Missional Perspectives 03, Missio Dei Definition, Contribution

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Missional Perspectives for Church Leaders 03 – Definition and Contributions of MISSIO DEI

Part of the following Ministry Resource Guides: Missional Resources and Church Leadership, Philosophical Foundations. It discusses perspectives that were important to the first edition of the site, and is now part of the site archive that is not updated past 2012.

Missional / Missio Dei is one of several Philosophies of Church Leadership and Renewal, which also include Church Growth, Emergent/Evaluating-Emergent, and other Missionally Responsive Trajectories.

This is part of a larger article on Missional Perspectives. See the index at the bottom of the page for all the articles in the series.

There are several ways to understand the term “missional.” I recommend the historical and conceptual overview in the work by Van Gelder and Zscheile, The Missional Church in Perspective, especially the beginning of chapter 2. They trace the usage of the term over the last few decades, with emphasis on the works of Lesslie Newbigin and the Gospel and Our Culture Network. To help you understand its usage on LifeandLeadership.com, a few distinctions are helpful.

Distinct from Emerging

Although there is considerable overlap between missional and emergent/emerging, it is more accurate to view emerging churches as a subset under the larger missional umbrella. Most, though not all, emergents share a missional vision, but not all missionals are emergent. Missional leader Alan Hirsch makes the distinction:

Missional is not synonymous with emerging. The emerging church is primarily a renewal movement attempting to contextualize Christianity for a postmodern generation. Missional is also not the same as evangelistic or seeker-sensitive. These terms generally apply to the attractional model of church that has dominated our understanding for many years. Missional is not a new way to talk about church growth. Although God clearly desires the church to grow numerically, it is only one part of the larger missional agenda. Finally, missional is more than social justice. Engaging the poor and correcting inequalities is part of being God’s agent in the world, but we should not confuse this with the whole. (Hirsch, “Defining Missional,” http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/2008/fall/17.20, accessed 07-05-2011)

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Distinct from Traditional and Attractional Evangelicals

While missional is not limited to evangelicals, it is interesting to note the shape this has taken among them. This is especially important in understanding the resource categories of LifeandLeadership.com. An older, but perhaps still the most helpful classification comes from Robert Webber’s The Younger Evangelicals, which separates “missionals” from “traditionals” and “attractionals.” As indicated in the title of the book, Webber’s description of missionals captures the spirit of the younger populations that were the subject of his research.

  • Traditionals were the influential, conservative, Bible-believing churches of the stable churched-culture period of the 1950s-1970s, and were typified by churches such as the Thomas Road Baptist Church of Lynchburg, Virginia while led by Jerry Falwell and Bellevue Baptist Church of Memphis while led by Adrian Rogers.
  • Attractionals, or Pragmatic Evangelicals, came of age in the 1970s-1990s.  They were the seeker-targeted, growth-oriented churches, dubbed “attractionals” because they sought to attract the unchurched, primarily baby boomers, by offering outstanding faith-related services. They are typified by Saddleback Valley Community Church of California (Rick Warren), and Willow Creek Community Church of Chicago (Bill Hybels).
  • Missionals, or “Younger Evangelicals,” are described generationally as those who came of age in the post-9/11 era, yet their perspectives are trans-generational. Adherents of missional philosophy are found in every denomination, every ethnic background, and every continent. Webber tags them missionals over against the church-growth enthusiasts, the attractionals. While much of Webber’s description of missionals is also true of the emergents (the relevant, doctrine-friendly sort), not all who identify with the missionals are emergent.

Webber offers numerous charts that compare these three groups in most conceivable areas of ministry. It is still perhaps the best description of this trend from an evangelical perspective.

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Meaning of Missional

So what does missional mean? Most often the term missional is rooted in the substantive theological understanding of missio Dei (mission of God), as articulated by David Bosch:

Mission is understood as being derived from the very nature of God. …The classical doctrine of the missio Dei as God the Father sending the Son, and God the Father and the Son sending the Spirit is expanded to include yet another “movement”: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit sending the church into the world. …Mission is not primarily an activity of the church, but an attribute of God. God is a missionary God. It is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfill in the world; it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the church. Mission is thereby seen as a movement from God to the world: the church is viewed as an instrument of that mission. There is church because there is mission, not vice versa. (Bosch, Transforming Mission, 390)

