Re-centering the Missio Dei in the Passio Dei

By: Rev. Dr. Michael Adam Beck, Director of Passional Church

The missional church conversation has gone astray… we need a course correction!

Mission across Christian history has gotten a bad reputation. Consider for instance the “replacement model,” a missionary method that attempted to “wipe the slate clean.” Missionaries, with imperial support, were to replace the culture with “Christian” culture. An example often cited would be the conquest of the so called “New World” (Latin America 1493-1800) in which Indian religions were seen as animalistic, demonic, and idolatrous. Christian Spaniards viewed themselves as commissioned by God to propagate the faith, as “divine providence.” This led to widespread abuse, bloodshed, and enslavement.[1]

Or consider the “ennoblement model” of mission in which the missionary’s culture was viewed as superior and the goal was “elevating the recipient culture” to a shared place of ennoblement. An example is the General Evangelical Protestant Mission Association that began in 1884. The missionary worked with the country’s intelligentsia to increase literary, educational, and spiritual growth, opening kindergartens, hospitals, and nursing homes. The progressive development of the world was facilitated through Christianity… the kingdom of God in the earth. “Culture” had elitist undertones, with Europeans and North Americans being considered superior. Missionaries were academically educated, and cultures would be advanced through means of education until they reached the “pinnacle” of Euro-Christian culture.[2] In the nationalist narrative of mission and evangelism, churches become the handmaiden of empire.

The flaws and heartbreak of these missionary approaches are obvious.

The missional church conversation in recent decades was an attempt to divorce mission from a colonial, attractional, propositional form of Christendom concerned with expansion, hierarchical power, and “conversion of the heathen.”

Missional is derived from the term Missio Dei (Latin for mission of God). In the basic sense, missio means “sent” and comprehends mission as a primary attribute of God.

David Bosch, a leading voice in the missional movement, wrote, “The classical doctrine on the missio Dei as God the Father sending the Son, and God the Father and the Son sending the Spirit was expanded to include yet another ‘movement’: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit sending the church into the world.”[3]

The risen Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on the disciples and says, “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you” (John 20:21 CEB). In the seeking and sending nature of the Trinity, God’s own life demonstrates a communion in which oneness and diversity are shared in a divine dance of “making room,” for each other. Father sends the Son, Father and Son send the Spirit. The Church, sent in the power of the Spirit, is a continuation of God’s missional activity.

The missio Dei was born from a reconnection of mission with the life of the Trinity. This missiological framework allowed for mission to no longer be subservient to ecclesiology or soteriology. Rather mission is the purpose of the church and sharing life together in Christ. Mission is not something the church does, it is something God is up to, and we get to join in. 

It seems the missional church movement, with all its profound contributions to the wider church, has been steadily losing its center. In the US, it has lacked theological diversity, fallen into the cult of success, and been hijacked by the Church Growth movement. The “why” of the missional church seems to be more about slick strategies, gurus, and propping up decline. Somewhere in the milieu it seems to have lost some of its founding convictions. Perhaps a simple course correction can help?

As history shows, to emphasize mission to the detriment of compassion is a harmful endeavor.

I’ve spent over a decade of my life living, reflecting, writing, and teaching about the missio Dei.

But recently I’ve discovered a stream of God’s being seemingly forgotten… the passio Dei. In fact, an understanding of missio Dei that is not deeply rooted in the passio Dei is flawed. God is a missional God, because God is a compassionate God.

Mission is not, after all, an “attribute of God.” Love is an attribute of God. Consider the two key words that define God’s nature in Scripture.

חֶסֶד (ḥeseḏ, see Exo 34:6): Old Testament description of God’s primary attribute, “goodness, kindness, faithfulness… unfailing love.”

ἀγάπη (agape, see 1 John 4:8): New Testament description of God’s primary attribute, “love.”

Because God is love, God is on mission. But mission is a secondary concept. God’s character is love, this is a primary attribute. The task of mission, drawing the world into the Trinitarian life of God, is an action not an attribute. God as trinity, is drawing the world into God’s life, because "God is love."

I love my children. So, I feed them, invite them, organize them, try to spend time with them. Those are actions based on the attribute of my love. But I am not those actions. I am a father, that’s a primary identity, what I do to organize love for them is secondary. And I can do that in a way that is unhealthy and not loving. This is a great metaphor for the church today.

When mission is driven by conquest, numbers, or even the revitalization of declining churches, it is the wrong motivation. Compassion can be described as a sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it. This is what the New Testament describes as Jesus’ motivation.

Matthew 9:36 reports that when Jesus “saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” The Greek word for compassion, splanchnizomai: means to be moved as to one’s bowels, hence, to be moved with compassion. The bowels were thought to be the seat of love and pity. So, Jesus has a gut wrenching love that inspires him to act.

The unbounded mercy of God manifests in Jesus’ ministry of compassion and finds ultimate expression in the cross (theophatic). Missiologist Daniel Louw noted this connection in his work reimaging the missio Dei as embodiment of the passio Dei.[4] Louw argues that the quality of God’s being is expressed through immersion in human vulnerability and suffering, expressed most fully on the cross.

The church as the “body of Christ” (1 Cor 12:27) in the world is an expression of Christ’s own compassion. An active, practical, inclusive compassion should emanate endlessly from the church.

For Christians compassion is not mere emotionality, but rather a new mode of being, empowered by the Spirit. Its embodiment requires a new and different ecclesiology that counteracts the dominate social stratification.[5] Thus, compassion centered expressions of church will be inclusive of all regardless of age, status, race, or gender.

My coauthor Leonard Sweet and I have argued that the “mind of Christ” (Phil 2) provides a framework for this kind of incarnational mission (see Contextual Intelligence: Unlocking the Ancient Secret to Mission on the Front Lines). This is a journey that starts with self-emptying, being vulnerable, and immersing ourselves fully in a context, where we can “mind the gaps” of the fragmentation in our communities. There the compassion of Christ can be embodied through us in new and creative ways.

A particular faulty rendering of the missio Dei can lead to a kind of superclass of Christians. The specialist apostles, prophets, and evangelists. Superhuman Christians who do the fun and exciting work of the church none of the rest of us are able to accomplish.

This can give us a false sense that we get a pass on being pastoral, or nurturing, because it’s not a primary gift set of ours.

This does harm.

When the mission of God is centered and driven by the compassion of God, we can avoid the colonial and expansionist errors. This can allow us to release the whole people of God and expand the concept of “salvation” to include wholistic healing and a place economy.

We believe that the most healing thing we can do is create new Christian communities that become little islands of Jesus’ compassion in a tempest tossed world. This was Jesus’ plan for the healing of the cosmos. A church that embodied his own nature.

We can create these healing communities, “by recentering mission in the heart of God’s love.” This is why we need the passio Dei.

[1] Wrogemann, Henning. Intercultural Theology: Intercultural Hermeneutics (Downers Grove: IVP Academic / InterVarsity Press, 2016), 259-320.

[2] Wrogemann, 259-320.

[3] David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991), 1.

[4] Louw, D. J. 2016. “Missio Dei as embodiment of Passio Dei: the role of God-images in the Mission-outreach and pastoral caregiving of the church – a hermeneutical approach.” Missionalia: Southern African Journal of Missiology, 44(3):336–354.

[5] Louw, 336–354.