Missio Dei: The Sending of God


We are well into our second year as a missional team in the urban center of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Every one of the nine adults who are committed to the team comes from a church background and most have deep ties to three local churches from two denominations. We began the missional journey knowing that the path we are walking is largely an uncharted adventure. We committed to discovering and defining the markers along the way that can guide those who follow. Some of those markers were obvious and easy. Others have taken us by surprise. As we round the corner we discover abrupt changes in the landscape: what was expected just isn’t there. We are discovering at some of those turns that our “church common sense,” that body of information and expectations accumulated through years of church activity, is no longer adequate. In fact, there are times when “proceeding as normal” is the worst thing we can do.

At those times, it is helpful to pitch our tent and evaluate our decision-making process before considering our next turn.

Our major goals with church people are twofold. First, we must embrace the following essential elements of a missional/incarnational theology:

1. Understanding the concept of the missio dei— that God has always been on a mission to seek, save and redeem. The mission of God dominated the life and teaching of Jesus; and calls every follower of Christ to that very lifestyle.

2. The essence of missional theology is relationships. Our triune God, the ultimate relational being, expects us to express our theology and communicate His love relationally. However, our Western worldview is more propositional. The missional/incarnational model moves people to see life and ministry through another lens.

3. Our cultural/evangelical application of church ministry has traditionally been centripetal; that is, we have buildings/properties where ministry happens, and church members and seekers are expected to move toward that central point. We use the term “attractional” to help define this ministry model. Most church people are so familiar with this model that we rarely stop to ask if there might be others.

4. The Scriptures call believers to a set of relationships that are centrifugal; we are sent to the needy rather than expecting the needy to come to us. Since Jesus calls His followers salt and light, we strive to invest our lives and resources where those qualities make the most impact.

5. The missio dei calls us to redefine our local context. Where I work, play and live is a mission field and this is where my ministry must begin.

The second major goal is related to the first but more clearly defines how I relate to my world as a person of mission. In essence, the second goal is the gateway through which people from church backgrounds can find permission and freedom to live in a manner that brings power to the concepts embedded in the first goal. The first goal is essential in orienting our thinking. The second goal moves those concepts into everyday experience.

As our second goal is clarified, we are discovering that missional people must decide how to redefine “Church.” The implications for this are staggering. The three major themes we will explore as we begin to revision our understanding of Church are “Inside or Outside,” “Feed or Fed” and “Parent or Guardian.”

Inside or Outside

We have a missional teammate sharing our house. She has a cat. The cat goes mostly unnoticed, but there are times when the beast becomes maddening—like when she yowls at the door to go outside. I will open the door to let the cat out and then the drama begins. The cat rarely shoots out the door as expected—most often she will hesitate, looking out at freedom and then looking at me, the impatient doorkeeper. If I try to coax the cat out or move toward her, she skitters away. I shut the door in disgust, and the cat stays inside.

How many times have we stood at the door, hesitating to go outside? This doesn’t automatically imply that we all operate out of fear and choose disobedience over possible hardship. Very often we are like that cat: the doorkeeper doesn’t look all that believable.

Our centripetal church model has subtly convinced us that attendance at meetings and involvement in building-based activities are significant indicators of spiritual maturity. From which pool of candidates do we choose when considering members for church leadership? One common denominator is those persons’ level of involvement and attendance at centripetal functions.

Meanwhile, preachers and teachers expound the virtues of the Great Commission and offer tips on evangelism. All the while we are locked in the middle of two equal and opposite magnetic pulls: be more involved in the church ministry and its programs or go out and reach your neighbors. We find friendship and support from fellow believers in our church culture; the more we are involved, the more isolated we are from our unsaved friends and neighbors. Yet we hear the message of God’s heart. We stand at the door, frozen.

This indecision has implications for individuals and church leaders. For the individual, accepting the concepts surrounding missio dei but not significantly acting upon them leave missional teams in frustration and futility. Individuals contemplating their participation on a missional team must evaluate their level of involvement in the traditional church organization. In a real sense, for missional teams to flourish, there has to be a break for the door. “Insiders” must choose to become “outsiders.”

