Does our thinking about mission actually shape our practice?

Eddie Arthur of Wycliffe Bible Translators, who is conducting research at Leeds Trinity University, has explored the connection between mission thinking and mission practice, and shared his reflections at the Second Festival of Theology.

Introduction: The Mission of God

Until the sixteenth century, the term “mission” was used in Christian theology in conjunction with the doctrine of the Trinity; the sending of the Son by the Father and the sending of the Holy Spirit by the Father and the Son (Bosch, 1991, 1). It was first used in terms of the intentional spread of the Christian faith by the Jesuits in the sixteenth century (Bosch, 1991, 1), (Kim, 2009, 9), (Stroope, 2017, 238). Used in this manner, the word mission became closely associated with European colonial expansion  (Bosch, 1991, 1), (Smith, 2003, 15). The church’s understanding of mission has evolved over time as typified by Bosch’s suggestion that different paradigms of mission have existed at different points in the church’s history  (Bosch, 1991, 181).

Though it is not the focus of this paper, it is worth noting that there is still considerable debate over what exactly constitutes mission. For example, there is disagreement over such issues as the relative priority of proclamation and social action or whether mission must involve a change in location.

In 1991, David Bosch wrote:

During the past half a century or so there has been a subtle but nevertheless decisive shift toward understanding mission as God’s mission” (Bosch, 1991, 389).

This concept, and the Latin phrase associated with it, missio Dei, first came to prominence at the IMC conference in Willingen in 1952 (Bosch, 1991, 390).

Skreslett explains missio Dei in these terms:

Mission is seen, not as something begun by any human organisation, but as an eternal reality rooted in God’s sending of the Son and the procession of the Spirit from the Godhead (Skreslet, 2012, 32).

In this view, mission is derived from the nature and actions of the triune God rather than the activities of the church. However, this approach was open to a number of interpretations and through the 1960s thinking about the missio Dei developed in two diverging directions. The first view understood mission as God’s evangelising action through the church, while the second view, championed by the Dutch theologian Hoekendijk, saw mission as the establishment of peace, shalom, in the wider world with the church being incidental or even inimical to the process (Bosch, 1991, 391,2), (Engelsviken, 2003, 485), (Skreslet, 2012, 33).

There are still diverging opinions regarding the interpretation of the missio Dei, and some question the usefulness of its formulation (Skreslet, 2012, 32). However, others consider it to be a significant advance in mission theology. “The recognition that mission is God’s mission represents a crucial breakthrough in respect of the preceding centuries. It is inconceivable that we could again revert to a narrow, ecclesiocentric view of mission.” (Bosch, 1991, 393).

The evangelical suspicion of the IMC meant that Evangelicals were slow to adopt the concept of the missio Dei. According to Tennent, they rejected what they saw as the secularisation of the gospel and an undue focus on social and political involvement at the 1969 Uppsala Conference of the IMC, while failing to appreciate the benefits of a missio Deiapproach which undergirded this focus (Tennent, 2010, 58). However, in 1976, Robert Recker, Professor of Missions at the Evangelical Calvin Seminary, produced a paper which synthesised Reformed-Evangelical theology with a missio Deifocus, while rejecting outright the Hoekendijk, world-centric approach (Recker, 1976). By 1991, Bosch was able to write that “many evangelicals” had accepted a missio Dei view (Bosch, 1991, 390,1).

Today, a missio Dei focus is broadly accepted within Evangelical missiology (Keum, 2014, 398), (Stetzer, 2016, 93). This is illustrated by the publication of three recent US missiology text books, each of which uses the missio Deias its basic framework (Flemming, 2013), (Goheen, 2014), (Tennent, 2010). On a pragmatic level, Wycliffe Global Alliance has developed a philosophy of Bible translation which frames their work as participation in the mission of God (Wycliffe Global Alliance, 2013).

Tennent expresses this evangelical view of missio Dei in this way:

Mission is first and foremost about God and His redemptive purposes and initiatives in the world, quite apart from any actions or tasks or strategies or initiatives the church may undertake. To put it plainly, mission is far more about God and who He is than about us and what we do. (Tennent, 2010, 54,5).

