“Either we are defined by mission, or we reduce the scope of the gospel and the mandate of the church. Thus our challenge today is to move from church with mission to missional church.”
The move from church with a mission to missional church has significant implications for the practice of theology.
As with the church, the impulses and assumptions that have shaped the discipline of theology in the West are those of Christendom rather than the mission of God. Theology is still often taught and discussed from the vantage point of early modern debates and concerns, with little reference to the missional character of God and the corresponding missional vocation of the church.
Courses in missions or missiology are generally taught only in the practical theology department and, apart from a generic introductory course, are often thought to be primarily for those planning to participate in cross-cultural ministries. Rarely are such courses taught in the systematics department, and the disciplines of missiology and systematic theology have generally evidenced little significant overlap and cross-fertilization.
Some signs exist that this is beginning to change, but progress is slow. Generally speaking, most teaching and research in Western universities and schools of theology remains in thrall to traditional academic models that stress detached objectivity in the study of any discipline, including theology.
Such an outlook is antithetical to the practice of Christian theology, particularly in light of its missional dimension. As Andrew Kirk remarks, theology that seeks to bear faithful witness to the living God “must have a personal dimension oriented to the present: that is, to personal, openly declared preferences involving engagement and commitment, including a solid identification with the Christian community.”
The reason for this, he notes, is that the subject of theology, the living God, makes demands, sets tasks and calls us to obedience. In this context, the study of theology cannot remain detached and uncommitted.
If theology is to serve the life of the church and its witness to the gospel, and if we assume that “the church can exist as truly itself only when dedicated to the mission of God, a burning question ensues: How should one reinvent theology and theological education so that they flow naturally for an integral perspective on God’s consistent will and activity in the world?”
Like the challenge facing the church in moving from church with mission to missional church, so the discipline of theology, if it is to serve the church and be faithful to its subject, must move from theology with a mission component to a truly missional conception of theology.
“A missional approach to theology arises from the conviction that the triune God is, by God’s very nature, a missionary God and that therefore the church of this God is missionary by its very nature.”
A missional approach to theology arises from the conviction that the triune God is, by God’s very nature, a missionary God and that therefore the church of this God is missionary by its very nature. The idea of mission is at the heart of the biblical narratives concerning the work of God in human history. The missional call to the church is captured in the words of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of John: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21).
David Bosch observes that mission is derived from the very nature of God and must be situated in the context of the doctrine of the Trinity rather than ecclesiology or soteriology. In this context the logic of the classical doctrine of the missio Dei expressed as God the Father sending the Son, and the Father and the Son sending the Spirit, may be expanded to include another movement: “Father, Son and Spirit sending the church into the world.”
From this perspective, the church is seen as an instrument and witness of God’s mission to the world, not its end. The various historical, cultural, global and contemporary embodiments of the church may be viewed as a series of local iterations of God’s universal mission of love to all of creation.
In summary, (1) the mission of God from all eternity is love; (2) creation is the result of the expansive nature of God’s love, and God desires that all of creation come to participate in the fellowship of divine love; (3) God calls forth a community to participate in the divine mission as a sign, instrument and foretaste of the kingdom of God and a witness to the good news of God’s love for the world; and (4) this singular community is manifested in numerous local communities from every tribe and nation.
Adapted excerpt from the new book Missional Theology by John R. Franke, ©2020. Used by permission of Baker Publishing www.bakerpublishinggroup.com.
John R. Franke serves as theologian in residence at Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, affiliate professor of theology at Christian Theological Seminary, and general coordinator of the Gospel and Our Culture Network.