In the 1960s Churches of Christ largely resisted the kind of renewal that Mission sought to achieve, thereby relegating Mission to the status of gadfly to the mainstream tradition. –Richard Hughes, Reviving the Ancient Faith1
Missiology acts as a gadfly in the house of theology, creating unrest and resisting complacency, opposing every ecclesiastical impulse to self-preservation, every desire to stay what we are, every inclination toward provincialism and parochialism, every fragmentation of humanity into regional or ideological blocs, every exploitation of some sectors of humanity by the powerful, every religious, ideological, or cultural imperialism, and every exaltation of the self-sufficiency of the individual over other people or over other parts of creation. –David Bosch, Transforming Mission2
At the 2017 Christian Scholars Conference,3 the Missio Dei Foundation (which publishes Missio Dei) hosted a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of Mission journal. Mission was a leading voice during a period of renewal and reform among Churches of Christ beginning in the 1960s. It ran for twenty years, from 1967 to 1988, insisting all the while that Churches of Christ confront issues such as race, war, poverty, and gender, as well as the tradition’s hermeneutical limitations. Richard Hughes says that in this role Mission was a gadfly. For Hughes, himself a former editor of Mission, the journal was relegated to this status, meaning it was a mere nuisance for most. I suggest, however, that gadfly is the way we should positively construe of the legacy of Mission.
The mission of God is an irritant and a goad to the theology of complacent, compromised, conflicted churches. It vexes us all. Mission’s name was more than a coincidence in this regard. It was not a missiological journal in the conventional sense. Yet, its broadly operative idea of mission was, in retrospect, astonishingly analogous to the move Lesslie Newbigin would later make by construing the Western church’s existence at home as mission. Although the roots of the missional movement run into sources contemporary with Mission’s genesis in the late 1960s, there is no evidence that those ecumenical discussions shaped the selection of the journal’s title. Rather, it seems to me, the name Mission represented an intuition native to Churches of Christ and, more broadly, the Stone-Campbell Movement—that mission is what the church is about everywhere and always. Furthermore, it was the most fitting name for a publication meant to challenge and renew that tradition’s engagement with culture. Perhaps the instigators of Mission did not wish to be relegated to the status of a household pest, but they certainly seemed to understand that the church needed to be bothered about mission. Though this impulse does not comprehend all of the theological reorientation that missional theology entails in the early twenty-first century, it is nonetheless a rich inheritance.
As I have reflected on Mission this year, a question has crystallized: Where is that intuition and impulse among Churches of Christ today? Where is the voice that speaks risky, uncomfortable truth in the house of Churches of Christ theology? Has what Don Haymes called “the silence of the scholars” become deafening in the end?4 What have we done with the legacy of Mission? If this is a prodigal story and the inheritance has been squandered, there is hope for a homecoming, but I wonder whether the story will take that turn. I know that I am not the only one wondering. In the midst of the longest war in US history, the political capitalization of xenophobia, the most complicated public discourse on gender and sexuality that our culture has ever faced, and the heartbreakingly persistent need for black Americans to insist that their lives matter, Churches of Christ seem deathly quiet. Reading Mission, I find hope in the realization that the silence was broken once. It can be again. But what has become of this legacy of courageous theological leadership, and who will retrieve it?
Undoubtedly, we ask the question today in a different ecosystem.5 Mission’s run coincided with the end of the era in which print publications could make sense of the idea that the Stone-Campbell Movement had editor-bishops.6 The oikonomia of the Churches of Christ household has changed. Perhaps it is vain to look for theological leadership in the voices of edited publications rather than in disparate blogs and podcasts and (God save us) tweets. Despite the retrieval work that has marked the last forty years of Churches of Christ scholarship, and despite the emergent clarity that we are a tradition, the identity of the tradition is arguably the most diffuse it has been since the beginning of the Restoration Movement. To ask what we should do with the legacy of Mission requires that we answer just who inherits it in the first place.
This too is a theological question, and missiology insists, in Bosch’s voice, that the answer reject “every inclination toward provincialism and parochialism.” Scholars like Yukikazu Obata and Paul Chimhungwe are telling us not only who we have been but who we are. Practitioner-theologians like Steven Hovater, Ron Clark, and Spencer Bogle are showing us who we can become. If the prodigal does not come home to a single oikonomia, we find instead manifold “economies of grace,”7 a multiplied inheritance to which no older brother can lay claim. Yes, from one perspective, the identity of Churches of Christ is more diffuse than ever. But diffusion is not dissolution, and from another perspective, the tradition’s grassroots ecclesiology has finally gone to seed. Missiology, taking the latter perspective, pushes us toward a polycentric discourse in which diverse communities of grace may inherit the legacy of Mission and speak the truths we all need to hear. This is at once the realization of the renewal that Mission sought and the only way forward in that quest. Here is the promise of hermeneutical, social, ethical, political—in a word, theological—revival for Churches of Christ. May the gadfly become a swarm. God give us the grace of unrest.
Help Us Digitize Mission
If you’re itching to read some of those old Mission articles, you’re not alone. They should be available to everyone, freely and digitally. Of course, that requires scanning and formatting each page, web hosting, and archive administration—none of which is free.
The good news is that the Missio Dei Foundation and the Abilene Christian University Center for Restoration Studies are teaming up to digitize Mission and create an archive of related resources. It will be hosted here: http://digitalcommons.acu.edu/missionjournal. You can already find a few great additions to the archive, like Bob Turner’s Mission: An Oral History. But the critical work of digitizing Mission needs funding! We’ve projected that $4000 will cover the cost of scanning and formatting the journal’s entire run. Please help us make the complete digital archive freely available online. You can make secure donations to the cause at our Generosity fundraiser page.
Or, if you prefer to donate directly to the ACU Center for Restoration Studies:
- Make checks payable to ACU Library
- Put “Mission digitization project” on the memo line
- Mail to:
Abilene Christian University Library
ACU Box 29208
Abilene, TX 79699-9208
For more information, email Greg McKinzie at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Soli Deo gloria.
1 Richard T. Hughes, Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of Churches of Christ in America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 372.
2 David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, American Society of Missiology Series 16 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991), 596.
3 See https://lipscomb.edu/csc for details about CSC.
4 Don Haymes, “The Silence of the Scholars” Mission 8, no. 3. (1974): 70–85.
5 On the relationships between ecosystem, oikonomia, and economy in what follows, see P. Kent Smith, “Ecosystems of Grace: An Old Vision for the New Church,” Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 7 (Summer–Fall 2016), http://missiodeijournal.com/issues/md-7/authors/md-7-smith; P. Kent Smith, “Economy of Grace: An Early Christian Take on Vulnerable Mission,” Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 4, no. 1 (February 2013), http://missiodeijournal.com/issues/md-4-1/authors/md-4-1-smith.
6 See William Thomas Moore, A Comprehensive History of the Disciples of Christ: Being an account of a century’s effort to restore primitive Christianity in its Faith, Doctrine, and Life, Kindle ed. (SCM e-Prints, 2012 [New York: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1909]), Kindle locs. 10096–98. Moore stated that “The editors of these magazines and papers came to be practically general bishops, and exercised nearly as much power as the bishops do in some of the religious denominations.” Cf. the fascinating gloss of this claim in Gary Holloway and Douglas A. Foster, Renewing God’s People: A Concise History of Churches of Christ (Abilene: ACU Press, 2001), 67: “An old truism is that Disciples did not have bishops but had editors who sometimes ruled with an iron fist.”
7 See Smith, “Economy of Grace.”