Preparing to go to the mission field as a recent graduate student, I was compelled to consider subscribing to academic journals. These journals are the natural way to stay plugged into conversations that have become important for the ongoing formation of a soon-to-be practitioner such as myself. In my experience, if we learn anything from professional training, it is that we are very far from finished learning. Even the most modest amount of ministry experience confirms this, inciting us to find conversation partners that can speak to the realities we confront in the service of the kingdom. Some of these realities are very practical; some are very theological. And sometimes hard-won wisdom suggests that there is little difference between the two. Whatever their nature, these formative conversations have, for all of us, taken place within a specific context, a church tradition with its own voice in the discourse. Shockingly, however, there has existed no means (since 1996,1 at least) for missiological conversation partners from my own tradition to take their place at the table alongside my other subscriptions.
My consternation at this situation was compounded by the Stone-Campbell Movement’s (SCM) potentially rich contribution to the field. While my own experience is limited to the Churches of Christ (a cappella), I can assert as a matter of history that the SCM has been deeply involved in missions, and no few of its higher-learning institutions have taken part in the emergence of the sub-discipline of missiology in the last century. Yet, with a few notable exceptions (one of whom, I am pleased to say, is among our first contributors), the SCM’s chorus of voices has not been heard by the wider missiological community. And we are, I suggest, all the poorer for it, because it is the interchange that enables us to grow. It should probably be said at this point that there is little of brand loyalty in all this talk of tradition. Rather, it reflects the lesson, which the heirs of Stone and Campbell have learned the hard way, that a historical self-consciousness is far more productive than the presumption of autonomy and traditionlessness. Those working on the present project, though we are fundamentally committed to the mission of God, do so from within the SCM, aware that it affects how we hear and speak, in joyful communion with others in the same tradition, eager to engage generatively with those who hear and speak differently. This is the vantage from which we appreciate the SCM’s missiological contribution and also hope and pray to see it enriched by other perspectives.
As far as ministry experience goes, we also realize that it is not merely academic voices that long for an outlet but also those of seasoned practice. If we are really going to attempt to mine the riches of a tradition, why not go all the way, even at the risk of unconventionality? This impulse coincides with recent expressions in both missiology and theology that point toward a far more holistic vision of God’s mission in the first place. That is to say, by acknowledging previously unrecognized arenas of and participants in mission, a way has opened for us to bring new and exciting conversation partners to the table. Though the dialect from context to context is often somewhat different than scholar-speak, it is certainly no more incomprehensible (likely far less so, in fact), and we are all called, in the end, to the very missionary task of learning to communicate with one another. In short, we’re excited at the prospect of a medium through which any reflective participant in God’s mission can speak. So much, then, for a traditional academic journal.
The initial impulse to hold academia and practice in tension was but the first glimmer of a much greater endeavor to overcome false dichotomies between theory and practice. For that is what these dichotomies ultimately are: false. While we have grown accustomed to, even rewarded by, our niches and specializations and gifts, we only ever engage in monologues when we are trapped within the confines of our provincial subcultures. We manage to talk about “scholarship” and “practical ministry” as though they are competing forces, employing seemingly incompatible languages, each implicitly asserting the superiority of its epistemological norms. Scholar or minister, theory or practice, academic (journal) or popular (magazine), footnotes or endnotes, but never both, and so the great divide becomes indisputable and, perhaps, unbridgeable.
This caricature of “we” cannot really withstand experience, of course, as we all know professor-practitioners or minister-scholars. Yet, the dichotomy persists somehow as young editors begin to cobble ideas together and find that they “have to” cater to a niche audience. Why? Because publishing, perhaps in simpler terms than any other endeavor, reveals the actual state of the disunion and does so in terms of bald disinterest. Perhaps Sir Thomas More put it best when he said, “Low brows find everything heavy going that isn’t completely low brow. High brows reject everything as vulgar that isn’t a mass of archaisms.” We don’t speak each other’s language, and when it comes to actually listening to one another, it shows. “What could your academic prattle do for my actual situation on the ground,” says the practitioner. “What could your earthy anecdotes contribute to my studied reflection,” says the scholar. Of course, what the professor-practitioner and the minister-scholar know is that the answer to both questions is, a great deal. And what the missionary knows is that the real issue is communication, not relevance.
Yet, the niching of the publishing industry has only served to reinforce the natural barriers to communication across fields of expertise, and this plays right into the hands of postmodern consumerism, meaning there is also an economic incentive urging us not to challenge readers who know what they like. Needless to say (one might wish), the mission of God calls this sort of provincialism to account, issuing a vocation to the people of God to speak cross-culturally as both learners and sharers, not least when it comes to speaking within the Christian community about the mission itself. What this all means for the project we have come to call Missio Dei is not that we invent a mystical method of translation that makes the low brow palatable to the high brow and vice versa but rather that we set aside the boxes and create a hybrid, a journal that is about holding in creative tension the voices of the Christian subcultures that must be heard in a truly holistic dialogue about God’s mission.
Missio Dei is, therefore, neither academic nor popular, neither theological nor practical. It is a place for interchange. There will be unapologetically academic contributions, with latinisms and technical jargon and dense footnotes. There will be stories, anecdotes, and essays, with easy-to-read prose and contractions and an utter lack of secondary sourcing. There will be artistic expression as well, both lyric and graphic. There will be even more than all this. But let it be said that this is not an effort to provide “something for everyone.” It is, unequivocally, an effort to bring everyone into one conversation about the mission of God, in the deep mutuality that belongs to the people of God, for his kingdom and his glory.
It is perhaps dangerously close to cliché to name a journal Missio Dei. Yet, there is something about the idea of missio Dei that remains fundamentally important for those of us advocating this discourse. It is, in that sense, always the fitting banner for missiological conversation. At the same time, there is something about the present moment that incites us to say once more, in words writ large, that this is God’s mission. These are times when it seems especially evident how exciting it is to be involved in what God is doing. All over the world, in the midst of a riotous variety of expression, the church is rediscovering God’s mission and, therefore, her own. This emerging awareness, accompanied by a rearrangement of frameworks and priorities, indeed, a reexamination of fundamental assumptions, beckons the whole church to community discourse.
Naturally enough, that discourse must begin with—and often return to—a conversation about the mission of God itself. Can God’s mission, as a theological concept, bear the weight that many would presently place upon it? Is it, as an expression, really just one way among many of saying what we all mean—a place holder, stylish one decade and antiquated the next? Or do we in fact mean very different things? And more fundamentally, is it really conceivable that Christianity sidelined and distorted something as central and essential to its very identity as even cautious advocates would suggest “the mission of God” to be? These questions, broadly sketched as they are, merely hint at the tangle of issues that comprise the ongoing discourse about the many concepts and practices rooted in a reality that has come to be identified as missio Dei—the mission of God.
Our first issue is themed “Rediscovering Missio Dei” as well, because we felt it would be valuable for readers to engage with the concept straightaway, encased as it is within one of those esoteric Latin phrases that make ideas feel inaccessible to some and irrelevant to others. Either way, we need to overcome a lot of (probably justified) shoulder shrugging and eye rolling by getting to the marrow of the matter quickly. There, we pray, a generative conversation will begin.
1The Journal of Applied Missiology was discontinued in 1996. See http://bible.acu.edu/ministry/centers_institutes/missions/page3.asp?ID=272.