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malcolm chamberlain

musings about the emerging church, mission and contemporary culture...

God is at large, intimately involved in his world in ways that the church is maybe just waking up to!

missio dei and the church...

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Last night I began teaching a twelve session course, Mission in Britain Today, for the SNWTP; a partnership of the Anglican, Methodist, Baptist and United Reformed churches across Merseyside, Greater Manchester and Chester, training people for church ministry and leadership. I had a great time with the group I'm teaching and we began a fascinating discussion which is likely to continue throughout the course. I'm blogging about it here because I'm interested in your response too!

By way of introduction to the theme of mission, and as a basis for understanding mission, we looked at the concept of missio dei and discussed the implications of believing in a God who is constantly engaged in his (please note that I'm using the masculine pronoun here to personalise, not to genderise (sic), God) mission in and beyond the structures of the organised Christian Church.

As part of this discussion, I sketched the two well documented alternatives regarding the implication of the missio dei for the Church. The first (put forward by such as A.T. Van Leeuwen and J.C. Hoekendiijk) is the suggestion that the Church is pretty much incidental to the success of the mission of God. The argument goes that, since God is engaged in mission and uses various agents to bring about his purposes of justice and salvation, it makes little difference to the success of this mission whether the Church has got its act together or not - God will achieve his purposes with or without the Church. Nor is it significant to the overall mission of God as to whether the Church is growing or not - God's mission is beyond, though it does include, the Church.

The second alternative to understanding the implications of the missio dei for the Church is that argued by such as Andrew Kirk and Wilbert Schenk. They emphasise the belief that, although God is indeed active beyond the Church and although the ultimate purpose of the divine mission is the Kingdom and not the Church, nevertheless the Church, as the community of those who have entered consciously into relationship with God, is central to God’s way of working in mission. The Church, they argue, is both an embodied sign of the Kingdom and a foretaste or sacrament of the Kingdom, and, furthermore, it is the only intentional agent of the Kingdom. Therefore, it does matter whether the Church has got its act together or not - although God is not restricted to working only through the Church, he has established and called the Church as the primary agent and visible sign in the missio dei, and so the mission of God will suffer if the Church is not fulfilling its calling. Likewise, Church growth is evidence of the success of the missio dei.

Of course, the proviso for this second alternative has to be what we understand by 'the Church'. Church growth does not simply mean more bums on seats in organised churches. But it does surely refer to the community(ies) who consciously identify themselves as followers of Christ engaged in the mission of God, rather than some vague and undefined concept. Indeed, it's this conscious identification that differentiates the Church from the wider Kingdom, of which it is a part.

So that was the gist of last night's discussion. Over to you... is the Church incidental and inconsequential to the missio dei, or is it the central agent through which God choses to work his purposes? Does it matter whether the Church has got its act together or not?

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posted by Malcolm Chamberlain, 9:34 AM


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