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Un-thinking mission

Next week I’m presenting a student seminar at my college, the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies. It’s titled ‘Un-thinking mission, and the challenge of Karl Barth and missio Dei.’

It comes in part out of my research project, which is an attempt to move toward a theology of child and mission, but also in response to the hard-to-comprehend but oft-forged dichotomy between ‘missiology’ and ‘theology’. In short, the division between those who see theology as  at best a luxury or at least lower priority than the urgent task of mission; at worst a downright hindrance to it; and those who accuse many mission practitioners of acting without thinking in their enthusiasm for ‘getting on’ with the ‘real business’ of mission. (Indeed, my experience suggests that ‘business’ can sometimes be all too accurate a description for some contemporary mission!) My paper’s thesis is that much of what we observe today in ‘mission’ by churches and agencies is not only un-thinking mission (ie theologically and perhaps culturally or otherwise naive), but fosters the un-thinking of mission – a deliberate movement away from doing due theological diligence because of a disdain for such, or fear it may raise uncomfortable questions about the means, methods and manner of the work being done. However, such mission risks not only being un-thinking, but potentially also un-ethical, and even therefore un-God-ly. Ironically, this would render it un-mission. For mission, understood in terms of the missio Dei (‘the mission of God’, or even more literally, the ‘sending of /from God’) is first and foremost exactly that: God’s mission. It cannot but reflect his being, character, intentions and movement toward, in and for the world, for it is He Himself in action. It is only subsequently and at best contingently that humans can participate – by his free grace – in God’s own redemptive work in the world. Though variously defined, missio Dei at very least retains this location of mission in God’s being and doing before and even beyond any human action.

This raises the prospect that a lot of what we do in the name of mission, and missions – short-term, long-term, holistic, transformational or otherwise – is not. The briefest historical survey of Christian mission suggests that much of what has been undertaken in the name of mission has been antithetical to the being, character, intentions and redemptive movement of God. In fact it has, at times, actively worked against the purposes of God. (It also, of course, raises the prospect that much more comes into the scope of mission that is typically regarded as such. But that’s another discussion.)

This should cause all of us involved in mission practice, pause for thought. How can we know whether what we’re doing is consistent with God’s own working toward, for and in the world if we don’t reflect carefully and closely on who God is, and what he can be seen and said to be doing? Even then, this is not easy, for as Karl Barth constantly reminded us, God is free! The Spirit blows where it pleases. It is not easy at all to discern where he is at work, what he is doing, and how he would have us participate therein. But Jesus ‘only did what he saw the Father doing’ (John 5:19). That also, is the great challenge for those of us who seek to be his followers.

Nor because we think that what we are doing is consistent with what we think God is about does it guarantee that God is automatically pleased by, present in or participating with us in what we do (I should of course express this in the inverse – it is we who by his grace are, perhaps occasionally, able to participate in his mission.) There’s a lot to be said for how we engage toward, with and in the world. Ends do not justify means. Theological reflection causes us to realize the provisionality of our actions aligning with God’s. Too often when the religious leaders of his day thought they were acting with and for God, Jesus points out they are far from it. It would only be with great arrogance that we could assume ourselves to be consistently more consistent with the ways of God. Are we acting justly, kindly, lovingly – towards our staff, fellow church members, those with whom we are engaged – in the process of going about what we believe to be God’s good work? Do movements like the 4-14 movement and others exploit – subtly, but nevertheless truly – the very group it purports to serve, by making children (or others) the objects and instruments of its adult/ White / Western / wealthy/ personal agendas and psychological (e.g. messiah) complexes?

To all of this, I suggest in my paper that the concept of missio Dei, and the theology of Karl Barth – neither being without their shortcomings, though I am far from qualified to judge the latter – offer a resounding critique. Mission is God’s. It cannot be readily apprehended, domesticated, or assumed by an individual, a church, a culture or an agency. We need to be ever attentive to the leading and the judgment of the Spirit and Word of God, and be open to the reality that we often miss it, buy into human agendas, frameworks and methodologies, allow pride, power, budgets, even our own insecurities to drive our actions more than prayer, humility, submission, sober self-awareness and an earnest desire to see hear and join the Spirit at work in our world.  And yet the wonder of mission is that God does, it would seem, invite us into his redemptive movement with, in and for the world.

His mission. On his terms.

It doesn’t take a professional theologian to think. To reflect. To pray. Nor should it be left to such people, as valuable as they are. (There is a lot to be said, I believe, for ‘reflective practice.’) But mission which is un-thinking, along with the un-thinking of mission, may just turn out to produce un-mission.

And to those of us who claim to seek to serve God and his kingdom, that should be un-thinkable.

(Much of the thinking expressed here owes a great debt, which the paper seeks to acknowledges, to my supervisor Haddon Willmer, along with my friend Beth Barnett and other members of the Child Theology Movement, which is currently involved in a lively debate on the topic on its internal blogsite. Thanks to all who have contributed to that debate, from which much of what is expressed here is derivative. I would love to hear thoughts and comments on what I have presented here as a prelude to that paper. Thanks!)

  1. October 16, 2011 at 9:33 am

    Great reflection, make sure you copy this to our CTM blog under the heading ‘Mission and Theology’. I think you are opening good ground for our work on the topic. I would like to talk with you more about meaningful integration of human action and thinking with the action and mission of God. Have you read Loder’s first three chapters of Logic of the Spirit yet? I am looking forward to your seminar on Wednesday. I will chair it and hopefully we can get some lively discussion going. Keep up the good work, I am fortunate to be looking over your shoulder.

    • DKonz@compassion.com.au
      October 16, 2011 at 11:50 am

      Bill, thanks for your comments! My paper for Wednesday goes much deeper into this critical question which you have identified of how human action relates to God’s mission and action (missio Dei and actio Dei). In the paper I am drawing significantly on John Flett’s 2010 publication, ‘The Witness of God: The Trinity, Missio Dei, Karl Barth and the Nature of the Christian Community,’ which tackles precisely that question. Thanks for the pointer to Loder – I have the book on my shelf at home but haven’t yet read it. I’m looking forward to the seminar – thanks in advance for chairing, and for being such a valuable member of my supervision team! Blessings.


  2. October 24, 2011 at 2:38 am

    DJ, great post, better late than never for me to comment I hope.
    Often when I am working with teachers, we use the phrase “We never need to ask whether a child is learning, only what the child is learning” – to express the power of the informal, incidental and ‘hidden’ curriculum.
    I think this is relevant also to the missioners who claim action over thinking. What we mean here is conscious thinking, reflective thinking, but it is a matter of honesty and integrity to acknowledge that all action, all mission, is undergirded by some kind of cognitive, philosophical and theological structure.
    What you are highlighting for us so helpfully is the danger of that structure being denied or neglected, and thus left outside of accountability. Work is required in exegeting the missional narratives of practice, as well as developing constructive theological patterns from our texts and traditions. The bridge thus is built from both sides.

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