Yoder and Missional Theology

John Howard Yoder, famed Anabaptist/Mennonite theologian and ethicist, on what is often today called “missional”:

Instead of asking, ‘What is God doing in the world?’ the church should ask, ‘How can we distinguish, in the midst of all the things that are going on in the world, where and how God is at work?’

From Royal Priesthood, an essay called “Christ, the Hope of the World,” p. 203.

He adds there a dimension that is sometimes missing in missional talk. Often enough the point is this “What is God doing in this place?” Once answered the person is to participate, cooperate, join in on what God is doing. But Yoder pushes against the notion that all is going on is what God is doing, and so he adds his characteristic emphasis on discernment, no doubt through the community (he often expresses it as binding and loosing), a discernment probing where God is active amidst all the activities of humans.

His cruciform theology leads him to see God at work in places many would ignore.

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  • rising4air

    I’m not sure who Yoder’s audience was. Indeed, it’s not clear among those reading your blog should take heed to Yoder’s wisdom.

    Of the very few people I know who are planting churches or leading existing congregations from an explicit missional theology, they are persistently asking some version of the discernment question Yoder posed to his audience. Not everything happening in their patch of the neighborhood is missional; they get that. So, the question of Yoder’s, and others like it, carries both a sense of urgency and formational power for the planters/pastors, and those they serve and live among, to allow for the Spirit to work in space and time.

    I can understand, though, why Yoder’s question might be asked of those who believe they understand missional theology, but in fact are working out a church growth paradigm that uses new vocabulary without displacing the pastor-centric, command-and-control, Enlightenment-incarnated models that are trumpeted as “missional.”

    If we’re only asking, “What is God doing in this place?”, or assuming that is the only question that counts, we would do well to follow up on those who responded to Hoekendijk in the early 1950’s. For the above question to function supreme, Hoekendijk had to abandon any notion that the church had any valuable participation in or calling to collaborate in what God was doing in the world. Such people today who ask the above question, especially from the conservative family tree of Christendom, don’t realize that what they’re espousing was theologically confronted by their mothers and fathers in the faith a few decades back.


  • scotmcknight

    On my FB I was asked what “missional” means. Here’s my FB reply: The issue has been settled to this (I think ambiguous) conclusion: missional is to participate in what God is doing and not what some church is doing, since what a church thinks may not be what God is doing. OK, that’s an important corrective. But what happened is that “what God is doing” is often then filled in by the missional people in ways just as blusterous as what some church people meant. So, to know what God is doing is the big one. Yoder’s comment pushes us to ask that question. What God is doing must be defined biblically first; many define it by justice issues others by evangelism (co-opting missional for traditional evangelism) and yet others by acts of compassion. Brother, I’m writing a book on this right now… I can’t spill the beans here.

  • erbks

    And indeed it is this conversational practice of discernment that teaches us to live slowly, attentively and not by techniques or shortcuts. Much of what has frustrated me about the missional church conversation is that too often it can veer off into shortcuts, etc and these thoughts from Yoder as you have emphasized are an important corrective. ~Chris Smith

  • Georges Boujakly

    Thanks, Scot. Been trying to wrap my mind around the issue of discernment of God’s activity and the relationship to missional. Since your book is still to come, would you suggest a resource that treats the topic of God’s activity today in harmony with God’s activities in biblical times? Or perhaps, to spill the beans a bit: what are the biblical categories or lenses through which we must consider God’s activities in the world today? Just the categories. No need to elaborate (spill the beans)!

  • rising4air

    I read the FB replies as well. I’d like to believe that the demand for some clarity on what constitutes missional theology is beginning to empower people like yourself in some ways that will deliver lucid encouragement to all, the bulk of whom have yet to embrace how deeply missional theology runs in opposition to much of what is currently in vogue. Blessings on your writing.