what do we do?

Grenzenlos - Boundless
50th anniversary of the World Mission Conference
Mission Festival and Congress,
August 16-21, 2002 Willingen

Congress “Missio Dei” God’s Mission Today
Summary and Conclusions (Reflector’s report)

  • 1. Willingen 1952

    I retain four major affirmations from what has been said on the event of the IMC conference in 1952.

    It was firstly held in a time of a major missiological crisis, because of the abrupt end of the work in China. Under the shock of such an event, which could be repeated in other places, the conference struggled with the fundamental definition of what mission is in a time of uncertainty. There is some striking analogy with our present situation.

    Particularly following the major change in 1989 and then also the events of September 11 last year, we do not seem to have much confidence in what is going to happen next. Not only has the political context become very difficult to predict, it is also true of economics (losses of financial income) and church development. Pentecostal and charismatic churches grow rapidly in some places of the word, while so-called “majority” churches seem to move towards minority status. To define major mission plans – if that was ever the task of the church – has become if not impossible, so rather subjective and questionable.

    Second, Willingen, like many other such conferences, did not come to a satisfactory approval of missiological priorities. There was no final common decision which seemed “good” to the participants. The conference brought to the fore the existing tensions within the Protestant missionary movement. Some speakers of our consultation even spoke of Willingen as failure. But the “radiation” of the 1952 meeting of the IMC proved of utmost importance. This shows how difficult it is to evaluate human activities in mission.

    Third, Willingens’ most remarkable achievement was to anchor mission in the doctrine of God or, as others formulated, to have provided a trinitarian basis for mission. That the term missio Dei itself seemed not to have appeared in Willingen itself is of less importance. The influence of conferences has much to do with people who interpreted them later anyhow, as we know very well for having done it ourselves. If I understood well what Wolfgang Günther said, Willingen’s reflection took much profit from the preparatory work done in the USA on simultaneity of God’s action in world and church asking for a search for a trinitarian basis. This would also indicate how important preparatory work is for a mission conference.

    Then, lastly, I was struck how much the reference to God as basis and main actor in mission could be liberating for people shocked by world and church events: It’s like an embodiment of Christ’s promise to come so that he can take away from us what is too heavy on our shoulders (cf. the German word “entlastend” and Matt 11: 28-30). I can only wish that we find a similar way today to speak of mission in the frightening context of globalisation, economic, political and cultural. Indeed, in that sense missio Dei is “good news”.

    2. Elements for an evaluation of the missio Dei theology

    It has clearly enlarged the horizon and fostered a wide understanding of and approach to mission which is of lasting importance. It seems like a point of no return.

    Missio Dei has helped to overcome the ecclesiocentric approach which had been highlighted since the thirties (Tambaram). Missio Dei has been and can be a constant reminder that the church is not the ultimate goal of mission. In that sense, missio Dei plays a similar critical function to the message of the kingdom of God in the New Testament, as has been emphasised in our consultation. Missio Dei also helped to open up the realm of politics and economics as an integral part of the mission agenda. It contributed to change the post-Tambaram paradigm used in relation with people of other religions and enabled Christians to a more positive approach, leading to various dialogue programmes as from the sixties on. God is active in mission also outside the church. Missio Dei renewed the approach in the West, but also inspired liberation and Minjung theologies in the South.

    However, in the West and in particular in the sixties, the missio Dei theology was intimately linked with one particular theological and socio-political approach, responding well to some of the main challenges of that context. It was a theology giving a mainly positive appreciation of secularisation or even secularism, favouring a non religious approach to humans and societies and thus criticising the church in an exaggerated way. By consequence, evangelism practically disappeared from the mission agenda of mainline churches in the West and North.

    In addition, the “boundless” widening of the understanding of mission provoked uncertainty as to the meaning of that mandate. We heard it again during our consultation, if everything is mission, the specifics of some of its parts would disappear.

    Because of this time-bound or contextual interpretations of missio Dei, one can say that it contributed to aggravate the already existing split within Protestant mission organisations and led to the formation of two competing movements as from 1974 on. Interestingly enough, it seems now that the reference to a trinitarian and God-based approach to mission appears meaningful also to evangelical mission theologians and even to Pentecostals, even if those seem to prefer the more biblical notion of kingdom of God. It could be that, thanks to its character as an umbrella, missio Dei could in future become a point of convergence after having contributed to division (Engelsviken).