The consensus seems to be that Evangelicals have accepted the concept of missio Dei as the basis of their missiology. The purpose of this paper is to examine the extent to which this is true for Evangelical mission agencies in the UK

Come and think about Christian Hope and the End of the World at the teaching morning on 10th November 2018.


Foundations for Mission

Foundations for Mission is a 2010 publication which investigated the way in which mission was understood by a wide range of churches and agencies from a variety of Christian traditions. As part of this research, the websites of 20+ evangelical mission agencies were investigated and in-depth interviews with seven agency leaders were carried out.

There was little, if any, mention of the missio Deion the agency websites, which tended to be orientated towards promoting the agency and recruiting workers and supporters rather than giving a foundation for mission (Richards et al., 2010, 23 ff.).

Likewise, the interviews with the agency directors did not appear to accord a high level of importance to the missio Dei: “Overall, we were able to determine from the interviews that whilst there was a high level of awareness of the missio Deiamong the sample it could not be said to be the foremost driver of mission for the majority of the sample”. (Richards et al., 2010, 100).

My Research

My own research looked at the theology and practices of six evangelical mission agencies. (At this point, I have not had the opportunity to share the results of my research with the agencies in question and for that reason, I will not identify them in this paper.) One of the factors that I investigated was whether the agency used the concept of the missio Dei as a part of their internal processes or in their publicity.

The first stage of the research was to interview the agency directors using a semi-structured format which allowed the directors to enlarge on subjects that were of interest to them. This was followed up by investigating the agency magazines and annual reports for the previous four years as well as an in-depth investigation of the agency websites and Twitter feeds.

All six of the agency directors were able to give a definition of the missio Dei. Four of them spoke in terms of God’s action in “bringing in the kingdom” or of the overarching narrative of the Bible from creation to the return of Christ. Only two of the directors gave definitions which were based on the Triune nature of God (a third sent an unprompted follow-up email which added this aspect to his recorded answer).

Only two of the directors said that the term missio Deior the English equivalent, the mission of God, were used within their organisations. These positions were confirmed though an investigation of the agency print and online publications.

However, when the literature of the two organisations was examined in detail, there were limited similarities between the two organisation which could be attributed to their common position on the missio Dei. Equally, there were no obvious differences in practice between the two agencies which used the missio Dei and the four that did not. It would appear that adopting a position with regard to the missio Dei makes little, if any, practical difference in the life of mission agencies (at least, as far as this is evident in their public pronouncements). My study examined three other themes (proclamation-social action, unreached people groups and a missional hermeneutic) and drew similar conclusions for each of them. For the most part, there was no similarity between agencies which espoused similar positions, nor were there obvious differences between those with different convictions.

Research Conclusions

Fromthese two research projects, the following conclusions can be drawn.

  • Mission leaders are aware of the concept of the missio Dei.
  • Only a minority of agencies actually use the concept in their internal processes or in their publications.
  • There is no obvious correlation between an agency’s position with regard to the missio Dei and its actions.


Thereis a contradiction evident between the claims of the literature and the reality of life in British Evangelical mission agencies. The following quotes from Scott Sunquist and others illustrates this:

If any consensus has developed about mission during the past century, it is that Christian mission is rooted in the mission of God (missio Dei) rather than in a particular task (planting churches) or a particular goal (making converts) (Sunquist, 2013, 156).

Kim and Balia make a similar point, suggesting that missiology has shifted its focus from ecclesiology and soteriology to prioritise reflection on the trinitarian missio Dei(Balia and Kim, 2010, 23). Bosch says:

The recognition that mission is God’s mission represents a crucial breakthrough in respect of the preceding centuries. It is inconceivable that we could again revert to a narrow ecclesiocentric view of mission (Bosch, 1991, 393).

While a number of scholars insist that mission should be viewed through the lens of the mission of God, it would seem that practitioners do not necessarily agree with this. Furthermore, a number of the agencies define their work in terms of church planting and evangelism, the very parameters that Sunquist rejects. What Bosch says is ‘inconceivable’ appears to be the reality for many mission practitioners in the UK.

This raises the questions as to why this disconnect exists and what its impact might be.


A number of untested hypotheses can be postulated as to why the missio Dei does not seem to feature significantly in the Evangelical mission movement.

