Mission - a controversial term
Before being able to give a definition on what is missiology, I think we need to define the term mission as such. Afterwards, it will be easier to give a definition of missiology, the science of mission.
Inside the church premises, mission is one of those theological terms that many use but having different ideas in mind. In many church traditions in the Global South, mission is used as a term with positive connotations. Further, mission history where it is not linked to colonialism awakens very positive memories. Nevertheless, depending which church tradition one is dealing with, the theological content might differ. In the Global North, especially moving in secular contexts, the term mission is quite controversial—as soon as it is used by church people. Many people do associate the term with (forced) conversion and colonialism, paired with destruction of cultures and beliefs. On the one hand, those tendencies are represented inside the churches, and on the other hand, the term is used in an unreflective way, serving mainly as a synonym for converting people of other faiths.
Mission – needs to be defined properly
Taking the term missio Dei as a starting point, which can be seen as a biblical and theological outcome of the Conference for World Mission and Evangelism (CWME) in Willingen, Germany, in 1952, and looking at the diverse CWME it becomes obvious that the conferences have been a kind of barometer of missiological thinking. If one has a closer look at the CWME, it appears that the content of mission and missiology has switched from “making disciples” by my personal endeavour (Edinburgh, 1910) to other topics and aims. Hence, mission is rather about facing the secular world (Jerusalem, 1928) as well as living in a peaceful way with people of other faiths and cooperating as religious people (Tambaram, 1938). Furthermore, it is about collaborating with Christians of very different types (Mexico City, 1963), being moulded by pluritextualities (Bahia de Salvador, 1996), including oppressed and poor people (Melbourne, 1980), and accepting that the Spirit is moving wherever he/she wants (San Antonio, 1989). It is additionally about a holistic healing, including repentance (Athens, 2005) and acknowledging a mission from the margins (Arusha, 2018).
In short, the Triune God is the one who sends each believer and the church. They can shine in the world and be salt in it (Matt 5). Through the Holy Spirit, conversion takes place. The role of Christian believers in mission, led by the Holy Spirit, is first about hermeneutics, translating the gospel into different contexts. Secondly, it is about transmission, about witnessing to the gospel and communicating it. Third, mission is about transformation of life circumstances, being repentant and hence becoming a transformative disciple.
The three pillars of mission—translation, transmission, and transformation—help us to define the vast term mission.1
Mission – and its three pillars
The earliest missionaries were translators of the gospel—in a literal as well as a figurative sense. In many cultures where Christianity was brought, missionaries needed to translate the message. Today, we too need to look at diverse contexts. Since the sixth CWME in Mexico City in 1963, with the topic “Mission in Six Continents,” we have become more aware of the fact that Christianity is polycentric and is represented in all different types of cultures—and is therefore quite diverse. Contextuality regarding the pluritextuality and diversity of Christianity has, therefore, led us to the terminology of world Christianity to describe the multiple facets of Christianity and its polycentricity. Hence, it is also important to focus on the subcultures in diverse societies. If Christianity wants to be understood in subcultures, like youth or marginalised groups, it needs to make an effort at translational work, at intercultural hermeneutics, and at listening and including the marginalised. As the ecumenical document Together Towards Life states: “marginalized people are reservoirs of . . . active hope.”2
Next to translation, a second aspect of mission is transmission. The term mission, from the Latin mittere, implies already the fact that something should be shared, something should be communicated, and something should be transmitted. Mission is about witnessing—more precisely witnessing to Christ. Witnessing is a central topic of Christian life—being salt and light in the world. Witnessing Christ can be done in various ways. It is not only about the preached word. It can be done through the way of life, societal engagement, and ecumenical diaconia we are involved in and through the option for the poor that was stressed vehemently at the WMC in Bangkok in 1973 and Melbourne in 1980.
