The emergence of missional theology has been epoch making. For many who have self-identified with the term missional, that’s the idea, anyway — a paradigm shift, a radical turn. Call our context secularism, postmodernity, post-Christendom, or all of the above, but there is no doubt among churches in steady decline across the denominational spectrum that the world changed and left Western Christianity in crisis. Missional theology was always about calling the church to adapt. It is not, however, merely reactive. Crisis, as David J. Bosch taught us, occasions opportunity (Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, American Society of Missiology Series 16 [Orbis, 1991], 2–3). Beyond mere adaptation, the opportunity still before the church is a theological retrieval of our identity as God’s sent people.
What difference has missional theology made since bursting on the scene almost twenty years ago? Why does the missional turn matter? Depending on who asks it, this is perhaps a pragmatic question. Missiologists have (sometimes justifiably) been accused of being overly “pragmatic,” so it is fair to be suspicious of the utilitarianism that can infect those who are desperate to be “effective.” But pragmatism in the proper sense of the word is about a reckoning with what actually happens in the world, beyond abstractions and ideals. The question, then, is what missional theology actually does in the context of cultural exile. For church leaders, such a question must be about faithfulness, which may contrast powerfully with certain notions of effectiveness, but it is an urgently pragmatic question nonetheless.
From another perspective, one may ask why the missional turn in theology matters in order to discern whether it has managed to shape churches in the way its rhetoric claims. For some, missional theology has made promises it could not keep. One church leader who bought into the “missional church” relatively early said, “The theology is great, but it didn’t translate into the church becoming more missional.” Since its publication in 1998, the book Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (ed. Darrell L. Guder, Gospel and Our Culture Series [Eerdmans, 1998]) has been critiqued for its academic tone and style. This might be unfair given the book’s context and aims, but the basic impulse of missional theology — to address the situation of actual churches — made it a vital interest to practitioners with little patience for academese. Yet, the difficulty runs deeper than writing style. Wherever missional theology has played into the modern dichotomy of theology and practice, practitioners have found it challenging to move from ideas about the church’s missional nature and identity to actual congregational lifestyles justifiably characterized as missional. As ever, it is far easier to make claims about what the church should be than to be a transformed church.
So the question has two senses. How has missional theology addressed the seismic cultural shifts that have shaken the Western church? And how has missional theology shaped the lives of local congregations accordingly?
There is, of course, considerable diversity among supposedly missional types. Therefore, asking without nuance why the missional turn matters is a bit like asking why the contemporary prominence of eschatology matters, without drawing a distinction between Moltmann’s theology of hope and the Left Behind books. If the difference is not quite so extreme in missional theology, there is still a great distance between those who think missional means being more evangelistic or doing more “outreach” and those who think missional means fundamentally reordering the life of local churches around God’s mission. Assuming the latter, the missional turn matters for three essential reasons. This article will consider the first of these three, and subsequent articles will examine the other two.
On a broad scale, missional theology has brought missiology into mainstream theological discourse and, in turn, into the consciousness of the Western church. In the scheme of modern academic theology, missiology was originally a parochial subdiscipline of practical theology. It remained well removed from concerns of theology proper, at least in the minds of proper theologians. The siloing of theology has proven unfortunate for a variety of reasons, but the significance of missiology’s particular contribution to theology has become clear after the missional turn. In simplest terms, it is this: to think theologically like missionaries. Specifically, as the discipline matured, missiology majored in intercultural studies. Less pedantically, missionaries learned through costly experiences of acculturation and translation how to think theologically from radically different perspectives about fundamentally different contexts. Missiology was the arena in which these experiences were distilled and debated, but its insights seemed irrelevant to theologians who felt at home in their own cultures.
The disciplinary walls stood firm until Lesslie Newbigin, upon returning to Britain after long-term mission work in India, dealt them a tremendous blow. His diagnosis of late-modern Western culture was deeply theological — and had to be articulated in that idiom to be credible—but it took a missionary to see what Newbigin saw: a church unable to relate to a culture on its own terms. This was not simply a matter of cultural analysis; that would be a contribution of anthropology or sociology apart from missiology. Instead, by mainstreaming missiology into the Western church’s theological discourse in order to address the crisis of cultural change, Newbigin placed the responsibility for acculturation on the church. As every missionary must learn, it is not the host culture but the missionary who is foreign, and it is the missionary who must adapt. If the church in the West was to become, as Newbigin famously put it, “the hermeneutic of the gospel,” it would have to become intelligible once more. The culture changed, and many of the church’s traditional forms of life no longer meant what they once had. It would not do for God’s missionary people to bemoan the shift as if it were the culture’s responsibility to relate to the church or, worse, to double down on traditional ecclesiology as though it were the gospel. Suddenly, the discipline of missiology was profoundly relevant to theology in a context that the modern church had never seen as a mission field.
This is only the beginning of the story, but the short of it is that the missional turn has challenged Western theology to confront its own assumptions with the questions that missionaries have been asking for a long time. How is our critique of the culture colored by our foreignness, our misunderstanding? What aspects of the ways we have always understood the gospel and its embodiment, the church, are meaningless in this context? How can we be faithful to the gospel in ways that are intelligible and meaningful — and transformative! — for the culture in which we find ourselves? Many churches that have engaged missional theology are learning to ask these questions as communities and to perceive local answers. Whether many churches have found good answers or had the resources to deal with their implications is a separate issue. That such congregations are no longer asking how to convince the culture to value their traditional embodiment of the gospel is already a major theological shift without which a “genuinely missionary encounter” between gospel and culture would not be possible (Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture [Eerdmans, 1986], 3). In short, the missional turn matters because it has helped congregations assume the unique posture of missionaries.
The Western church learning to think like missionaries is, however, only one important dimension of the missional turn. The next part of this essay will develop the second reason it matters: theological innovation.