Demographics: given that Evangelicals were slow to adopt the concept of the missio Dei, it is possible that the current generation of agency leaders and board members received their theological formation before it formed a significant part of the training curriculum for missionaries. If this is the case, one would expect that the situation would change over the next decade or so as an older generation of leaders moves on.

Jerusalem and Athens: from my research it is evident that agencies do not place a premium on advanced theological qualifications for their leadership. Only two of the six agency leaders interviewed had advanced degrees in theology or mission studies and a number of them had pursued no formal mission training at all. The majority of the agency leaders had not read either the Lausanne Covenant or the Cape Town Commitment, documents which are regarded by many Evangelicals as the basis for current mission thinking. Equally, most of the agency boards did not schedule time for missiological reflection or the consideration of current mission trends or literature.

Evangelical activism: Evangelicals have a tendency towards activism which can militate against spending time on reflection and consideration of the theological basis of their actions. This is exacerbated by the regulatory framework under which charities in the UK operate which forces governing boards to spend the majority of their time and energy on compliance and other issues.

Concerns for the Future

As the situation of the church in the UK and worldwide continues to evolve rapidly, British Evangelical mission agencies will need to rethink their role, however this study indicates that they may not have their leadership may not have the capacity to engage in the sort of reflection that is required. Three areas of concern can be highlighted:

Adaption to the future: British agencies evolved in a context where the gospel was being carried from a Christian West into the rest of the world. That situation no longer exists. The church has grown worldwide, while the church in the UK has been receding and cross-cultural mission has become less of a priority for Evangelical churches in the UK (Arthur, 2017). Simply reacting to these changes through a series of pragmatic, short-term fixes will not be enough to ensure the future of the British mission movement. David Smith captures this dilemma:

… agencies and institutions that once did pioneering work at the cutting edges of the Christian mission have too often been left facing in the wrong direction as the battle has moved on. In this situation they face a stark choice: either they engage in a radical re-formation, repositioning themselves to respond to the quite new challenges of the twenty-first century, or they are doomed to rapid and rather sad decline and extinction. (Smith, 2003, 11).

Interaction with others: there are questions as to whether British agencies are appropriately prepared and equipped to engage with the church and emerging mission movements in the majority world. In order to engage with others who have different contextual concerns and theologies, it is necessary to understand one’s own position and the position of others. While missionaries on the field may well be in a position to engage in this sort of dialogue, it is questionable whether the leadership of the agencies in the UK will be able to do so.

Paradigms of Mission: David Bosch famously suggests that there have been a number of paradigms of mission and that we are living through a time when a new, ecumenical paradigm of mission is emerging (Bosch, 1991, 368 ff.). Bosch is not the only one to speak in these terms; David Smith speaks of the need to “engage in a search for a new paradigm of faithful, missionary obedience” and of “Christians who continue to operate in a fading missionary paradigm” (Smith, 2003, 7). The Korean theologian Moonjang Lee writes:

The modern Western missionary era has ended, and a new paradigm for global mission has not yet been devised (Lee, 2016, 125).

A number of other writers refer to the need to develop a new paradigm of mission, see for example Ma, 2011, 20, Moon and Lee, 2003, 264 and Tiénou, 2006, 39. If British agencies are not equipped for theological and missiological reflection, they may not be able to play a part in helping to develop this new paradigm or equipped to function within it as it emerges.

Some Thoughts for Churches

The local church is not my area of expertise or research, so I hesitate to add a few comments on this area. However, the research in Foundations for Mission suggests that a number of churches and denominations may be in a similar position with regard to a lack of clarity or consistency with regard to their mission theology. As the focus for mission shifts from something done “over there” to something done “here”, the need for thought through theological underpinning becomes ever more vital.


Arthur, E.D. (2017) The future of mission agencies. Mission Round Table, 12, 4-12.

Balia, D. & Kim, K. (Eds.) (2010) Witnessing to Christ todayRegnum Books International, Oxford.

Bosch, D.J. (1991) Transforming mission : paradigm shifts in theology of mission. Orbis Books,

Engelsviken, T. (2003) Missio Dei: The understanding and misunderstanding of a theological concept in European churches and missiology. International Review of Mission, 92, 481-497.

