The Origin of Theology in God’s Mission

The Origin of Theology in God’s Mission

Missio Dei and the Reorganizing of the Human Family

The proclamation of God’s saving grace to the whole world is why we are here, and it has been with the church from the beginning. It is seen in the sermons of Peter to people from all nations at Pentecost and later to Cornelius, by Stephen to Cyrenians, Egyptians and Asians which cost him his life, Paul to Gentile governors Felix and Festus and then all the way across what is now Turkey, Greece and Italy. Pentecost was the beginning of the apostolic mission and therefore the birth of the church. We sometimes get that backwards, but God’s mission in Christ by the Holy Spirit gave birth to the church to continue the work of the apostles throughout the known world, the oikoumene. Paul writes in Romans 15:23: “But now, with no further place for me in these regions (meaning Greece and Asia Minor), I desire, as I have for many years, to come to you in Rome when I go to Spain.” God’s global mission is why there are maps in the back of our study Bibles and in our Sunday School rooms. Geography is immensely important from Genesis to Revelation. And it should be very important to the church today.

The word “mission” has been co-opted by the military, but also by marketing and public relations. Every hotel has a mission statement on the wall, and every business seems to have one promising good service. But the word “mission” means “sent.” It comes from the Latin mittere used to translate the Greek apostelein. It gives us the word “apostle:” the ones who are sent. Even the word for the Catholic “mass” is derived from this. We find the idea of God’s sending as revelation and liberation in many texts. We read this both in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament: God sends light and truth in Ps. 43:3, angels in Genesis 18:2, God’s presence with Moses Ex. 33:34, Nehemiah 2:12 to rebuild Jerusalem, Isaiah 6:8 “Send me.” In Isaiah 19:20 “a Savior” will be sent, and Jeremiah in 1:7 is sent protesting he was just a boy. We find the word sent throughout the New Testament, but especially John 3:16-17 “sent his only begotten son”, and in John 17:3 before the Last Supper in the upper room: “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” The word occurs seven times in that chapter alone. And in John 20:21, the resurrected Christ says: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

I was asked to speak about the Theology of Mission, because we need to reflect on why we commit ourselves to service with Global Ministries. We need to think about that because the why of our work has implications for what we do and how we do it, the praxis of our being sent somewhere and being received by someone and all the relationships behind it. An example is response to authority. I remember a person working in France years ago whose theology did not prepare him for being expected to give a report on his work to an assembly of churches there. The head of the church wrote him: “Je vous demande de le faire,” and he replied, “No one demands me to do anything.” But the word demander in French is “ask” not “require,” and his theologically-challenged attitude was compounded by his misunderstanding of the language. Another example of the need for a theological assumption was when I was village pastor in France and had to sweep out buckets full of flies that died on the windows of the church when cold weather came in October. I chopped the wood, built the fire Saturday to have the church a little bit warm on Sunday, and swabbed the tall windows to kill the flies and stop the loud buzzing. That was not part of my education for ministry, but I realized that it was part of my education for mission.

But more important than what we are assigned to do, theological reflection is necessary to sustain ourselves spiritually in a strange culture, in difficult circumstances, and hard knocks. I think of a person working in Hong Kong who was teased for being American whenever a colleague drank too much. She was miserable sometimes and tried to correct that situation, but she drew strength from the fact that she had been sent there as a sign of the solidarity of her church through the Division of Overseas Ministries to do work for human rights. Also, our theology of mission illuminates the positive and joyous moments as well, because our spiritual support gives perspective in the best times, when we praise God for feeling good and being glad to be there. The thing that I appreciate most about 35 years of cross-cultural mission work in Indianapolis and in Geneva before that are the great majority of young people and not so young that I have helped send overseas who were happy for that opportunity and felt successful about it. Even that requires a theological insight to avoid secular and selfish explanations of things turning out well and to praise God for the grace we experience.

I know DOM personnel that were not adequately prepared for a theological understanding of their appointment, and I will always regret that. They did their jobs well. They made good friends with co-workers. But they did not find spiritual strength in prayer or Scripture when they needed it or integrate with the local church. Their presence was theologically authentic, but that was a dimension they missed and could not interpret to others. After they returned home, they had no further connection with the church, no sense of stewardship, no communication of life in Christ from another culture.

