The challenges of reformed mission in an ever-changing world

In 2014, the Brazilian artist, Henrique Oliveira, applied his strange but beautiful signature style of sculpture to an amazing installation of monumental proportions, and created a twisted network of gigantic tree roots out of recycled wood, called Transarquitetonica.  The artist described his work as:

It’s wood that has been taken from nature, has been cut down into geometric structures, and they have been used by society and discharged. And I take it back and I rebuild forms there again, creating true nature forms. It’s bringing back the tree aspects to the material… It’s not just an object, it’s an experience. (Oliveira)

In essence, Henrique Oliveira, uses ‘discharged wood’ which he reassembles in order to bring back the tree like aspects which it once embodied.  But the one ‘tree aspect’ which the artwork can’t truly reconstitute, is life.  The artwork merely gives the illusion of living tree roots.  In this sense, the Transarquitetonica serves as both metaphor and reminder to the church: merely reconstituting the aspects of Christian mission does not imply the embodiment of the missio Dei.

The church is rooted in eternal and historical truth but always clashing with the constant change of the present and future.  And so, 500 years later, the church is still challenged by Luther’s call for introspection and reformation, ecclesia semper reformanda est.  Without knowing what the future holds, the church has to navigate this fast-paced world, discerning the present of God’s work in anticipation of God’s future.  Motivated and compelled by the missio Dei.  The mission is figuring out where God has been, trying to catch-up with God’s present, and serving by joining in to build the future of God’s kingdom.

Defining the conversation

The missio Dei is the missional nature and calling which stems from the very nature of God – how we understand the church, as God’s unique community, is directly dependent on how we understand God.  God is a loving God and wants to save the broken world.  God, the Father, sends his Son to the world (John 3:16).  And subsequently, God, the Father and the Son, sends the Holy Spirit to the world (Acts 1:8; 2:4).  This sending love of God is termed the missio Dei.  It was in 1934 that Karl Hartenstein coined this term explaining mission as belonging to the essence of the church (Flett, 2010:131).  Mission is first and foremost understood as God’s mission and the church participates in God’s mission.  At the 1952 Willingen Conference of the International Missionary Council (IMC), the Trinitarian grounding for mission emerged (Flett, 2010:137-138).  This line of thought was further developed and mission was ultimately understood as primarily the work of the Trinity for the sake of the world (Bosch, 1991:392; Hooker, 2008:2; Van Gelder, 2007:18).

This understanding of the missio Dei leads to the rediscovery of ecclesiology as inherently missional.  The church’s only prerogative is to be part of the missio Dei.  Throughout the Bible God sends his people to take part in his mission (Wright, 2010:23).  And this nature and calling of the early church became evident after Jesus’ final words to the disciples.  They were to spread the good news – teaching all nations, and baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19).  Jesus sends them to the world, like His Father had sent Him (John 20:21).  The church is called to take part in God’s mission.  The church is called to discern where God is working in the world and to join in.  Hence, the Trinitarian God sends the church to the world.  The mission of the church, missio ecclesiae, is wholly dependent on the missio Dei.  The church is mission, and as such, all expressions of church are intent on partaking in the missio Dei.

The challenges of reformed mission in an ever-changing world

The ideological framework and theological validity of the missio Dei is the accepted premise of contemporary theological discourse.  But even though it is understood as the integral part of ecclesiology, the embodiment of this prerogative is as flawed as human nature and challenged by human progress.  Churches have a deep struggle with the incarnational aspects of theological truths rather than with the truths themselves.  Disseminating truth is not the same as embodying truth, or in layman’s terms: it is easier to know church than to be church.  Being church and partaking in mission means treading where metaphysical realism meets human pluralism, where simple truths clash with complex realities and where the zeitgeist interacts with eternity.  Different times and different challenges leads to differing expressions of the missio Dei.  To adhere to its calling, the church must continually re-examine itself in order to maintain its purity of doctrine and practice.  According to Barth (1956:705), “Semper reformari, however, does not mean always to go with the time, to let the current spirit of the age be the judge of what is true and false, but in every age, and in controversy with the spirit of the age, to ask concerning the form and doctrine and order and ministry which is in accordance with the unalterable essence of the Church… It means never to grow tired of returning not to the origin in time, but to the origin in substance of the community”.

This is why a growing number of leading missiological theologians direct their focus to the challenges faced by the contemporary church rediscovering its missional nature, in order to make sure that the church continually returns to the origin of its substance, the missio Dei.

The practice of studying and addressing these challenges have laid bare the inadequacies of current missiological praxis and the erroneous missiological paradigms resulting from churches gravitating away from ‘the origin of their substance’.  These enquiries have led to a critique of mere missiological platitudes, and has led to the rediscovery of a vocabulary that reclaims language and expressions which echo the church’s call to move beyond itself in service to God’s new way in the world.   It has also led to a growing awareness, that the old paradigms of power-centered mission in the West and Christian colonialism are no longer the frontiers of Christian mission.  In the words of Philip L. Wickeri (2004:4):

“Today, the crisis may be described in terms of the churches’ relationship to globalization, on the one hand, and to religious and cultural pluralism on the other.  The contrast between a Christian vision of the oikumene and the neo-liberal ideology of globalization, undergirded by American empire, has shaped the crisis in all of its forms.  Mission from the margins suggests that the cutting edge for mission today and throughout the history of the Christian churches comes from movements emerging outside established Christian centers – the African initiated churches, Pentecostals all over the world, the rural churches of China.  The missio Dei needs to be reshaped in the encounter of historic churches in the North with these movements in the South.  This will help Christians resist the forces of globalization and empire, and to respond anew to the gospel message for today.”

In the South African context and theology, the remnants of the nineteenth and early twentieth century missionary movement is still clearly visible.  This missionary movement was more about the expansion of the western religion and culture, with a meagre view of the church’s missional nature and calling.  On the one hand, Western Christians didn’t take into account that their theology was formed by their culture, the assumption was that it was supracultural and universally valid (Bosch, 1991:448).  And on the other hand, their way of implementing this theology revealed how they understood the church and this effected their understanding and form of mission.  Mission was only associated with cross-cultural missionary work, missionary societies, evangelism and church-planting missions (Wright, 2010:23).  Mission was confined to a certain aspect of being church.  And mission was perceived as the authoritative converting the meek, the theologically educated teaching the lay.  This is, in a big sense, still true in South Africa today.  Not only when it comes to how mission is understood, but also in the way we do church.  The church is trapped by institutional rational and there is a significant distinction between clergy and lay (Dreyer, 2011:79).  Although this can be theologically disputed by looking at 1 Petrus 2:5, churches tend to accept the priesthood of all believers in theory, but in practice it becomes secondary.

The missio Dei and our Reformed identity calls us to face these challenges.  Pressing questions need to be addressed:

  1. What does this mean for the marginalised, the powerless, the lay?
  2. What does this mean for the church in practice?
  3. And what does this mean for church leadership, the conceived position of power?