People moving into the missional lifestyle who remain “insiders” will continue to see their local church as their source of fellowship and fulfillment when it comes to feeding and worship. They will also tend to default to paid professionals to do the heavy lifting in ministry. Consider the possibility that the two most common defining activities of the traditional church are preaching/teaching and worship on Sunday mornings. If this is true, then the average believer must default to a passive experience in a professionally led environment. What this leaves for a missional team are individuals who attend meetings, but who do not dive headlong into relationships with fellow team members beyond what church-based small groups traditionally provide. They are too busy; their loyalties are divided. And as long as their feeding and worship experience is provided for them, whatever happens in the team setting is icing on the spiritual cake.

And as we all know, icing is optional.

Church leaders who truly desire to see members blossom in a missional environment must evaluate whether teachings from the pulpit coupled with subtle pressure to “go to church” actually create a dissonance that leaves their followers camped in the valley of indecision. What can be done—what must be done—by local church leadership to free people to be missional?

One radical (but we deem biblical) turning point is to promote the Great Commission in the individual’s sphere of influence as the Church’s defining activity. As long as corporate worship and the preaching/teaching of the Word are promoted (however subtly) as the central activities of the Church, regular members will continue to treat the Great Commission casually.

What might happen in local neighborhoods if believers, empowered and encouraged by their fellowships, were able to invest themselves fully in a centrifugal lifestyle?

Feed or Fed

Our second theme follows closely on the previous point. One problem of the Western Church is that we have become victims of our own success. Teaching in local churches is enhanced (and often eclipsed) by purveyors of truth on TV, in print and through podcasts. All I have to do is open my ears and let the stream fill my brain.

Let’s go on record right now: listening to Bible teaching is not wrong, sinful or misguided. It is simply not enough. Receiving teaching was never God’s intention as our primary source of knowing Him and His Word. We must become self-feeding followers of Jesus who gather together out of fullness rather than emptiness.

Missional teams strive to promote the practice of self-feeding. This has three distinct advantages: self-feeding untethers the believer, enhances team dynamics and personalizes the priesthood.

Self-feeding as the primary source of one’s spiritual nutrition allows the follower of Jesus to begin the untethering process. Through self-feeding, those who grew up standing in their boat, tied to the dock, sharing fishing stories with all the other boaters at the docks can gain confidence that the boats were really designed to push away from shore and head for open waters outside the safe harbor.

Self-feeding enhances team dynamics by developing a model of gathering together where everyone has something to share, which is what builds the Church (1 Cor. 14:26). This separates missional gatherings from traditional home Bible study formats and gives organic life more fertile soil in which to grow.

Self-feeding also personalizes the priesthood of the everyday follower of Jesus. Taking responsibility to feed oneself, coupled with an expectation that God may give that same person something to share when the group gathers, makes the individual much more likely to leave the dock and move into deeper waters.

What can local church leaders do to encourage self-feeding? Offering more Sunday school classes on how to study the Bible may actually keep potential movers hesitating at the door. The Baby Boomers, of which I am part, cut their spiritual teeth on church-growth principles that often made teaching the Word an end in itself. This has significant implications for those in professional ministry whose gifting and calling have them staying within organized fellowships. This might mean discovering a new persona for those whose primary responsibility and identity has been behind the pulpit.

Parent or Guardian?

How can an organization affect significant change if those guiding it remain the same? This missional impulse needs pastors and leaders who lead their congregants as parents rather than as guardians.

My mother-in-law once told me that her goal was to raise her kids so that, at age 18, they were willing and able to move out. No responsible pastor would intentionally raise a generation of spiritually jobless 35-year-olds who still live with their parents.

In Genesis 2 Moses reminds newlyweds to leave their parents and cling to each other. Embedded in the notion of leaving are parents who “get it” and allow and encourage their children to act like adults.

Perhaps the converse of that image is that of a guardian who hovers over the child, dictating (or strongly suggesting) what would be best.

Our best scenario would find church leaders and missional members meeting in a new middle ground. Each gives back to the larger group. Each sees the other with new eyes. Each does his or her part to make the missio dei a reality. Then all, including a previously unpenetrated surrounding community, benefit.

Our enemy would like nothing better than division and alienation amongst the followers of Jesus. Without a strong and clear emphasis on the missio dei, the traditional Church in North America will continue its slow but steady decline. And without the backing of church leaders, missionally repurposed believers will never enjoy the impact they desire.

We need each other. More importantly, our world needs the Church in action.

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