Rethinking the Missio Dei

By Brad Brisco

The main business of many mission committees is to determine how to spend the mission budget, rather than view the entire congregational budget as an exercise in mission.~ Darrell Guder

The fourth key paradigm shift in missional theology is the concept of missio Dei. An English rendering of this Latin phrase speaks to the “mission of God.” It is God who has a mission to set things right in a broken, sinful world, to redeem and restore it to what He has always intended.

Therefore, mission is not the invention, responsibility, or program of the church. Instead, it flows directly from the character and purposes of a missionary God. In the words of South African missiologist David Bosch, “It is not the church which undertakes mission; it is the missio Dei which constitutes the church.” Or stated in a slightly different way, “It is not so much that God has a mission for His church in the world, but that God has a church for His mission in the world.”[1]

It is not only crucial to understand that God has a mission, it is equally important to understand that His mission is larger than the church. We in the church often wrongly assume that the primary activity of God is in the church, rather than recognizing that God’s primary activity is in the world, and the church is God’s instrument sent into the world to participate in His redemptive mission. Instead of thinking of the church as an entity that simply sends missionaries, we instead need to view the church as the missionary. Among other things, this shift in perspective will bring about radical changes in two particular areas.

God’s mission as the organizing principle

First a missio Dei perspective will shape our thinking about the form and function of the church. Typically, congregations view “missions” as simply one program or activity among many other equally important functions of the church. Therefore, the missions program is seen alongside that of worship, small groups, men’s and women’s ministries, youth and children’s ministry, etc. When missions is viewed in this way, the main business of many mission committees “is to determine how to spend the mission budget rather than view the entire congregational budget as an exercise in mission.”[2]

However, when the church begins to define itself as an agent of God’s mission, it will begin to organize every activity of the church around the missio Dei.

As Alan Hirsch and Lance Ford wrote in Right Here Right Now: “Mission as the organizing principle means that mission goes way beyond being some sort of optional activity or program for our churches. It actually is the organizing axis of the church. The life of the church revolves around it. This is not to say that we don’t do corporate worship, develop community, and make disciples, but that these are catalyzed by and organized around the mission function. Only in this way can we be truly missional. Merely adding serving events or special outreach days to our church schedules will not develop missional people nor make a missional church.”[3]

God’s mission as the starting point

Determining where and how we engage in God’s mission is the second way a missio Dei theology influences our activity. But practically speaking, what does it look like to do mission alongside what God is already doing? If it is about God’s mission and not ours, then how do we know where, when, and how to participate?

The answer, at least in part, is that we must look for God’s activity in a local setting as the place to begin our missional engagement. Mission, therefore, cannot be decided beforehand, but it must be discerned in relationship to God’s activity in a local context. Instead of “front loading” mission strategies with what we think a community needs, we begin by listening and learning what God is already doing.

Consider the “Three D’s” of missional engagement:

Discover. If it is truly God’s mission and not ours, then we must first discover how God is at work. The first step in discovering what God is doing is through listening. Individually and collectively, we must cultivate our ability to listen well on three fronts: the Spirit, the local community, and each other. It is simply impossible to ascertain the movement of God without carving out significant time to listen to His voice through prayer and Scripture, as well as the voices of those we desire to serve. If the first step is about discovering, then the first question has to be, “What is God doing in this place?”

Discern. Not only will we need to discern what God is already doing, but we will need to ask the follow-up question, “In light of my (our) gifts and resources, how does God want me to participate in what He is doing?” The fact is we can’t do it all, which is true for both individual followers of Jesus, as well as local congregations. But it also is true that God has gifted us all to do something! The point of discernment is to determine where and how to participate in God’s mission.

Debrief. Throughout the process of engaging God’s mission, we must create opportunities to reflect on our missional involvement. Sometimes this may simply mean we need individual “down time” to reflect upon our activities. We may need to ask God to affirm our involvement or for clarity of direction. But it also will mean carving out time to reflect with others in our faith community. We need to hear what others are seeing and sensing concerning God’s activities and listen to the stories of how others are engaging God’s mission.

The three D’s help put the emphasis on the context into which God has sent us and on how God already has been working in that place, long before we ever arrived.

Action / Reflection

Throughout the week, identify at least three situations where you ask the following questions:

  • Where do I see God at work?
  • Where and how is God working in the lives of those around me?
  • Where and how is God working in my neighborhood?
  • In light of my gifts and resources, how does God want me to partner with Him in what He is doing?

[1] Christopher J.H. Wright, The Mission of God (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 62.

[2] Darrell L. Guder, Missional Church (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1998), 6.

[3] Alan Hirsch and Lance Ford, Right Here Right Now (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2011), 67.

Published April 24, 2018

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Brad Brisco

Brad is currently the Director of Bivocational Church Planting for the North American Mission Board. He holds a doctorate in the area of missional ecclesiology; his doctoral thesis was on assisting existing congregations in transitioning in a missional direction. Brad is the co-author of Missional Essentials, a twelve-week small group study guide, The Missional Quest: Becoming a Church of the Long Run, and Next Door As It Is In Heaven. He and his wife have three children and have been foster parents to more than fifty other kids.