by Kevin Hester
Missiology is not my strong suit. It hasn’t been a part of my theological training except by extension. My appreciation for missions has largely come from the clear commands of Scripture and some of the basic principles of ecclesiology. I also think missionaries have such cool stories. I still remember the awe and admiration I had for the missionaries who visited my church during my childhood. They seemed to live such a vibrant Christianity in exotic contexts.
These stories aren’t just part of my childhood experience. As a historical theologian who works primarily in the late classical and early medieval period of the Church, I have run across important missional events that are dotted throughout this period. St. Patrick lived out his Christian mission in Ireland. St. Columba followed his call and worked to establish Christianity among the Picts in what is now Scotland. St. Gregory commissioned missionaries to England and Spain in the late 6th century to evangelize the new barbarians and to battle heresy. In the early 13th century, St. Francis of Assisi tied his new monastic endeavor to preaching and missions, going himself to attempt evangelistic efforts with the Sultan of Egypt.
Missions has been a part of the Christian church from the beginning. The Church blossomed from the work of the apostles and early Christian believers to “go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every nation.” This story is clearly presented in the book of Acts. We see there the same types of exciting stories that were so attractive to my 13-year-old budding masculine sensibilities. But when you turn to church history you quickly see that the explosion of church growth came not from what we call “missions,” but from “normal” Christian people living out their faith in their communities. (This is the basic thesis of Michael Green in his Evangelism in the Early Church, a book I would highly recommend.)
The more I have lived and learned, I have come to understand that mission work isn’t always exotic. I have befriended enough missionaries now to understand that they struggle with life’s everyday concerns just like I do. They work jobs, cook meals, tend to sick children, and go about the business of life in ways not dissimilar from all of us. They certainly have challenges that most of us don’t face when it comes to language and cultural issues, but mostly they work to live out their Christianity in their day-to-day interactions with people.
Missions is organic and basic to the Christian life. The professionalization of missions, much like the professionalization of ministry, has left most of us viewing it as a specific calling for specific people in specific places of the world. This does happen, but it is the exception rather than the norm. Missions at its most basic level is what we call Christian living. The call to all of us is to live out the love of Christ in all our relationships.
This emphasis on relationship can be seen in the history of the word “mission”. As David Bosch points out in his Transforming Mission, the term “mission” wasn’t used to describe evangelism until the Jesuit evangelistic enterprises of the 16th and 17th centuries. Instead, the term mission “was used exclusively with reference to the doctrine of the Trinity, that is, of the sending of the Son by the Father and of the Holy Spirit by the Father and the Son” (1). Historically then (and theologically), mission is based in the ontological nature of God and God’s desire to establish (or reestablish) a relationship with his creation.
All my life I have heard mission conference speakers and missiologists work to develop elaborate philosophies and methodologies. Many of these were built on social or ethical concerns. Others took a theological tack focusing on the relationship of general revelation and soteriology. I have even heard injunctions to mission based in eschatology. I really felt for them. I have so longed to hear a missionary sermon that wasn’t based on Matthew 28 or Acts 1. What else, after all, is there to talk about? Jesus said to do it, so I guess we have to.
This is why I was so refreshed to recently read Timothy Tennent’s Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-First Century. In this work, Tennent grounds missions not in a command alone, but in the nature of God. Suddenly, it clicked for me. Mission is who God is and “all theology is fundamentally missional because biblical theology reveals God as a missionary God.” (60)
In the divine economy of the transcendent Trinity, the Father sends the Son. In the immanent Trinity’s activity in human history Jesus sends the Church. He sends us to do what he did. He sends us to live and to love. He sends us to show the Father to the world. That is mission. It isn’t tied to a specific call or a specific place. Missions is for all of us. God the Father invites us into His work by being what He is creating (or recreating) us to be. The internal relations of the member of the Trinity serve as the model for the relationships we are called to have with God and with one another.
When we fail to base our concept of mission in who God is we miss the basic outline of Scripture. We commit that all-to-human of errors and make missions about us and what we can or “have” to do. When we do this, “the role of the Church as the body of Christ, the redeemed community in the world, and the ongoing reflection of the Trinity in the world is largely lost. We see ourselves as commissioned to tell the story, but we don’t see ourselves as intrinsically part of the story. However, the Church must do more than tell the gospel; we must embody it.” (63)
The missio Dei as expressed in the Trinity is about relationships. God, as a personal being, reveals Himself to a people He created for Himself. He calls all of us to tell His story and by telling His story to tell our own. He calls us to live lives of holiness and love; lives more in tune with the coming eschatological future than the present. The Father invites us into His mission. The Son revealed the Father and gave Himself for us. The Spirit calls us into service and empowers us to fulfill it through the activity of the Holy Spirit. Much like the incarnation was meant to give us a clearer picture of the Father, the sending of the Church serves to clarify the meaning and the purpose of the incarnation.
None of this means that God does not call some people to proclaim the gospel in exotic places. What it does mean is that each of us is a part of God’s worldwide missionary enterprise. God’s method is based in Trinitarian relationships. God tells His story and He does it through our relationships. It looks like we all have a story to tell.