Theology of mission is an expression of the whole of theology, what Simone Weil called “the Christian conception.” What are the themes of theology? The importance of Scripture and the revelation of God we find there, creation, covenant, law and the prophets for justice in all our ways, Incarnation in the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and completion of Christ and the coming Kingdom of God which Jesus preached, Atonement, Eschatology, Liturgy of Confession and Pardon, Eucharist in the community, Holy Spirit, prayer and the holiness of life. A German theologian wrote: Mission ist Wort Gottes leben! – mission is living the Word of God.

A genuine theology of mission for our two churches begins with the origin of theology, itself. Theology as such is born of God’s Mission. Mission is the heart of sound theology. Emil Brunner once said: “The church exists by mission the way fire exists by burning.” This is why I never use the term “missiology,” because it makes mission a category alongside everything else, as an affair of specialists. I used to tell students at CTS, we don’t study a theology of mission but the mission of theology. Mission belongs in every class at the seminary, because it is the story of God’s dealing with the world. It is the heart of Scripture, church history, doctrine, preaching and worship, ethics, and counseling. Mission, locally and globally, should be the concern of every congregation and Christian, because the Holy Spirit is directed not only inwardly for the peace of our souls but outwardly towards the world and the making of history for the peace of human beings. Still, our theology of mission must never overlook or minimize the presence of the Spirit in personal life for goodness, peace, consolation, hope and courage in the face of difficulty and death. A founder of the Disciples of Christ Alexander Campbell, president of a predecessor body to DOM and Global Ministries from 1849 to his death in 1866, used to sign his letters and photographs: “In the hope of immortality, A. Campbell.” Julia wrote in a first draft of Critical Presence: “How do we accompany our partners who are ministering to and living with the dying?”

So, that is why we look at the subject of theology for missionary service. Obviously, there are different theologies of mission, reflecting where one went to seminary, the church or para-church mission organization, and even personal faith and vocation. I put “mission organizations” on the search bar and had over six million sites available on the Internet. Names like Africa Inland Mission, Arab World Ministries, Greater Europe Mission, Mission to Unreached Peoples, World Gospel Mission, etc. This week I got a letter from Jehovah Faith Evangelical Ministries in India and one about a missions focus event at Abilene Christian University in Texas sponsored by the Halbert Institute of Missions. “Theology of Mission” is relative to a context.

The theology of mission operative in Global Ministries comes from the experience of nearly 200 years for the UCC (1810) and over 150 years for Disciples of Christ (1849). My article “Mission as Ecclesiology” in the 1997 book The Vision of Christian Unity, gives details of the Strategy of World Mission of 1958 and General Principles and Policies of 1981, which were officially authorized by the denomination for the theology of mission of the Disciples of Christ. The same documentation could be cited for the UCC. The Common Board has endorsed similar statements, such as the recent one on Critical Presence, which you have here. You also have the paper “Guiding Principles”: sharing life in Christ, sharing persons in mission, telling the Gospel story, healing God’s continuing creation, and inter-faith dialogue and cooperation. There is nothing arbitrary about our basic theological contention for the ecumenical implementation of world ministries.

I propose seven standards that define our theology of mission:

