Sodalities and Modalities in Missions


This is part (early rough draft) of a chapter I am doing in my Missions and Theology book. Understand it as a very preliminary text. Thanks.

Christian Missions is done by people who come together as part of the Kingdom of God, as members of the Body of Christ, as those joined in the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Such coming together can exist in more than one way.

Ralph Winter speaks of Modalities and Sodalities. Modality Structures as it pertains to Christianity are social entintities that exist based on biology, geography (generally) and shared faith. The local church in its many diverse manifestations is such a structure. It draws from the synagogue, which is also a modality structure. A sodality structure is one that is driven primarily by common purpose. Such purpose is not simply shared by the members but is the actual reason for its existence. As much as churches have embraced the idea of having mission and vision statements, if these statements were changed, or not even written down, the church would not cease to be, and even may not even change markedly. And members of the church may affirm their church’s covenant, as well as vision and mission statements, but few actually kick people out who do not fully embrace, enforce, and execute these statements. (I have seen a few churches try to do this… it gets ugly.)

Sodality structures include mission bands, seminaries, and pretty much any other structure within Christianity in which joining absolutely requires acceptance of and adherence to a very specialized mission. This mission is much more narrow, and is generally inadequate to the overall needs of the individual Christian. Because of this, it is generally understood that all Chrsitians should be part of a church, regardless of whether they are part of a specialized structure.

It is the narrow specialization of sodality structures that give them some specific advantages in doing missions. Since all members can selected based on their shared vision, common desire to be trained to work cross-culturally, and willingness to limit one’s resources to focus on that vision over others.

It is pretty clear that sodality structures, such as mission societies, are important. Comparing the Roman Catholic Church to the Protestant Church(es) reveals some of the challenges. The Catholic Church had a universal leader— one who was seen as responsible for every person on earth (“Vicar of Christ”). It also had the monastic system that served as a sodality structure for a number of roles— especially missions. In early Protestantism, the church often meant the national church, or the local church, with no role for identifying responsibility beyond local or national boarders. And in focusing on the church, the monastic system was uprooted, without a replacement., In effect, it literally took centuries for the Protestant church to embrace missions in any beyond fits and starts.

The Danish-Halle Mission was a joint venture between the King of Denmark and the University of Halle. A university can be thought of as a sodality structure since it exists as a group driven by purpose. As such, the university served as a replacement for a monastic order, and the King of Denmark, as sovereign over his land and colonies, served as a replacement fot the pope.

For both the Roman Catholic setting and the Danish setting, the church, as a modality structure, had little role in missions. Their primary role is to produce Christians to feed the machinery of missions being handled outside of the church.

This was not the only option, however. The Moravian movement followed a model more akin to the idea of the missional church. The church as a whole seemed to act in many ways as a sodality structure. The Unitas Fratrum (as they are formally known) did not replace the Pope with another entity, but with theology. Since the church was not tied to a national or regional government, they saw their “parish” as worldwide. And with a leadership that was, for centuries, quite missional, the church embraced a strong missionary vigor without having a distinctly separate structure. History seems to support the idea that a Pope (or equivalent) is not really needed, as long as a church/denomination doesn’t define itself by its locality or state. However, over time, is seems like the church, as a modality structure, rarely holds onto a strongly missional stance over a few generations. The calling of the church is broader than that of a mission organization and so eventually, there is a tendency to shift focus or broaden focus. While from a missions standpoint this seems bad, I must admit that I have seen churches that are so focused on task that they lose sight of caring for their own people. This can create a toxic condition in a church.

Justinian von Welz proposed the establishment of a mission society in the 17th century. His Jesus Loving Society was ahead of its time, seemingly. It provided a structure that allowed churches to support missionaries with resources and prayers and receive reports back from missionaries. The attempt failed, but it did inspire others later. By the end of the 18th century and into the 19th century, there was a huge number of mission societies that sprang up. This led to a golden age of Protestant missions. As time when on, some mission agencies were swallowed up as mere arms of denominational church structures. Others went the opposite and became more independent of, and sometimes even competitive to churches.

With the growth of the missional church movement as well as short-term missions missions seems to be taking a direction more akin to the Moravians presently. Time will tell whether missions works best driven by the church, as a pawn of the church, or as a competitor of the church (or something else entirely).

Other things to read:

Ralph Winter on Modalities and Sodalities

Robert Munson “Lack of Early Protestant Missions”

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