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Reactions to Van Rheenen, Love, and Missio Dei from the Bronx
What’s it all about? The missionary enterprise faces significant challenges. Religious consumerism, established traditions, and personal temptations for self-fulfillment are difficult to overcome. However, the church is called to participate in God’s mission and to recognize that the mission is indeed God’s. Christian workers begin the missionary task by asking certain questions. Reflecting on the nature of God and imitation of that nature, practitioners of mission learn to listen to God’s leading while interpreting the culture. As a result, missional methodologies are shaped first by theological dialogue.
What’s It All About?
My first involvement with a brand new church planting project was in 1993 in an impoverished section of Memphis, TN. Since that time, I’ve had various degrees of interaction with church planting of various shapes and sizes. In 2001 I began the roller-coaster ride of a lifetime as a new church planter in New York City. Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to enter the dialogue on the missionary enterprise, especially in Western contexts. I’ve been grateful to be part of the conversation, but during this time some of the dialogue on church planting has raised concerns for me. I have found myself in workshops and forums where planting new churches was emphasized as a solution for institutional survival. Maintaining the life of the tradition was foundational to the conversations. As various Christian traditions face either potential or real decline in a changing culture, planting new churches is a viable solution. This makes perfect sense. Growth counters decline. However, the mission of the church does not really belong to the church but rather belongs to God. Any emphasis that is overwhelmingly placed on the survival or advancement of a singular denomination, organization, or particular tradition misses the central concern for these types of activities. Church planting, personal evangelism, and social justice initiatives are kingdom activities that represent participation in the missio Dei.
Staying on Mission
During the summer of 2008, I was in the car riding through the Bronx with one of our college interns. We were on our way to a Bible study, and as we rode together, I was explaining some of the challenges of working with the high turnover that takes place in ministry in the city. People are regularly seeking ways to relocate out of the Bronx. Individuals’ job schedules change. Families are under stress. There are numerous competing messages, and, sadly, some simply fall away. I ran through some of these challenges, and as we were getting out of the car, the student became the teacher as he commented, “You have to have a kingdom perspective here, or you’ll go crazy.” In one sentence he prophetically uttered both a theological mandate and a key to my mental sanity as a missiologist in the city. The crucial task for an evangelist in any context is God’s mission. All communities, institutions, or careers are subservient to that one true reality.
The mission of God is a central concern for God’s people, especially if the church is indeed to be a missional community. Debates may abound over what the priorities of the church should be. Evangelism? Community? Social justice? Worship? The answer is likely, “Yes to all.” Despite obvious attempts to do so, these functions cannot be easily divided and prioritized. They are each interwoven into the tapestry of the missio Dei as God’s kingdom breaks into human history. The central aspect of each of these activities is God’s missional agenda. Mission is ultimately the pursuit of connecting the created with their Creator and restoring the glory of God in the hearts of people. Mission is not a program of the church but the DNA of God’s call to participation with him. Every activity of the church bears witness to God’s redemptive purpose. It requires proclamation of the good news of God’s kingdom. Humans are called into an alternative story that points to the reality of their Creator and his sovereignty. Individuals and communities are transformed into representatives of God’s reign. These communities possess a shared purpose for experiencing and representing the reign of God in their midst. Mission shines a light on dark places in our world, and it leads to worship as it brings the glory of God into hearts that do not yet glorify him. Mission is a central concern for the church because the aim of God’s mission is the expansion of his redemptive reign in every crack and crevice of human societies. The kingdom of God is here and now, and yet the kingdom of God is also not fully realized. Until God’s reign is made complete, bearing witness is a key act of worship. God’s people continually call fellow human beings who do not yet worship nor submit to God to recognize God on his throne and to submit to him as the Sovereign Lord.
