Global Ministries

The United Methodist Church

Connecting the Church in Mission

The Missio Dei in Contemporary Context

"The Missio Dei in Contemporary Context” written by Thomas Kemper, general secretary for the General Board of Global Ministries, was originally published in the October 2014 issue of International Bulletin of Missionary Research, the reliable source for Christian mission history and analysis.

“Together towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes” (TTL) is a notable contribution to the ecumenical theology of missio Dei closely associated with the World Council of Churches (WCC). It sharpens the theological vision and enlarges the ecclesiological framework of “Mission and Evangelism: An Ecumenical Affirmation,” issued in 1982 and until now the most comprehensive WCC statement on its themes.

Presentation of the new, longer affirmation was a highlight, if not the main event, at the WCC’s Tenth General Assembly, in Busan, South Korea, in late October and early November 2013, but the document has importance beyond the WCC. [1] Drafters included Roman Catholic and Pentecostal missiologists from beyond the Council’s Protestant and Orthodox member communions. Also, a broad theological outlook is wisely contained within a clearly delineated Triune formula that begins and concludes with creation, giving the document a more circular momentum than the typical linear thinking of Western theology.

The phrase “changing landscapes” in the title illustrates the historical and sociological framework, the present reality of the universal church in the first quarter of the twenty-first century. This context is nowhere clearer than in sections dealing with the growing missional involvement of the mission-founded churches of the Global South and East. As is well attested in ecumenical gatherings (Busan was a veritable United Nations!), the Christian center of gravity has shifted in geographic and missiological terms. The mission activism of churches in Africa and Asia so powerful today was less evident thirty years ago. Much of the most provocative formal and informal mission discourse at Busan came from representatives from the Global South and the East. In my own conversations there, I found an excitement about mission among Southern and Eastern students rarely present among young Westerners.

Four themes, or aspects, of TTL speak with special force to my experience of mission, which includes eight years of missionary service in Brazil (1986–94), local and regional professional ecumenical deployment in Germany, and, since 2010, service as chief executive of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries. My agency—and I say this with thanksgiving rather than pride—is one of the largest of the remaining mainline Protestant organizations rooted in the nineteenth-century U.S. missionary fervor. My four themes also speak to my hope for mission in the years ahead.

The four are the concept of missio Dei, mission theology grounded in the Holy Spirit, “mission from the margins,” and the inclusion of health, healing, and wholeness, perhaps for the first time in a significant way, in an affirmation of mission and evangelism. I will leave to others a range of relevant questions, including whether “mission” and “evangelism” are the same or different in theology and practice, and whether the statement deals adequately with technology, ecology, and cosmology.

Missio Dei

Augustine is credited with early use of the term missio Dei to describe an aspect of God’s work in which the church and the faithful participate, but contemporary use of the concept in a more comprehensive way is closely associated with a conference of the International Missionary Council held in 1952 in Willingen, West Germany.[2] Missio Dei at Willingen had a strong Barthian implication of mission as the work of the Triune God—indeed, a veritable missionary God. The mission of God is the foundation for the church’s mission, and “the mission of the church ensues from the nature of the church as the Body of Christ,” says the1982 WCC statement on mission and evangelism, reflecting the spirit of Willingen.[3]

In relation to the 1982 statement “Mission and Evangelism: An Ecumenical Affirmation,” however, Jacques Matthey, former secretary of the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism, has rightly observed that there are multiple ways of understanding missio Dei. While one group sees the work of God carried out through the church, another sees God as active in the political and social affairs of the secular world, giving the church the mandate to discern and join the mission.[4] The latter is the perspective sometimes identified with the contemporary WCC and is certainly evident in TTL, but the church as the means of mission is also strongly represented: “The church is a gift of God to the world for its transformation. . . . Its mission is to bring new life” (§10). This section concludes with a question: “How can the church renew herself to be missional and move forward together towards life in its fullness?” This question reflects an opening affirmation of God as the source of abundant life. Mission is described in section 2 as beginning “in the heart of the Triune God,” and in mission “the love which binds together the Holy Trinity overflows to all humanity and creation.”

Grounded in the Spirit

The question of renewal points toward the Holy Spirit as the initiating, sustaining, and re-creating presence in missio Dei. This focus provides a sense of grounding and a source of momentum quite different from the strong sense of human sinfulness that introduces the 1982 statement on mission and evangelism. It is more God-centered, more biblical, and more theologically hopeful. According to TTL, “By the Spirit we participate in the mission of love that is at the heart of the life of the Trinity. . . . All who respond to the outpouring of the love of God are invited to join in with the Spirit in the mission of God” (§18).

This strong emphasis on Spirit as the source and energizer of mission resonates with the creativity we experienced in 2011 at Global Ministries in the shaping of a relatively brief statement of mission theology. Our directors came at the task from multiple perspectives and reached consensus in an 850-word document that begins with creation—we called the document’s introduction “God’s Mission from Creation to Completion”—and invokes the Holy Spirit as the moving force in the divine mission in which we share in all of its steps and stages. In our conversations, and I think in the short document itself, we found assurance and hope through keeping the focus on ru’ach—Spirit—and concluding with a confession of renewal and continuity: “The Spirit is always moving to sweep the Church into a new mission age. With openness and gratitude we await the leading of the Spirit in ways not yet seen as God continues to work God’s purposes out in our own day in a new way.”[5]

I was delighted to discover that our Wesleyan thinking about mission was in harmony with that of the larger ecumenical community. This congruity has paved the way for extensive use of TTL in our mission education efforts, especially with young people, who look for an affirmation of life and a grounding for hope and ecumenicity in their faith journeys.

