Missio Dei – The role of the church
I had recently been listening to God’s Story: As Told By John. This consists mostly of a reading of the Bible text from the English Standard Version, with a number of sketches included through which certain Scripture passages are explained. These sketches are presented in a narrative fashion, following a pattern of: God’s Story, My Story and Their Story. What the author of the sketches are trying to say is that God is already active in people’s lives and what we need to do is to find the overlap between God’s story, my story and their story in order to understand God’s working in people’s lives.
This got me thinking about the concept of Missio Dei (God’s mission) and how this term had been interpreted through time. David Bosch, in his Transforming Mission (p 390-393), gives an excellent summary of where this term came from and how it underwent changes in meaning. This term originated at the Willingen Conference of the International Missionary Council held in 1952, where it was said that mission is derived from the very nature of God. As the Father sent the Son into the world and the Father and the Son sent the Holy Spirit into the world, so the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit sends the church into the world. Mission was seen as the church’s participation in the sending of God. Because mission is God’s priority, it is not the church’s initiative. The church is working with the sending God to bring God’s love to the world.
Gradually the understanding of Missio Dei underwent some changes. God’s Mission was seen to incorporate all things, including creation, care and redemption. It also embraces both the world and the church and is present in ordinary human history. In its missionary activity the church encounters a humanity and a world in which God’s salvation is already present through the Spirit. This wider understanding of the Missio Dei caused great unhappiness amongst certain theologians. In a study of the World Council of Churches it was stated that “The church serves the missio Dei in the world … (when) it points to God at work in world history and name him there.” In a certain sense, through this interpretation, the church had become unnecessary for the Missio Dei. Since Easter, according to this viewpoint, the world had been reconciled to God and it is therefore unnecessary for the world to become anything else than what it already is.
Back to the book I’d been listening to: In one of the sketches it is also implicated that we cannot really do anything when moving into a community. God is already active there and all that we have to do is to help people to see God (in other words, to find the place where God’s story, my story and their story overlap.
While this sounds wonderful and almost super-spiritual, I’m not exactly comfortable with the implications of such a viewpoint. Nine years ago I attended an ecumenical church conference in Indonesia where the same type of thing was said. And the implication of what was said at that time is that we, as Christians, do not have the right to discuss our faith with people of other religions with the intention of convincing them to come to faith in Jesus. Whether they are Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist or anything else, God is already working in their lives and therefore we cannot tell them that they should accept Christ. And this, I think, is pushing the concept of Missio Dei to an extreme which it was never intended to be at.
One of the most often quoted passages in this regard is Acts 17:22-31, where Paul visited the people in Athens. It is said that Paul latched onto their existing religion and that we need to do the same when visiting people from other cultures. The fact is that Paul, after referring to their existing religion, clearly stated what he believed in, mentioning the necessity of repentance and even ending off by referring to the day of judgement. Undoubtedly there is truth in saying that missionaries are not bringing God to a country or a community for the first time when they start working there. God is already there. God has always been there. But that does not imply that God is known or served in the way He wants, just because He is present.
Missio Dei, as I understand it, is that God is reaching out to the world, “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). Although God could have used other methods to proclaim the message of salvation to the world, He chose to use the church. God needs the church as instrument of mission, not because He is incapable of reaching the people in other ways, but because He chose to use the church. And for this reason, the church is not unnecessary in mission. The church is a vital part of God’s plan to reach the world. And where the church refuses to take up this task, God’s work is being hindered.
And this is quite a frightening thought!