Re-Imagining God and Mission

By Brian Edgar

If you intend to write or produce a book, the best thing you can do yourself and your readers is to get a good topic. This book, Reimagining God and Mission in Australia deals with a good and vitally important topic: it is looking at what God, through the church is doing, and could be doing in Australia.

I could not be more enthusiastic about this book. There is a great need for missiological thinking today, thinking which involves the application of biblical themes to our present context. As Nicholas Wolterstorff says, “The church needs scholars to assist her in the task of seeing precisely how the biblical vision applies to our present social realities and to assist her in the task of interpreting this social reality of ours.”

These are comments that I made about this book when I was privileged to launch it at a gathering at Whitely College library in March 2007.

This book, with its sixteen contributions from eighteen writers is a significant contribution to the missional life of the Australian church. And, having had the opportunity to read it, which most of won’t have done, let me say it is not hard to see that it stands well to the fore in mission thinking today.

Mission thinking is by no means static. It is perpetually undergoing change and the writers here are part of a broad movement.  I would like to take a moment to say how I locate this book in some very broad trends.  About as broad as you could possibly get!

For more than a thousand years ‘mission’ was understood as an activity of the trinitarian God alone. Missio Dei, the mission of God, referred not so much to what the church or Christians did so much as to the Father’s mission of sending the Son to the world, and the sending of the Holy Spirit by the Father and the Son (John 14:26). Mission was an action of God rather than an activity of the church.

This theological understanding of mission as something that God does, when combined, historically, with the eventual isolation of European Christianity from the rest of the world meant that the church lost much of its missionary impetus. Indeed the Reformers were prone to believe that the gift of evangelism had died away with the early church as the world, they believed, was completely evangelized.

But eventually, the role of the church in mission re-emerged in both seventeenth century Catholic and then in post-reformation Protestant traditions (though please excuse me if I say more about the Protestant world – with which I am more familiar). Indeed, the concept of mission was turned around so that it was primarily thought of as an activity of the church rather than of the Trinity.

When mission is seen as an activity of the church, which is isolated from that most distinctive and fundamental doctrine of the church – the doctrine of the Trinity then there is a tendency for mission to be perceived pragmatically. Mission becomes a technique or a set of actions.  That leads to all sorts of errors and distortions.

It is important that the life of the Trinity be seen as the essential theological foundation of mission with the church seen as the means by which it takes place.

Mission starts with the trinitarian love of God.  This is the love of the Father in sending the Son, and the sending of the Spirit by the Father and the Son. This is the inner love of God which  overflows in love for the world.   At times the doctrine of the Trinity has been seen as an obscure doctrine and probably a barrier to mission, but there is now a greater recognition that it is actually the basis of the mission in which the church participates.

This important theological foundation, you will be glad to know is part and parcel of this book.

  • The theological foundations are seen in the fine contribution by Ross Langmead, whose introduction is much more than just an introduction to the rest, it is an important piece in its own right.
  • It is also seen  in Stephen Bevans title piece, in which he discusses images of God as Dancer Stranger and Widow (!), which are derived from  the relationships of the Trinity
  • and also in Alan Hirsch’s reflections on  the incarnational impulse for mission..

Of course, other essays explore related theological dimensions of mission very helpfully:

  • There is Walking in the Resurrection: An Anabaptist Approach to Mission in Australia    Mark S Hurst
  • And Four Shifts for Mission  in which Paul Dalzell explores the nature of faith and mystery.

This is the essential theological foundation for mission. A strong doctrine of God – this is why the title is precisely ‘Re-imagining God’ as well as ‘re-imagining mission’ . You can’t do the latter without having done the former.

But let me go back to my historical review for a moment.  In those days the missio dei was seen purely as an activity of God the role of the church in mission was neglected.  A renewal of that aspect did not occurred in seventeenth century Catholic and then in post-reformation Protestant traditions.

The novelty of the idea that the church has a role in mission is illustrated in the controversy surrounding John Wesley’s innovation – evangelism outside the church! The gospel, many believed, only belonged inside the church. Many resisted the idea that a gospel mission was an activity the church should practice in fields, market places and at work.

And so there was a conflict between those who understood mission as purely an activity of God, and those who saw the role that the church plays in it.  This is illustrated in the well known account of William Carey’s call to mission. At a meeting of Baptist pastors, Carey suggested that they discuss the need for mission but was told by a more senior minister, ‘Sit down, young man. If God wants to convert the heathen, he will do it without consulting with you, or me!’

The shift to recognize the church’s responsibility in mission was, in many ways, positive but this time, instead of focusing on the Trinity without the church there was a tendency to focus on ecclesiology at the expense of the more fundamental, theological and trinitarian dimensions of mission. This stress on ecclesiology led to a few rather unfortunate tendencies:

  • First, many people viewed the purpose of mission as being to reproduce clones of the sending church. Anglicans, Baptists and Catholics and so forth saw their responsibility, at least in part, as being to establish their own denomination in other countries.
  • Second, the development of mission societies to undertake the mission of the church meant that the broader church was able to feel exonerated from any further mission activity as long as they supported the mission societies prayerfully and financially. And that activity, of course, always took place overseas.
  • Thirdly, to some extent, the mission societies were complicit in this alienation of mission from the greater part of the church by the focus on the ‘call’ (which only some people would hear and respond to);
  • Fourthly, they identified churches as ‘sending churches’ which sent missionaries and supported mission societies – instead of being centres of missionary activity themselves.

Fortunately, since then there has been a recognition that mission is not something engaged in only by certain groups and individuals from churches. Nor is the creation of cloned churches the aim of mission; nor is the church to be seen as just a sending agency. No, the church is not just the sending agency. It is actually the church itself that is sent by God.

And that  is the second focus of this fine book.       As it has been said, ‘The church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning.’ No burning, no fire. No mission, no church.     The book explores the mission of God through the people of God in Australian in many and varied contexts:

There are several overviews of the situation, including Philip J Hughes’ review of religious trends and Clive Pearson’s discussion of public theology.  David Tacey explores religion in the midst of secularity; there an examination of indigenous Christianity   by Lorraine Erlandson & Joy Sandefur, and of Islam by Frank Purcell. Wendy Snook discusses the gospel and sea changers, Peter Wilson & Jill McCoy apply missionary principles to New Spirituality and Colin Scott applies them to urban mission, Darren Cronshaw applies them to multicultural Australia.And it is all rounded off with two articles on educating for mission by Maryanne Confoy and David Turnbull

I would like to congratulate all those involved, the writers, the publisher, and Ross Langmead, the editor and primary force behind the conference.

Without a strong theology of mission the whole of theology is lost:

  • Without mission the doctrine of God as a God of love reaching out to the world disappears
  • Without mission Jesus can be a good and wise teacher, but not first missionary, the Son of the Father, the saviour of the world.
  • Without a mission outreach the church becomes more like a social club or a private school (or perhaps even a ghetto).
  • Without a mission focus preaching will not be the message of salvation found in Christ, but will degenerate into moral advice for those who want to improve themselves.
  • Without a mission leading to a renewed and redeemed creation one would have to conclude, without hope, that this world that we have now is all that there is and all that there will be.

In other words, by the time one has evacuated the doctrines of God, Christ, church and creation of all missionary – and therefore of all trinitarian – meaning there is not much left of Christian faith.

This book, and its authors, are to be commended for its contribution to the life of the church in Australia

For copies of the book contact your book-seller or the Australian Association for Mission Studies

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