    Let’s be honest: It seems that the reference to missio Dei did not really solve any of the major missiological challenges which shake Protestants since the beginning of last century:

    The relation between the kingdom of God and human activity – or church and politics
    The relation between Christian faith and the truth of other religions
    The relation between the unity of the church and the variety of inculturations
    The relation between God’s particular activity in the church and overall activity in creation.

    3. Items to be deepened in future discussions

    3.1 Missio Dei

    Shall we continue to use missio Dei or do we need a different paradigm? I discerned in general a positive reception of the term in our discussions, notwithstanding important reservations, some of which I would share myself.

    A new formulation of missio Dei would need to take into account the increasing difficulty we have to discern causes and consequences in societies shaken by violence and war, where poor and rich are on both sides of a conflict and where in civil wars every group can become at the same time perpetrator and victim. The complexity of events and trends seem to have become “boundless”. We have said that even in such a context, it makes sense to use missio Dei as a metaphor for God’s love and presence (Suess, Sundermeier), God’s unconditional accessibility, if we take care to respect God’s unavailability (German: “Unverfügbarkeit”), as well as God’s unknown and perhaps even frightening aspects, which may include judgement in ways we do not expect.

    If that is true, then it makes sense to start any reflection on the matter with those aspects of God’s mission which we know, i.e. with missio Christi, mission in Christ’s way (WCC 1982).

    In our discussions, the reference to the trinitarian dimension of missio Dei came again and again. What strikes me is that unlike what had happened in the past, there was a clear emphasis on the necessary link between the three persons of the Trinity. We have not separated the Father from the Son and the Spirit. This has consequences: we cannot limit the scope of Christ or the Spirit to inner-church circles (Engelsviken). On the other hand, such an approach does not allow to speak of the Spirit’s presence in the world without maintaining the Spirit’s close relationship with Christ. If we can keep this coherence while giving space to the specificity and freedom of each person of the Trinity, we would have done a great service to the basis of mission.

    I would however personally hesitate to go deeper into any analytical description of inner-trinitarian processiones (Suess). Who are we to know the inner life of God? We would fall into the temptation to transfer to God our visions of the ideal community or society.

    A major concern is the need to recapture the importance and role of the church within the overall frame of missio Dei, even if we cannot relate both in terms of salvation as clearly as wished (Engelsviken). The request for renewed missional ecclesiology has been heard within ecumenical as well as evangelical circles in recent times, as a counter-point to extreme approaches to mission from a socio-political or from a managerial-pragmatic side. Whether the renewed dealing with ecclesiology will lead to more unity in mission remains however an open question. Ecclesiology is the main point of division between denominations.

    A renewed missio Dei theology needs to give space at its core to the concern of evangelism, of sharing the gospel with people. A really holistic understanding of mission includes a clear commitment to evangelism.

    A last personal word. I somehow feel that to speak of missio Dei in missiology is like to confess salvation by grace or justification by faith alone. Mission is a gift of God to us and we do not need to earn our salvation in mission. If we lose the reference to missio Dei, we would again put the sole responsibility for mission on human shoulders and risk to fall, missiologically speaking, into salvation by our achievements.

    3.2 Should we work with a narrower definition of the church’s mission?

    This question seems a reaction against too wide and encompassing use of the term within some circles (Engelsviken, Sundermeier). I find the question worth reflecting if this does not lead us to narrowing the scope of the church’s involvement in the world of economics, politics and socio- cultural questions or if that does not lead us to unacceptable separations, be they geographical or theological. How could one approach such a more specific sense of the church’s mission? In our discussions, mission was referred to as the dynamic of the church to move to those outside its own groups and to realms where the gospel values have not yet been sufficiently taken into consideration. The specificity of mission has to do with encountering the “other”, the religiously stranger, and points to the mystery of God. Mission addresses the question of the relationship with God. Life experiences, healing, sharing, prophecy, service, become missionary when opening up the question of God among humans, and referring to the free offer of friendship (Sundermeier) extended by God and embodied in Christ.

    3.3 God’s solidarity with the poor

    A major contribution of missio Dei as experience and embodied in places such as Brazil (Suess) and Korea (Chai) is that in Christ, God has shown an intimate solidarity with suffering people. In mission, people encounter Christ inmidst of those who suffer, be it from political oppression or economic or ecological disasters. I will remember from what I heard here the ordination mass celebrated on the garbage hill in Asunción, Paraguay (Suess), which could well be the new place for the Sermon on the Mount. There is a priority of God for the poor and the other, which embodies the radical turning upside down of all things on earth and in heaven as contained in Jesus’ preaching of the coming reign of God. In times of economic and cultural globalisation, churches should be reminded of this unconditional self-identification of Christ with the hopeless, helpless and suffering masses. Or, to repeat it with other words: The communication of God’s presence leads to the crucified of history (Suess). Out of that, we are called time and again to define criteria for evaluating mission and development activities, but also the church’s own life, hospitality and community structures. This is not new, we find that in the WCC’s 1982 Affirmation on Mission and Evangelism as well as … in Calvin’s sermons.