A first standard is Christian unity. It is represented to the world in the two churches’ bringing together their denominational global ministries of long standing into a Common Global Ministries Board. That unity was theological not utilitarian. It was met with enthusiasm by our respective partners and former mission relations around the world, many of whom are united churches. It is my opinion that with the demise of the Division of Overseas Ministries of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, which was the spearhead of the North American crosscultural international network of interchurch relations, i.e. the missionary enterprise, the most important development at the end of the 20th century, pointing to the next century, is the Common Global Ministries Board. It was a gift to us from our partners. D.T. Niles, at an assembly of the East Asia Conference of Churches (now the Christian Conference of Asia) in Kuala Lumpur, challenged the two boards to unite their staff in view of their urging their former mission churches to organize the Church of North India and united churches in every other place where they had had mission work. Thanks to the response of Alford Carleton and Virgil Sly, then T. J. Liggett and Robert A. Thomas, since 1967 there have been joint offices serving both boards leading to the Common Board thirty years later. First was Southern Asia under Teller Mook and then Eric Gas, then Latin America and the Caribbean from 1968 to 1971 by myself and then after 1989 with David Vargas. Since January 1, 1994, with the simultaneous retirements of me and Scott Libbey, all area executive secretaries were shared, as well as the personnel officer, recruitment, deputation, etc. UCBWM and DOM did not have separate agendas. The motivation was the emphasis of the 1960’s on Joint Action for Mission and the strong ecumenical commitment of the two churches, related to the same partners in many places and wishing to put into practice signs of Christian unity in world mission and bring some reality to their professions of ecumenical commitment.

I told the heads of denominational mission units of the mainline churches in January that their churches made the 19th century “the American Protestant missionary century” and the 20th century “the worldwide ecumenical century.” The first ecumenical meetings were missionary meetings like the Union Missionary Convention in New York in 1854, London in 1888 and New York in 1900. The missionary movement was the Mother of the quest for Christian unity, and the World Missionary Conference of Edinburgh in 1910 which gave us the International Missionary Council and the World Council of Churches was its cradle. The theology of mission of Global Ministries was forged by the anti-colonial struggles and the autonomy of churches around the world, many of them united churches in which our former missions participated, like the Philippines, Japan, Thailand, Congo, India, Jamaica, or post-denominational in China. We learned from Gandhi, Bonhoeffer, Kagawa, Luthuli, Martin Luther King, Mandela, Tutu, Medardo Gomez. The ecumenical agenda became our agenda: justice for the poor, anti-racist, human rights, liberation of women and girls from violence and lack of opportunity, peace, and inter-religious living. It is inconceivable that our representatives not feel right at home in the Ninth General Assembly in Porto Alegre last month and endorse its vision of Christian unity out of their own self-understanding and history.

A second standard is political in the best sense of that word. What we are talking about is by no means confined to denominational concerns or to the Christian religion, itself, but wrestles with the ideologies, conflicts, mythologies, and illusions that are prevalent in the world today. The general theme of our time has different titles like the New World Order, Globalization, Ecological Sustainability, Multiculturalism, Imperial America, the Search for Common Values and Peace, etc. Brazilian artist Sebastiao Salgado calls it “the reorganizing of the human family.” Mission in its cultural form motivates the gifted playwrights, musicians, artists and novelists of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The Irish Rock Star Bono addressed the World Economic Forum in Doha, Qatar, last year calling for meeting the millennial goal of .07% of GNP for the Third World and canceling the external debt. The movement is called ONE – the Make Poverty History Project. For a theology that originates in God’s Mission, attention to literature and theater is important. The Oscars go to movies that are provocative with social and political themes like Crash, Syriana, Munich, Good Night and Good Luck, Rwanda, etc. Many new Broadway plays and movies deal with theological themes of sin, forgiveness, love, and redemption. (Thomas Mann said that everything Dostoevsky wrote was religious but dealt with damnation instead of salvation.) Mass demonstrations of young people protest for a meaningful existence and a good future. The Enron scandal poses again the irony of cheating and greed in an economic system based by definition on fair business practices, and business leaders speak of the need again for a kind of capitalism with democratic conscience and means of a safety net, which is a minimal regard for justice.

When William Macklin, a Canadian, was sent by the Disciples of Christ as their first missionary to China in the 1880’s, he founded the Drum Tower Hospital in Nanjing. Today, even under Communist administration, there is a picture of him in the board room alongside Sun Yat Sen, modern China’s revolutionary founding father. The symbolism illustrates the little-known fact that Dr. Macklin personally financed a Chinese translation of socialist Henry George’s Progress and Poverty and that, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Sun Yat Sen was influenced by reading Henry George!

