Scot McKnight at Jesus Creed is beginning a new discussion on another book, Christopher Wright’s The Mission of God. I have not read or even heard of the book, but from McKnight’s introduction it touches on many themes that I have been thinking about recently. The premise of the book is that ‘…the Bible is about our missional God and… our task is missional…’ That is nothing new for me in and of itself, but then McKnight asks the question
If the heart of biblical theology is the God of mission who forms a people to participate in God’s mission, can any theology or praxis lay claim to being biblical that does not front and center shape things through the lens of “missional”? Think about this. Was your theology taught this way? Did you learn the Christian life this way?
Growing up in an evangelical environment, mission (or evangelism, as we would have preferred to say – mission seemed to be reserved for going to Africa or something) was important. It was an individual’s task to ‘spread the gospel’. Spreading the gospel meant primarily getting people to an understanding they were sinners and needed Jesus, and the outcome usually meant some form of assent (usually in the Jesus prayer). I have already posted my views on the problem with this narrow understanding of spreading the gospel, so no need to rehash that here. While I was never presented with an understanding of the ‘missionary God’, I don’t think anyone I grew up with or any of my teachers would have disagreed with that even if never really thought about.
Where I wonder if many in my evangelical circles would have been brought up short is this emphasis on God forming a people for mission or the church as a community deriving its identity from mission. I was taught evangelism as individual activity (with perhaps at times a ‘team’ approach), but never as a particularly community function. Not having read the book McKnight offers, I quote Martyn Atkins book, Resourcing Renewal
If God is encountered and experienced as supreme missionary, going before, searching out, inviting and receiving in, abiding with, then those very characteristics will be found in the Church of such a God. If God is known as One who is always self-giving, and urging and bringing shalom, then so will the Church be, and so on.
This, of course, assumes that the church reflects God, where the emphasis for so long has been how an individual reflects God (Nick at Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth has had a discussion on this recently). The community focus of how God forms us has been a theme I have been thinking through since seminary, even if not the focus that Atkins speaks of. Which brings me to thinking about my more ‘formal’ theological training.
Was I taught theology that emphasised God as missional? While my theology professor, Geoffrey Wainwright certainly believed that God calls us to mission, his primary focus was on teaching the classic creeds. This would include mission, but mission wasn’t the paradigm through which we learned theology. All that he taught me allows me to think about God in a missional way and provided the ways of speaking of God that looks to emphasise the missional God when preaching to my congregations.
Where I think my understanding of the missional God began to form was in my New Testament classes, especially in how the church reflects God’s mission. Richard Hays’s thrust was the God who seeks to create a community to witness to Jesus’ death and resurrection. While personal, one-to-one evangelism was a part of it, the main focus was how the community lived its life together reflected the new creation that would come into the world one day at the return of Jesus. The mission of the church seeks to bring in more people into the saving community through the announcement of the gospel. In Jesus’ ministry, he set out to bring people into a community focused on him. Where Paul went and preached, he immediately organised people into communities that would then carry on the work of mission after he left. I don’t think Hays ever used the term ‘missional God’ in the way that Wright and Atkins did, but it would be hard not get that Hays believed in the God who seeks out the lost.
One of the reasons I am thinking this through is I am here with churches who have for decades been the place where people come. I wonder if I have made too many assumptions about their beliefs in God. Do they understand God as mission-focused? How do I get them to see this? How do I then turn this into an understanding of mission-shaped church?