    However, the promised presence of Christ does not make out of a people a messianic people. Because then, we fix God and give God a human agenda. Are the poor really at the same time addressees and bearers of God’s missionary project? Which poor, and with what political consequences? This might of course be a particularist European theologian’s reaction, but I would challenge any link between the mystery of God’s promised (!) presence among the downtrodden of the world and the affirmation that they are in the world the bearers of God’s mission (Suess). This was in my view the major difficulty of missio Dei theology in the sixties and too much linked with Western understanding of time and history. If God is with the suffering ones, God is also with those among the rich who suffer from HIV/AIDS and Alzheimer. If at all, then we need a missio Dei framework which makes sense for all those who have no concrete hope, and a theology which avoids to suggest that we do know in advance and in general the meaning of their suffering. We need a missiology which allows those who mourn, suffer and despair, to find rest and healing when they experience the presence of the Spirit (Rom. 14:17), without being necessarily drawn into a messianic movement for overall transformation of the world.

    This is the more so if we take seriously the challenge addressed to the understanding of time – and of consequence history – predominant in the Western world after the Enlightenment. I am not sure I understood everything of the request for a paradigm shift in our hermeneutics, neither am I sure I can fully agree with the biblical argumentation about the reference to past and future in Jesus’ message (Sundermeier). However, we must face the challenge and recognize its urgency. It would in particular be essential to enter into dialogue with Orthodox missiologists on this, because of their emphasis on the concentration of time in liturgy, when creation, redemption and eschatology are one in the “kairos” of the celebration.

    3.4 Inculturation: Unity in diversity?

    Several speakers have touched the question of inculturation, because it is obviously one of those on which further reflection is needed. Wolfgang Günther rightly showed that a world mission conference such as the one in Salvador refrained from touching overarching general principles and “submitted” under the particulars. As a consequence of missio Dei theology, the ecumenical movement has since Bangkok at least reaffirmed time and again that diversity is a God-given richness which must be received and celebrated, as done in Salvador (1996). In our debates, some feel very comfortable with that situation, while others would seem to wish at least some criteria or guidelines indicating whether we as church universal form a real community in faith. In Protestant missiology, there is no such place having full authority to decide on inculturation experiences, whether in theology, ethic, liturgy or church structures.

    I share the vision of unity as reconciled diversity (Sundermeier). But I also rejoice when something of it appears in structures of reconciliation, even if indeed, a healing community is more evangelistic than new central structures. That’s my first remark on inculturation.

    I have a second remark. I want to insist on the fact that in the actual meeting places of the world ecumenical movement still do not show the full diversity and richness of existing churches in mission. Most Pentecostals, African Instituted Churches and charismatic movements are not represented, while there is usually Roman Catholic participation even if the Roman Catholic Church is not a member of the WCC (but in WCC’s Faith and Order and mission constituencies). God’s creativity is richer than most of our meetings. However, if we enlarge our relationships – which I personally would favour – some might perhaps not always rejoice so much any more.

    I have a third remark on that matter. It strikes me that it is precisely around two mission conferences insisting on cultural diversity and on the freedom of inculturation that the ecumenical movement is heavily challenged: We have already mentioned the inner-Protestant split which occurred around the Bangkok conference in the early seventies. It is not without analogy to the main challenge posed in the nineties by the Orthodox churches, after the “inculturation incident” of the Canberra assembly (Mrs Chung’s presentation) and the Salvador conference.

    In both cases, church traditions with strong dogmatic background express serious dissatisfaction with the – in their view - uncritical acceptance of more or less any expression of faith in the name of the freedom of inculturation. I do not know how to get out of this dilemma. In the WCC, the two traditions of Faith and Order and Mission and Evangelism have started studies and dialogues on interconfessional and intercultural hermeneutics, i.e. the frame and guidelines requested to enable the encounter of various cultural, political or confessional theologies. We need to find a bridge between postmodern relativity (Günther) and dogmatic rigidity. The WCC speaks of creating ecumenical space, i.e. a space where such controversial dialogue can take place in safety. We are still on the way to try to find what structural expressions such a space would imply. But it seems a major missiological challenge if we stick to our vision of unity in diversity.

