Thursday 19 October 2006

Theology for beginners (20): Mission

Summary: The Christian community participates in the mission of the triune God, announcing and enacting the Lordship of Jesus and so summoning all creation into the life of God’s coming kingdom.

We have seen that the Christian community is gathered around the risen Jesus and empowered by the Spirit for a life of freedom. And in every dimension of its life, this community is a sent community, a community propelled by mission.

To describe the Christian community as “missional” is to say that the community participates in God’s own work. The triune life of God is itself an ongoing event of mission: the Father sends the Son into our history; the Son accepts his mission from the Father and follows the path of that mission even to the point of death; and proceeding from the Father through the Son, the Spirit raises the dead Jesus into new life and empowers the Christian community to gather around the risen Jesus in freedom and thanksgiving. God’s own triunity, then, takes place as an unceasing movement of sending-and-being-sent, a movement of mission that breaks into history from the future in order to draw all history forwards into the life of God’s coming kingdom.

As the Spirit breathes life into the Christian community, we too are caught up in God’s movement, in God’s own act of mission. Mission, in other words, is not merely one of the community’s functions alongside others: mission belongs to the very essence of the Christian community. Right from the outset, the community is set in motion towards a future destiny; right from the outset, the life of the community is the life of God’s mission. Strictly speaking, then, the community does not “have” a mission – rather, God himself is a movement of mission which also creates and sets in motion a missional community. Thus to be a member of the Christian community is to be involved in the mission of God.

What does this mean for the life of the community? On the one hand, it does not mean that our role is to establish or advance the kingdom of God. God’s kingdom comes. It comes from God’s own future as the goal of all God’s action in history. It comes from God himself by God’s own powerful act. The Christian community is by no means identical with this coming kingdom, nor does the kingdom in any sense depend on the activity of the community. But precisely here, our own task becomes clear: not to establish God’s kingdom, but to announce it; not to bring the kingdom near, but to enact its nearness; not to advance the kingdom by expanding the institutions of Christendom, but to use these institutions to witness to the kingdom; not, then, to identify our own work with the kingdom, but simply to stand before the reality of God’s future and to summon all creation towards that reality.

The mission of the community is thus to announce and enact something that is already the case: that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself! Our task is not to make this happen – our task is to announce it this has already happened. God has already acted in Jesus for the salvation of the world. God has already lowered himself into the depths to make us his friends, he has already raised our humanness into fellowship with himself. On the basis of this “already,” our task is to summon all people to recognise the crucified and risen Jesus as the world’s true Lord, as the Lord who comes to us in grace, as the Lord who waits for us at the goal of history. In every dimension of its life, therefore, the Christian community is to announce and enact this one simple message: “Jesus is Lord!”

The message of the Lordship of Jesus is always a confident message of God’s great “already” – it is an announcement of something that has already happened for all people and for all creation. But at the same time, this is a hopeful message of the “very soon.” Because the crucified Jesus is the risen Lord, he is the goal towards which we are always travelling, the conclusion that will give coherence to all our stories, the ultimate context within which all creation will receive its true meaning. Jesus is, in other words, the destiny of history: he is the one who comes from the future as our hope, as the Lord of God’s kingdom. And so the announcement that “Jesus is Lord” is always an announcement about the future, about our hope, about the kingdom that approaches even now and sets our present lives within the context of God’s reality.

The mission of the Christian community is thus to announce this message: “Jesus is Lord – he is the Lord in whom God has acted, and he is the Lord in whom God is coming!” As well as announcing this message, the community must enact the message in visible and suggestive signs and parables. The Lordship of Jesus is enacted in social and political acts of justice and peace, in artistic works of beauty and meaning, in personal acts of grace and forgiveness. As the community enacts the Lordship of Jesus in such ways, the world here and now catches an anticipatory glimpse of God’s coming kingdom. The world here and now glimpses the context of meaning from which everything else – all history, all creation, every human story – receives its meaning.

There are no simple rules that can prescribe the way the community must carry out this mission. At times, the mission will involve evangelism – but the mission of the community (that is, the mission of God) is by no means identical with evangelisation. At times, it will involve expanding Christendom in its institutional forms – but the mission itself is never identical with or dependent on such expansion. At times, it will involve establishing new ecclesial forms and structures – but the mission itself is never identical with such strategies. At times, it will involve social and political action in the cause of justice and peace – but the mission itself can never be identified with such action.

Our role, then, is not simply to perform a set of tasks that have been prescribed in advance. Rather, our role is to participate in the unceasing event of God’s own mission. This means that our lives and our Christian institutions must be empowered by the Spirit and directed towards the future of the risen Jesus. It means that in all we do, we hasten towards the destiny of creation – but in this hastening, we also wait. We wait for the power of the Spirit. We wait for the missional movement of God’s own life.

In this situation, this “hastening that waits,” we participate even now in the mission of God. We announce and enact the Lordship of Jesus. And so we joyfully summon all creation to share with us in the triune life of God’s future.

