Marco Polo describes a hidden city, Berenice, to his host and captor Kublai Khan.1 It is really two cities, one above and another hidden from view, “behind the shops and under the stairs.” Evangelical Protestant missions is like that. There is a world you can easily see of structures, conferences, how-to manuals, and endless debates. Most of these seem to use the how-to manuals. That means that most of the debates that swirl around evangelical missions involve questions about how to do something. To be sure, we assert what we think are necessary ministries and actions, but we never penetrate behind the surface long enough or well enough to uncover the hidden cities, the cities of ideas that rise to the surface. We become champions of the visible projects. There are many, and we disagree with one another about them. Lately, the debates have become urgent and hot. What, then, are the hidden missions-related issues over which evangelicals fight?
How Do We Interpret the Past?
Tertullian, a North African Roman citizen living in Carthage, wrote, “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the academy and the church? What between heretics and Christians?” 2 His questions were essential when he wrote them and remain essential now. Noting how the apostle Paul sized up the pagan philosophers, the intellectuals of pagan Greece, he concluded that regardless of their erudition and knowledge, theirs was false wisdom, a dangerous departure from biblical truth. His questions were not rhetorical.
No early Christian better embraced the antithesis between the world’s ways and the deep truth of the Bible. His concern was exposing the root of ideas so that if it proved heretical, the church could guard against it.3 He had a living sense of being engaged in spiritual warfare, and he devoted a great deal of time to considering the meaning of Christian martyrdom. The Bible was God’s word, not an amalgam of contextualized advice for Christians making their way in a foreign land.4
How Do We Take Part in Missions Today?
Tertullian’s questions still resonate with us, revolving around Christianity’s relationship to the outside world. The answers to the questions, however, differ from one part of the evangelical world to another, and Christians do not all agree on how to apply the Bible to their lives. They also clash because their actions emerge from their different engagements with intellectual ideas that impinge on biblical truth. Every missionary, minister, elder, scholar, and layperson lives in an intellectual universe they have shaped or that has been shaped for them. What sorts of responses to Tertullian’s questions flow out of evangelical (for want of a better word) ministry, especially missions? What are a few key battleground concepts that illustrate our differences?
I think three sufficiently varied concepts help us see the underground cities of ideas that distinguish missions on the surface: “missio Dei,” “incarnational,” and “missional.” In this article, we will examine each of their origins or early use, how they have evolved, and how contemporary missions engages them. By doing that, we can see how our unstated presuppositions govern how we interact with these ideas today.
As a Latin term, missio Dei has an ancient ring to it, but its current usage dates only to the late twentieth century. Originating from the pen of Bishop Lesslie Newbigin in the 1950s, it took the shape embraced by evangelicals in the 1990s.5 Newbigin used the phrase to describe the connection between the church’s missionary calling and the Father’s sending of the Son and the Spirit into the world, “rooted in the very being of God.” He also made sure that the church was God’s principal instrument of missions, but not entirely defined by its mission. The church cannot separate itself from missions, but the church is more than missions. Newbigin’s many books led to the creation of the Gospel and Our Culture movement, first in the UK in the early 1990s and then spreading to the US and Australia.6 His influence has been deep and particularly profound with evangelical leaders such as Tim Keller.
Our second word is incarnational. It is an interesting word because it is widely used in evangelical circles and because it is controversial. Like missio Dei, it shows the lack of unity concerning missions in evangelical Christianity. Darrell Guder embraces the term but qualifies it. Incarnational ministry refers to continuing Christ’s ministry in the world, not the incarnation itself. He does this, however, by separating the bringing of love from the bringing of the institutional church. “Christ did not come to bring a church but healing love to the world.”7 Scot McKnight, for one, offers a corrective that affirms much of Guder’s statement, while making a stronger case for placing the visible, historical church at the center of missions.
Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch popularized incarnational missions for a generation of evangelicals.8 For them, incarnational churches were effective only when they shaped themselves to fit a cultural context to change it. That means constantly changing the church without compromising the word of God. As they assert, these changes might be so profound that a church may in fact become unrecognizable. The visible historical church takes on secondary if not tertiary value.
They build on the standard features of the missional church, which is our third term: “The missional church is incarnational, not attractional. It does not create sanctified spaces. It dissembles itself and seeps into the cracks and crevices of a society.” 9 As it does so, it becomes a genuine part of the people group’s culture without damaging either the group or the gospel. In their view, it is better to take the risk than avoid trying.
Reformed theologians such as Michael Milton attempt to salvage the phrase without having to accept its more radical implications. In his view, he wants to avoid the hijacking of “missional” by giving it a definition that harmonizes with his own Reformed beliefs.
