March 16, 2010 / David Fitch

The church’s role within the Missio Dei – Yes we still need the church.

poor boxA group of us have been playing tag off of Ed Stetzer’s Monday morning postings on Missional Theology. This week he asks an important question concerning Missio Dei and the almost cliche-ish Missional mantra – “God is working outside the church and we should join Him here.” He asks, How is God at work outside the church? Is God working savingly or salvifically outside the church? In other words, are believers (or “the church”) the only instrument for proclaiming the Gospel and bringing individuals, through the finished work of Jesus on the cross and the power of the Holy Spirit, into the Kingdom of God or are there other means? Or perhaps more broadly, how, then, is God at work outside the church?
Here again I think the answer to this question has too easily split between those who reject outright the idea that God is working outside the church and those who accept without qualificiation that the justice of God is being accomplished by God outside the church. In this second position the church is the cheerleader, the people helping out wherever justice is going on. It plays no essential role in God’s plan to bring redemption to the world. Ed outlines some of the history of this development within the Missio Dei developments.

I of course see a third position that undercuts the underlying epistemological assumptions of both positions. For as I see it, the church is the epistemological foundation from which we can see together the Kingdom coming into being ahead of time. Here we see it worked out under His Lordship. From this place, we are enabled to see God at work elsewhere and join in and in fact bring a certain completion to that salvation that God is already working in the world. This is the position of the Anabaptist John Howard Yoder.

In Stanley Hauerwas’ words, “I have no doubt that Jesus is present by His Spirit at work in the world outside the church, yet the church, the gathering around the Eucharist, is the one place where we know He is present. And so it is here where we learn to recognize Jesus and His work from whence we can move in the world and see Him clearly there as well.”

Some may worry this leads to a concentric form of the church’s relationship to the world. But Yoder helps us see that the church and world are two levels of the same Lordship of Christ. (Hauerwas is different from Yoder BTW although often related – like in this case). There is no dividing line between the church and the world. The church may precede the world today, yet it is only living today what the world itself is ultimately called to in the future. The church in essence bleeds into the world ever calling it to its true destiny. As a foretaste of the renewal of all creation, the church cannot be discontinuous with creation. It cannot be discontinuous with the world because the church is in the process of becoming that very world renewed in Christ. Neither can it merely blend into the world for then all Mission and renewal is lost. Its presence will be in, among and for the world even as it will be distinct from the world. This is what it means to take on the incarnational nature of Christ. It is this very incarnational nature that requires the church to be a discerning community which at times both refuses conformity with the world while at other times joining in (with what God is already at work doing).

There may be times when we can join in with what God is already doing (like say at the local P.A.D.S. group being organized by the Islamic mosque where we can enter, come along side and even bring the true end of things – salvation/reconciliation in Christ). There may be times when we bring to the world the redemption God is working among us as a sign of the Kingdom (like when Christians brought hospitals to the world in the 19th-20th century). There may be times when we discern a cultural center must be rejected because it has joined hands with the rebellious powers (a pornography theatre, a government when it has given itself over to war, or corporate powers etc.). We may even begin a counter act of God’s righteoussness, like the abolition of salvery movement in the 18th century, or the civil rights movement inaugurated by the black baptist churches of the south. In all of this, for me at least, salvation/reconciliation in Christ is inextricable from what we are actively involved in. It is the motivational force behind this activity for the Christian. It is the true end. It just should naturally lead there (there’s some Catholic theology as well as Barthianism in here).

To me this a distinct and paradym-destroying third option. It is not as simple as the Reformed common grace notion for it takes a starting point where Jesus’ Lordship is spacially submitted to and lived out before the world. The danger of separating God’s grace from his work in Christ ontologically is avoided because all things are in the process of being reconciled to this one end. Personal and social salvation cannot be separated. Yet it recognizes that God is at work in the world in multitudinous ways that we must always discern so as to truly particpate in the remaking of all things. To me the “bounded sets within the centered set idea makes sense within this paradym. To me the mantra “missiology precedes eccelsiology” is a little more difficult to fit within this notion of God working in the world. (I prefer “missiology is ecclesiology”).

These are all thick ideas which need to be fleshed out in a book (mine is forthcoming). It’s all obviously much more complex than this. Stories need to be told to flesh out how this looks … Can someone chime in here and help flesh this out? This is a start but we need more. Thanks Ed for promoting this work.


This discussion will continue this week on the blogs below as well as Ed’s. I invite you to follow along! and chime in! and thanks Ed Stetzer for provoking this discussion.

Rick Meigs: The Blind Beggar
Bill Kinnon:
Brother Maynard: Subversive Influence
Tiffany Smith: Missional Mayhem
Jared Wilson: The Gospel-Driven Church
Jonathan Dodson: Creation Project