The Mission of God

Undoubtedly one enduring term today is the word “missional.” What is “missional,” you ask? The answer often comes back with this: “It is to see ourselves in light of God’s mission, the missio Dei, in and for the world.” To me that is like answering this question — What is baseball? — with this answer: “It’s a sport with a ball.” To quote Flannery, that’s right but just ain’t right enough. I’m all for “missional” as long as “missional” means something.

What is missional? How do you define the term? Can only followers of Jesus be missional? Is “missional” a term for doing good deeds in the public sector by Christians? Or is there some content to the mission of God that defines when we are being missional? What is that content?

So it’s with some serious expectations of success that I read David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw’s chapter called “Missio Dei” in their new book, Prodigal Christianity.

They play through two major perceptions of God, and their take on “missional” is importantly shaped by a theo-ology and not just a strategy for evangelism or social activism. The two perceptions are the Distant God and the God who is everywhere and in everything so that everything becomes spiritual. I agree that missional must be theologically defined. The God who is Distant they connect to meticulous sovereignty where God can seemingly be cruel; the God who is everywhere leaves insufficient place for the God of our Lord Jesus Christ who reveals redemption in Christ. The only way, they argue, to discern the God who is everywhere is to know God’s revelation in Christ. I agree with this too. God is for too many either a distant star or an enveloping cloud.

Their Signpost Two: God’s mission for the world.

I agree with much here but I do wonder if they’ve really gotten us much beyond the enveloping cloud God and if they’ve taken the church seriously enough in the missio Dei.

They probe God is with us; they probe the sending God and the sent Son and the sent Spirit.

Here’s where it gets concrete: “Missio Dei means that God is already at work in our lives and the lives of all around us” (28). To become missional then means becoming alert to the reality of God’s presence and God’s work everywhere. It gets close, so it seems to me, to being compassionate and sensitive and to believe that God is at work in everyone and we are to participate in what God is doing. OK, I believe this but I wonder if this is what missional means. What is the mission of God determines how God is “missioning” and how we participate in the mission of God.

About Scot McKnight

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

  • RJS

    Missional is an interesting term. I think you may be right, at least from this summary. They have not cleared much up.

    For some “missional” = social action and the call of Christians whenever and wherever.

    For others though “missional” seems to mean evangelism as measured by the number of people in the pews and by decisions. The mission of the Church is to fill the Sunday morning show. (Or Saturday or Sunday evening for those who go that way).

    I am not sure that, without better definition, the term is useful.

  • Chris Jones

    I think 1 Peter 2:9-12 helps us…

    9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. 11 Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. 12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

    It seems like our mission is to praise God and to live lives of love so that the world will worship God when Jesus returns. Wait, that sounds like the Jesus Creed — Love God, Love Others. Do we need the term missional? I ask that being a long time advocate and user of the term.

  • http://www.salemgathering.org Phil Wyman

    Have not read the book yet. If that is the extent of the definition, it doesn’t appear to add anything solid to the developing (hopefully developing) missional theology.

    I tend to spend a great deal of time with people who see God as radically immanent, rather than distant. This of course, creates its own difficulty when trying to define salvation, and the need for mission. A missional theology must somehow also respond to these tensions in order to speak to the postmodern spiritualities I find in places like Burning Man, Rainbow Gatherings, and where I live in Salem Massachusetts. Especially since the developing cultures create a new kind of clash against traditional evangelical views of this transcendent and sovereign God.

  • http://EnglewoodReview.org Chris Smith

    Scot, Sounds to me like you’re driving toward ecclesiological questions, moving in a similar direction to, say Gerhard Lohfink’s inquiry “Does God Need the Church?”

    I’ve always thought Fitch/Holsclaw had a pretty solid ecclesiology, so your points here seem a bit disappointing. Guess I’ll have to crack open my own copy of PRODIGAL CHRISTIANITY soon…

  • http://hdnazarene.com Tim Stidham

    Too bad you weren’t at the conversation with Fitch Saturday night. They addressed their ecclesiology with quite a few specifics. I haven’t finished the book yet, but it has 10 signposts which shape mission. And 7 missional behaviors which fulfill their equation: Missio Dei + Incarnation = witness. I think they take the conversation about missional to new territory by applying Barth’s concept of the prodigal God to the sent church. And I think their point is to provide undergirding theology for mission and key behaviors for the church. I find it hard to believe that the remainder of the book will say less than this…

  • TJJ

    Missional is….”becoming alert to the reality of God’s presenceand God’s work everywhere.

    If missional is used to mean almost evrrything…..then the tern really comes to mean nothing really. I would reserve the term for something only Christ followers do, and tether it more directly in terms of focus and purpose the mission and work Jesus was doing in earthly ministry and continues to do on earth through Holy Spirit. So that it is NOT just every good and kind thing anyone anywhere might do or say or be.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    Scot, I don’t have an answer — I am dealing with a particular form of this question right now, — but I do have a few thoughts.

