The Four Elements of Missional Theology

If you had to pick the top three, four, or five ideas in “missional theology” which would you choose? I know some would choose justice, and others — those who think “missional” means “evangelism” — salvation or justification, while yet others would choose church-state relations or even participation in society.

Do you think anything central is missing? We’re reading three books about the church at once — Keller, Hill and this book – what do you think Keller would rate as his top three or four? Hill?

It was with interest that I read R. Helland and L. Hjalmarson’s Missional Spirituality‘s chp on “Theological Foundations.” What are they?

1. Trinity. Here they are drawing on the deep trinitarian tradition of perichoresis — or the mutual indwelling — though they don’t focus on the Easterns but on the theology of community in the Trinity. That community explodes into creation (this was taught by Jonathan Edwards) and so the result is a relational creation designed to connect to the connecting God. Thus: “Mission is the ministry of the Son for the Father through the Holy Spirit for the sake of the world” (56).

2. Incarnation. Big idea, of course, is that God embodied himself in Jesus as his revelation. God contextualizes Jesus in Jewish form. Missional spirituality means contextualizing — in other words — it means incarnation. “Incarnation” is a big term, and it is common to use it this way, but I do think it requires some special nuancing to make “incarnation” a good term for missional spirituality. It is far more than “contextualizing.” We’re dealing here with ontology, and with lots of dimensions of “incarnation” that only the Son did/does.

3. Priesthood of all believers. This is the focus of their proposal. All believers are priests and spiritual. They see it as removing a “hierarchical dualism” (64) between clergy and laity and means a “missional adventure for entire congregations.” They see the priesthood of all believers in terms of mission. They appeal esp to 1 Peter 2:4-5, 9-12.

4. Jesus Creed (yes, they use my expression), or Shema Spirituality (from Alan Hirsch). They focus on Mark 12:28-32, that Jesus taught us to love both God and others, and it all comes “from” the heart — an overflow from inside out.

Their conclusion is what I proposed, in fact, in Jesus Creed. A “missional spirituality is an attentive and active engagement of embodied love for God and neighbor expressed from the inside out” (72). For too many “spirituality” is defined as intimacy with God or communion with God or mystical transport, but Jesus would have defined spirituality in terms of loving God and loving others. You can’t be right with God if you are wrong with your neighbor.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Paul W

    First off, I don’t get what the heck people are talking about when using the term missional. Nonetheless, if “Mission is the ministry of the Son for the Father through the Holy Spirit for the sake of the world” then it would seem that it would be useful to flesh out at least two other ideas: Gospel and Miracle.

    Gospel: because it so heavily influenced the content of the message of his mission.
    Miracle: because it so heavily influenced the activities of his mission.

  • Greg D

    Missional should be a part of every theology for we are called to be missional (i.e. Great Commission).

    But, what I believe are central points to being missional (and perhaps I am misunderstanding the term) is the focus on MOBILIZATION and DISCIPLESHIP.

    1) Throughout the Gospel accounts, Jesus commissioned His disciples to GO into other towns, villages, and cities. He even told them to take purses, sandals, bag, and swords implying they will need these things for their journey (Luke 22:35-38). And, in the Great Commission He commissions us to go into other counties, provinces, states, nations, and even unto the ends of the earth. The message is clear… we must not live within the comforts of our homes and country, but be willing to obey if called to go outside of our personal and national boundaries.

    2) In the Great Commission the focus is not found on converts or establishing churches. The focus is on making disciples. In order to do this we must evangelize, but even more importantly we must be willing to disciple others. This is a lengthy process, arguably a lifetime process. And, we must be willing to stay, and die if necessary, amongst the very people to which we serve and minister to. It’s one thing to stand at the street corner with Bible in hand and preach the word of God, hoping for converts. It’s another to sell everything, pack up your bags, and move across the globe to spend your life amongst an unreached people group.

    These are what I humbly submit are key to missional theology.

  • http://timmhallman.blogspot.com Tim Hallman

    I like those four elements. Trinitarian is probably the weakest of the elements. Body of Christ theology may communicate the connectedness idea better.

  • scotmcknight

    This word “missional” is frustrating because so many are colonizing the term for their own agenda. The word is almost never used if all one means is “evangelism,” so in GregD’s comment above in this thread we see a typical misunderstanding — and I see it all over the place. Missional is not identical to evangelism; it is not the new cool word for evangelism. I proposed these four elements for defining missional some time this summer in my review of Don Everts new book where I thought he was using missional for evangelism. Here are the four elements:

    1. It’s about God’s mission in this world.
    2. It’s about God’s mission in this world in Christ.
    3. It’s about God’s mission in this world in Christ in view of the Age to Come/Kingdom of God.
    4. God summons humans to participate in God’s mission by becoming oriented to God’s mission, to others, and to the world — in the context of the (local) church.

