M is for missio dei

By Mary Sue Dreier


Missio Dei (Latin for “mission of God”) has become one of the catchphrases of the missional church conversation. The phrase itself has a story to tell which illustrates the insights, importance, and implications it has for our future as a church in mission.

Missio Dei was coined to express the essence of the conversation when Christian churches from around the world gathered in 1952 in post-World War II Germany (Willingen) for an international council on mission. The twentieth century had begun with worldwide optimism, energy, and enthusiasm for Christianizing the world in the next 100 years, anticipating making good use of the ever-expanding human advancements and opportunities that began with the Enlightenment. By 1952, however, those modern hopes for the Christian Century were being severely tested by the lingering effects of colonization, two World Wars, secularization, and globalization. Everyone shared a common dilemma: What’s to become of missions?

The conversation in Willingen shifted the focus and began to flesh out a new mission paradigm. Mission isn’t a program of the church; it is an attribute and activity of God, bringing God’s redemption to all creation. Mission does not belong to the church; it belongs to God. One cannot subordinate mission to the church nor the church to mission; both are taken up on the missio Dei, which became the overarching concept.

The church went from being the sender to being sent, participating in the missio Dei at work in the world for the sake of the world. This proved to be a humbling and hopeful realization for the faltering international church, and provided it a way forward into a new future. The church shaped by the missio Dei is missionary by its very nature as well.

The doctrine of the Trinity is the theological key to understanding missio Dei. Historically the Trinity has been the theological resource for understanding the nature and actions of God in the world. So as the church became energized by this new understanding of mission, theologians looked again to the doctrine of the Trinity to explore more fully the attributes and activity of God in mission in the world.

The Western and Eastern Christian Churches have each contributed significantly from the wisdom of their own Trinitarian thought. From the Western Christian Church came this notion that the Trinity is a sending God: as the Father sends the Son, and the Son sends the Spirit, so the Spirit sends the church. To participate in the missio Dei is to be sent into the world for the sake of the world.

From the Eastern Christian Church came the understanding that the Trinity is a relational God: as the relationships among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are mutual, reciprocal, and interdependent, so the church which participates in the missio Dei emphasizes fellowship, participation, and accompaniment rather than hierarchy, coercion, and domination. These understandings of missio Dei are formative for reshaping our imaginations for congregational mission and leadership.

North American churches are on a mission field, as we become increasingly aware that people in our neighborhoods are not acquainted with the Gospel. Missio Dei continues to provide a humbling and hopeful future for the church in the world, for the sake of the world!

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