The roots of the missional shift can be traced directly to the 1952 Willingen conference, where Karl Hartenstein picked up the Barthian gauntlet and coined the term missio Dei. At Willingen the focus shifted from the mission of the church (ecclesiology) to the mission of God. Bosch summarized the conclusion in this classic statement:

Mission was understood as being derived from the very nature of God. It was thus put in the context of the doctrine of the Trinity, not of ecclesiology, or soteriology. The classical doctrine on the mission Dei as God the Father sending the Son, and God the Father and Son sending the Spirit was expanded to include yet another “movement:” Father, Son and Holy Spirit sending the church in the world.5

But there was one more note that needed to be played, and van Gelder and Zscheile relate the story in their recent survey of the missional conversation after Missional Church (1998). In The Missional Church in Perspective the authors note that even the rich Trinitarian ecclesiology of John Zizioulas and Miroslav Volf did not deal explicitly with mission. Ecclesiology and mission have also been traveling on parallel, but separate tracks. A richer, integrative theological frame has been needed. Could it be that the separation of the Eastern and Western traditions has subverted the recovery of an integrated perspective?

The Western reading of the Trinity has emphasized the single divine substance of God and treated the personhood within the Trinity secondarily. Consequently, the church ended up with a functionally monistic way of imagining God’s engagement with the world: Father, Son and Spirit acting individually. In contrast, “the Eastern tradition is seen as beginning with the relationality of the three divine persons, whose unity is found in the source or origin of the Father, as well as in their perichoresis, or mutual indwelling.”6 This attention to relationality is a crucial complement to the sending emphasis characteristic of the West. In John Zizioulas, relational personhood is constitutive of being: a component of essence. There is no personal identity without relationality. “The Orthodox tradition has stressed the generative, outward-reaching love (ekstasis) and communion (koinonia) of the three persons. The Trinity is seen as a community whose orientation is outward, and whose shared love spills over beyond itself. Moreover, the concept of perichoresis…[a] dynamic, circulating movement, has offered rich analogies for human interdependence…”7

Love and perichoresis: this enriched Trinitarian lens offers a relational spirituality that is many centuries old. The twelfth century writer Bernard of Clairvaux reminds us that lex immaculata caritas est: the divine law is love. In one of his two hundred sermons on the Song of Songs, he writes,

The man who is wise will see his life more as a reservoir than a canal. The canal simultaneously pours out what it receives; the reservoir retains the water until it is filled, then discharges the overflow without loss to itself. Today there are many in the church who act like canals, the reservoirs are far too rare. You too must learn to await this fullness before pouring out your gifts, do not try to be more generous than God.8
My interest is a Trinitarian spirituality of mission: a missional spirituality. By definition this is an integrative spirituality that does not separate being and act.

Bernard saw clearly that the God is the center, and His nature is love. Yet this didn’t lead him to activism; as a pastoral leader, he understood that theology determines practice. As the Proverb reminds us, “as a man thinks, so he is” (Pro. 23:7). The best answer to the integration question is found in the ontology of the Trinity, and that answer has application to our faith communities as they seek to be whole and healthy expressions of God’s life. Communities of shalom invite others into lives of emotional and spiritual wholeness. Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche communities, cues us to the dangers of shared life which is outwardly oriented at the expense of inward life. He writes,

The more we become people of action and responsibility in our community, the more we must become people of contemplation. If we do not nurture our deep emotional life in prayer hidden in God, if we do not spend time in silence and if we do not know how to take time from the presence of our brothers and sisters, we risk becoming embittered. It is only to the extent that we nurture our own hearts that we can keep interior freedom. People who are hyperactive, fleeing from their deep selves and their wound, become tyrannical and their exercise of responsibility only creates conflict.9

5 David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988), 390.
6 Craig Van Gelder and Dwight J. Zscheile, The Missional Church in Perspective: Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 103.
7 Ibid., 105.
8 Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs, Sn 18,1:2. (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1979).
9 Jean Vanier, Community and Commitment (New York: Paulist Press, 1989).

From “A Trinitarian Spirituality of Mission,” unpublished paper.

1 Comment on roots of the missional shift

  1. […] of Mission,” unpublished paper. This article by Len Hjalmarson first appeared here:  roots of the missional shift In […]