The End of Mission?

by George Bailey

I have a growing unease with the use of the term ‘mission,’ and also ‘missional’ which in the last 15-20 years has been used increasingly to identify churches or activities with an outwardly focused ecclesiology.[1] I find myself using them often; both as a ‘Lecturer in Mission’ and also as minister for churches which have recently undertaken ‘mission planning.’ The term ‘mission’ has patristic roots in the sending of the Spirit, but was taken up in the nineteenth century for the sending of people as ‘missionaries.’ The twentieth century has seen retrieval of the concept from cultural imperialism and denominational competition, and a recovery of its rootedness in the Trinity and missio Dei. Despite this theological rescue work, it is hard to use the term in a way sufficiently free from the prejudices of past errors.

There remain two simple semantic dangers with the terms ‘mission’ and ‘missional.’ Firstly, it is difficult to avoid an unhelpful dualism, dividing our life in Christ into separate spheres of activity. Merely by using the terms for some situations but not others, Christians invite the implication that there are some practices of discipleship which may be less than fully caught up in God sending love to the world through Jesus Christ. One possible strategy is to declare everything to be missional. The fact that this move invites the critique summed up by the phrase, “If everything is mission, nothing is mission”[2] is not an argument that mission must remain limited as a concept, but rather that it may be, at best, redundant, and, at worst, hindering theological insight. Secondly, even when we use the term ‘mission’ with an understanding of missio Dei in the background, simple grammatical structures lead us back into a human-centred attitude. The ‘mission of God’ has its source in God, and the direction and practical outworking is in God’s control. However, when we speak of ‘the mission of the Church,’ we ought to take the grammar differently such that the ‘of’ does not imply ownership or control for the Church. Though the one who says ‘mission’ may intend this shift in grammar, it is not easy to maintain as a church plans its activities, nor is it easy to predict or shape the ways it may be heard in the midst of secular understandings of mission as organisational goal setting.

If we just stopped using the word ‘mission,’ what would replace it? It is the Holy Spirit which connects the missio Dei to the mission of the Church; is subtle misuse of the term hindering the Church’s life in the Spirit? There are ample pre-modern theological sources to draw on, and many recent writers who have engaged with reframing mission, but Jürgen Moltmann’s theology is particularly helpful by focusing on the Trinity, rather than mission, yet remaining consistently ‘missional’ in its outcomes: “God’s mission is nothing less than the sending of the Holy Spirit from the Father through the Son into this world, so that this world should not perish but live.”[3] Theology of the Holy Spirit is rooted in several key Scripture passages, of which especially John 14-16 offers an understanding of the sending of the Spirit into and for the world, and the way the disciples are drawn into this sending. Jesus is leaving the disciples so that the Spirit will be sent to make him present with them (16:7), and where Jesus is present there is life (14:19). The Spirit glorifies Jesus in relations with the world (16:18), and draws the disciples into this process (16:14). As Moltmann puts it, the Spirit “convinces the world of its sins (16:7f), puts the unjust world to rights, and turns believers, from being the slaves and victims of sin, into free servants of the divine justice and righteousness which leads to eternal life in this world and the next (Rom.6:13f., 22).”[4] The Spirit will live in them (14:17) and by the renewed presence of Jesus their joy will be complete (16:22). The Spirit brings the world into the presence of Christ, and disciples in whom the Spirit lives are signs of the first fruits (Rom. 8:23) of the reign of God through the work of Christ.

In our speaking and writing, can the concept of ‘mission’ be replaced by a renewed discourse about the life of the Holy Spirit making real the presence of Jesus Christ? Semantically this is a significant challenge as ‘mission’ serves as convenient shorthand, but if the shorthand is obscuring the work of the Spirit, perhaps it is worth attempting?

 

[1] Craig Van Gelder and Dwight J. Zscheile trace the developing use of this term from 1998 onwards in The Missional Church in Perspective: Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011).

