Defining Theology of Mission

A theology of mission is a discussion of the mission of God from a theological perspective. Moreover, it is the discovery and explanation of the theological truths and principles that relate to and support the mission of God. David Bosch states that it is concerned with “the relationship between God and the world in light of the Gospel” on the one hand, while it [theology of mission] is a study of the “foundation, the motive and the aim of mission” on the other. Rodger Bassham, in the introduction of his book Mission Theology, offers this definition: “The term `theology of mission`… refers to those theological presuppositions, statements and principles which critically reflect upon and explicate God`s purpose for the church in relation to the world.”

Charles Van Engen says that “theology of mission is theology because fundamentally it involves reflection about God. It seeks to understand God’s mission, his intentions and purposes, his use of human instruments in his mission, and his working through his people in the world.” He goes on to say that it is a discipline (as in academic discipline) that “reflects on the presuppositions, assumptions, and concepts undergirding mission theory.” A theology of mission must eventually be translated into “biblically informed and contextually appropriate missional action” or praxis, and this action, which includes our plans, strategies, and operations need to continually come under the scrutiny of the Bible for evaluation as to whether it is consistent with the thrust of biblical principles of God’s mission.

The goal and purpose of theological study and reflection, in the final analysis, is to provide guidance for the church in mission and to articulate theological convictions that can be implemented and incorporated into the methods, policy and strategy of the church in mission. The activity of mission must be guided by principles and perspectives that come from deep study of God’s word and theological thinking. The work of mission must continually assess and reassess its faithfulness and effectiveness based on God’s standard of measurement, rather than a human standard of success. It is God’s mission and we participate with Him by invitation. While humans help to carry out the wishes and will of God, it is His mission. A theology of mission should acknowledge this. Christopher J.H. Wright affirms that “our ultimate starting point and finishing point in our biblical theology of mission must be the mission of God himself.”

Theology of mission, in this context, is more than the theoretical aspect of a practical discipline, even though it is necessarily theoretical at times. It sets the philosophical foundations and parameters for the study of missiology and articulates the principles by which the mission is to be accomplished. It is ultimately manifested in the motivation for and the manner in which missionaries do their work. Robert Calvin Guy writes:

“Mission arises from theological foundations. It is a projection of basic theological beliefs. Its vigor and form reveal what it is based on. Men do not gather grapes from thorns or figs from thistles. Dynamic, growing churches do not spring from enfeebled or distorted theological roots. If the missionary enterprise, proliferating into many cultural and economic activities, would safe-guard its life, it must look closely to its theological foundations and make certain that they are found in the New Testament, commanded by Christ, and demonstrated in the growing churches of the 19 hundred years of church history.” 

Theology of mission rests on the same argument that theology generally puts forward to explain and defend its work. Theologians maintain that theology is necessary for the church to understand its message and to evaluate its methods. Theology organizes and explains the content of belief and sets forth the appropriate manner in which this truth should be applied to the contemporary ministry of the church. A theology of mission does the same, but focuses on the missionary aspect of the ministry of the church. Andrew Kirk, in his book Theology and the Third World Church, insists that the permanent calling of the church is “to reflect theologically on its mission.” 

Theology of mission, as with theology generally, is both corrective and directive. It evaluates the church’s attempt to contextualize itself, its message, and its methods in a particular location. If necessary, it corrects the church in order to keep it on course, keep it faithful, and keep it truly in touch with God’s will. It is directive in that it instructs the church in what the mission of God is and how it should be performed. Consequently, a theology of mission needs to be a well-thought-out, well-constructed, reasonably correlated discussion of the mission of God and the church’s relationship to that mission. Is the church being true to its calling or is it being timid in regard to the proclamation of the gospel?

Ken Gnanakan, theologian from India, explains that “the presupposition on which we build our theology of mission is one that asserts that God has a plan for his world with ultimate dimensions that relate to his Kingdom.” Theology of mission means evaluating mission to see if it faithfully represents the will and purpose of God in relation to his Kingdom and all that that implies. It means taking the mandate to evangelize and to participate in God’s mission to the world. It becomes a guide and a standard of measurement, as well as a fortifying and strengthening resource. It fends off contemporary challenges to the global mission of God with careful, thoughtful responses based on God’s Word and the accumulated experience of the church as it has sought to fulfill the mission in the many contexts of time and place. 

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