Just as Gailyn Van Rheenen emphasizes, being sent is at the heart of mission.1 God redeems humanity through incarnational encounter. “The Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14 NRSV). The Father sent Jesus into human culture bound by time and space. He modeled mission for a group of his followers and sent them out empowered and led by the Holy Spirit. This narrative forms us as we are sent by the Holy Spirit into a world full of both the brokenness of sin and the beauty of God’s creative genius. To participate in the missio Dei is to play a role in the movement of God’s redemptive action in every corner of human society. It is God’s mission, and it only belongs to the church to the extent that the church is participating in the mission of God. This may be particularly challenging to career ministers. It seems to be human nature to seek our self-worth in our work and in our personal accomplishments. There is an innate desire to build, and the temptation to erect our own Babels under the auspices of Christian mission is often present. However, the transformation of Peter, James, and John’s misplaced zeal into an obedient witness plays itself out again in every generation. Today, God is on the move in every corner of our world.
Embracing the mission of God in an age of globalization opens up the missional conversation to the wider body of contributions. Many cell church leaders and church growth gurus have looked to South Korea to draw lessons from the quintessential megachurch. Those desiring church planting movements look to Cambodia, China, or India, and many European churches are experiencing revitalization as they receive refugees of the African diaspora. North Americans look across the Atlantic as they learn to navigate post-Christendom contexts from a new generation of churches in Europe. As the West encounters increasing pluralism in the shadow of politicized culture wars, Christians in the East who have lived side by side with Muslims or Hindus for centuries may provide some lessons for peaceful coexistence and witness. No one nation or culture holds a monopoly as the master of missional enterprise, and these examples are only meant to highlight that fact. In a global society, a collective intelligence may emerge as a new humanity transcending borders collaborates together as participants in the mission of God.
The Continuing Conversation
Conversations around the missional church are not without precedent. This present conversation joins a wider global discourse. For example, several years before discussions on the missional church emerged in the United States, the Latin American Theological Fraternity and theologians such as René Padilla emphasized integral mission. Integral mission raises the holistic and universal nature of mission. Padilla states that “all churches send and all churches receive” in order to address the dichotomy between what have traditionally been sending and receiving nations.2 Western nations, particularly the United States, possess the status of “home” while the majority world is a “mission field.” Such a dichotomy has largely undermined the church’s role as a missionary agent within Western society while simultaneously nursing an ongoing dependency among receiving nations. Padilla correctly argues against this dichotomy and for greater holism. He writes: “The whole world is a mission field, and every human need is an opportunity for missionary service.”3 Padilla further contends that “every Christian is called to follow Jesus Christ and to be committed to God’s mission in the world . . . . The Christian life in all its dimensions, on both the individual and community levels, is the primary witness to the universal lordship of Jesus Christ and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.”4 Latin American theologians, such as René Padilla, have argued for some time for a church that is holistic and missional by nature.
Current conversations revolving around the missional church do not need to begin from scratch. Such theological voices from Latin America reflect several years of calling upon the church as a universal missional community. When our understanding of mission shifts from the church’s mission to the mission of God, we are empowered to surrender our sense of possession of the mission and see ourselves as part of a larger play on the global stage. The mission of God incorporates a rich and diverse tapestry of voices from all nations around the globe, each challenged to answer the same universal call.
Finding Our Way
I applaud holistic views of mission. Nevertheless, I also insist that making disciples through planting Christian faith communities should be the key practice of the missionary enterprise because communities of faith in Jesus Christ are the primary agents for accomplishing the tasks that reflect the kingdom gospel. Admittedly, my point is negated if the church is characterized by consumerism and entrenched in programmatic maintenance. However, if the church is faithful as a community shaped by a biblical framework for mission, it is a force for transformation and eternal hope.