[2] David Bosch quotes this phrase as formulated by Stephen Neill in 1959; Transforming Mission, (New York: Orbis Books: 1991), p.511.

[3] The Source of Life: The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), p.19.

[4] The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation (London: SCM, 1992), p.123.

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5 thoughts on “The End of Mission?”

  1. You make a good case for a moratorium on the word ‘mission’. One of the problems with the evangelical Protestant emphasis on activism is that we subsume God’s activity into our own and – as you say – make humanity more central than God. You also challenge me to think of and refer to the Holy Spirit much more readily in my theology.

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  2. Thank you, Richard. Maybe theologically ‘mission’ and ‘missional’ will stay, but one result of this thinking process for me has been the serious attempt to modify not only theological writing, but also my language in situations where I would previously have used the words, and instead to talk about the Holy Spirit – with some interesting results in worship, meetings and conversations.

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  3. I really appreciate this post George – thank you! I too am concerned about the use of language particularly the seemingly interchangeability of words like mission – outreach – evangelism etc. I also have concerns with the suffix ‘al’ such as mission-al and incarnation – al. It some how undermines the essence of the root word.

    I’m interested in the linguistic shift you make from ‘mission’ to ‘Spirit’ which carries with it a theological shift. It raises a question for me about the role and place of the Church. Presumably, the Spirit is fully effective and operative without the agency of the Church? (which raises further questions about why the world is not ‘convinced of its sin’) and yet, the Church is caught up in the slip stream of the work of the Spirit.

    So when we recover a theology of mission that more adequately accounts for the Spirit are we then left with an ecclesiological vacuum? or to put it another way – once we have made the necessary move you are asking for are we then left with a new theological task to reimagine Church?

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    1. Thanks for this, Simon. I think you are probing at a key dividing issue in ‘missio Dei style’ ecclesiologies – some almost sideline the Church as struggling to keep up with the Spirit, and even as non-essential, whereas others understand the Church to be the primary way that the work of the Spirit is experienced in the world. As far as I can see the latter view is much closer to a New Testament understanding, so I’m not sure I’d go as far as to say we face a vacuum – it is through the Church that the Spirit makes Jesus’ presence real, hence verses which put it as strongly as Eph 1:23 – the Church is Christ’s “body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” This is somewhat challenging whenever churches find it difficult to embody Christian faith, never mind Christ himself, but it does sharpen the pressing need to engage with the Spirit-led transformation that is necessary, and entirely for the sake of the world (ie, what one might, carefully, call ‘mission’…). Do we then get on to practical questions of what is or is not the Church? To what extent will the Spirit transform the communities which already exist as Church, and to what extent will continuity be maintained by new communities becoming Church? How will relations with ‘the world’ be transformed along with any new shape for the Church? So, yes, I do see the necessity of re-imagining Church.

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  4. Thank you, and very helpful as I attempt a literature review related to this. TBH I’m finding these discussions somewhat surprising, as somewhere along the line I have imbibed the view that “mission” refers to the total work of God, and thus the total work of the church (recognising that God also works outside the church). “Evangelism” I do want to reclaim – sometimes we’ve made everything “evangelistic” in an open sense, such that drinking a cup of coffee with someone is “evangelistic” because the conversation might just eventually mention Jesus/God/Kingdom attributes etc etc. “Evangelism” is one part of mission – certainly equal to other parts (service, learning & caring, worship to use Methodist language), and I’d like to resist giving one part priority over others, perhaps.
    Instead I want to focus what “evangelism” means in practice, taking account of the view that conversion is a long process more often than an event, and that evangelism needs to include (initial?) Christian formation & discipleship.
    Even that evangelism might be needed to help us move on/deeper in our faith (a bit like Fowler’s stages of faith maybe?), but hopefully avoiding the assumption that we need constant re-evangelising, because the first evangelism didn’t ‘take’ properly and we won’t ‘properly’ converted.
    Oh hum, I’ve still got a lot to sort out!

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