The relationship between theology and mission is long and eventful, to be sure. The conversation about the relationship lay dormant for centuries, as theology became the locus of the religious academy. The conversation experienced a revival in the early 20th century (Pachuau 539).
Mission was given a kick-start when, in 1908, Martin Kahler suggested that mission is the “mother of theology” (Bosch 489). The explosion of the mission of God in early church, held Kahler, was so expansive that the early church was forced to do theology on the fly. As a result, theology was, in the early year, very practical and very tied to the mission of God.
Over the centuries, the church gained prominence and power. Mission does not have the same urgency when all of your neighbors claim faith in Christ. During this time, theology held a solid position as the instructive focus of the church. Mission became a sub plot of the church. In some cases, mission continued to be practiced actively. However, for the most part, mission became just one of many things that the church did.
As the Enlightenment began to influence the western world, the sole proprietorship of truth was transferred from history or church or family to self. Each person was given the authority to judge ultimate truth with confidence. Therefore, any dogma or propagation simply became a nuisance or an oppressive system. The dominance of this Enlightenment thought led to pluralism, and the church in the western world has been in decline ever since. Over the past century, the church has been increasingly marginalized and seems ill equipped to deal with the effects of pluralism (From Sending to Being Sent 2).
The good news is that the people of God have been in this situation before. In many ways, believers in 21st century North America may feel like Israelites during the exile or, perhaps, first century Christians. As noted above, the exile and the birth of Christianity were times when the mission of God became a focus for the people of God. The people of God needed to know that God’s purposes would be accomplished. They also needed instructions on living among pagans in a way that extends the blessings of God.
As the realization of an increasingly pagan culture began to strike, some theologians began to reevaluate the mission of the church. A worldwide war had shattered the optimism that humanity was becoming more ethical. The hope of the world must exist apart from the atrocities of humanity. In this setting, Karl Barth addressed the Brandenburg Missionary Conference (1932), saying that mission was God’s activity, returning authority to God. Twenty years later, at the Willingen Conference, the first articulation of the missio Dei was presented (Bosch 389-390).
The missio Dei began the process of shifting the emphasis of mission. In the missio Dei, mission is not a program that the church does to be proud of. Instead, the mission belongs to God and is all that the church is about. We will deal with the missio Dei more specifically in the next post.