coverThe Missional Church in Perspective – Van Gelder and Zscheile – is the first book that explores the development of the term “missional” by documenting the broad historical and theological contributing factors, and thoroughly exploring the recent literature.

Part 1:
The History and Development of the Missional Conversation.

This section, covered in the first two parts of my review, anchors the book primarily in the the great text published in 1998 by the GOCN: Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America. The first three chapters laid a foundation for understanding the history of the current conversation, and the many voices and approaches within it.

Part II: Perspectives that Extend the Missional Conversation

Chapter 4 returns to the discussion of the Trinity and develops a more integrated view of the social Trinity and the sending Trinity. This frame provides a more robust understanding of God’s relationship to the world through creation, Christ, and the Spirit. The theme of participation becomes a key for resolving the question of how the work of God continues.

Chapter 5 takes up the complex issue of culture and a missional theology of culture is proposed for framing the church’s public engagement with diverse contexts.

Chapter 6 revisits the impact of missional theology on congregational practices, leadership, and organization. The theological commitments offered in chapters 4 and 5 serve as the basis for deepening the conversation, toward reframing church life in a new apostolic era.

Enriching the Framework

“A more robust missional theology offers the promise of rendering more faithful and more fruitful our imagination of who God is, what God is doing in the church and the world, and how we can better participate in these works of God.” (102)

One of the key questions for the missional conversation is how God’s sending movement is conceived. There are significant differences in the approach to agency, as chapter three made obvious. Rich Trinitarian voices were more evident in the latter part of the twentieth century, with writers like Zizioulas and Volf. But these authors did not deal explicitly with mission, and so ecclesiology and missiology traveled on parallel tracks, with hints as to how they might connect.

Meanwhile, the doctrine of the Trinity has a complicated history in the West. The Western stress on divine substance, or God as a single “absolute subject” created a problem, and resulted in a gradual diminishment of a functioning Trinitarian perspective, a narrative that made sense of God’s continuing work in the world. The implications of a weakened Trinitarian lens were more centralized and patriarchal systems, colonialism, and even the rise of atheism. (104)

The relationships between the Father, Son, an Spirit came to refer in the West largely to God’s inner life. Functionally, the church ended up with a monistic way of imagining God’s engagement in the world. (See Douglas John Hall on this subject). This view also fostered individualistic understandings of human personhood, and a kind of “methodological atheism.”

Irenaeus referred to the Son and the Spirit as the two hands of the Father in the world. “When we lose the Trinity, we lose our way of conceiving of God’s missionary presence in creation.” (104) The missional conversation represents an exception to this, but there remains a functional monism in much of the Western church. Where the Trinity became something of an add-on in Western theology, another spoke on the wheel, it is increasingly being asserted as the hub: the frame within which other doctrines make sense. “The Orthodox tradition, in particular, stressed the generative, outward reaching love (ekstasis) and communion (koinonia) of the three persons… [and] the concept of Perichoresis, or the mutual indwelling/interpenetration of the three persons in a dynamic, circulating movement, has offered rich analogies for human interdependence..” (105) While these themes have been present in the work of some, like Barth, they have not had prominence in the missional conversation.

The next section in chapter 4 describes “limitations” of the sending view of the Trinity. This recovery is pivotal, but has significant liabilities if not integrated with insights about the church as a political and social expression of God’s life. The functional modalism common in the West led to a Christomonism which appears in missional praxis “under the guise of an incarnational approach to mission. Jesus’ identity as the Son of the Father who is anointed and led by the Spirit can fade from view.” This in turn fosters a view of mission as the isolated province of individual believers, “rather than the participation of the church in the Triune” life of God. (106) It’s this kind of error that is targeted by recent books like Holsclaw and Fitch, Prodigal Christianity.

But there are other liabilities of an add-on Trinitarianism. The sending movement form Father to Son to Spirit to church to world can result “in making the church primarily an instrument and rendering the world a mere ‘target’ of mission.” (106) This programmatic, technical approach is all too obvious among Western churches, and probably inevitable, given the lack of theological grounding among believers, and thus the lack of any deep and rooted Christian identity. The corrective, in part, is awareness of the church as a sign, foretaste and instrument of the kingdom of God.

The authors note that missional ecclesiology is also representational. They reference both Barth and Newbigin here. Newbigin describes the church as a “hermeneutic of the gospel,” to indicate how the church as a visible community provides the interpretive key to God’s wider purposes for humanity: the church embodies the future toward which God is drawing all humanity. The church is not a collection of individuals “who choose to associate in order to have their spiritual needs met,” but rather “a community of mutual participation in God’s own life and the life of the world” (107). They reference John 17:21b-23.

There is, then, simultaneously a recovery of a fuller view of imago Dei. We are moving from a conception based on isolated individuals to a relational, communal view: the image of the Trinity (imago Trinitatis). “God’s character is defined more by the quality of relational life within community than by certain abstract attributes.” (108) A relational view provides a richer basis for engaging relationally in mission than the focus on imitating Jesus that tends to grow out of a focus on abstract qualities. (Again, see Prodigal Christianity, chapter 3).

Moreover, the biblical narrative suggests a deeply reciprocal understanding of the Trinity and God’s relationship with the world, played out clearly in the passion. As Moltmann asserts, “the grief of the Father is just as important as the death of the Son.” God’s own inner life is affected by the world.

“A participatory understanding opens up a highly reciprocal view of the God-world-church relationships, in which the church shares in the Triune God’s own vulnerable engagement with the world… Imitation tends to stress what God has done. Participation invites us into what God is doing and will continue to do as God’s promises in Christ are brought to fulfillment.” (111, italics original)

Another theological weakness which has contributed to the problem is an inadequate theology of creation. In some of the missional church literature there is a deep ambivalence about the God-world relationship (likely related to a latent dualism). “Creation is viewed either as lacking God’s presence or as the mere object of missionary work” (112). Understanding God’s relationship to creation in terms of an analogy of being (analogia entis) has been less helpful than an analogy of relation. “God makes space within God’s own Trinitarian life for creation, and creation participates relationally in that life” (112). In this view creation is not a one time event, but rather continual, culminating finally in the new creation. The authors draw out some implications.

1. The World is a field of God’s ongoing activity sand presence through the Spirit. The church does not have exclusive possession of God’s presence and activity. All persons, made in God’s image, are born to serve as co-creative creatures with God in the world.

2. Creativity is connected deeply to God. As Moltmann suggests, “The Spirit is the principle of creativity on all levels of matter and life.” (113)

3. There are implications for humanity. “Created in the image of the Trinity, humans correspond to the Triune God through their relationality with one another.” This relationality is sacramental, pointing forward to our calling in Christ. “Human salvation involves sharing in the community of Christ, which finds its vocation (another way of talking about mission) through taking part in Christ’s ministry in the world.” 9113)

4. We must always remember that salvation is in, of, and for the world, not OUT OF the world. “The new creation that is our eschatological promise includes everything God has made. Amid the environmental crises of today, that is a critical promise when considering the church’s missional vocation.” (113)

See also Scott Hagley et al., “Toward a Missional Theology of Participation: Ecumenical Reflections on Contributions to Trinity, Mission, and Church.” Missiology 37, no 1 (January 2009): 75-87.

To be continued…