Charles Garst, with his wife Laura Delany, the first missionaries of the Disciples of Christ in Japan, organized a study group in their home in Akita which became in the twentieth century the Socialist Party of Japan! Neva Nicholson, who served as a village evangelist in India for 35 years, lived “outside the wire” of Bilaspur, because she chose to identify with the poor women who lived in the railroad area. These men and women were classical evangelists and went across the world to preach the Gospel, but they had the whole social and political condition in their understanding of the biblical message.

A third standard is religious pluralism and multiculturalism. Preman Niles calls it “God’s people in the midst of all of God’s peoples.” The concerns of a Theology of Mission are shared with all other religions, especially the great ancient traditions which have shaped civilizations up to the present. So inter-religious dialogue acquires new meaning. French theologian Maurice Pivot has said that the theology of mission in the Roman Catholic Church has been transformed since the pope’s first prayer convocation with representatives of other religions in 1986. The World Parliament of Religions issues declarations like “Towards a new global ethic.” There is an International Network of Engaged Buddhists dealing with issues of social justice.

In its analytical form, this subject faces the scientists, philosophers, sociologists, and economists working on problems critical to the future of humanity. Their studies and projections are basic responses. The theology of mission is part of the entire intellectual, ethical and aesthetic reality of life, expressed by the theological principle of the Logos which points both to the intelligible wholeness of the Creation, itself, and to the One in whose name mission is to be taken seriously.

IV .
A fourth standard is partnership with sister churches and people’s movements. The result of the history of mission theology that pertained to both of our churches is seen in the policies adopted long ago. The goal since a famous declaration in 1855 by Rufus Anderson, another ancestor of the Common Board, was described as “self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating.” In China, this even became the Three Self Movement dedicated to an autonomous national church and supportive of the 1949 revolution. The Three Self Movement of the Church in China is still criticized by evangelical groups opposed to the China Christian Council, its leader K.H. Ting, and the churches openly worshiping and serving today. In 1925, this letter published by the Canton Missionary Council by Mr. S.C.Leung of Kwangtung, China, surfaced at the 1928 Jerusalem conference of the International Missionary Council (IMC ):

It seems to me that the time has now come when the missions and missionaries might well consider the question of re-organizing themselves on a different basis so that the missions and the Chinese church will hereafter not appear as two parallel organizations, and that all activities initiated, maintained, and financed by the missions should be expressed only through the Chinese church….A second suggestion is that the Chinese church, through the highest church council, should be encouraged and given the privilege to deal with the mission boards in matters of mutual interest, so that a closer fellowship and a more direct relationship between the Chinese church and the churches in the West could be established.

After World War II, wars of independence against colonialism, and the inauguration of the World Council of Churches in 1948, the Willingen Conference of the IMC was a definitive turning-point in 1952. From that time on, missionary societies and boards became mission units of the churches, and leadership of autonomous churches cooperated with each other in a new way. I mentioned earlier the Strategy of World Mission that came out of that meeting in 1958 recognizing autonomous churches, the end of “foreign missions,” and the plans for partnership in decision making. This was what most career missionaries had been working towards for years, but hard for some to accept or understand.

Building on this policy statement, under the leadership of the late Robert A. Thomas and after more than four years’ study and discussion in the DOM board of directors, General Principles and Policies was approved at the Anaheim General Assembly in 1981. It said, “The time for western domination of the church’s life and witness around the world is past. Partnership and mutuality, servanthood and sharing are the words descriptive of world mission today.” Along with sections on transferring all overseas properties to legal entities of the partner churches and institutions, commitment was made to “a dialogical style” with people of other faiths and ideologies, since “God has never in any time or place been without witness.” The increase in joint funding of overseas personnel with other denominations and communion with united churches was affirmed. The document speaks of multinational economics, because partnership calls for that kind of advocacy for the Third World. It maintained that from the point of view of churches in the Third World, the management of the earth and its resources is exploitative and oppressive and calls for “solidarity with the poor in their struggle for liberation and justice.”

