Theology after the Missional Turn (2)

Greg McKinzie

In the first part of this essay I began with this key question: Why does the missional turn matter? Specifically, how has missional theology addressed the seismic cultural shifts that have shaken the Western church? And how has missional theology shaped the lives of local congregations accordingly? The rest of part one discussed the first of three essential reasons the missional turn matters: the mainstreaming of missiology. In summary, the fact that local Western churches have begun to think theologically like missionaries is a significant shift.

Reason 2: Theological Innovation

Learning to think theologically like missionaries already implies contextual theological innovation. But the missional turn has also contributed to significant theological innovation in a more traditional sense. The prominence of three loci — the Trinity, ecclesiology, and eschatology — characterizes missional theology. The missional turn entails both a particular approach to each one and a particular narrative configuration of all three that, together, address the Western church’s crisis and shape congregations in powerful ways.

The first theological locus is a narrative Trinitarian point of departure. Missional theology has developed a strong sense of the Triune God’s nature and identity in relation to the Father sending the Son, and the Father and Son sending the Spirit. These sendings, called the missio Dei, constitute the particular narrative of missional theology.

The second locus, a participatory ecclesiology, builds on the first. The church sent by the power of the Spirit, in the name of the Son, to the glory of the Father, participates in the missio Dei. God is at work before and beyond the church in the world, and the church exists only in mission, called into God’s purposes as representatives, agents, and witnesses.

The third locus is a teleological orientation. Like ecclesiology, eschatology is embedded in the plot of the Triune God’s mission. The coming of God’s kingdom is the work in which God is involved and the purpose in which the church participates.

Naturally, missional theology also understands every other theological locus in terms of the narrative of God’s mission, but these three dominate the horizon. And that is the theological innovation that matters, because the contours of this particular theological vision are shaped by the contextual currents of late modernity. In the midst of the Western church’s decline and disorientation, missional theology is a refusal to answer our contextually most pressing question — Who, then, is the church? — apart from the identity and purposes of God revealed in the ongoing story of Father, Son, and Spirit.

In this sense, it is easy to see why missional church has been the focus of missional authors. Ecclesiology is at the heart of the conversation, and participation is arguably the vital concept of missional theology. The impossibility of saying what the church is without reference to its role and responsibility in the unfolding drama of God’s mission marks a decisive theological turn. There is no unified church that is not one for the purpose of witnessing to the Father’s mission. There is no holy church that is not sanctified in order to be sent as Jesus was sent. There is no catholic church that is not called into God’s mission of universal reconciliation. There is no apostolic church that is not constitutionally the ambassadors of the kingdom. There is, in other words, no abstract ecclesiology, only the church in mission.

Nonetheless, the configuration of all three loci has become a sine qua non for missional theology. Without the priority of the missio Dei and the specificity of the kingdom’s character, participation degenerates into ecclesiocentrism, triumphalism, imperialism, or just bland do-goodery. Likewise, without the teleological story of church’s participation in God’s mission, the doctrine of the Trinity is, at worst, a merely “true” description of God’s essence or nature. At best, it is a rationale for the church’s becoming a certain kind of loving community, but the community’s failure to get outside of itself is, then, nothing more than a lamentable doctrinal or ethical shortcoming. Purpose and participation stipulate that much more is at stake in the church’s rootedness in the life of God.

This is, of course, precisely the theology that has seemed to many to be fine as far as it goes but practically ineffectual. I am certainly connected to churches in which missional jargon is prominent, yet it is plain that, for many, the language pulls against the stream of congregational life in ways that might be called idealistic or futile. The question is pressing: how does this kind of theological innovation actually put local churches into a different relationship with their contexts?

To borrow Ludwig Wittgenstein’s terms for shorthand, missional theology provides the requisite rules for a playing a different language game. Learning this game may be slow and difficult, and it depends as much on practices as rules (see below), but the rules are not optional. Relegating missional theology to the status of ineffectual cognitivism is a mistake for two reasons. First, it is an essential (but not sufficient) means of changing games. By retelling the story of God, church, and kingdom, missional theology is how the church coaches itself to see and live in the world differently. Second, it is a necessary framework for making meaning from and giving meaning to what the church actually does. Throwing a ball at someone is a legitimate practice in both baseball and dodgeball, but players understand and respond differently depending on the rules of the game. The same is true of the church’s practices. Even practices as basic as corporate prayer and worship come to mean — and to effect — something new as a congregation learns to play a different language game. This is always the potential result of theological innovation, and missional theology is the language game in which churches are trained to reorient all of life toward active participation in God’s purposes.

Missional hermeneutics is an example of a core set of practices (theological interpretation of Scripture) meaningfully reshaped by missional theology. Reading in light of the narrative of God’s mission, reading in order to discern the shape of God’s mission in the local context, and reading through the lens of participation in God’s mission are distinctive interpretive practices that depend on a particular theological framework. At the same time, missional hermeneutics is also an example of the way that practices constitute theology. Like the rules of a game that is not actually played, missional theology without missional forms of life becomes a formality. Attempting to read Scripture missionally without participation in mission is ultimately meaningless. The third reason the missional turn matters, therefore, is its insistence on the church’s recovery of lost capacities. Part three of the essay will expand on this point.

Posted Nov 16, 2016