Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 7 (Summer-Fall 2016)

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The Church’s Role in the Changing Shape of Mission in the US (Editorial Preface to the Issue)

Charles Kiser

Charles Kiser is Director of Training for Mission Alive, a North American church planting and renewal ministry, and a missionary with Storyline Christian Community in Dallas, Texas. He is currently pursuing a DMin in Contextual Theology at Northern Seminary.

This issue of Missio Dei, for which I am honored to serve as a guest editor, seeks to explore the contours of mission in the United States. Our vision for such exploration was to invite leaders of mission ministries in the US associated with Churches of Christ and Christian Churches to share their perspectives on the growing edge of their reflection and practice on mission. This issue includes contributions from representatives of ministries such as Global City Mission Initiative, Nexus, Kairos Church Planting, Missionary Residence for North America, and Mission Alive. Each of these ministries is deeply committed to mission through the local church, either through forming new ecclesial expressions or by working with existing churches for renewal in mission. Each of them are, in truth, ministries of the local church—they exist because churches and church members support them with prayer, service, and finances. This local church criterion for exploring developments in mission might seem odd to some: Why such a narrow focus on mission via the local church? What about forms of mission outside the church?

These questions are pressing because of the changing focus of ministry in the US. A few years ago I was invited to participate in an evaluation group for a seminary associated with Churches of Christ. I learned about the overall decline of theological education institutions in the United States and that the number of people being trained for ministry was decreasing. But I was particularly fascinated to discover that the shrinking number of trained ministers were choosing diverse settings in which to work. The seminary had once trained individuals to work almost exclusively in congregational settings. More recently, however, students were choosing paths other than congregational ministry: for instance, chaplaincy, social justice ministry, and “emerging” or startup ministry. These new trajectories were affecting the makeup of the student population so much that the seminary was beginning to reshape its curriculum.

On the surface, it was no wonder why students were turning away from congregational ministry in favor of other forms of ministry. A significant number of congregations within Churches of Christ are, or at least are perceived by the new generation of ministers to be, unhealthy and dysfunctional. Perhaps students grew up in a congregation and found it lacking in its spirituality and discipleship. Others may have heard stories from fellow students who had entered into congregational ministry only to be chewed up and spit out by conflicted elderships. Some might be suspicious of the institutionalization of congregations that created an inward focus and organizational bureaucracy that stifled meaningful ministry and mission. One student shared with the evaluation group his experiences of preaching for a rural church nearby. He observed: “I feel like I’ve been trained to serve a church that doesn’t exist.” Whatever the reasons, students are finding something unappealing about congregational ministry and passing over it in favor of alternative forms of service. Given this changing context of ministry, it may appear out of touch to publish an issue on US mission with such an exclusive focus on the local church. But there are deeper issues at stake.

It seems that, in addition to these experiential motivations, there are also theological reasons for exploring alternative forms of ministry. Over the course of my own theological education in Church of Christ schools, Bible professors sought rightly to deconstruct two theological commitments that were once commonly held in Churches of Christ. The first belief is that the kingdom is the church.1 On the contrary, the kingdom is the reign or rule of God. “The church is the community of the Kingdom but never the Kingdom itself.”2 It follows, then, that God and his kingdom are at work outside of the church in the world. The second belief is that “mission” is the church’s mission to make disciples of all nations. The theology of missio Dei challenges this notion: “It is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfill to the world; it is the the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the church, creating a church as it goes on its way.”3 Rather than having ownership of and responsibility for the mission, the church joins God in what he is doing in the world by his Spirit. God is at work in the world before the church ever gets there.

These theological reflections about the church in relation to kingdom and mission have positive implications. They provide a path beyond sectarianism, which determines who is in or out of the kingdom. They also alleviate the anxiety of having to perform or generate the mission, because God is the primary missionary who leads his people into mission. The church is repositioned to a greater place of humility within God’s story in creation. In light of both these positive implications and the changing shape of US ministry, why then are we engaging in a discussion of mission so focused on the local church? Because, if pushed too far, these shifts could displace the role of the church in God’s mission and create imagination for “kingdom work” or “mission work” that no longer requires the community of faith.4 The kingdom is not the church, but the kingdom of God always creates the church—a community of people who live by the Spirit under the reign of God in Christ in the world. God’s mission to renew all things is not the property of the church, but God’s mission always has a church. Therefore, it’s impossible to speak rightly about the mission of God or the kingdom of God without also speaking of the social reality being formed in their wake.

The kingdom is not the church, but the kingdom of God always creates the church.

This is not to deny a place for social justice or other such initiatives in the mission of God—only that the church ought to be the primary arena in which such initiatives take root and grow. Neither is it to deny that experiences of the church’s shortcomings and brokenness motivate alternative forms of ministry. Rather, I want to argue, in the words of G. K. Chesterton, that “if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly”5 (in hopes that by God’s grace we will eventually get better at it!). We are most faithful to God’s mission when we tend both to the renewal of existing church expressions and especially to the cultivation of new expressions. The church, after all, is the vehicle through which “the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph 3:10–11).

The articles in this issue have been developed by gifted missional thinkers and practitioners within the church. They offer fresh imagination for the church’s participation in the missio Dei and faithful responses to the changing landscape of ministry. I commend these articles to you, readers, so that the United States church in mission “may become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13).

1 See, e.g., F. W. Mattox, The Eternal Kingdom: A History of the Churches of Christ (Delight, AR: Gospel Light Publishing, 1961), 41. George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 55, observes that the identification of church and kingdom was the prevalent view from Augustine to the reformers.

2 Ladd, 109. Incidentally, this book was one of my textbooks in seminary for New Testament Theology.

3 Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit: A Contribution to Messianic Ecclesiology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 64. Moltmann is quoted by David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, American Society of Missiology Series 16 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991), 390, in a section on missio Dei theology. Transforming Mission is a seminal text among many missions professors in schools associated with Churches of Christ. See, e.g., Monte Cox, review of David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, American Society of Missiology Series 16 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991), Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 1 (August 2010): http://missiodeijournal.com/issues/md-1/authors/md-1-cox.

4 Scot McKnight, Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2014), 254–55, identifies these ramifications in relation to other theological trajectories, namely Reformed Kuyperian conceptions of the kingdom of God, though I differ with his identification of the church and kingdom. For further discussion of the debate about church and kingdom in which McKnight’s volume engages, see Daniel McGraw, “Which Kingdom is Coming Near?: Contemporary Discussions in Kingdom Theology,” Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 7 (Summer/Fall 2016): http://missiodeijournal.com/issues/md-7/authors/md-7-mcgraw.

5 G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World, 7th ed. (London: Cassel and Company, 1910), 250.