    4. Concluding remarks and outlook

    We have not really touched some of the most difficult and divisive theological and ethical questions of our time, be it the theological significance of other religions (Sundermeier) or the challenge of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. On ethical level, I retain the proposal that churches in mission are called to formulate “ever new decalogues” (Nürnberger). The hotly debated question in that case is similar to the one arising in intercultural hermeneutics: are there commonly recognized guidelines? Do we have theological ways to discern which of the human needs God wants to be addressed (Nürnberger)?

    I come to my last point.

    I would indeed also reaffirm the importance of the theme of jubilee as an embodiment of mission in the post-1989 world (Chai). The ethical principals of a constant reform of society or community asking those who possess to let go, to limit their power and the resources on which only they have access, are indispensible for a physical survival of any community and of the world. I share the comment made that the ultimate aim of the Jubilee model is the new beginning of a relation and common life or “convivence” (Chai, Sundermeier). In Jesus Christ, the Jubilee principles have been detached from their periodicity and ethnic limitations. They are now valid at any time for anybody in favour of those who lack resources. Where Jesus Christ is, the year of jubilee, of grace, has become reality (Chai). Yes, I agree, this corresponds to my reading of Luke 4. But I would develop that idea by asking whether in Lukan theology, we should not say that the Spirit is the jubilee power. It’s the Spirit who inspires Jesus in his sermon in Nazareth and also the Spirit which at Pentecost enables the ideal community of Acts 2 and 4 to share all resources.

    This could lead us toward a renewed missiological pneumatology, according to which the following consequences of the Spirit’s presence could be listed:
    the experience of God’s presence and the joy of salvation,
    the capacity to discern Christ in Bible, church tradition and the world,
    the power to heal physical, psychical or spiritual wounds, but also
    the courage to share resources
    Following the idea of the Spirit as Jubilee power, the latter should be considered as an essential sign of baptism in the Spirit.

    Having reached this point, let me finish by leading you back again to the historical event at Willingen 1952. When reading the minutes of the IMC enlarged meeting, I discovered in the participants’ list among the observers the name of David J. du Plessis. He was the first Pentecostal with representativity who attended ecumenical meetings. He had been the organiser of the second and third world Pentecostal conferences (1949 and 1952). Reading in his own memories related to his ecumenical encounters, I discovered the following passage on Willingen:

    “ In 1952, I was invited to come to the International Missionary Council, extended Assembly, at Willingen, Germany. This was my first experience as a Pentecostal in an Ecumenical Convention. I checked in for three days, thinking I could not live on cold shoulder for more than that. But when I arrived on the conference floor during coffee-break, Dr. John A. Mackay who was president of the I.M.C. took me by my arm and went down the line, introducing me as his great “Pentecostal” friend. There is no mistake. I was not “evangelical” or “fundamental”, but distinctly PENTECOSTAL.”

    (………..) David du Plessis then describes how he was invited to address the meeting and how he insisted on the growth of Pentecostal churches (..)

    “ Now the question: How did you do it? I would say in the old-fashioned Apostolic way of WITNESSING – EACH-ONE-TELL-ONE. (……) The Pentecostal Movement started out as a WITNESSING community. BUT you cannot teach people to be witnesses. They become witnesses when they have an experience of something. The courts of our day will not accept a “prompted witness”. A good Pentecostal witness is one who can tell how he got saved and healed and baptized in the Holy Spirit. Such a testimony is more powerful than a sermon on salvation and healing and the Holy Spirit.

    I stayed on at Willingen for the full period of eleven days. I had interviews, by their request, with 110 of the 210 delegates. This then placed me in touch with many of the ecumenical leaders and officers of the World Council of Churches.”

    (Du Plessis, David J.: The Spirit bade me go. The Astounding Move of God in the Denominational Churches. Dallas, USA, David du Plessis, 1961, pp. 13-14)

    Willingen could have become the major starting point for an enlarged ecumenism, leading to much closer cooperation and relationships with Pentecostals. There have been ups and downs with regard to this “wider” ecumenism since 50 years, but major developments in this area are still before us. The story – somewhat forgotten in ecumenical memory – reveals the importance of an open space and welcoming attitude for creating and nurturing relationships. May God’s Spirit enable us to build also on this heritage from Willingen as we continue our missiological journey, so that we may be as churches ever more faithful to the contribution God expects from us within the overall missio Dei.

    Jacques Matthey

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