Partnership led to the exchange of persons in mission who are responsible to national church authorities, being invited by partner churches to share in Christ’s mission as they see it, and having appointments for given periods rather than expecting lifetime service to a mission board. Some partners like the United Church of Christ in the Philippines drew up detailed manuals on how persons were to be recommended and selected, who was responsible for financial oversight, personal conduct, and employment agreements. The partnership policy was implemented by the Common Board by having a voting member from each of the six regions. This is important and valuable but imperfect, because it is not certain how the church represented experiences and shares fully in the actions of the Common Board. This can be perceived in observations by the partner board members and concerns that North Americans still think about mission in a unilateral and possessive way. The fault, in my opinion is the inevitable nature of North American denominationalism.

A model of partnership that I fear is unattainable but instructive nonetheless is the mutation of the Paris Missionary Society into Cevaa in 1971, the London Missionary Society into the Council for World Mission (CWM) in 1977, and the Wuppertal Mission to United Evangelical Mission (VEM) sometime in the 1990’s. Forty-some member churches make up “a community of churches in mission” in the biannual General Assembly of Cevaa. Over thirty compose CWM and about as many in VEM. African, South Pacific, Caribbean and Asian churches predominate. The process is based on mutuality, interdependence, communication and a structure for common planning and decision making on an equal basis. Since these were previously interdenominational mission organizations of a national and linguistic character, they could structure themselves in a way not possible in North America, especially after Joint Action for Mission of the 1960’s gave way to economic stringencies and denominational interests.

Cevaa’s Exchange of Persons Guidelines shows the mutuality of relations among churches in a community of equality in mission. They explain: “To fulfill their mission, the churches of Cevaa decide to put certain of their members at the disposition of each other or to send them singly or in teams to other places and situations.” The purpose of sending and receiving persons is stated simply and theologically: a- to help each other in the announcing of the Gospel in their ministry of building up the church and its members in Jesus Christ; b- to contribute as partners in the same community so that humans might live as responsible beings in liberty, justice, and peace; c- to share needs and wealth in humans, in ideas, in money and in every other resource, in accordance with the imperatives of the Gospel.

There is an important proviso: Cevaa does not exchange or send personnel, member churches do. The objective is that there be among all the churches of the Community a true exchange by means of persons, human beings who go and who come, discover, seek to understand a culture and to translate what is essential in their own. The theological reflection is: “A way to speak the Gospel today in our world consists of breaking barriers and opening ways of understanding.”

The practical terms of agreement for hosting and assigning ministry to the envoyés or envoyées are spelled out in detail for the sending church, the receiving church and the office of coordination and administration in Montpellier. The word missionary appears in “missionary church” and “missionary programs” but not of the “sendees” or personnel. Specific policies used by the churches today for ecumenical missionary service are very similar to one another.

A fifth standard is awareness of the signs of the times. A current book list shows the concern of intellectuals for the future of democratic society, the need for community, the gap between rich and poor, and standards of justice and truth. Amy Chua’s World On Fire is an example, or Herman Daly and John Cobb’s For the Common Good. A contrast is Robert D. Kaplan’s The Coming Anarchy or John Gray’s False Dawn: the Delusions of Global Capitalism. We could cite Ann Coulter on one side and Michael Moore on the other. Thomas Friedman writes about the world being flat. Theology of mission deals with what is everyone’s concern but from the standpoint of the Gospel. Seminars are held regularly on the crisis of the environment, human rights, and the globalization of information and production. This spiritual challenge addresses heads of states and government representatives in its political and social form. September 11 raises anxious discussions of “Why they hate us,” justifying the virtues of western culture on one hand or on the other describing the ways in which others feel humiliated by the West. The industrialized world is called a minority at risk, “a prosperous ghetto.”

The Church has a responsibility to worship and follow the living God who is mysteriously present in the world, both hidden and revealed, and at the same time the Church must be aware of what is going on in the world, today, moving us towards an unknown future. Theology of Mission is our attempt to discern and to participate in the Mission of God, embracing all people, and giving meaning and purpose to human history, in fact to the discovery and perception of the universe. To all people, the moral nature of life and the structures of society are central to the joy, hope, justice and peace of a new generation.

A sixth standard is what Dorothy Sölle calls “trying to live out of the Truth of Christ.”