Further reading

  • Anderson, Ray S. An Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006), pp. 178-99.
  • Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics IV/3 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1962), pp. 681-901.
  • Bosch, David J. Transforming Mission (New York: Orbis Books, 1991).
  • Guder, Darrell L. Be My Witnesses (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985).
  • Moltmann, Jürgen. The Church in the Power of the Spirit (London: SCM, 1977).
  • Newbigin, Lesslie. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (London: SPCK, 1989).
  • Sauter, Gerhard. Gateways to Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 168-79.
  • Wright, Christopher J. H. The Mission of God (Downers Grove: IVP, November 2006).


byron smith said...

Another great post. I really appreciated the way you kept the work of God central (we don't bring the kingdom) and yet had a genuine place for humanity in witnessing to that. Also loved the way you kept 'witnessing' broad, while allowing for a sharp focus in particular situation.

Thanks - and keep going - you're almost there. Of course, once you 'arrive', you can start all over again...

David W. Congdon said...

A superb post, Ben. My dean, Darrell Guder, would be proud! I was especially glad to see you emphasize the "already" character of reconciliation and the role of the church community in witnessing to that event.

One of the most "sexy" subjects today is the privileging of ecclesiology and the divinization of the church alongside God. There are so many theologians arguing for the church's life and mission as a prolongation of the incarnation itself, so that the church is the present-tense extension of Christ's own person and work. You quite successfully avoided this mistake while still holding on to the missional life of the church as coming from the missional being of God.

I would recommend that people read John Webster's essay, "On Evangelical Ecclesiology," which can be found in his latest collection of essays, Confessing God. He argues specifically against the theologians who elevate of the church and end up with a porous (non-concrete, non-particular, non-exclusive) Christology.

Also, there's a good quote that I heard recently, though the source escapes me. Perhaps it is from Bosch. I'll try to find it.

"The church does not have a mission in the world; the God of mission has a church in the world."

Anonymous said...

Thanks Ben. Great post.

Yet I feel that something more deliberate needs to be said about the object of mission being people-being-saved. The Scriptures speak of this being a deep desire of God himself (1 Tim. 2:3-4; 2 Pet. 3:9), and I wonder if it is an idea that deserves a more central place in a discussion of mission?

::aaron g:: said...

Hi Ben: Thank you for this beautiful and “moving” description of our outward calling.

I’d only add that mission is not an exclusively Christian function. Israel is given to the nations. They are light shining outward to all humanity (Isa 42). God’s gift to them is in turn God’s gift to the nations.

Anonymous said...

The 'Gospel and Our Culture Network' has been doing some good work in this field in recent years. Their seminal work "Missional Church" is edited by Guder. There are a number of other good works to be read, as well as heaps of articles etc on their website.

Anonymous said...

Hi David.

Great to see someone refusing to ride the Roman Trojan horse into the Protestant church, and suggesting that there is still an important discussion to have on the distinction between the church as witness to salvation and the church as mediator of salvation. I know, especially after Jenson, that the totus Christus has become ecclesiologically "sexy" (as you put it), but Barth, who accepted the phrase, insisted that Christ alone is the head of his body, the church, and that Christ alone is the subject of the totus Christus, the church the predicate.

Hi Andrewe.

Evangelicals are fond of citing the place and time when they were saved. Me to: the place, Golgotha; the time, noon on the first Good Friday.

And hi Aaron.

Great comment. And great to see someone impugning another "sexy" position, the supersessionism of the NT man of the moment N. T. Wright. Do you know Douglas Harink, Paul among the Postliberals: Pauline Theology beyond Christendom and Modernity (2003)? In chapter four, following Yoder, and based on a close re-reading of Romans 9-11, Harink takes issue with Wright, with his (evangelical?) relegation of the contemporary Synagogue to conversion fodder, insisting, with Barth, that that the distinction between Israel and the Church is not between the lost and the saved, but between two kinds of witness within the one covenant, and therefore rejecting a "mission" to the Jews. Harink's book is an important one. Lindbeck commends it by saying that it "is changing my mind on more themes . . . than any publication since Hans Frei's The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative" - high praise indeed.

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

I highly recommend John Howard Yoder's _The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited_ See:

This collection was published posthumously, but I saw many of these in unpublished form years ago and they really influenced my nonsupercessionist views of the relationship of Judaism and the Church.

Mary said...

Thank you for this series. I've enjoyed your posts and learned a good deal from them.


Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

I'll second Mary's endorsement and continue urging you to turn the finished product into a small book. It's just the kind of thing needed in university, seminary, and local church settings for beginning theologians.

::aaron g:: said...

Hi Kim: No, I am not familiar with Douglas Harink, so thank you for the tip. I shall look into it.

Ben Myers said...

Many thanks for these encouraging comments. As you can tell from the frequency of the posts, I've started getting a little weary of the series -- but there are only a couple of posts to go!

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