The (Missional) Theology of Dallas Willard

Dallas Willard has been one of the most central figures in shaping the missional conversation. This is more than a little ironic as “missional” was not a word that he was accustomed to using. Yet, if you were to survey those who have gravitated toward an interest in missional theology and missional church and ask them whose writing and teaching has most compelled them in that direction, Dallas Willard is a name that you would hear over and over; likely with special reference to his work in, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God

Though Dallas didn’t frame his writing under the banner of “missional,” it’s not difficult to understand why it has been so important, indeed liberating, for those who do identify with this “movement.” In compelling fashion, Dallas recast our inherited understandings of the gospel and salvation from the perspective of God’s mission as expressed through Jesus’ announcement of the availability of the Kingdom of God and his call to discipleship. These are all central themes animating the broader missional conversation and influencing the shaping of missional congregations. In fact, I’d venture to say that we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the import of Dallas’ theological vision in these areas. But, Dallas’ writing isn’t the only, or perhaps even most important, reason he has and continues to influence those in missional circles. The most compelling thing about Dallas was his life!

As countless others might remark, I will never forget meeting Dallas Willard. Dallas was a keynote speaker for the 2010 Ecclesia National Gathering. This was not a blockbuster event. We’re talking a couple hundred church leaders who, for the most part, represent small church plants and a handful of more established congregations of medium-size. No fancy lights, staging, or green room – just a common group of pastors trying to learn together how to navigate the realities of ministry beyond the characteristics and confines of Christendom. And here is Dallas – a legend amongst nearly everyone gathered there, who joins in as “one of us” – talking, caring, crying, and offering all of us, not so much his studied reflection about God, but his cultivated life in God. To be around Dallas, unlike anyone else I have ever known, was to be near someone who emanated the presence and love of Christ.

Dallas became a good friend of the Ecclesia Network. It was the most natural of things then, as the seeds of Missio Alliance began to grow in and out of Ecclesia, that we would invite Dallas to be a primary figure and voice for the initiative and at our inaugural gathering. I and others lamented, prayed, and wept as Dallas battled cancer and finally had to bow out of joining us as a presenter. He passed away just a short number of weeks after that gathering in DC this past April (2013).

In many ways, Dallas, in both his legacy and his teaching, exemplifies the heartbeat of Missio Alliance – one of an impassioned hope for men and women, for congregations, and for broader organizations and networks to live and operate within the renewing, redemptive, and recreative mission of God in the world. By all indications, the resurrectional impulse and vision of Dallas Willard for Christian life and discipleship is sorely needed in the Church today. To that extent, it is quite fair to say that Missio Alliance operates in the spirit of Dallas Willard and hopes to advance the enduring contribution of his life and work through our labors.

One small way we can do that is by drawing attention to the recent book, The Theology of Dallas Willard: Discovering Protoevangelical Faith, by Gary Black of Azusa Pacific University. Rather than simply offering a review of the book, I will spend the next several weeks engaging each of the six chapters of the book. At some point in that journey, we also hope to record and publish an interview with the author, who has agreed to follow and weigh in on comments over the course of the series.

For those of us who already stand indebted to the witness of Dallas Willard and for those who are interested to learn more about him and how his theological vision intersects with our current evangelical landscape, I hope you’ll follow and engage this series of posts.

For now, perhaps you’d like to offer a few words on how or why Dallas has been an influence on you personally or in ministry…

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