The missio Dei is a weighty theological idea. It claims that God is active in the world and is pursuing the redemption and reconciliation of all creation. This means that God is active not only within and through the church, but also ahead of it, and, sometimes, in spite of it. In response, those who believe in and follow Jesus are invited to join God’s mission and live into their full identity as members of the body of Christ.1
Let me put it another way. The church is the body of Christ when, and only when, it participates with God in God’s mission. Humans are only truly Christians when we join our lives with this same reconciling mission of God. A group of people may gather together voluntarily and seek to join in promoting the common good. They may all even be Christians who sing explicitly Christian songs, read explicitly Christian literature, and practice sacred Christian rituals. The missio Dei, however, declares that they are only being the Church when they place God’s mission of reconciliation and redemption at the center of their identity.
It’s All About Identity
The missio Dei is not primarily about what the church does, but about what the church is. Craig Van Gelder defines the church as, “a community created by the Spirit that has a unique nature, or essence, which gives it a unique identity.”2 A church can only move into faithful strategic activity after it understands its identity.
This is because who you think you are shapes what you think you should do. Your perceived identity—whether human or organizational—shapes the questions you ask about the community you live in, and the future you hope for. Identity shapes curiosity. Identity shapes passion. Identity shapes fear and hope. When a congregation’s identity is wrapped up in the mission of God, it can move beyond mimicking culture, or being hostile toward it, to creating it.
It’s All About the Work of the People
Initially, this work lands squarely on the shoulders of local congregational leaders: deacons, elders, and pastors. Until leaders of congregations understand that the primary question they must address in their leadership is one of identity—both personally and organizationally—they will not be able to proceed to discerning faithful strategic action, because the activity of the church flows out of its missional identity. The missional identity of the church is what makes it unique from all other organizations, including those who seek to do good work in the world.
While the work of missional identity formation begins with congregational leaders, it does not end there. It is the privilege and responsibility of all Christians as a core component of basic discipleship and spirituality. Eugene Peterson writes,
The assumption of spirituality is that always God is doing something before I know it. So the task is not to get God to do something I think needs to be done, but to become aware of what God is doing so that I can respond to it and participate and take delight in it.3
The process of developing an awareness of what God is doing is the Christian practice of discernment. It is exciting and challenging work requiring a lot of conversations, prayer, and study, as well as the sometimes-painful work of introspection. Many congregations do not do this work because it is difficult and challenges the comfortable numbness of the status quo. This is why the efforts of many congregations to imitate the successful efforts of other congregations are so misguided. What we do must flow out of who we are.
It’s All About the Questions You Ask
This is a pretty big shift and can be overwhelming since we’re not talking about simply implementing another program. So, where should you begin? Well, you might start by changing your mental models about leadership and successful ministry. Start with a conversation concerning your assumptions about God’s work in the world and how you are positioned to respond to it. Try these discussion starters:
- Do you believe in the missio Dei—that God is at work in the world beyond the walls of your church?
- What actions of your congregation show that you believe this?
- What actions of your congregation show that you don’t believe this?
- Where do you see God already working outside the walls of your church?
- Are you organized in such a way that you can respond proactively to the leading of God in a timely manner?
- If an opportunity to join God in God’s reconciling work pops up, do you (or others) have a bureaucratic mess that you must sort through before you can say yes to it?
- If so, how can you reorganize your governance so that people are released to mission rather than bogged down in rigid funnels of inefficacy?
It’s All About God’s Mission
God’s mission is all around, within, and ahead of human effort and perception. The missio Dei is not over there, but is here and now at all times. Vocation, when viewed through the lens of the missio Dei, becomes the constant state of becoming and being who God has made you to be, where God has positioned you, with those whom God has placed you.
Craig Van Gelder, The Ministry of the Missional Church: A Community Led by the Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007), Kindle Location 164-169. ↩
Eugene H. Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1993), Kindle Location 47-49. ↩