Chapter One “The Missio Dei”
We are working our way through Michael Frost’s new book “The Road To Missional.” Looking at the Introduction last time we were able to identify Frost’s purpose in writing this work pretty easily and clearly. Basically he fears that many in the church are applying the “whisky principle” to the word “missional” and watering down its meaning to suit their own taste. Frost a key player in the “missional movement,” if I can call it that, is clearly upset by the dilution of the meaning of the “missional paradigm”. His dismay and anger stems from the fact that that the meaning of a word and concept which he and others invested in as a radical, revolutionary and prophetic call to the church to reconsider and reorientate its understanding of the relationship between ecclesiology and missiology is being eroded to being about little more than church style. In this opening chapter Frost is trying to start to put “clear blue water” between those who “do get” and those who “don’t get” what the missional paradigm is about. This of course gives him the opportunity at the same time of stating clearly what the meaning of “missional” is and what its implications are.
This is a bit of a “Ronseal” chapter, its about whats on the lid, or in this case the opening page. The sub title says it in nutshell, “Seeing Mission As Bigger Than Evangelism.” Here is what Frost thinks has been one of the ways that being “missional” is being diluted and why its not a trivial problem, “By subverting the missional paradigm into an exclusively evangelistic enterprise, we corrupt its central logic.” Clearly in this author’s missiologist sights here are those who want to use “missional” as a synonym for “evangelism.” When missional becomes short hand for being evangelistic then missional is reduced in its purpose to little more than a another church growth strategy. The implications in fact go further and are more serious, equating missional with evangelism creates a false understanding of mission in which verbal proclamation and attractional forms of mission blot out incarnational mission in theory and practice.
Frost states an alternative positive definition of what the mission of the church is, if it cannot and should not be reduced to evangelism. Influenced by key missiologists such as David Bosch and Lesslie Newbiggin he states his understanding in these words, “Mission is both the announcement and the demonstration of the reign of God through Christ.” p24 What’s important to notice here is that in this definition, mission and the Kingdom of God become intrinsically linked. The outworking of that definition is that the mission of the church becomes more than the saving of souls and the growth of the church, instead it becomes about the embodiment, expression and ultimately extension of the Kingdom of God. Church Growth may come as a by product of mission but it is not its sole or even ultimate goal. That’s a controversial position in many evangelical circles where mission either overtly or tacitly is still all about getting new members in church as a prelude to them becoming new souls in heaven. Whilst this position on the purpose of mission may be controversial to some Frost argues it is neither novel nor a new understanding of the mission of God’s people. It is in fact the position of the Old Testament which is continued and nuanced in the New Testament. This isn’t a work of Biblical theology so some readers might want more evidence of this but in my view Frost through his use of scholars such as NT Wright and Tom Torrance shows that his conclusions are well rooted in good contemporary scholarship. (have a read of Chris Wright’s The Mission of God’s People if you want to investigate this further, no explain the missiology of the OT better)
The controversial aspect of what the missional advocates are saying through this definition of mission is that evangelism becomes what Frost describes as a “subset” and not the “sum total” of mission. This relationship between mission and evangelism was a live issue through most of the second half of the 20th century with the World Council of Churches on the more liberal wing of the church and the Lausanne Committee on World Evangelism on the more evangelical countering each other’s positions with numerous covenants and creeds. Even within the evangelical movement there were shades of opinion as to how social action and evangelism related to one another. Frost again uses Bosch’s work to try and nail his missional colours to the mast. Basically Bosch showed that amongst evangelicals there have been those who have seen social action as a distraction from evangelism and so wrong, those who have seen it as a preparation for evangelism and so helpful and those who have seen it as valid in and of itself but ultimately subordinate to evangelism in the mission of the church. Frost’s position is that to be “missional” is to see evangelism and social action as equally valid in the mission of the church. What its important to see here is that its being argued that those who are operating from the missional paradigm cannot and will not prioritise one over the other.
It will be interesting to see what others make of this position. I have noticed recently many churches and teachers who are predisposed to dispensational or premillennial eschatology are now using the missional word. These theologies have generally been those which have been most committed to the priority of evangelism over social action in mission or have even questioned its validity in mission at all. If the position that Frost is taking becomes the accepted one, and I for one pray that its is, will those who belong to the spectrum of theological opinion which prioritises evangelism in the mission of the church or reduces mission to it, stop using the “M” word? Will they seek to redefine it?Or will they reconsider their theological paradigm?
The other group where this definition has potential implications for is amongst denominational leaders. When I pastored an established church a volume of forms arrived each year. Those forms were clearly meant to assess the performance of the my church and of course me. My ministerial self esteem was linked to the figures in those forms. The underlying understanding of mission embodied in those forms was clearly one in which evangelism and mission were almost synonymous. I was asked how many people had come to Christ, how many new members we had added but there was little in those forms which could record how my church had “alerted others of the reign of God in Christ” through who we were and did. Frost’s work here reminds me of Reggie MacNeal’s call for a “new scorecard” for the missional church on which this broader understanding of mission could be better represented,
I had to stop myself from letting out an audible AMEN in the coffee shop I was reading this chapter in when I read Frost’s statement of his own position. “If mission is alerting people to the reign of God of God in Christ, our mandate is to do whatever is required in the circumstances to both demonstrate and announce this Kingship. We feed the hungry because in the world to come there will be no such thing as starvation. We share Christ because in the world to come there will be no such thing as unbelief. Both are the fashioning of foretastes of that world to come, none more or less important than the other” p 28 “Fashioning foretastes of that world to come.” I can’t remember reading a more accurate and inspirational definition of mission. If being missional is about being committed to fashioning foretastes of the world to come, I want to be a fashionista for the Kingdom!
Not content with an inspiring definition, Frost pitches a great illustration our way too, to help us get a handle on mission. He likens the church in mission to a trailer for a film, it lets you see and hear exerts which motivate you to want to experience the whole thing. “The church is to be like a trailer for the New Jerusalem, a taster, with all the best bits on full display. If we conclude that the world to come will be a place of complete and perfect justice, it follows that the mission of the church is to create foretastes of the justice to come. Likewise, if we believe that the world to come is a place of love and mercy, we are to be a trailer of that love and mercy, a free sample for those looking to buy into the whole thing.” p29
There is plenty more to challenge and inspire in this chapter. Frost, again building on Bosch’s thinking, talks about mission as an ongoing and everyday experience of the Feast of Epiphany and that mission creates what the Celtic tradition describes as “thin places” where this world and the Kingdom of Heaven come close enough to touch. You really do need to read it for yourself, ponder it over a coffee and savour the implications and then get out and do something about it.
So in summary what can we learn about what it means to be missional? Positively the missional paradigm means seeing the mission of the church rooted in God’s nature expressed in His Kingdom. The missionary activities of the church serve a greater purpose than filling church buildings or heaven itself. The goal of mission is by demonstration and proclamation to alert people to our God’s reign and invite them into that Kingdom by “fashioning foretastes of the future” that is God’s future intention for all of creation. Its about “fashioning foretastes of the world to come” in this present “evil age” and so is transformative in nature. Now if that’s what missional is all about, then I for one am in.
Where do you think the “average” evangelical stands on the relationship between evangelism and social action?
How in practice do churches stay true in their mission to evangelism and social action?
How does your community fashion foretastes of the world to come?
What personal and community “practices” could help train us to better fashion foretastes of the future?
Have you experienced “pressure” from your denomination, if you are part of one, to in practice prioritise evangelism in your mission?