Flemming, D. (2013) Recovering the full mission of God: a biblical perspective on being, doing, and telling. IVP Academic, Downers Grove, IL.

Goheen, M.W. (2014) Introducing Christian mission today.IVP Academic, Downers Grove.

Keum, J. (2014) Beyond dichotomy. (Eds, Dahle, L., Dahle, M.S. & Jørgensen, K.) Regnum Books International, Oxford, pp. 383-398.

Kim, K. (2009) Joining in with the Spirit. Epworth Press, London.

Lee, M. (2016) Rethinking the nature of Christian mission: a South Korean perspective. InThe State of Missiology Today: Global Innovations in Christian Witness,(Ed, Van Engen, C.E.) IVP Academic, Downers Grove, pp. 125-139.

Ma, W. (2011) A millennial shift of global Christianity and mission. In Korean Diaspora and Christian Mission,(Eds, Kim, S.H. & Ma, W.) Regnum Books International, Oxford, pp. 12-34.

Moon, S.S. & Lee, D.T.-W. (2003) Globalization, world evangelization and global missiology. In One World Or Many? The Impact of Globalization on Mission,(Ed, Tiplady, R.) William Carey Library, Pasadena, pp. 253-269.

Recker, R.R. (1976) The Concept of the missio Deiand instruction in mission at Calvin Seminary. Calvin Theological Journal, 11, 181-198.

Richards, A. et al. (2010) Foundations for mission: a study of language, theology and praxis from the UK and Ireland perspective. Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, London.

Skreslet. (2012) Comprehending mission: the questions, methods, themes, problems, and prospects of missiology (American Society of Missiology). Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY.

Smith, D.W. (2003) Mission after Christendom. Darton, Longman and Todd,

Stetzer, E. (2016) An evangelical kingdom community approach. (Ed, Ott, C.) Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, pp. 91-116.

Stroope, M.W. (2017) Transcending mission: the eclipse of a modern tradition. Apollos, London.

Sunquist, S.W. (2013) Understanding Christian mission. Baker Academic, Grand Rapids.

Tennent, T.C. (2010) Invitation to world missions : a trinitarian missiology for the twenty-first century. Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI.

Tiénou, T. (2006) Christian theology in an era of world Christianity. In Globalizing Theology: Belief and Practice in an Era of World Christianity,(Eds, Ott, C. & Netland, H.A.) Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, pp. 37-51.

Wycliffe Global Alliance (2013) Wycliffe Global Alliance’ Bible translation programmes philosophy statement. [online] Available at

Come and think about Christian Hope and the End of the World at the teaching morning on 10th November 2018.

Follow me on Twitter @psephizoLike my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?

Signup to get email updates of new posts
We promise not to spam you. Unsubscribe at any time.
Invalid email address

If you enjoyed this, do share it on social media (Facebook or Twitter) using the buttons on the left. Follow me on Twitter @psephizo. Like my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, you can make a single or repeat donation through PayPal:

For other ways to support this ministry, visit my Support page.

Comments policy: Do engage with the subject. Please don't turn this into a private discussion board. Do challenge others in the debate; please don't attack them personally. I no longer allow anonymous comments; if there are very good reasons, you may publish under a pseudonym; otherwise please include your full name, both first and surnames.

6 thoughts on “Does our thinking about mission actually shape our practice?”

  1. For the avoidance of doubt I was not one of the leaders Eddie interviewed (or if I was I didn’t notice) and I would say that missio Dei is fundamental to CMS’ missiological training and practice locally in the UK and globally (though I’d be willing for ud to be subjected to the tests Eddie uses). I’d cite the significant number of publications and articles we’ve originated in recent years (books, Anvil, Grove series). And as anecdotal evidence one of our key partners in Nepal has opened a coffee shop called Missio Dei!)

    More seriously whilst I don’t dispute his findings I would certainly resist extrapolating these conclusions to assume that no UK based agencies really view the concept as central.