A missional church is an ecclesial community of word, sacrament, and prayer where pastoral staff, officers, and members are united in their commitment to the Gospel-driven practice of the Great Commission of Jesus Christ in every area of ministry and life.10
Curiously, this understanding aligns well with the early statements of Vatican II. The heart of his construct extends the Great Commission into specific communities with great intentionality and “situational awareness.”
Evangelistic enthusiasm for the missional church and incarnational mission is far from universal. Reformed scholar Todd Billings, for example, strongly but carefully disagrees with missional Christians modeling the incarnation.11 He agrees with Guder’s distinction between imitating the ministry Jesus engaged in on earth (good) versus imitating the act of the eternal word becoming incarnate (impossible). The latter is unrepeatable. Billings takes the point beyond Guder at this point. Since the consequence of Christ’s incarnation, resurrection, and ascension is our union with him, we can take part in the mission to the world as a new humanity, in the world but distinct from it. Therefore, he thinks it wiser and more precise to view missions as a participation in Christ rather than some kind of extension of the incarnation.12
What Billings points out is that the discussion of missio Dei tends to ignore the central role of Christ. At its worst, missio Dei functionally subordinates Christ to the Holy Spirit. In all cases, it erases any sense of missional priority. A fundamental of the Reformation, not to mention all three of the ecumenical creeds, however, was the simultaneous prioritizing of Trinity and Christology. Missio Dei and its adjuncts produce an imbalanced understanding of missions.
Others, such as Mike Breen perhaps in a related way, forecast failure for missional movements because, with all the time spent on understanding and moving into the communities of the world, the church spends precious little time making the disciples who can fuel that ongoing ministry. Failing to disciple people leaves them vulnerable to the ideas of the world that they seem to reach. The functional outcome of these ideas is a fundamental rejection of Hirsch and Frost’s core commitments.
At the other end of the Reformed evangelical spectrum are those who see the way forward as remembering and reviving the past. Innovation is far less of a priority than rekindling the evangelistic fires that raged from the Reformation through the American Great Awakenings. The missional wing of the church may see this desire as somewhere between an anachronism and a forlorn hope. I see it in social media as cynicism.
This all underscores the reality that as evangelicalism (to include Reformed evangelicalism) ages, one may see cracks and lines. The older it gets, the deeper they become. At present, these differences become the ground upon which Reformed evangelical believers fight. We rarely fight well, however, because we fight blind most of the time. The danger is that if they grow far enough apart, it may be difficult to salvage evangelical denominations, and perhaps evangelicalism. From what I can see, this disintegration is probably well under way.
These formative ideas translate into the present. I am ambivalent about social media, but I benefit from eavesdropping on Facebook threads. For a little experiment, I monitored two of the longer ones and then listed, in my old-school notebook with my fountain pen, the variety of disputed areas argued over by pastors and elders in conservative evangelical churches. The variety of gripes was dazzling, particularly since I studied only two threads. A sampling included: failing to discipline doctrinal error, the lack of denominational diversity, the inability to balance common grace and antithesis, the inability to function in a post-Christian culture, the need for church renewal, too much political conservatism, the infection of the church by non-Christian culture, the definition of mission, the clash between missiology and the gospel, the need for parish ministry that focuses on the non-Christians in a community, the Benedict Option, and whether or not LGBT is a missional frontier and, if so, in what way.
The fundamental disagreements concerning words such as missio Dei, incarnational, and the missional church sit underneath most of the visible friction. They point out the fragility of the evangelical enterprise and perhaps its necessary collapse. More to my point, they divide the church in its pursuit of the mission that God gave it. Wedges are driven routinely between academies, mission agencies, churches, and the field as fundamental definitions divide rather than unite. It is worth thinking about—whether you want to or not.
Basil Grafas is the pen name of an American missionary working overseas.
- Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (Orlando: Harcourt, 1974).
- Quintus Septimus Florens Tertullianus, The Prescription Against Heretics, ch. 7.
- Gerald Lewis Bray, Holiness and the Will of God: Perspectives on the Theology of Tertullian (Atlanta: John Knox, 1979), 7.
- Bray, 79.
- Geoffrey Wainwright, Lesslie Newbigin: A Theological Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 165, 167.
- See, for example, Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989); The Household of God: Lectures on the Nature of the Church (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1953); Signs amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003); A Word in Season: Perspectives on Christian World Missions (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994); The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978).
- Darrell L. Guder, The Incarnation and the Church’s Witness (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1999), 23.
- Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century Church (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003).
- Frost and Hirsch, 12, 37.
- Michael A. Milton, “What Does It Really Mean for a Church to be ‘Missional’? Is it Important?” Christianity Today (June 5, 2019), http://www.christianity.com.
- J. Todd Billings, Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011).
- Billings, 124.