Missional Perspectives 05, Missio Dei Observations Continued

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Missional Perspectives for Church Leaders 05 – MISSIO DEI Observations, Pt 2

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. It is also Part Two of a discussion of guiding observations on Missio Dei. For all the articles in the series, see the index at the bottom of the page.

Part One offered five interpretive principles:

  1. Keep Missio Dei in perspective
  2. Maintain theological and moral integrity
  3. Stress the importance of the church in God’s economy
  4. Affirm individual salvation
  5. Acknowledge the full wealth of Scripture relative to the atonement

This article discusses two additional principles:

  1. Engage the breadth of Christian mission
  2. Use Missio Dei to encourage mission

Engage the breadth of Christian mission.

History reveals the tendency of missio Dei to result in an almost exclusive focus on societal transformation at the expense of dimensions such as conversionist evangelism (see Ott, Encountering Theology of Mission, 62ff). How should we respond?

Let’s begin with a common two-fold emphasis: the Great Commandment to love all humanity in ministries of compassion and justice (Matthew 22:34-40; Luke 4:18-19; et al.), and the Great Commission to make disciples of Christ among all nations by baptizing and teaching (Matthew 28:18-20). These are often referred to as “good news and good works,” with “good works” sometimes helpfully divided between the social service of addressing human need and social action of removing causes of human need through political influence and social justice activism (Ott, Encountering Theology of Mission, 140). North American Protestants and Evangelicals have acknowledged the two mandates of evangelism and social ministry since the days of Jonathan Edwards (Bosch, Transforming Mission, 403), but have always tended to shift toward one or the other. Integrating these two dimensions has been the subject of intense debate and even sharp division, especially within the last century. Controversy surrounding the “social gospel” is firmly etched into the history of neo-evangelical and other biblically conservative Christian movements.

Is one of these mandates more important? The book of Acts is instructive. Acts chronicles the church’s first post-resurrection witness to the world. It seems indisputable that Acts places a strong emphasis on good news as the apostles bore verbal witness to Christ’s resurrection (cf. Acts 1:8; Lk. 24:48; Acts 1:22; Acts 2:31-32; Acts 10:41-42). The conclusion of the Pentecost witness resulted in the creation of a new faith community as “those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.” (2:41) This new community “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (2:42) They were also marked by manifestations of the Spirit, hospitality, radical generosity, joy, and goodwill in the community. (2:43-47) The dynamic of baptizing, forming new faith communities, teaching, and doing good carries throughout the remainder of Acts. Clearly, the verbal proclamation that precedes and generates the entire picture falls within “mission” as the apostles understood it, so much so that when faced with the need of distributing food to the neglected widows in Acts 6 (good works), the apostles insisted that others accept this charge so they would not “neglect the ministry of the word of God [good news] in order to wait on tables [good works].” (6:2)

We should learn from this. Obviously, it takes preaching the good news to form the faith communities who do the good works. But part of the testimony of the Gospel is the good works that accompany the good news. One proclaims Christ and the other reflects his presence. The time-tested distinctions of “proclamation and presence,” and “root and fruit” are helpful. The root is the transformative work of the Spirit as the repentant, baptized community accepts and grows up in Christ. The fruit is the life of Christ manifested among them in their relationships with one another and the world, increasingly reflecting passion for and incarnational involvement with the people and causes that matter most to God.

There are at least two important keys. One is to not emphasize either for the purpose of excluding the other. When an interest in societal transformation stems from a repugnance for or neglect of a clear proclamation of the Gospel leading to repentance, faith, and baptism, it loses its transformative root. When an interest in evangelism arises from a lack of interest in social compassion and social justice, it fails to reflect identification with the full effects of the fall that tugged at the heart of Jesus. (cf. Luke 4:18-19; Matthew 9:35-36) Lesslie Newbigin expresses it beautifully:

The preaching of the Gospel and the service of men’s needs are equally authentic and essential parts of the church’s responsibility. But neither is a substitute for the other. No amount of service, however expert and however generous, is a substitute for the explicit testimony to Jesus Christ. No human deed can of itself take the place of the one deed by which the world is redeemed and to which we must direct men’s eyes. There is no equivalent to the Name of Jesus. But equally, the preaching of that Name will be empty, if he who speaks it is not willing to deal honestly and realistically with the issues that his hearers have to face. An escapist preaching which refuses this involvement is no true witness to the Kingdom. We are not to be reporters only, but also signs of the Resurrection, and that means that we are living out in our flesh the experience of victory over the powers of evil. …The true relation between the word and the deed is that both must be visibly rooted in the same reality; namely in that new community which is created and indwelt by the Holy Spirit… the word illuminates the deed, and the deed authenticates the word, and the Spirit takes them both to bear His witness to the Resurrection.” (“From the Editor,” International Review of Missions 54, October, 1965: 422)

Another key is to uphold the both-and nature of Christian mission, thus the title of Ron Sider’s work, Good News and Good Works. But can this balance be maintained? Let’s look at this question through two lenses, historical and theological.


History reveals that integrating the two mandates of evangelism and social ministry is easier said than done. For a brief but thorough discussion of this history, see Bosch, Transforming Mission, in the section, “Mission as the Quest for Justice” (400-408). A series of blogs by missiologist Ed Stetzer (no longer available) expressed three related insights.