    Evangelism is one element in “participating in God’s mission” but because the missio Dei, the mission of God, reframes what God is doing — not just saving people (which is very important and sometimes ignored by the missional folks!) — evangelism gets placed in a larger context.

  • scotmcknight

    Further, I see this post’s elements to be an explanation of the active part of understanding missional. It is theological (Trinitarian), christological (incarnation), it involves all of us (ecclesiology) and it is shaped by love (discipleship’s formative aim).

  • Rick

    Good post, although I am still uncomfortable with #2. The fact that we have to nuance the terms, so as to not undermine the real Incarnation, makes me think that another term is needed.

  • http://plantingjesus.blogspot.com Burly

    Furthermore, Scot, I’d add that missional doesn’t minimize evangelism. When one is missional, as you have defined it, it *should* lead to a more robust evangelism – and evangelism that calls people into God’s grand mission. I don’t think you are minimizing it. I just wanted to make that explicit.

    I once read a tweet that asked, “Why do we call it missional? Can’t we just call it Biblical?” I still think the uncolonized term missional can be of help to us in reclaiming what truly is Biblical.

  • Greg D

    I digress. Thanks for clarifying, Scot. This term “missional” in the context of theology is new to me. This is why I intend to read some books by some of the leaders in this “movement” (i.e. Alan Hirsch, Michael Frost, and Neil Cole). As a side note, I have been led to believe (perhaps mistakenly) that the missional movement is the Emerging Church wrapped in new clothing. Which I personally am fine with considering the negative stigma associated with the EC.

  • http://thedrum.typepad.com Rob Fairbanks

    Scot, The only thing that I might add is a discussion about the Kingdom. I am not sure we can appropriate a correct understanding of missional theology without that being a part of the discussion (which I am assuming you would agree with, and I am certain Len would). That is why I, in the seeming cascade of books coming out about “missional”, I circle back to Guder’s, et al, Missional Church book. They seemed to have been able to accent the Kingdom in the midst of the recalibration of theology. I have not read the book, but I deeply respect Len… Does he bring this out somewhere?

  • http://missional.ca Jamie Arpin-Ricci

    I think rediscovering shalom is critical in developing a holistic view of missional life (which would include a more robust discussion about the kingdom, as Rob F. recommends). Shalom seems to be able to embrace the whole work & mission of God through Christ towards His kingdom and our participation in it together as His Body, the Church.

    Unlike Rick, I think the word “incarnational” must stay. The fact that it require nuance is because it touches on the mystery of the Eucharist- the mystery of our becoming Christ together by the Spirit.

  • http://pa5t0rd.com Don Schiewer

    These are good…but – the one problem I’ve begun to notice is that when this seeps down to the everyday believer there is something missing. I’ve noticed it amongst those who identify themselves as evangelists yet can’t define ‘The Good News’ (especially when asked what Jesus meant by it prior to his death/resurrection – or for that matter what Isaiah meant by it). When I ask young people why they are ‘missional’ they have no understanding of why other than ‘evangelism.’

    **Is this a problem of biblical illiteracy? Is this a problem with not understanding ‘why’ we should be missional? Why isn’t this idea transferring to our folks within the church?**

    I’m a huge fan of ‘missional’ in the sense of: seeing the way of life, as prescribed by G_d in His Scriptures, returned to creation – through Justice, Mercy, and Compassion. (and as we lift up Christ through this way of living – all will be drawn to him. Jn 12.32)

  • T

    One of the key thoughts for me around ‘missional’ is the idea that the West is a mission field. I think this foundational thought can then allow us to pursue both a “strangeness” and a “presence” in a more fruitful way. As a missionary people, we must live in the tension of our ambassador status.

  • http://www.soulgardeners.com Tom Smith

    I agree with their four elements and I still think Bosch’s Transforming Mission leads the way with his emphases on the multifaceted nature of mission.

  • Rick

    Jamie #10-

    Thanks for your pushback, and years of ministry. However, is our goal to become Christ, or to be united to Christ. What does He ask of us?