I find it fascinating when I am asked whether my ministry, as an organic church planter in an urban context, involves social justice. It is difficult to answer without some nuance, because if I respond by considering what I suspect to be the prevailing cultural assumptions, I suppose I have very little to report. Oftentimes we think of social justice as a programmatic response that clearly addresses a recognized physical need in society. However, as a missiologist, I’m compelled to respond with my real answer. “Yes,” church planting in urban settings is also a work of justice because we are making new disciples of Jesus and developing Christian community. When shaped by the gospel, these individuals and communities represent the agency of the kingdom of God bringing transformational power to human culture. Such communities care holistically for both body and soul. By generating a gospel-shaped community in an urban society, we are bringing a truly holistic force to the city. The church has a biblical mandate to be deeply concerned about justice—and about eternal salvation.
For whatever reason, as a youth I was formed by Matthew 25 just as much as I was shaped by Matthew 28, and now as a church planter I recognize that the primary agent for societal transformation (i.e., social justice) and personal salvation (i.e., evangelism) is vibrant communities of faith in Jesus Christ. When we promote a reductionist gospel, it often becomes either divorced from social justice on the one hand or from evangelistic proclamation on the other. The mission of God, however, is driven by the gospel of the kingdom, and the gospel of the kingdom invades every sphere of human existence—body and soul. Communities representing the gospel are ambassadors of God’s reconciling power in the world.
Paul the apostle understood the importance of the Christian community as an agent of the missio Dei. As he traveled all over the Mediterranean region, he established beach heads of God’s kingdom. As a result of the church being present in a city, all sorts of initiatives are born out of that community sharing the concerns of the kingdom of God. At the heart of missional activity is the gospel that confronts, transforms, and saves.
Our faith community in the Bronx has hosted marriage seminars that have indeed helped people, but such events do not compare to seeing marriages transformed through participation in small relational communities gathered in the presence of Christ. We’ve partnered with food and clothing programs that have done much good in our struggling city neighborhoods, but the gospel is shared in unspeakable ways when a small house church responds by spontaneously emptying their pockets for a struggling family. The people of God form a community that brings healing where there is brokenness, a prophetic voice where there is corruption, proclamation of salvation where souls are lost, and community where there is isolation. Establishing and multiplying communities like these is an imperative of the church today. The missional church represents the participation of God’s people in the missio Dei. However, this brings me back to my opening thoughts. Are we planting churches that are primarily driven by preserving a brand or uplifting religious careers, or are we captivated by the mission of God? This is an important question, and asking these sorts of questions clearly leads us to evaluate what we have been up to so far. Stuart Murray writes:
Simply planting churches of the kind we already have is not the answer. Churches have been leaking hundreds of members each week for many years. Planting more of these kinds of churches is not a mission strategy worth pursuing. But planting new kinds of churches may be a key to effective mission and a catalyst for the renewal of existing churches.5
An important corrective for the church is to recognize that planting churches that are consumer-driven is not actually participation in God’s mission. In contrast, such a practice may only promote self-centeredness. Creating an exchange of religious goods and services does little to realize the kingdom of God in our midst. Church planters are faced with a significant decision to focus on making and equipping disciples of Jesus to become agents of the missio Dei rather than becoming overwhelmed with programmatic maintenance or enslaved to the demands of religious consumers. This requires strategic decisions that emerge from theological reflection, the cultural context, and careful attention to the leadership of the Holy Spirit. God is seeking to redeem and transform, and the Christian community is his primary agent for the task. Ultimately, the people of God must cross boundaries to restore God’s glory in human hearts. As participants in the missio Dei, our drive is to make disciples of Jesus Christ and to see these disciples form communities that reflect the good news of the kingdom of God. God’s people are to manifest God’s kingdom in the world. Only then does the church find itself swept up in God’s drama of redemption. Building our own kingdoms will always fall short of the realization of the missio Dei. To participate in the mission of God is to realize his kingdom come. For the community of faith to live into this call, we pause and ask, “What is shaping our communities?”
Mark Love’s statement that “missio Dei makes theology, not strategy, the first task of a missional church” is an important declaration.6 We don’t begin with our marketing messages or our inherent desire to carry on meaningful traditions. As Alan Hirsch points out, missional workers must begin with christology, which then determines their missiology, and missiology determines their ecclesiology in a given context.7 Following this sequence really changes everything. We cannot begin the missionary task with our previous assumptions about the shape of the church or our own preferences for religious ritual. Rather, mission flows from the person of God through his people into a lost world.