First, history bears witness that many emphases on social ministry originate out of a desire to minimize evangelism. Even if they do not originate that way, they often move that direction.  

Second, despite good intentions, most attempts to integrate these dimensions have failed to accomplish either of them well.

Third, historian Stephen Neill concludes from previous missio Dei and Social Gospel movements of the 20th century that “if everything is mission, nothing is mission.” Inevitably, the focus shifts from global evangelization (often called “missions”) to societal transformation (often called “mission”). Stetzer observes, and I agree:

“It would be, in my opinion, the height of historical naivete to have the same conservations about the same issues and not consider the results of the last two times such conversations were had (the missio dei movement and Social Gospel both having struggled with similar issues as we do today).” (http://www.edstetzer.com/2010/03/monday-is-for-missiology-evang, inactive link, last accessed 2011)

Stetzer’s observations should not lead us to abandon all hope of integration, jettison one mandate, and plunge extremely into the other. It simply reminds us that pursing both while protecting the church from missional drift requires an unusual degree of diligence and intentionality.


Theologically, two points bear mentioning. First, we must never lose sight of the importance of both dimensions. Scripture reflects God’s all-encompassing love for the whole creation, with his redemptive aims including salvation from sin (John 3:16-17), the establishment of just and compassionate civilizations (Luke 4:18-19), and the recovery of creation from its bondage to decay (Romans 8:18-24). In this respect, Bosch (Transforming Mission) comments that “the missionary task is as coherent, broad and deep as the need and exigencies of human life,” and requires “the whole church bringing the whole gospel to the whole world.” He continues, that, “mission is God’s ‘yes’ to the world,” revealing his love and attention to “the realities of injustice, oppression, poverty, discrimination, and violence.” Conversely, “mission is also God’s ‘no’ to the world,” evangelistically proclaiming that “God’s reign is more than human progress on the horizontal plane” to bring about “the best people can expect from this world by way of health, liberty, peace, and freedom from want.” He reminds us that “neither a secularized church (that is, a church which concerns itself only with this-worldly activities and interests) nor a separatist church (that is, a church which involves itself only in soul-saving and preparation of converts for the hereafter) can faithfully articulate the missio Dei.” (10-11)

This requires that the church faithfully and creatively engage the tension between the two mandates of evangelism and social action. Evangelism is the vertical dimension and social action is the horizontal. Bosch’s quote from Visser ‘t Hooft of the World Council of Churches summarizes it nicely:

A Christianity which has lost it vertical dimension has lost its salt and is not only insipid in itself, but useless to the world. But a Christianity which would use the vertical preoccupation as a means to escape from its responsibility for and in the common life of man is a denial of the incarnation. (Transforming Mission, 408)

Second, while both are important, the vertical is the “ultimacy…the added weight or the center of gravity placed by the New Testament.” This is the contention of Ott, Encountering Theology of Missions: “though meeting spiritual, physical, psychological, and social needs can hardly be separated in practice, spiritual needs do have greater weight.” He continues:

The attempt to erase the distinction between “vertical and horizontal” needs is both unbiblical and misguided. Jesus taught…”What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36). J. Robertson McQuilkin comments, ‘If all people on earth could prosper and be given a college education, full employment prevailed, all injustice and warfare ceased, and perfect health prevailed, but people remained alienated from God, his father heart would still be broken. His priority for alienated humans is reconciliation to himself. In light of scripture’s clear and repeated teaching on the eternal consequences of one’s spiritual state — forgiveness and eternal life versus judgment and eternal condemnation — we must maintain that the spiritual and temporal needs of people cannot be placed on an equal plane.’” (146-147)

Use missio Dei to encourage mission

Historically, and still today, Missio Dei sometimes employs in ways that fail to encourage mission and actually confuse or sabotage mission. Again I defer to the observations of Ott (Encountering Theology of Mission, 62ff). At times missio Dei has lended to formulations

so vague that it could accommodate virtually any conception of mission. It became a ‘shopping cart’ term — one could put in or take out whatever one wanted. Missio Dei became a ‘Trojan horse’ in the theology of mission (Rosin, cited in D. J. Bosch 1991, 392) — with the term one could smuggle into ‘mission’ any pet theory or activity. On the other hand, missio Dei could remain so nebulous that it could simply mean all that God wants done in the world. Also, it could be critiqued that for some missio Dei led to an almost passive view of the role of the church (e.g. Aring 1971). James A. Scherer summarizes well; ‘In the decade of the 1960s, Missio Dei was to become the plaything of armchair theologians with little more than an academic interest in the practical mission of the church but with a considerable penchant for theological speculation and mischief making.’ (65)

For these reasons, many evangelical movements virtually abandoned the use of the term Missio Dei, though it still remains useful in most theological formulations of mission today, enough that “virtually all branches of Christianity…have embraced the term, albeit in different nuances.” (Ott, 65) This points to the enduring value of understanding God as missional, but encourages care in the way this is applied to how we participate in God’s mission.

It is important to maintain the breadth of Christian mission. We do this first by elevating the vertical dimension of reconciliation with God by salvation from sin and the sanctifying indwelling of the Spirit. Second, we concurrently insist on the horizontal demonstration of this reconciliation through the new community of faith that is involved in social service and social action wherever humanity experiences the effects of creation’s fall. To honor all of these dimensions requires a special degree of diligence and intentionality.

For further observations on a range of Missional Perspectives, see the list of Related Areas below.

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