Every single Christian is called to the ministry of witness. That ministry can have many different appearances as we have seen. Pope Francis, in his 2013 Apostolic Exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (EG), “The Joy of the Gospel,” speaks about “missionary discipleship” (EG 119). We are all called to evangelise (EG 120). By sharing this witness, conviviality obtains a crucial role. It is not about an aggressive witnessing—rather, it is about sharing the love of God in a respectful and dialogical way. The document published by the World Evangelical Alliance, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and the World Council of Churches, “Christian Witness in a Multi Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct” (2011), states clearly how we should approach each other: “Christians should continue to build relationships of respect and trust with people of different religions so as to facilitate deeper mutual understanding, reconciliation and cooperation for the common good.”3
From homiletics, we already know that the reading of the biblical text transforms the reader, in that case the preacher, by the power of the Holy Spirit. He or she should be the first listener of his/her sermon and he/she should be transformed by it. When this takes place, a sermon becomes convincing and credible and might transform listeners, bringing them into a “new existence.”4 This happens through the power of the Holy Spirit. Something quite similar can be seen the theology of the “liturgy after the liturgy” in the Orthodox tradition: the believer is equipped for his mission in the world through having celebrated the Holy Liturgy, ready to put it into praxis.5 A very powerful biblical picture of transformation, which was used at the CWME by H. E. Metropolitan Geevarghese Coorilos, is the idea found in Acts 17:6: “Transforming Discipleship should be about turning the contemporary world upside down. Nothing less would qualify Discipleship as Transforming.”6
Both terms, transforming and discipleship, are challenging. Changes, reformation, and transformation in church milieus are often seen as a threat. Church people are not always the most flexible; we like to stick to our traditions. In so far as discipleship means transformation, discipleship and church seem like more or less heterogeneous ideas.
Yet, discipleship entails something very revolutionary, which turns everything upside down.
If we talk about a transformative discipleship, it is about turning the society we live in, with its norms, standards, and customs, upside down. Christian individuals and Christian congregations are therefore called to deal with their neighbouring and surrounding contexts in a quite critical—I would even use the term radical—way where necessary.
In fulfilling this type of mission, which is “a way of life,” we become transformative disciples and “are called to break down walls” and to “follow the way of the cross”7—which is not always the most pleasant or easiest, but it’s all about the hope that all “may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).8 With this in mind, and looking at the pluritextualities of Christianity and the CWME, we can detect the three pillars of translation, transmission and transformation that help to define and to deal with the vast field of mission and missiology today.
1 Those ideas are more elaborated in my article: “Mission and Its Three Pillars: Translation, Transmission and Transformation,” in International Review of Mission 107, no. 2 (2018): 399–412.
2 Jooseop Keum, ed., Together Towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes—with a Practical Guide (Geneva, Switzerland: World Council of Churches, 2013), 54, https://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/publications/TogethertowardsLife_MissionandEvangelism.pdf.
3 World Council of Churches, “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct,” June 28, 2011, 12, https://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/wcc-programmes/interreligious-dialogue-and-cooperation/christian-identity-in-pluralistic-societies/christian-witness-in-a-multi-religious-world.
4 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 64.
5 Ion Bria, The Liturgy after the Liturgy: Mission and Witness from an Orthodox Perspective (Geneva, Switzerland: World Council of Churches, 1996).
6 Geevarghese Coorilos, “WCC/CWME World Mission Conference – Arusha, Tanzania, 8–13 March 2018,” International Review of Mission 107, no. 2 (2018): 311–19; free download of the address: https://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/commissions/mission-and-evangelism/cwme-moderators-address-metropolitan-geevarghese-coorilos.
7 Together Towards Life, 29.
8 “The Arusha Call to Discipleship,” International Review of Mission 107, no. 2 (2018). 542–46.
Benjamin Simon (ThD, University of Heidelberg) is the managing editor of the International Review of Mission as well as professor of ecumenical missiology at the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey (Geneva, Switzerland). He can be reached at email@example.com. His CV can be found at http://institute.oikoumene.org/en/study-at-bossey/teaching-staff.