In A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good, Miroslav Volf cautions against the errors the church falls into that hinders it accomplishing what it was constituted to be. He calls it malfunction. He describes this malfunctioning as a poisoned well when he says,
In the course of Christianity’s long history—full of remarkable achievements by its saints and thinkers, artists and builders, reformers and ordinary folks—the Christian faith has sometimes failed to live up to its own standards as a prophetic religion. Too often, it neither mends the world nor helps human beings thrive. To the contrary, it seems to shatter things into pieces, to choke up what is new and beautiful before it has a chance to take root, to trample underfoot what is good and true. When this happens, faith is no longer a spring of fresh water helping good life to grow lushly, but a poisoned well, more harmful to those who drink its waters than any single vice could possibly be. (See Friederich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ.) (Volf, Chapter 1)
This “poisoning of the well” presents a very significant challenge to the viability of the church to accomplish the missio Dei.
Gregg Okesson talks about the problems that cause the church to malfunction when it has a misplaced understanding of what it means to be in mission for the sake of the church and the world. He frames his argument as a mission in the public and private settings. He describes them as follows:
Theology divorced from the rest of life is privatization of what always meant to be proclaimed publicly. The challenge is that we tend to associate theology with the private realm, divorced from public realities, for special people, not everyone… We have allowed “mission” to be compromised by culture. We think of mission as a distinct, sacred task done by special people we call “missionaries.” We give it a separate line-item in our budget, and/or give a week or month to missions in the entire year. We think of it in terms of what we do “over there” as oppose to what every follower of Christ is commanded to do. (Okesson, Why Public Theology PPT, Asbury Theological Seminary 2017)
Okesson’s main concern is that theology has become too specialized, distant from the lives of people (too limited to scholarly elites), and that missions have become a human enterprise, removed from who God is and what God has been doing, limited in agency (to just a few spiritual people), focus (just upon souls), and scope (people within the church but not the public places).
Dr. Stephen Seamands also addresses these malfunctions when he speaks about the understanding and nature of the Christian mission and ministry through the lenses of the theology of the Trinity: the mission and ministry into which we have been called is the mission and, “ministry of Jesus Christ, the Son, to the Father through the Holy Spirit for the sake of the church and the world.” He challenges the privatization of the Christian mission by arguing that the church has become self-obsessed and self-focused. He explains:
Self-will. I make the plans. I rather than the Lord initiate things vs. “of Jesus Christ.”
Self-effort. I do God’s work for him through my own effort, my own strength, my own abilities vs. “through the Holy Spirit”.
Self-glory. I do things for the furtherance of my own name, my own reputation, my own glory vs. “to the Father.” (Seamands, “Trinity Ministry PPT-Class” Asbury Theological Seminary 2017)
Seamands states that Christian ministry is not, “my asking Christ to join me in my ministry as I offer him to others, but rather it is my joining with him in his ongoing ministry and mission as he offers himself to others through me.” (Seamands, “Trinity Ministry PPT-Class” Asbury Theological Seminary 2017)
This framework for the mission of the church as presented by Okesson and Seamands addresses the malfunctions of the church in public and private settings and is helpful to assess how faithfully and effectively the church is in carrying out the missio Dei.
The tension between the public and private settings have always been a challenge for the church. Okesson describes this divide between the public and the private when he distinguishes between, “everyday people who daily seek to make sense of their world, interact with the sacred, and try to find meaning in life, and theologians who do theology, especially for the academy, that is primarily concerned with the cognitive, theoretical, and academic aspects.”(Okesson, Why Public Theology PPT, Asbury Theological Seminary 2017)
For Okesson, theology has become too specialized, distant from the lives of people; missions have become a simplistic human enterprise, removed from who God is and what God has been doing. Thus, we have made “mission” what we do (not who God is, or what God is doing); we have made mission a specialized task (what only particular spiritual people do), in specific locations (over there), limited in salvific intent (to save souls, but not the rest of humanity), and too narrow in scope (to humans, but not to the public places where people live: work, leisure, economics, power, governance, etc.).
Newbigin picks up on the themes of what Okesson is presenting when he notes,
We cannot look for the security which would be ours in a restored Christendom. Nor can we continue to accept the security which is offered in an agnostic pluralism where we are free to have our own opinions provided we agree that they are only personal opinions. We are called, I think, to bring our faith into the public arena, to publish it, to put it at risk in the encounter with other faiths and ideologies in open debate and argument, and in the risky business of discovering what Christian obedience means in radically new circumstances and in radically different human cultures. (Newbigin, Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth 59-60)
If missio Dei is the initiative of God to redeem, bring Shalom, and heal his creation, then the church needs to reclaim its mission as the mission of God in which the church has been invited to join alongside God to accomplish God’s work from everywhere to everywhere.
In this regard, being missional is not about a specialized ministry somewhere (else), but the embodiment of the gospel of Jesus Christ in everything we do, to teach everywhere we go, to everyone we meet. It is not only the theological understanding, revelation, and confession of Jesus as Lord that ultimately constitutes the church as the mission-carrier of the missio Dei; rather, it is the full engagement in doing what he taught and commanded us to do.