Missionary Presence and the Missio Dei


Two or three years ago, I was reading Rodger Bassham’s book on Mission Theology. The full name of the book is

Mission Theology: 1948-1975 Years of Worldwide Creative Tension: Ecumenical, Evangelical and Roman Catholic

It speaks of the development of Ecumenical or Conciliar missions during this time especially and how Evangelical missions broke away in the 1960s. In the 1960s, a strange thing occurred that I could not really understand. Actually several things I could not understand. Among the Evangelicals there was a MacGavran-driven push to very narrowly drive missions to be seen through the lens of evangelism and church growth alone. I think that view was flawed on a number of fronts. However, far more flawed was what was happening on the Conciliar side of missions.

In the Conciliar Missions there was the growth of viewing missions as not involving proselytization/conversion. Some would even say that Christian missions was the “antithesis” of proselytization. Rather, Christian missions should be understood in terms of “Christian presence” in non-Christian setting.

As much as I may be against the Church-growth movement’s attempted hijacking of Evangelical missions in the 1960s, at least I understand what they believed in and why. But I really struggled with how one could view Christian missions, driven as it were by the Great Commissions of the Bible, as being opposed to seeking for non-Christians to become followers of Christ.

Eventually I realized that it had to do much with the concept of Missio Dei. In this, I am not original. I was just slow in seeing it— perhaps because of my denominational background. As I looked more, I began to understand why some Evangelicals have problems with “Missio Dei,” a missiological concept that seems pretty self-evident.

Missio Dei, “The Sending God”  as a modern Protestant concept goes back to Karl Barth in terms of the Father sending the Son, and the Father and Son sending the Spirit. Karl Hartenstein in 1934 took this idea and tied it more closely to Missions, “The Mission of God.” Since Missio relates to Sending etymologically and conceptually, this is hardly difficult. God is Trinity and is working in the full Godhead over the full earth. Reading David Bosch in Transforming Missions, we see the Missio Dei formally described separately from Missiones Ecclesiae, “The Mission of the Church.” The Mission of God is bigger than the Mission of the Church.

The first image below I may describe as the “Orthodox Understanding” of Missio Dei. God is at work, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the whole earth and in and through the church. The church is also called to join in God’s mission as witnesses and as members of God’s Reign on earth. Thus the Mission of God includes the Church, but is bigger than the Church. Where the church isn’t God still is, and He is at work. One can see it in terms of Preparatio Evangelium (or the preparing of people for the Gospel message). However there are some things God chooses to leave for the church to do. Key among these is actually serving as witnesses to the truth of the Gospel, and the establishment of communities of faith.

The most obvious example of this in the Bible, I think, is the story of Cornelius and Peter. God sends an angel to Cornelius and tells him to get Peter. God also  sends a vision to Peter preparing him to the uncomfortable truth that God is not just the God of the Jews, but the Gentiles as well. When invited by Cornelius, Peter comes and shares the Gospel message. Cornelius and his household respond and the Holy Spirit demonstrates powerfully that God is, indeed, the God of both Jew and Gentile. In the story, God’s Mission was both to the Church (vision to Peter) and to the World (angel to Cornelius). The Mission of the Church is seen in Peter sharing the Gospel message (noting it would have been much simpler for the angel to do this… but this is clearly not God’s desire… He wants this to be the activity of the Church). When Cornelius and household respond, we see the third sending of God— sending of the Holy Spirit after the sending of an angel and sending of a vision. I believe the story of Peter and Cornelius well-demonstrates Missio Dei and Missiones Ecclesiae.

Missio Dei 1

I believe that the second image, the next one below, sees Mission Dei, the Mission of God in a way that became popular in the ecumenical missions of the 1960s. In this view the Missio Dei is given a dominant place. <In the orthodox view, God’s Mission is given a dominant place as well, but importance is also given to the Great Commission. In the orthodox view, one sees that God has given a unique role for the church that God will not do Himself, but calls upon the church to do.> Emphasis can be placed on the Mission of God, both in the world and in the church, that there is a question of what the role of the church in mission actually is. After all, if God is at work in all parts of the world, in all cultures, and all peoples, is it possible that a Christian missionary coming into a non-Christian culture is actually undoing what God is doing? If God is working in culture A, doing what He chooses to do there, and a Christian missionary comes into culture A, and begins telling them that they have to be less like culture A and more like the missionary, is it possible that that is not God’s will? In the 1960s that became a serious question.

