It is often said that mission is the mother of theology. In the history of the church it is the missionary attempt to bear faithful witness to the gospel in the midst of surrounding cultures that provides the context for all theological reflection.
In fact, the New Testament may be best understood as a collection of writings focused on challenges of missionary witness and practice. For instance, the letters of Paul are written in connection with his missionary activity, particularly in relationship with the gentiles. They focus on questions of faith and practice that arise from his engagement with both newly formed Christian communities and the worlds around them.
The Gospels are missional reflections on the life and ministry of Jesus that arise in the context of particular cultural settings and concerns. Indeed, the origins of all the New Testament documents are found in the witness of the earliest Christians who were telling the story of Jesus and reflecting on the implications of that story for themselves and the world around them in the common idioms of their day.
From this perspective, the use of the adjective “missional” to describe theology would seem redundant since theology sprang from mission. However, with the advent of Christendom, a system of church-state partnership in which the Christian religion maintains a unique, privileged and protected place in society, the missionary impulse for theology was minimized.
The substance of the Western Christian tradition took its distinctive shape during the long period in which the missionary impulse of the church was largely dormant. The intuitions and assumptions that governed the practice of theology were those of an assumed Christian culture rather than a missionary encounter. This situation had a profound effect on the discipline of theology and led to its virtual separation from the missionary witness of the church.
These patterns are so ingrained that even as our context changes and we enter an increasingly post-Christian environment, theology is still generally viewed as a specialized academic discipline focused on the debates and concerns that arose from its formation in Christendom rather than a church-based discipline focused on the mission.
The effort to repair this divide and restore the inherent relationship between mission and theology evidenced in the New Testament and the early Christian community has resulted in the emergence of missional theology as an alternative model for theological thinking. It arises from the conviction that God is missional and therefore the church of this God must also be missional.
Mission is at the heart of the biblical narratives concerning the work of God in human history. It begins with the call to Israel to be God’s covenant people and the recipient of God’s covenant blessings for the purpose of blessing the nations, and reaches it revelatory climax in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
It continues through the sending of the Spirit as the one who calls, guides and empowers the church for mission. This missional calling is captured in the words of Jesus: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21).
Hence, the outworking of God’s mission in the world looks like this: God the Father sends the Son; Father and Son send the Spirit; and Father, Son and Spirit send the church into the world.
Viewed in this way, mission defines the church as God’s sent people and is therefore at the very core of the church’s reason and purpose for being. Mission is not simply one of the many programs of the church; it should shape all that the church is and does.
The challenge is to move from being a community with a mission program to becoming a truly missional community. To fund this missional re-imagination of the church, the relationship between mission and theology must be restored.
In other words, the discipline of theology, if it is to serve the witness of the church, must move from theology with a mission component to a truly missional conception of theology in which mission is at the center of its methods and concerns. This restoration is vital to the future of the church in North America if it is to navigate the opportunities and challenges of its post-Christian future. NFJ
—John R. Franke is theologian in residence at Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, and general coordinator for the Gospel and Our Culture Network.