When someone as prominent as Mark Galli, editor in chief of Christianity Today, puts the social gospel and the missional movement in the same basket, claims they both share a fundamental flaw in seeing the purpose of the church in instrumental terms (meaning, the church exists for the world), and then urges us to abandon a missional orientation to the church, I take note.

In the past few columns (see here, here, and here), we’ve looked at Mark’s critique of the missional movement and his proposal for a different outlook. Today, I’m putting his critique in wider context, to show how missiology moved from what was essentially a church-centered view to a mission-centered view in the past 70 years or so.

Older Understandings of ‘Mission’

Throughout church history, “mission” has been understood in a number of ways. But in the past 60 to 70 years or so, we’ve seen a decisive shift toward viewing mission as God’s first and foremost, which has led to a revamping of our understanding of the church’s mission in light of what God’s mission is.

In Transforming Mission (a book Christianity Today named as one of the most significant of the 20th century), David Bosch lays out older ways of thinking about mission:

Sometimes it was interpreted primarily in soteriological terms as saving individuals from eternal damnation. Or it was understood in cultural terms: as introducing people from the East and the South to the blessings and privileges of the Christian West. Often it was perceived in ecclesiastical categories: as the expansion of the church (or of a specific denomination). Sometimes it was defined salvation-historically: as the process by which the world—evolutionary of by means of a cataclysmic event—would be transformed into the kingdom of God.

Mission of God

These paradigms for mission began to change after WWI with the theology of Karl Barth. Barth was largely responsible for introducing the idea that mission was an activity of God himself, and he placed the mission of God within the framework of systematic theology (especially Trinitarian theology). Bosch again:

The classical doctrine on the missio Dei as God the Father sending the Son, and God the Father and the Son sending the Spirit was expanded to include yet another “movement”: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit sending the church into the world. As far as missionary thinking was concerned, this linking with doctrine of the Trinity constituted an important innovation.

What are the implications of this development? Our mission is connected to God’s mission. As John Stott said, he is a missionary God before we ever are a missionary church. We participate in his own mission of seeking and saving the lost. Bosch writes:

In the new image 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 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 for that mission. There is church because there is mission, not vice versa. To participate in mission is to participate in the movement of God’s love toward people since God is a fountain of sending love.

Missions and Mission

One implication of this shift was a distinction between missions and mission.

With reference to the post-Willingen period, bishop Stephen Neill boldly proclaims, “The age of missions is at an end; the age of mission has begun.” It follows that we have to distinguish between mission and missions. We cannot without ado claim that what we do is identical to the missio Dei; our missionary activities are only authentic insofar as they reflect participation in the mission of God.

Ever-Expanding Mission

Because God’s concern involves the whole world, it was said, the scope of the church’s mission should be expanded too. But about this time, the idea was introduced that God’s mission doesn’t happen exclusively through the church. It didn’t take long before this new concept went off the rails. Eventually, some leaders began to discard the church as the instrument of God’s mission altogether. Bosch sums up:

Those who supported the wider understanding of the concept tended to radicalize the view that the missio Dei was larger than the mission of the church, even to the point of suggesting that it excluded the church’s involvement.

Evangelicals got off the missio Dei train well before it went off the rails, watching how the World Council of Churches and other denominations wedded to last century’s ecumenical movement lost their evangelistic edge and watered down the mission to “Christians making the world a better place.”

Intramural debates among evangelical leaders have focused primarily on a broad or narrow understanding of the church’s purpose in the world and where the emphasis should fall. (See Billy Graham and John Stott, or more recent conversations about the mission of the church.)

But don’t miss the big picture. After Barth, there was a paradigm shift that grounded the church’s mission within the larger mission of God. Bosch didn’t see us ever going back to a more church-centered view:

The recognition that mission is God’s mission represents a crucial breakthrough in respect of the preceding centuries. It is inconceivable that we could again revert to a narrow, ecclesiocentric view of mission.

Never say never. The more you study church history, the less likely you should think “it’s inconceivable that we could revert back” to something else. We’re seeing today some pushback against the current forms of missio Dei thinking, and even a resurgence of a church-centered view of mission, one that believes it is wrong to see the church as an “instrument” for God’s greater purposes. And it’s not just Mark Galli pushing back. More to come in the next column.

This is the fourth column in a series. See the follow-up posts below.