I studied abroad in Uganda during college to be near to the heart of the global Christian movement. That movement, I had learned in my World Christianity class, had moved from Europe and the United States to places like Sub-Saharan Africa. I spent my semester abroad visiting Anglican churches across the Kampala Diocese and learned that while the country was paces behind the United States economically, it had both a higher percentage of Christians and a deeper understanding of what it meant to profess the faith of Christ crucified.
I encountered fundamentally different narratives in Ugandan churches than what I had encountered in the Reformed churches across the Midwest that I had been a part of. The core difference was directional. Ugandan churches were looking forward. They were asking: What is God up to? What can we be doing? What needs can we meet? However, American churches were looking back and asking: What have we done before? What worked in the past?
When I began to read missiologist Lesslie Newbigin, I found someone who was able to name many of the observations I had never named. Much of Newbigin’s writing is influenced by the same pattern I walked through; lessons that I learned from the global South (India) connected to the mission in the West (England). Newbigin returned home from mission abroad in India with a sharp awareness that the church in England needed to pay attention to mission down the street. Now, when I think about mission in my context in Chicago, I think about the global South. Ideas from a missionary to India give shape to mission in my backyard.
Maybe Newbigin’s greatest contribution to missiology is the shape he gave to the idea that has become the name of many urban church plants across the country: Missio Dei. Missio Dei reminded the churches behind the global missionary movement that the effort to bear witness to God’s redemption was rooted in God’s very self and God’s action towards the world. Bringing the gospel to bear on the lives of all people was not the church’s idea or the brainchild of any subcommittee but flowed out of the life of God. The church itself receives its existence through the mission of God and is now an instrument in that great mission to redeem the world. Said another way by Newbigin, “The church is the mission.”
The idea of Missio Dei has acute meaning in the context of the global South. Christianity did not make its way to Africa as a gracious extension of God’s mission to redeem the world. It came wrapped in a package with white supremacy, violence, and cultural hegemony. Because the good news of Jesus Christ is the Missio Dei, that means that Christianity does not belong to the white men who brought it. An understanding of God’s redemptive work as the Missio Dei liberates the gospel from white men and gives it to people freely as a gift from God without strings attached. For the Ugandan church, this truth means that the church in Uganda can be Ugandan—not European or American.
The mission of God is the reason we exist. The church is the instrument through which God continues that mission. A guitar is made to be strummed. The church is made to bear witness to the world that God is making all things new. Emil Brunner, who Newbigin liked to quote, said it this way: “the Church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning.” Because Christian identity is so intimately knit together with the outward focus of God’s mission to the world, we must ask a set of questions about everything we do.
For my church, this has meant creating a checklist for every event or program to ensure that it is hospitable towards God’s mission in the world. We want to ensure that we are not insulating ourselves from God’s larger mission to the world. Here are a few of the questions we try to ask routinely:
- Who feels truly welcome at this event?
- Are we using insider language in our worship service that will exclude people?
- Are there people attending our services who are new to our community? If not, why not?
- Does our slate of events for the year provide a diverse set of experiences both for our own benefit and to fully connect with the people to whom we are called?
A community shaped by the Missio Dei has a profound sense that they exist both by God and for the sake of the world. Everything they do will be done with eyes open, expecting God’s mission to continue through them.
Someone asked me recently what our church’s “evangelism program” looked like. “Well,” I stalled, “It looks like having an awesome community. Or at least trying to.” He asked me what I meant. I don’t remember how I explained it in the moment. I rambled, probably. After the conversation (of course), I remembered a passage in Geoffrey Wainright’s book on Leslie Newbigin: “In his own thinking, the bishop found himself starting less with the preaching of faith as the individual’s access to salvation and putting the emphasis more on the local Christian community as the unbeliever’s first point of contact with the redemptive work of Christ.”
Rather than trying to convince people that the mission of God was the good news of their redemption, Newbigin shifted towards putting people in contact with a community who would demonstrate that reality. We should learn from that shift.
Churches and Christians spend a lot of time thinking about how to package the message of Christianity for the world. We scheme for a silver bullet: a program that will connect with the youth, or an event that attracts millennials. But no event or program communicates the good news of Christ like a community of people who love each other well and who live with open arms. The call to conversion is a call to community. The invitation to follow Jesus in faith and repentance cannot be separated from participation in the community of those who are doing just that. Your church community is your biggest asset or liability for mission. If it is a permeable community that is centered around Jesus, then your events, programs, and services will bend towards being hospitable places where outsiders can encounter the people of God.
People are desperate for a community they can belong to. They aren’t desperate to be preached at. Churches shaped by the Missio Dei are able to trust God because it is His mission. At the same time, they understand themselves as instruments, made to bear witness to God’s goodness.
I am too young to remember the good ole days when the church pews were full. I’ve never worked at a church that wasn’t shrinking. That can be scary. In the 19th century everyone predicted that Christianity would be driven out of Africa by the end of the 20th century. That didn’t work out. Christians in America often prophesy about the demise of Christianity at home, conservative and progressive alike. It’s easy to quote Pew Research numbers and panic. But it’s God’s mission, not ours. If we let go of it, perhaps we will start to follow in the footsteps of our brothers and sisters in South America, Africa, and Asia.