Anthropological research and church strategies will continue to have prominence as we seek to contextualize the gospel and help the church to behave incarnationally in specific settings. Exegeting culture is an important facet of our participation in mission. However, participation in the missio Dei begins with our understanding of God, how we relate to him, and his vision for the world. All missional activity grows out of that relationship. As Love discusses in his article, church planting is—or perhaps should be—under the influence of a trinitarian worldview. Therefore, our particular relationship to the Trinity matters.
Reflecting the Nature of God
If our trinitarian view is of God as a social Being, that view is likely reflected in the manner in which we participate in mission. A relational view of the Trinity may lead to relational approaches to evangelism as opposed to methods that feel cold or detached. As we reflect a God who, by his nature, is community, a church may place a significant emphasis on relational approaches to ministry. A relational view of the Triune God then naturally flows toward the anthropological work of forming our particular missiology in a specific context. As we relate to God who is community, we then ask, “How do”–or perhaps, “How would”–“people in this cultural setting express love, forgiveness, witness, and similar acts of grace?” Before we can imagine the church in our setting, we must be awake to God’s nature as well as grasp the social dynamics of the culture around us.
I’m increasingly convinced that we are formed by our experiences far more than we realize. A year ago, I was interviewing a seeker participating in our church network. I asked two separate questions. One was about her experiences with this church community and the other was about her evolving faith in God. Later, as I went over the content of the interview, I realized that there was a common thread connecting her experience with the Christian community and how she was learning to relate to God. She explained that she was growing through the one-on-one interactions that took place in a small relational church setting. Then, when asked about her emerging faith in God, she continued to discuss how she was learning to relate to God in a one-on-one manner. She described her experience as personal and less “sterile” than previous religious encounters. Her description of her evolving relationship with God paralleled her experience in this type of faith community. There appeared to be a strong connection between her community experience and how she was beginning to relate to God. While Scripture was beginning to transform her worldview, her theology was being formed at least as much by her particular experience with God’s people. If the popular saying “the medium is the message” is true, our methods do matter. However, we need to make sure we are asking the right questions. Rather than asking, “How do I grow this church?” we instead contemplate, “What will facilitate people having a relationship with God and joining his mission?”
Similarly, David Watson points out in a Shapevine.com interview that the spiritual DNA during conversion influences the ongoing issues facing Christian discipleship. He explains that when someone comes to faith because they were hit with a confrontational message and had an inspirational experience in the context of an event, they will learn quickly to depend on these sorts of experiences in order to maintain their faithfulness because they constantly seek to remain inspired. However, Watson argues that discipling relationships are likely to result in a much more proactive faith experience leading to participation in mission.8 For missional workers, this raises the question, “How does our approach to mission reflect the nature of God?”
I see the move toward a relational understanding of the Triune God as a positive step. Rooting our missional orientation in the missio Dei, we focus our practices upon imitation of God. If we begin by seeing God as a relational Being, we are likely to see missional activity begin to emerge from a theological worldview that is inherently relational as well. Mission arises out of our own journey with the Holy Spirit. In the Book of Acts, it is clearly the Holy Spirit that is leading the charge of God’s mission into the world. In many cases, the first-century church is trying to keep up and catch on to what the Holy Spirit is doing. The point here is simple and yet quite challenging. God is passionate about his mission to the world, but we can only grasp our part in his mission as we keep in step with his Spirit. Impersonal approaches to mission may accomplish significant growth of a particular institution, but if God is relational, it is difficult to affirm that these approaches reflect the genuine character of the missio Dei.