(Aus der Wahrheit Christi leben.) This is why Theology of Mission is closely related to worship, to the chapel as much as to the library. It calls for intercessory prayer – radical dependence on God – and must be sustained by meditation of God’s Word in Scripture and God’s Spirit in human experience, as much as by theological reflection. It is awareness of the sacred will of God. We do not speak of the Missio Dei in the third person, because God is the subject of mission in a global context. Our attention is on the living God and God’s gracious will for the world.

Because the spiritual and intellectual challenge is essential to our times, the Bible is central in a special way, not only because it is the book of the Church, but because it makes its own claim to our response in repentance, faith and fulfillment: “that they might have life and have it abundantly.”

It is the Bible that conveys the theological basis of mission: not just the great texts of the New Testament that we rely on, as important as they are, but the global project of God, the basileia, Kingdom or Reign of God preached and promised by Jesus. This is the core of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, running all through it: Ps. 96, Ps. 24:1-2, Genesis 9:12-17 also 12:1-3, Isaiah 32:17-18; 51:4; 65:17-25 ( 2 Peter 3:13; Rev. 21:1-2). Only after we have understood what God wills for the world can we talk about the Christian mission in the world. Only then can we turn to the mission texts of the New Testament: Matt 28:19 (with Matt. 25:31), Mark 16:15 (with Mark 9:2), Luke 24:47 (with Luke 6:20), John 20:21 (with John 13:5), Acts 1:4-8 (Acts 2:44), Phil. 2:10 (with 2:3), etc. The Great Commission texts must never be taken by themselves but always with the sense of the whole Scripture behind them. The mission Jesus gave his disciples is not an abstraction but is seen in all of his life and teaching, especially his stand for the poor.

A seventh standard is theological imagination. When I was teaching “Mission in a Global Context,” one of our texts was Clark Williamson’s book Way of Blessing, Way of Life (1999), because our theology of mission is embedded in the best systematic theology we can find. An example is on page 158, where we read: “The thesis of this post-Shoah theology is simple: All these strangers are our neighbors on planet Earth, neighbors whom God has given us to love, whose well-being is given to us to guard and protect, those toward whom we are to see that justice is done.” Our theology of mission leads us to try to see that in the perspective of the human cost of economic globalization, international relations affecting war and peace, Christian unity across cultural lines, and service to those in need on a world scale.

I did a translation last week by e-mail for the French Protestant Federation in Paris. The title was: “Protestant Churches in the Face of Secularization.” It reminds me that we must always ask how our theology addresses the society around us, because that is its mission. The president of the French Reformed Church Marcel Manoël said: “ the mission of the Church in the society which displays itself to us is always that of preaching the liberator Gospel, a gospel which is summoned today, I believe, to unmask and denounce the individualist idolatry, this adoration of oneself and the sacralization of one’s own desire, with what that signifies of turning inward, of shortening time to the individual level and no longer to that of history or of hope, of fear for the future and of powerlessness for political action, and ultimately of the deadening necessity to justify oneself unceasingly, most often against others. It is there that we find the message of justification by faith, that message which is at the heart of our Protestant identity, which we are once again called to preach and to put into practice in a new way.”

Walter Brueggemann says it for Americans in Hope for the World: Mission in a Global Context (2001): “The Mission of the Christian Movement in the Twenty-first Century is to Confess Hope in Action.” In a concluding chapter, pages 156-7, he writes that among other pastoral tasks:

The mission is to educate the church about the true situation of U.S. citizenship in an empire of enormous power and huge ambitions, to disabuse the citizenry of any “innocence” on the part of U.S. hegemony. This would include a sustained critical analysis of the ideology, propaganda, and euphemisms that give a human face to empire. …The mission of the church in the United States includes strong, intentional connections with the ecumenical church in other parts of the world, especially in those societies that are target for abuse and exploitation by U.S. imperialism – to the end that church solidarity will provide a context for alternative political-economic policies by empire.

Your appointment is significant to the whole church because you bring the global reality to those who send you out and to those who send you back and who try to live by the truth of Christ. God bless you.