If only I had a quarter for every time in the last ten years when someone has referred in a Church event to the ‘missio Dei,’ the ‘mission of God.’ I once heard it as the justification for a mind-numbing account of a national church administrative budget, and I knew the victory was complete. The charitable reading is that the expression is a way to say that it’s about God and not us, that He has a plan wider than our narrow imaginations. If I speak ill of those claims, may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth. Just the same, the warning of the late Bishop Stephen Neill about the old-fashioned term ‘mission’ has pertinence: where everything is mission, nothing is.
A word about the origin of the word makes the picture clearer. After World War II, there was a crisis in thinking and planning for world mission. The West felt guilty about colonialism, and the younger churches had grown. Secularism was on the rise, and the Christian influence could no longer be taken for granted. Neo-orthodox theologians stressed God’s prevenient action and not our own willfulness. In the midst of all these influences, mission scholars in the 1950’s began to use this expression to emphasize that we are but ‘servants for Jesus’ sake.’ But the action they spoke of was that of the great deeds of salvation found in the Biblical narrative. (The young Lesslie Newbigin would be counted among those who turned to this expression). Our task is to get with the program! We are to let ourselves be caught in the updraft of God’s work. Along came the 1960’s and a far more secularized notion of that work came into vogue. It was primarily in the world that He works, and the Church came to be seen as secondary. (A theologian like Hans Hoedendjik would be an example of this trend, though one might count Harvey Cox’ The Secular City here as well). And how are we to tell that this popular movement is part of the wind of God? More and more political criteria were used, and more and more those judgments lined up with prior allegiances- surprise! Newbigin spent years in the later 60’s and 70’s protesting this drift. But by the beginning of the 21st century this history seemed forgotten in the various streams of the missional movement. That underlying question of how we tell whose missio and which Dei continued to be the key one.
This is of more than academic interest? The term remains a covert point of contention about how we are to understand the content of our faith and the direction of the Spirit’s leading. These are enormous questions. Sufficient unto the day is a modest proposal: let us speak not of the missio Dei, but rather of the missio Christi. Given that we are Trinitarian Christians they ought to be one and the same! But the latter reminds us that we know who that God is in the revelation of Jesus Christ. It should drive us away from a somewhat vague expression and back to the specific testimony about Him in the Bible. There alone can we hope, in humility, where that mission is leading us.