    First, one invaluable thing I have learned from the discussions of missional Christianity is that it involves the understanding that God has been at work in areas that we think of as requiring our “mission work” long before we got there. When taken seriously, that understanding by itself can help clear up a lot of our chauvinism.
    Second, and this does get away from “theology” by quite a bit, missional Christianity requires personal relationships and reciprocity. We who used to think of ourselves as bringing the gospel have to be as ready — maybe more so — to listen and learn from those we gospel to, if indeed we are interested in bringing the gospel.
    Third, and this is where I am struggling with an issue right now, we who gospel need to be ready to be changed when we honestly bring the gospel and listen to others. Too often I think, people try to be “missional” but don’t want to confront that gospel that changes themselves.

    Peace

  • Matt Edwards

    I think being missional often involves good deeds in the public sector, but it cannot be reduced to this. Missional folks initially reacted against the “attractional” model that dominated American Evangelicalism for a couple of decades. “Attractional” churches tried to be cities on a hill by creating an alternative community to the culture at large. So, we would do things like create church basketball leagues for our kids, Easter egg hunts for the community, Christian concerts at the church, etc. All of these events would be entry points for non-Christians to come to church and see where God was working.

    But missional churches turned this on its head–instead of making the church into an alternate community, the church should be a sending community. So, we’re sending our kids into the community’s basketball leagues, we’re joining them in their Easter egg hunts, and our musicians are doing shows in their venues. But we’re doing these things under the banner of mission. In the missional model, the church is not the only place where God is working; He’s also at work in the world.

    But, in order for good deeds in the public sector to be “missional,” they have to be done according to the Missio Dei, which would be the reign of God. For this reason, I would think that a good deed in the public sector would not be truly missional if it was divorced from the context of the reign of God.

    But this raises another question–what role does our anthropology play in our interpretation of what constitutes mission? Can a non-Christian do a genuinely good deed apart from the Spirit of God/Missio Dei?

    If not, then I think you face a dilemma when you see non-Christians doing acts of compassion or justice. Either you have to conclude that these deeds (while appearing noble) come from impure motives so that thy aren’t truly good deeds, or you have to say that the Spirit is at work even in the unregenerate. I think with this anthropology you would have to conclude that every good deed is a missional good deed (because they necessarily come from the Spirit).

    But what if your anthropology allows for unregenerate people doing truly good deeds? Then I think you could look at good works not done in the name of the reign of God, affirm their goodness, but not have to insist on their being missional.

  • Marshall

    I suppose “mission of God” could mean my mission that God gave me, or the mission that God is on. I suppose the various missions that God gives to individuals could vary quite a bit, but when in doubt tend the sick, comfort the afflicted, set the captives free sort of thing. As to the church, the Master was quite explicit in John 21: feed my sheep.

    I guess I have notion of a mission that God would be on, which I am incompetent to understand or judge, isn’t that a process-theology thought?

    In my uncertain grasp of the Trinity, I think of the God Who Is Everywhere (and in favor of everything) as the Holy Spirit. Is that a conventional thought? I understand about getting carried off into the fog, but there you are, isn’t it?

  • http://thesometimespreacher.com Andy Holt

    Perhaps I’m off base here, but I can’t help but think of 1 Corinthians 15:24-25. “Then the end will come, when [Jesus] hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.” Isn’t this the mission that Jesus is accomplishing right now? He is continuing the work he began at the cross/resurrection, which is the destruction of sin, evil and death, and all powers that set themselves up against God the Father. As I understand it, he is accomplishing this mission through the church, who is supposed to accomplish the mission the way it was begun–by dying and rising again. Being missional, then, means destroying the powers of sin, evil and death by incarnating the Gospel through agape love, which lays down its life, sets aside its rights, forgives sins, and brings life where there was death. The mission cannot be accomplished by the methods of the world because these inevitably spread sin, evil and death. So if we’re going to be a missional people, we have to do things the way Jesus did them–by dying and rising again. To put it simply, Mission = Gospel-in-Action = Spreading the Reign of Jesus.

  • JD

    Great comment, Randy.

  • http://www.reenactingtheway.com Paul

    If being missional means believing “that God is at work in everyone and we are to participate in what God is doing,” then Henry Blackaby wrote the book on that in 1990. “Missional” would just be fresh marketing for a cyclical idea.

    If it means “becoming alert to the reality of God’s presence,” then the most popular book according to sales for the last 2 years, Jesus Calling, has that one covered. So again, cyclical concept renamed. Though Sarah Young’s language of Presence verges on the “enveloping cloud.”

    I’m interested to know if anything new is really here or if it is just a passionate pursuit of new language for audiences uninitiated in what has been said before or who do not jive with other authors or older expressions.

  • http://getrad2.blogspot.com Blessed Economist

    I thought of Luke 5:17, when Jesus went to the place where the Holy Spirit was already actively doing stuff.

  • dwight stinnett

    Of all the things about “missional” that I have read, I find Titus Pressler’s “Going Global With God” most helpful in this regard. The fundamental task is “reconciliation” (after all, “we have been given” this ministry). “Missional” is about crossing significant boundaries in the ministry of reconciliation. No, “missional” does not encompass everything. I do have a ministry of reconciliation with those I know and live with.

  • http://byzantium.wordpress.com Kullervo

    I still have no idea what “missional” means. I strongly suspect it is an empty buzzword.


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