    As quoted by Justin Taylor:

    “Eckhard J. Schnabel, Early Christian Mission, Volume 2: Paul and the Early Church (IVP, 2004), 1574-1575:
    I submit that the use of the term ‘incarnational’ is not very helpful to describe the task of authentic Christian missionary work. The event of the coming of Jesus into the world is unique, unrepeatable and incomparable, making it preferable to use other terminology to express the attitudes and behavior that Paul describes in 1 Cor 9:19-23.
    The Johannine missionary commission in Jn 20:21 does not demand an ‘incarnation’ of Jesus’ disciples but rather their obedience, unconditional commitment and robust activity in the service of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is precisely John who describes the mission of Jesus as unique: Jesus is the ‘only’ Son (Jn 1:14, 18; 3:14, 18), he is preexistent (Jn 1:1, 14), his relationship to the Father is unparalleled (Jn 1:14, 18). For John, it is not the manner of Jesus’ coming into the world, the Word becoming flesh, the incarnation, that is a ‘model’ for believers; rather, it is the nature of Jesus’ relationship to the Father who sent him into the world, which is one of obedience to and dependence upon the Father. . . . The terms ‘contextualization’ or ‘inculturation’ certainly are more helpful.”

  • tkepp

    I think the what may be missing in this theological “paradigm” of a missional theology is the “proclamation” or “heralding” aspect of gospel witness. Where does that fit into a “missional spirituality”? Having said that I will make two observations: I think the term “missional” has come to mean too many things- and it is really a term that only seems to make sense (but a different “sense” depending on who is using it!!!) in the english language. Having operated globally in several languages, I have observed that this “terminology” it is not something that “translates”. Unpacking the theological foundations of what we call “missional” in the english speaking world is helpful. However when you talk about gospel witness or the missio Dei in the world as being essentially: trinitarian, incarnational, priesthood of all believers and SHEMA, that is a conversation I believe the global church can engage in and inform.

  • http://rising4air.wordpress.com MikeK

    Scot (4.),
    By and large, I agree with your 4-point proposal, as I did when you responded to Everts’ book. My response may seem subtle, but I’m convinced the difference is a “Grand Canyon” gap between point (4) and my take.

    Namely, that from start to finish, the God of Israel is deeply concerned that a particular chosen people- Israel- welcome, embrace, serve, and give witness to people who are ethnically, culturally, politically, and religiously different from themselves: that these people might respond to the God of Israel and experience the refreshment, healing, and life that the God of Israel offers to all of humanity. In short, the Jews, and subsequently, the Church, are those chosen people sent by God to the Nations.

    Now, the above can be interpreted as merely a recapitulation of Scot’s (4.): I beg to differ. I tend to get a bit animated here, as there is already a wealth of confusion surrounding the adjective “missional”, and yet at the same time, some authors, some pastors, and some academics employ term as though we (in the West) can merely apply it to our context and selectively reflect upon the Bible. I’ll try to be brief!

    The concern I have here is not merely an omission of reflection upon the biblical data, but also a remarkable lack of consideration of the racism and sordid history of ethnic injustice within the West. It’s almost as if the proponents of missional theology have attempted to side-step or circumvent the life of so many people ethnically different from themselves.

    Instead, and here I borrow from Scot, what we find is a remarkable colonizing of missional theology that flows in continuity with older ecclesiologies. Those similarly omit any consideration of the mission of the church directed toward the nations on behalf of Christ who sends them. There’s just no discussion, and I’ve yet to observe anyone publishing on missional theology who takes this matter up.

  • Ben P.

    I’ve heard Keller say that the two biggest questions for a church to get right is 1) the balance between legalism and antinomianism and 2) the balance between overcontextualization and undercontextualization. so maybe he would say justification and contextualization?

  • http://www.wendymccaig.com Wendy McCaig

    Like Scot noted above, for many the word “missional” is translated “evangelism.” So this whole conversation is just semantics. However, my first encounter with the idea of living missionally was far more radical. The language that resonated with me was around joining God in who is already on mission in the world around us through the Spirit which is continuing the work of Christ in the world. Instead of thinking we “bring Jesus” to others this way of thinking required a shift toward seeing Christ spirit already moving out ahead of us and a willingness to join in that movement. So like Jamie, the incarnational spirit of being deeply involved in the tangible world around us has meant a lot to me as I have tried to embrace a more missional way of living.

    This shift sounds subtle but it does radically change how you enter into the world and requires a real kingdom perspective. I have seen God’s spirit moving through homeless men and women, recovering addicts and even people from denominations who think differently than me. If you choose to join God, watch out. The spirit often moves in ways that are shocking, unsettling and that can not be controlled by the church council.

  • Don E. Gibson

    Incarnational is a very appropriate description as foundational for “missional discipleship! Trying to reserve incarnational for “Jesus only” is an unnecessary task! Jesus doesn’t need us to protect his “uniqueness”…go ahead and imitate him to the very best of your ability or courage…I suggest the most difficult task in imitation is not our lack of ability, but our lack of courage. Ok, so we won’t walk on water or lay hands on people in miraculous healings; but, is that the uniqueness that needs protection? Don E. Gibson


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