And there are certainly reasons for this concern. Before the arrival of the Spanish, an Incan Emperor had the realization that the prior understanding of the Sun as the Great God was wrong. The Sun is constrained to a single path and limited in its domain. Clearly there must be a greater being than the Sun. There must be a God who is the creator of all things and this God is the one who is deserving of worship, not the Sun or other created things. When the Spanish came some decades later, they essentially judged most everything going on in Incan culture as pagan and bad, and replaced as much as they could with a Christian faith dominated by Spanish cultural aspects. It seems like the Spanish, who saw themselves, in part, as carriers of the Gospel to the heathen, were actually undermining what God was doing among the Incan people.

In the 1960s, there developed a growth of the belief in Religious Pluralism and the concept of Missionary as Christian Presence. If the Mission of God includes work in the non-Christian lands, then maybe God’s message is also in the religions of those lands. So perhaps the best in Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and other faiths are the works and words of God, and perhaps those who follow the best in these faiths are saved by God within those faiths. But if that is the case, what should a Christian missionary do? Should they seek to proselytize members of those other faiths? Within this mindset the answer is No. One is actually opposing what God is doing in that culture. So then what should the role of a missionary be? One should be in that culture, not directly trying to change it but demonstrating God’s love lived out among them. This is the idea of Christian Presence. With this perspective there still is a missional role for the Church… but that role is small (as the image shows).

I don’t agree with this view at all… but I can at least see how it makes a certain amount of sense from a specific perspective of Missio Dei.

Missio Dei 3

A third option is shown in the image below. With that view, the mission of God is seen as only happening through the church. As such, the church is the sole institution and sole active working of God on earth. If that is the case, then whatever is happening on earth outside the touch of the Church has nothing to do, practically speaking, with God. Thus all cultures with no Christian influence are free from the touch of God’s ministering. The Anti-Missions movement of the 1800s would be an extreme example of this where even Christians doing ministry through institutions (such as missions societies) that seem not to fit the historical image of “church” would have to be seen as serving without divine blessing. God only works through the church and nothing and nowhere else.

More recently, I recall reading a missions writer noting with deep skepticism the story that the “Lost Book” story of the Karen and some other groups in Southeast Asia. The writer was certain that it must have come from missionaries or Christian traders long before Adoniram Judson. The Lost Book story sounds like a Preparatio Evangelium or Redemptive Analogy. But the writer seemed quite certain that it must have come from a Christian (or perhaps Jew) at some point in time. While the writer could be correct, the question is “Why would the writer be so certain that it must have come from outside of the Karen culture?” I guess the logic is that if cultures have no Divine ministry, and if God only works through Christians, then presumably cultures would be unable to have characteristics that point people to God. Of course, there seems to be genuine challenges to this. Paul used Greek beliefs to point people to God. It is also POSSIBLE that in his utilization of the Legend of the Unknown God, Paul was intimating that the god in the story was in fact the God of the Bible. (hard to be dogmatic on that point). I also recall talking to one of my students from the Kachin tribe. The beliefs of the tribe historically included the acceptance of one creator god of all the heavens and the earth, a belief in disconnection from that god due to sinful behavior, and the need for blood sacrifices for atonement. There was more similarities to the Judeo-Christian faith as well. As such, when missionaries arrived, the people were quite quick to respond. This student of mine suggested that Christianity did not actually replace their old religion, but fulfilled it. In Christ, their old religion had the missing piece— the way to have permanent peace with God without the need of continued fear and blood sacrifices. For those who do not see God working in the world outside of the church, this story sounds a bit challenging (I would guess at least), but with an orthodox understanding of Missio Dei, it makes perfect sense. God was working among the Kachin to identify God, their need for God and their ultimate unworthiness. But God left it to the church to share that piece that they needed (Christ as the peacemaker).

Missio Dei 2

I believe that an “orthodox” understanding of Missio Dei leads to a healthy understanding of the role of the church and of the mission of the church in the world. God is on mission, everywhere, and invites us, calls us, to join Him in that mission.

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