Darrell Guder, one of the most respected spokespersons for the missional perspective, continues to describe some of the unique implications of missio Dei for the church:

Such an understanding of mission moves the subject far beyond the level of program or method. It disallows any understanding of mission that makes it a sub-topic for the church. The church’s very nature is missionary. Thus, the discussion of mission must be dealt with when we consider God’s actions, purposes, promises, and faithfulness. (Continuing Conversion of the Church, 20)

This sounds healthy enough, but since the beginning of the popular use of the term missio Dei in the 1960s up until today, there has been debate over its meaning, especially with regard to how the church fits into God’s mission. Van Gelder and Zscheile describe the essential question:

Should the missio Dei be understood primarily in relationship to God’s work of redemption and thereby see the church as the primary way in which God works in the world-a specialized way of understanding God’s work in the world? Or should the missio Dei be understood as the broader agency of God in relation to all creation and God’s continuing care of that creation-a generalized way of understanding God’s work in the world? (The Missional Church in Perspective, 30)

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One can see how the generalized view could minimize the church by reframing the equation from God-Church-World to God-World-Church. This was serious enough that the generalized formulation of the World Council of Churches in the 1960s actually spawned a somewhat secularized version of missio Dei. It became merely a work of “historical transformation whereby humankind would gradually achieve the goals of the messianic kingdom through the processes of secular history.” (Van Gelder and Zscheile, 31). This led to evangelical suspicion of missio Dei, and played a role in spawning Donald McGavran’s “church growth” movement in the late 1960s.

The use of the term missional has evolved over time. Some groups emphasize the generalized or specialized sense respectively, and there are various levels of integration. Van Gelder and Zscheile (chapter 3) offer a very complex taxonomy of four branches of missional, each with its own subbranches, resulting in twelve types. They categorize numerous resources under each type. I considered using their taxonomy for this site, but opted for a simpler structure.

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The Contributions of Missio Dei

When seen in the more specialized and intregrated (not secularized) senses, this perspective differentiates between missio Dei, the broader scope of God’s work, and missiones ecclesiae, the missionary ventures of the church as it participates in God’s larger work. Missio Dei affirms God’s loving mission to reconcile the entire creation to his original intent (e.g. Colossians 1:20). The “kingdom of God” is the restoration of God’s reign over the creation such that it reflects his design, and it encompasses overcoming not only the evils of personal sinfulness, but also the social and cultural evils of injustice, oppression, poverty, discrimination, violence, abuse of the creation, etc. Jesus heralded the dawn of this reconciliation, and the triune God continues to work sovereignly toward it, sometimes in ways that are perceptive to us and often in ways that are not. God’s desire for the world includes evangelism, but goes beyond to incorporate the development of God-honoring civil structures that reflect his desires for humankind.

Missio Dei sees the church as a necessary part of the work of God, but not the entirety of that work.  And the church makes its best contribution not by becoming a center that attracts the world to itself by delivering messages and providing religious goods and services through its programs, but by becoming a counter-cultural community that lives out the radical ethic of Jesus, thus becoming an embodiment of what God wants for the world as a whole. It also must be a mission outpost that equips and sends people into the community to be God’s instruments who join him in the missio Dei. Instead of being attractional in trying to bring people to the church to experience its offerings, it stresses becoming incarnational.  Incarnational is the sense that just as Christ was God incarnate, or the Son whom the Father sent from heaven to take up dwelling on earth in the flesh to redeem creation (John 1:14, Philippians 2:6-8), so the church is sent by God to incarnate, or take up dwelling in and around the community. It does so not for the sake of building up the church, but for the sake of spreading the kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6: 10) as well as to be a sign, foretaste, and instrument of the coming kingdom of God where the whole creation will be reconciled to God’s original intent.

Among the many exemplars of the Missional/Missio Dei perspective are the Gospel and Our Culture Network and Allelon. A perusal of these sites shows the Missional/Missio Dei conversation is dominated by academics. This sometimes sets missionals apart from emergents, with emergent being a more grass roots and popular level expression of the missional mindset. This characterization does not always hold true, however.

The next part in the series offers a few guiding observations regarding Missio Dei. See Missional Perspectives 04.

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Related Ministry Resources

Missional Perspectives for Christian Ministry:

See Resources on Over 100 Areas of Christian Ministry:

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