What we think about God has a crucial impact on how we order our life. To think about God is to think about the ultimate. As the “ultimate” God becomes our model. We emulate what we think He is like. Whether consciously or not, we will seek to follow His example. If we see God as an overbearing authoritarian, there is a good chance we’ll act like an overbearing authoritarian when we’re in a leadership position. Many husbands betray their view of God when they demand submission from their wives (God never demands submission). In light of this, having a right view of God becomes very important for us.
There has been a trend in theology since the mid-twentieth century to think of mission as an attribute of God. In many ways this was a reaction to the emphasis of mission being thought primarily as an activity of the Church to help lost individuals find salvation. Mission as an attribute of God, sometimes referred to as the missio dei (the Mission of God), gives us the concept that mission isn’t the Church’s idea, but at the very heart of God. God, in sending His Son into the world, is a missionary God. He is the initiator of mission and we participate in His initiative (this is a woefully brief explanation of missio dei). Today this emphasis is found in the missional movement. Honestly, I fear to tread into this territory, being quite aware that so many smarter than me have written and thought extensively about this. But having some experience in mission (nine years as a missionary) and thirty years living in community I have a few thoughts about this matter.
I am not sure it is helpful to think of mission as an attribute of God. Of course, I agree that God is the initiator of relationships and compassionate outreach to others, and that Jesus’ incarnation manifested the self-giving, self-sacrificing, status-renouncing love of God (Phil. 2). I also agree that the Church should not be a closed cultural ghetto, indifferent to the context and fearful of the stranger. But the Bible is pretty clear that the central definition of God is love, not mission (1 John 4:8). Like the Eastern Orthodox teach, God has His being in communion. God is not just a giver, He is a sharer.
The problem with seeing mission as an attribute of God is that it makes God more like a benefactor than a person in relationships of mutual love. God having His being in communion means that mutual fellowship, giving and receiving, defines who He is. Trinity says that the ultimate characteristic of the universe is communion. A benefactor is one who has an abundance giving to one who lacks. The receiver becomes an object of generosity. The benefactor remains in a position of power and doesn’t enter into a relationship of mutuality with the recipient, which is a requirement of love. If the advent of Jesus taught us anything, it is that powerlessness is God’s way.
The impact of this “missional concept” is that it will make us think that the Church serves the utilitarian purpose of mission rather than is a reflection of the being of God manifested through the relationships of its members. When you put purpose above people you get a society not a community. The Church doesn’t need a useful mission to justify its existence. Its existence is its mission; love experienced and expressed reflects the nature of God. Our outreach to the world around us may not be accomplished through an attractional model, but it is accomplished through fascination. Like the nation of Israel, the Church is to be a city set on a hill. As I heard an engaging speaker say recently, manifesting glimpses of the coming Kingdom is the only way to overcome the skepticism of people rooted in their idolatrous desires and struggles with the problem of evil. Put simply, only by living out mutual love with others do we have any hope of convincing people that Jesus is Lord.
“As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. For their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth. I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me.” John 17:18-21.