My colleague in New York City, Hugo Monroy, often points out that the nature of God concerns the personal rather than the impersonal. Too often, our practices of mission are impersonal, but incarnation insists on a deeply relational understanding of God. Time and space encounter eternity in the expression of the incarnation. If we take theology seriously as the beginning point and if we begin with a foundational understanding that God is relational in his very nature, we will likely adopt strategies that are also, in their essence, relational. Whatever ecclesiological model is chosen, as missional strategies emerge we reflect upon how a particular expression or activity reflects the nature of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in relationship to our world.
This is precisely why discussions about church models are merely secondary, if not tertiary. These discussions are not without merit or necessity, but they must take their proper place. Van Rheenen tells the story of a church planter named Jim. Jim asks the question, “How can we meet the needs of the people of this community and make this church grow?” The church does grow, but, as Van Rheenen explains, largely becomes a vendor of religious goods and services rather than a living expression of the kingdom of God. In the end, Jim privately contemplates, “What have I created?”9 This is an example of beginning with the wrong questions. I’ve heard similar stories repeatedly told in private conversations all over North America. Beginning with theological questions concerning the kingdom of God and moving into mission as a participant in God’s redemptive narrative would likely lead to a different set of considerations at the start of a church. Church models and strategies are important, but they must be an outcome of the theological and cultural questions explored by the missionary practitioner.
When the rubber meets the road, missional workers have to make choices. We have to decide what our priorities are. We have to decide how we’re going to deal with the forces that come to bear upon us. We were promised that participation in God’s mission would bring with it trouble, but not every challenge faced by missional workers is from the world. When a missionary crosses borders into another nation, he takes significant time to learn the language, become immersed in the host culture, and bond with the local people. When a church planter comes to New York City to evangelize unreached people, however, he often finds himself feeling under pressure to produce quickly in order to keep his funding. As a result, he quickly gathers existing Christians into a new group, establishes a brand, and launches a public worship service while the original intention to reach unreached peoples in the city fades into the background. In the current religious climate, missional workers make sacrifices and missional communities are forced to address systemic cultural shifts in order to place participation in the missio Dei at the center of their communal life and operations.
As the church participates in the missio Dei, the formation of missional practice does not begin with tradition—as rich as a tradition might actually be—nor is the beginning point for a church’s missional life to develop effective recruitment strategies. Rather, mission begins with the very nature of God, his incarnation in Jesus Christ, and his ongoing activity through the Holy Spirit. The driving questions for the missionary enterprise focus on reflections on God’s nature, and a key task is to discover God’s present movement in the surrounding culture and find our place in his unfolding narrative of redemption. As the church aligns its own nature with the nature of God, the church itself is transformed and the world encounters a community with unveiled faces that reflect the glory of the living God.
Dr. Jared Looney serves as a missional catalyst in New York City where he planted an organic church network. Jared lives in the Bronx with his wife, Hylma, and daughter, Adalia, and he is passionate about seeing God’s mission advance in the hands of ordinary believers. He holds a doctor of missiology from Fuller Theological Seminary. To connect with Jared, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hirsch, Alan. The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006.
Love, Mark. “Missio Dei, Trinitarian Theology, and the Quest for a Post-Colonial Missiology.” Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 1 (August 2010): 53-70.
Murray, Stuart. Church Planting: Laying Foundations. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001.
Padilla, René. “What is Integral Mission?” Del Camino Network. http://lareddelcamino.net/en/images/Articles/what%20is%20integral%20mission%20cr%20padilla.pdf. Accessed on March 15, 2010.
Van Rheenen, Gailyn. “From Theology to Practice: Participating in the Missio Dei.” Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 1 (August 2010): 30-51.
Watson, David. “Church Planting Today.” Interview by L. Ford. Video Exclusives.
1 See Gailyn Van Rheenen’s article in the present issue, 33-37.
2René Padilla, “What is Integral Mission?” Del Camino Network,
5 Stuart Murray, Church Planting: Laying Foundations (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001), 25.
6 See Mark Love’s article in the current issue, 55.
7 Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), 142-43.
9 Van Rheenen, 31.