  2. My overall thinking on this is probably to simplistic, but boils down to “Its God’s mission and somehow he does it with people”.
    Every now and then I’m almost a surprised observer. I might be having a conversation at work and an atheist says “I was thinking about that and said a prayer like ‘IF you are there tell me xyz’”. Then I find God has been doing that frequently with other friends of theirs. Recently one colleague became a disciple. That hasn’t happened often in my life though.
    Even more rarely, I’ll think God has asked me to go and do something (never heard his voice with my ears) sometimes with others.
    Mostly, I’m not aware of doing mission, but just living. Giving something to my local church or wider parachurch organisations such as CMS, tear fund….
    I think that ‘church organised’ events or missions are a small part but in practice seen as a big part of God’s mission activity; but what individuals, friends are and do (how we love, behave, work, buy things, play) is the bigger part. All are necessary.

  3. Eddie Arthur seems to quote with approval scholars who think that in our concept of and support for global mission, we should all get on board with some broad theological idea of ‘God’s mission’, rather than carry on what are seen as the old fashioned and colonialist practical tasks of helping to enable evangelism, discipleship, worship etc through the local church.

    There are two potential problems with this that I can see. One: the danger of setting a theology of ‘missio dei’ against the specific work of the church as God’s agent of bringing the biblical gospel to the world, is that we can end up interpreting all sorts of modish socio-political ideologies and programmes as ‘God’s mission’, and downplay or even move away from church planting and church nurturing/equipping. For example: is the LGBT ideology and agenda part of the liberating and inclusive work of God in the world, as some C of E Bishops claim? If so, the church’s job is to recognise it and get on board with it. Another less controversial one: the campaign to reduce plastic use. At best the church then loses its focus, casting around for ‘mission’ causes to support however worthy; at worst it divides the church because the centre is no longer the biblical gospel (or is a redefined gospel).

    If we’re all going to quote Bosch, I seem to remember Bosch warned of broadening out the concept of missio dei too much, when he said “if everything is mission, then nothing is mission” (it’s a long time since I read Transforming Mission and I don’t have a copy to hand).

    But secondly, is there perhaps a danger here of a disconnect between the hard working practitioners on the ground in difficult parts of the world, often sacrificially serving the poor, teaching the bible and training local ministers to build up the church so that it makes an impact as part of God’s mission, and the ivory tower Western mission theologians who like to read each others books and go to conferences, and look down their noses on the benighted missionaries still in the ‘old paradigm’ who haven’t got doctorates?! I’m sure Eddie Arthur wouldn’t want to come across as implying that, but surely we don’t want to suggest that regularly reflecting on our understanding and practice of global mission to bring about necessary re-focus, change of structures etc, necessarily equates to a particular kind of academic Western-style theological study?

  4. “Mission is first and foremost about God and His redemptive purposes and initiatives in the world, quite apart from any actions or tasks or strategies or initiatives the church may undertake. To put it plainly, mission is far more about God and who He is than about us and what we do. (Tennent, 2010, 54,5).”

    I don’t recognise the “quite apart” in the New Testament. That’s too “separatist” for me. Yes, God is the prime mover and the key vitality that must inhabit all mission but, surely, the NT has God constantly using people and structures to proclaim Jesus. God alone brings life but uses those he calls to life. The church is the dwelling place of the Spirit so how can “quite apart” be an accurate description?

    I do think “mission” is in danger of becoming a social agenda at the cost of silence about Jesus the saviour from sin and death. The best sacrificed on the altar of the good.

  5. This is a rather belated comment (maybe having spent too much time trying to keep up with comments on later posts!) relating to Mission and the local church. My diocese requires each parish to have a “Mission Action Plan”, and a group within our PCC was working on this. On reporting to the PCC, it seemed to me that there was a certain haziness over the understanding of what ‘Mission’ is. We did know that it is something we should be doing. For us, overseas stuff comes under the banner of ‘Global Engagement’. I suggested that perhaps we might consider the Anglican 5 Marks of Mission, but was suprised that no-one seemed to know about them.

    Basically, they are Evangelism, Discipleship, Compassion, Justice and the Environment, or “Tell, Teach, Tend, Transform, Treasure”. I think they have roots in the concept of Missio Dei. More certainly, they all reflect aspects of the character and will of God, as revealed to us.

    The point is not that you can pick and choose which you do. Rather, that all five are part of mission. It is as wrong to neglect the last three as it is to neglect the first two.


Leave a comment