Introducing Missio Dei and John Flett’s The Witness of God
I’ve just finished reading John Flett’s The Witness of God, a book about Karl Barth, Trinitarian theology and the study of the church and its mission in the world. Since I found the book rather compelling (and germane to my project) I would like to put some of it out there for your comments. It touches on everything from the church’s relation with culture to the role of the doctrine of God in shaping our self-understanding as Christians and communities.
This is a book about Missio Dei (the mission of God). For those unfamiliar with it, the Latin term names not only a theological concept but also a particular paradigm shift in the study and practice of missions which began in the 20th century and is still sorting itself out today. To give a bit of background, according to the Routledge Companion to the Christian Church by the early 1990s David Bosch had come to best describe Missio Dei as a post-colonial re-definition of missions as primarily an ‘initiative and action of God, the Holy Trinity, rather than as a task initiated by the church’ (629). Following Barth’s impulses (and possibly Aquinas before him), the thinking was that because God’s being and act are one, we have to see mission is a part of who God is from all eternity: ‘Thus the mission of the church is rooted in the Trinitarian missions of the Son and Spirit from the Father.’ This might seem like a no-brainer, but it seems to be easily forgotten. We’ll talk about that in more detail tomorrow, but for now I’ll mention some potential ramifications.
Missio Dei reminds us that church identity and activity are unified. Mission is a not secondary, optional and derivative thing that churches (or their delegates) do once they have the main thing down. When we pull apart God and mission Christian life and mission can get pulled apart too. Sharing the gospel can end up being more like propaganda than the sharing of the gospel (28). When the church is one thing, and its re-creation in other places (i.e., church planting) is another, you can have church planting strategies that draw more from the business models of Western capitalism than their very own theological commitments because the means and the message are not intrinsically tied.
An unhealthy church could grow rapidly because it knows how to advertise and open ‘chains’. A seemingly healthy church could yet sit on its hands because it doesn’t see multiplication as part of its identity. The bifurcation eats away at both the mission and the church either way. And as Leslie Newbigin put it: ‘An unchurchly mission is as much a monstrosity as an unmissionary church’ (71).
To get a sense of the potential connections between theology and practice here, consider what happens when you run Missio Dei up against a couple of our evangelical clichés. I’m sure many of us have heard the well-meant expression that we’ll have eternity to worship in heaven, so we better get down to missions now. Well, one of the things fundamental to Missio Dei is that mission, or sharing Christ, is part of who God is from eternity past to eternity future. As John Flett puts it, ‘if mission is an attribute of God, then it bespeaks something of God’s nature and of reconciled human existence with God’ (75). So it is that not only worship but mission will characterize the heavenly reality. In ‘glory’ we do not retreat from mission into an eternal chorus-line but continue to be sent to one another in the sharing of what Christ has brought to humanity.
Another clichéd evangelical norm is that missions tends to be something we relegate to the halls of conferences and to the parachurch organizations that can best attract our giving. One of the suggestions of Missio Dei thinking is that there may something detrimental about having missions a step removed from the constituent elements of a local church or denomination. If mission is left up to prayerful individuals and their donations then there may be a problem with the worshipping community’s life as such.
We can return to those issues, but we’re only just getting going. John Flett argues that a disconnect takes place between Barth’s theology and the trajectory of Missio Dei which actually prevents the latter from tapping into some of its most profound ramifications. Put as succinctly as possible, the problem is this: While Missio Dei is right that the ‘church is called to “echo” in time the communion that is God’s life in eternity’ (27), in both the unfolding of the theology and the subsequent practice the movement has too often found a way to short-circuit this. I’ll unpack that a little bit before we move on to part two tomorrow.
The most proper critique that Missio Dei proponents raise is the one which questions the tendency to let the notion of ‘echoing’ God’s triune life validate an ingrown enclave of believers. What Missio Dei rightly indicates is that there isn’t just communion but also sending in the Triune life. Thus as a community of Christ the church is ever-eccentric; always oriented toward sharing of the love and grace of Jesus with not only brothers and sisters but also neighbours and even enemies. As my own denomination’s emphasis puts it, the church is about following Jesus into both deeper life and missions. If you take away one you lose the other. Jesus heals our lives and our communities, but part of that healing entails rescue from narcissism toward self-giving love.
At the same time, if all we are is mission we shallow-out pretty soon, turning ourselves into a propaganda machine for an empty shell. Missio Dei reminds us that conversion ‘applies to the whole of life, including social and cultural institutions’ (51). The problems come in when we conceive of God in distinction from His mission, and when we take missions to be more our job than God’s. In the next post I will return to Flett’s book in more detail in order to flesh out his assessment of those problems and his suggested correctives in the theology of Karl Barth.