The Missional Frame

Missional-ChurchThe DITB project flows from a missional ecclesiology and for a missional ecclesiology.[1] I am a suburban pastor who seeks to grow in a missional imagination for the church. My experience with the social Trinity helped me understand how essential the social Trinity is to a missional imagination and to spiritual formation. It was my hunch that an introduction to the social Trinity might act as a catalyst for reimagining the nature and activity of the church in a missional key.[2] It was my assumption that the average suburban ELCA congregation carries with it an inherited Christian-cultured[3] ecclesiology which is attractional, at best, and does not embody a missional imagination. It was also my assumption that, through the process of participatory action research, I might be surprised to find that these assumptions were ill formed and that the process of interacting with the social Trinity may lead to something entirely different.

Since I have framed this project in a missional imagination, it important that I define my use of the term missional. A missional ecclesiology is an understanding that the mission of the Triune God[4] (missio Dei) is to restore and recreate all things according to God’s ongoing vision of peace and wholeness for the world.[5] The church is called to be a public prophetic companion with its neighbors, bearing witness to the hope found in God’s preferred and promised future.

Missional ecclesiology has evolved from the conversation in the West around missiology and ecclesiology over the past one hundred years. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were dominated by a Christendom model in which the church sent missionaries into the world to convert heathen nations to Christianity. The intention of these missionaries was essentially pure, as they were carrying out the Great Commission from within their own perspective. However, the subsequent effects of their missionary endeavors often led to colonizing parts of the non-European world into Western European culture and propagating oppression and marginalization of non-European people and cultures in the name of Jesus. A missional ecclesiology recognizes the Eurocentric and devastating effects the Christendom model of missions and ecclesiology has had on the world.[6] It strives to reimagine the nature of the church as not having a missions emphasis, or sending missionaries, but that the church is missional at its core.[7]

A missional church recognizes the polycentric and pluriform nature of the Holy Spirit at work in the world.[8] The church, within this perspective, is the congregation of those who are both gathered around the risen body of Jesus and sent into the world to find and proclaim the reign of God in and among all cultures as the church forms an interdependent relationship with all nations.[9] This missional activity is not uni-directional, moving from one central place where God is located and correctly understood to another place where God is completely absent. Rather, it is a polycentric, pluriform, multi-directional movement of God at work[10] in all cultures,[11] in diverse ways, bringing all cultures into generative conversation, in order to bring about peace and unity through the particular incarnation[12] of the risen Jesus of Nazareth and the diverse incarnations of the Spirit within diverse cultures.

Missional Church Bibliography


[1] I boldly state my agenda and prejudice here because I believe it is impossible to observe something, or ask a question about something, and remain objective and detached from the object. I, as the observer, exist within my own frame and bring my own language and limitations of understanding—my own filter—to the process of observation. This is my horizon, as Gadamer would say it, or my lifeworld as Habermas would call it. I fully embrace my motivation to pursue this research question through the missional filter. By naming this fruitful prejudice I will hopefully (1) be more aware of the bias that I bring to the data, thus (2) able to critique my prejudices and bring contrasting views into the conversation in order to bring more warrant to my final arguments.

[2] It is a deeper assumption that it is the substance dualism of our cultural Neo-Platonism in the west that has precipitated and perpetuated this ecclesio-centric, detached culture.

[3] I here make a distinction between the term Christendom and Christian-cultured. Christendom was the condition of Europe in the Middle Ages and early Modern Era. The United States is no longer in Christendom, given the separation of church and state, but has experienced similar effects as a Christian-cultured society.

[4] I will discuss this in the Trinity Frame.

[5] See also Stephen B. Bevans and Roger Schroeder, “Missiology after Bosch: Reverencing a Classic by Moving Beyond,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 29, no. 2 (2005); David Jacobus Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, American Society of Missiology Series no 16 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991); John G. Flett, The Witness of God: The Trinity, Missio Dei, Karl Barth, and the Nature of Christian Community (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2010); George R. Hunsberger and Craig Van Gelder, eds., The Church between Gospel and Culture: The Emerging Mission in North America (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1996); Alan J. Roxburgh, Missional Map-Making: Skills for Leading in Times of Transition, 1st ed., Leadership Network (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010); Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans; WCC Publications 1989); Simpson, “No Trinity, No Mission: The Apostolic Difference of Revisioning the Trinity; Craig Van Gelder, The Essence of the Church: A Community Created by the Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000); Craig Van Gelder, The Ministry of the Missional Church: A Community Led by the Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007); Craig Van Gelder and Dwight J. Zscheile, The Missional Church in Perspective: Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation, The Missional Network (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011).

[6] See Jennings for a compelling argument for how the Western church’s missionary impulse is complicit in racism. Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010).

[7] This is an ontological issue. It requires a shift from substance ontology to relational ontology. See Jean Zizioulas and Paul McPartlan, Communion and Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church (New York: T & T Clark, 2006).

[8] See Welker, God the Spirit.

[9] See Bleise and Van Gelder for a particularly helpful image of the gathered and sent body in a Lutheran perspective. Richard H. Bliese and Craig Van Gelder, The Evangelizing Church: A Lutheran Contribution (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2005).

[10] This statement highlights the distinction between the hierarchical structures of power inherited from Medieval polities. It argues for a capillary, perichoretic, flow of power. See Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Democratizing Biblical Studies: Toward an Emancipatory Educational Space (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).

[11] Tanner posits that it is the conversation between various cultures that is generative for the church and the world. Kathryn Tanner, Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology, Guides to Theological Inquiry (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997).

[12] Here I am alluding to two important points. First, the particularity of the incarnation as the means by which we can know God. See Newbigin on election. Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 86-87. Second, I am speaking about the particularist perspective of theology proposed by Kelsey, To Understand God Truly: What’s Theological About a Theological School.


2 thoughts on “The Missional Frame”

  1. In its missiology there are two Gospel messages and one Gospel story that the NT Christian church has been entrusted with:

    1. “Jesus is Christ”/”Jesus is Messiah” is the Gospel/Good News Message that the NT church is entrusted to proclaim to the Jewish Nation.

    2. “Jesus is Lord”(King of the world/King of all Creation) is the Gospel/Good News Message that the NT church is entrusted to proclaim to the Gentile nations.

    3. The Gospel story is of course the story of Jesus Christ himself, the story of the Gospels.

    You are correct in observing that in modern times the primary Gospel Message and joyful proclamation that “Jesus is Lord of all creation” has seemingly been lost by the church and been usurped by by a “John 3:16” missiology in its place!

  2. Although I do agree with a need for re-introducing the concept of social Trinity and see some benefit in it, I do not believe that would or should be the primary engine or catalyst for the church to re-imagine its mission in the world… especially if by the introduction of social Trinity there might be any movement away from the Christocentric nature of the church. But I do wholeheartedly agree with your goal of redirecting the church in its missiology in exactly the way you have described above and I believe that can be readily accomplished through a re-definition of the Gospel Message itself and a much needed departure from a well meaning but sadly misdirected “John3:16 missiology” for the church.

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