It was Stephen Neill who wrote way back in 1959 in his book, Creative Tension: If everything is mission, then nothing is mission. In a certain sense this is true and there are people today who believe that mission is defined so widely that it becomes increasingly difficult to say what mission really is.
David Bosch is one of many missiologists who unashamedly defined mission very widely, to include not only matters such as evangelisation, but also things such as social ethics and ecology. In 1991 I attended the annual meeting of the South African Missiological Society and this entire meeting was devoted to different aspects of mission and ecology – and to be quite honest, this was one of the most fruitful mission conferences I every attended! But that is a topic for another day.
Bosch wrote in his book, Believing in the future, that mission is not something secondary to the church. The church exists in being sent into the world and building itself up for its mission. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in his Letters and Papers from Prison: The church is the church only when it exists for others… The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. Emil Brunner put the same idea in these words: The church exists by mission, just as fire exists by burning.
It is because Bosch realised the truth of these words that he said that we needed to develop a missionary theology, not just a theology of mission. A theology of mission will do nothing more, according to him, than to patch up the church. He continues: We are in need of a missiological agenda for theology, not just a theological agenda for mission; for theology, rightly understood, has no reason to exist other than critically to accompany the missio Dei.
What this all boils down to is that mission needs to take a central part in the church. Well, obviously God needs to be in the centre, but whatever we do in the church needs to be built around God’s heart for the world which He loves so much that He even sent His Son to die for it.
In my experience, in most churches, mission is still something that exists (if it does exist at all!) as one of many projects being run in the church. What we need to do is to say that the church exists because of it’s mission and according to this all other work in the church should be planned. Just as Jesus did not come to be served but to serve, so the church does not exist to be served but to serve.
Until we grasp this truth, we are forever going to struggle with the future of the church, planning, debating, meeting, negotiating, but never coming to the point where we realise that, as church, we have only one obligation, and this is to serve the world (through which we also serve God.)
This is a blog where I would like to share some of my ideas about contemporary mission. I have more than 25 years experience as a full-time missionary in Swaziland, have done a PhD on the theology of mission – specifically on the relationship between mission and eschatology – and am presently specialising in the problem of HIV/AIDS and how the church should approach this problem. You are welcome to respond and share your ideas on this blog.
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