far as I can see Bosch is simply giving an overview of how the concept has developed since 1932 onwards. At a few points one do however find some comments…

First, let me give an overview of the missio Dei.The classical view of the missio Dei says that God is a sending God. God the Father sends the Son, and God the Father and the Son sends the Holy Spirit. This become important for mission when to this is added another “movement”: Father, Son and Holy Spirit sends the church into the world. The church then change form being on a mission, to being an instrument in God’s mission. And from this our title: The missio Dei institutes the missiones ecclesiae. The sending God is the motivation for the missionary activities of the church. To use the words of the synchroblog: The missional church is not the church that send other on a mission, but it is the church that was sent by God.

We could have stopped the post here, but some questions remain, and Bosch doesn’t stop his exposition here. The missio Deithen developed to embrace both church and world. The world become the focus of God’s mission and the church is privileged to participate. A radicalized version of this started suggesting that the missio Dei actually excluded the church.

Well, Bosch so make some comments. And these help us to understand his own views. Apparently Bosch also thought that maybe the missio Deihas lost it’s usefulness because it has become so wide that it can be used by people who subscribe to mutually exclusive theological positions. But still he found the value of this in that it helps us to remember that neither church nor human is the author of mission. In his own words: “God is a fountain of sending love. This is the deepest source of mission.

In our denomination I have heard people talking about participation in God’s mission a lot lately. This is a phrase which Bosch used in his writing about the missio Dei. However, it has found a strange pragmatized meaning which I’m a bit uncomfortable with, and also which I don’t find in Bosch (I’m open for correction on this one, but I’m pretty sure). When talking about participating with God where God is working in the world, people are then told that we should go and search where God is already at work in our community, and participate. There might be some good intentions, and also theological truth in recognizing that God is working wider than the church, but it leave us with some questions:

  • Is God then not working at some places?
  • How would we know when we have found God where God is working?
  • Isn’t it possible that God might be working exactly when we start doing something?

This pragmatic understanding of the mission Dei seem to remind me of what Bosch wrote about a radicalized understanding, where the missio Dei exclude the church’s involvement, where we should be very glad if ever we are allowed to participate.

OK, I haven’t done so much metaphysical speculation in a very long time, Trinity, the character of God… not at all my style. So let me make some final remarks… but first, a last quote from Bosch:

“During the past half century of so there has been a subtle but nevertheless decisive shift towards understanding mission as God‘s mission. During preceding centuries mission was understood in a variety of ways. Sometimes it was interpreted primarily in soteriological terms: as saving individuals from eternal damnation. Or it was understood in cultural terms: as introducing people from the East and South to the blessings and privileges of the Christian West. Often it was perceived in ecclesiastical categories: as the expansion of the church (or of a specific denomination). Sometimes is was defined salvation historically: as the process by which the world – evolutionary or by means of a cataclysmic event – would be transformed into the kingdom of God”

The missio Dei remind us of why we talk about missional.

And now Bosch is quite and Cobus is talking. Although answering the why question obviously influence the whatpart, the missio Dei do not provide the blueprint of what I should do tomorrow. I get highly uncomfortable when some claim to be part of God’s mission in contrast to others. I get highly uncomfortable when what we say imply that we might forget about some people who suffer, because we haven’t found God working there yet.

Themissio Dei institutes the missiones ecclesiae. This is why we are missional. Here we are, we cannot with a clear conscience do anything else…

I’ll be walking with lions, literally, the next few days. So feel free to comment, but I’m not sure whether I’ll be having signal, so might only join in again after Thursday. If you’ve read through all this… thank you!

Other synchrobloggers on the missional topic today:

Alan Hirsch
Alan Knox
Andrew Jones
Arnau van Wyngaard
Barb Peters
Bill Kinnon
Brad Brisco
Brad Grinnen
Brad Sargent
Brother Maynard
Bryan Riley
Chad Brooks
Chris Wignall
Cobus Van Wyngaard
Dave DeVries
David Best
David Fitch
David Wierzbicki
Doug Jones
Duncan McFadzean
Erika Haub
Jamie Arpin-Ricci
Jeff McQuilkin
John Smulo
Jonathan Brink
JR Rozko
Kathy Escobar
Len Hjalmarson
Makeesha Fisher
Malcolm Lanham
Mark Berry
Mark Petersen
Mark Priddy
Michael Crane
Michael Stewart
Nick Loyd
Patrick Oden
Peggy Brown
Phil Wyman
Richard Pool
Rick Meigs
Rob Robinson
Ron Cole
Scott Marshall
Sonja Andrews
Stephen Shields
Steve Hayes
Tim Thompson
Thom Turner