Mission from the Margins

When viewed from the perspectives of practical theology, church history, and the cultural implications of mission, the development of the concept of mission from the margins is to me the most significant part of the WCC’s new statement. The “Ecumenical Affirmation” of 1982 contained small hints of awareness that Christianity’s center of gravity was shifting to the Global South and East; in the new statement, the shift has happened, and TTL turns on its head the inherited assumption that mission comes from well-established, well-funded, academic centers and flows toward the margins located in the poorer parts of the world. Here is a central, correct observation:

Mission has been understood as a movement taking place from the centre to the periphery, and from the privileged to the marginalized of society. Now people at the margins are claiming their key role as agents of mission and affirming mission as transformation. This reversal of roles in the envisioning of mission has strong biblical foundations because God chose the poor, the foolish, and the powerless (1 Cor. 1:18–31) to further God’s mission of justice and peace so that life may flourish. (§6)

The process through which mission-founded churches of the Global South take their places as full partners and participants in mission has developed over many decades, at least since the end of World War II, and was emerging, as mentioned earlier, at the 1947 conference of the World Missionary Council in Whitby. The younger churches let it be known there that they intended to play a role not only in determining how mission would take place in their locales but also in taking an active part in world mission and evangelism. The papers from Whitby speak of partners in “obedience to God” in the work of God’s mission.[6] We are today seeing a full actualization of what was only an outline of hope in the Spirit in 1947. I see this blossoming every day in my work at Global Ministries. More than half of our missionaries in international service today have origins outside of the United States; our growing classes of young adult Global Mission fellows are increasingly international. We can truly speak of more than 300 missionaries “from everywhere to everywhere.”

I also was pleased to read in TTL that mission from the margins is an alternative missional movement against the perception that mission can only be done by the powerful to the powerless, by the rich to the poor, or by the privileged to the marginalized.. . . People on the margins have agency, and can often see what, from the centre, is out of view. People on the margins, living in vulnerable positions, often know what exclusionary forces are threatening their survival and can best discern the urgency of the struggles; people in positions of privilege have much to learn from the daily struggles of people living in marginal conditions. (§38)

Refugees and migrants on the margins form another concern in the changing landscape of mission. They represent not only the care of persons on the move, but also the vigor of faith being brought to the old centers, such as Europe and parts of North America, by Christians from, for example, Africa. From the former margins is coming contagious renewal of faith, a topic that invites ongoing research and application.

Yet it is important that we not romanticize those who witness from the margins—many of them remain unacceptably poor and oppressed even while being vibrant participants in the missio Dei. This fact was strongly illustrated in a brief address at Busan by Bishop Duleep de Chickera of the Anglican Church of Sri Lanka. He offered a “victim theology” that understands Jesus as ministering especially to “victims,” described both in biblical and modern times as “persons expected to stay alive without security, be human without dignity, harvest a land no longer theirs and feed their children from empty plates. They are the unseen real who fill the earth: the ‘no people’ with a ‘no tomorrow’ to whom Jesus announced an emphatic ‘yes.’”[7]

Jesus, said the prelate, brought victims into the center of the discourse and for that act was victimized, that is, crucified. Yet, once the Good News for the victim is articulated, it cannot be quashed, and the church has the mandate to keep bringing victims into the discourse. In this process, the marginalized are not passive; they are called to serve Jesus with dignity and equip themselves for active mission.

Health, Healing, Wholeness

TTL is the first ecumenical statement on mission and evangelism to give prominent place to health, healing, and wholeness as expressions of mission. The context is broad and clearly stated: “Health is more than physical and/or mental well-being and healing is not primarily medical. This understanding of health coheres with the biblical-theological tradition of the church, which sees a human being as a multidimensional unity and the body, soul, and mind as interrelated and interdependent. It thus affirms the social, political, and ecological dimensions of personhood and wholeness. Health . . . [is] the sense of wholeness” (§51).

The assertion draws on insights developed over the last twenty years within the scope of the WCC’s Christian Medical Commission, as well as the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism. The latter’s 2005 world conference in Athens explored the theme “Come, Holy Spirit, Heal and Reconcile—Called in Christ to Be Reconciling and Healing Communities.”

Mission responsibility in health and healing is seen as more than humanitarian service, although it is that too; the links established by the body-soul-mind definition of health and mission are found in the ministry of Jesus passed down to the church and actualized through the gifts of the Holy Spirit. This is refreshing theology, applied in TTL with particular relevance to the call of all disciples to live and share in community. Signs of God’s reign can be discerned, says the statement, when all the parts of our individual and corporate lives, including those of the marginalized, are brought together in love.[8] This emphasis on community as an ingredient in health and wholeness (1) recognizes that congregations today are becoming involved in local and global health mission and ministry and (2) promotes the expansion of this form of the missio Dei.

The inclusion of health, healing, and wholeness as expressions of mission strengthens the sections on advocacy for peace, justice, and liberation, as well as helping to hold together assertions about the way mission unifies the community of faith. It also helps to shore up the helpful discussion of relations with adherents of other faiths. Healing and wholeness are common human concerns, goals in terms of the affirmation of abundant life and the integrity of all creation.

I am deeply appreciative to the men and women of many communions and cultures who worked together for years in producing TTL. I pray that the churches will heed its wisdom and join together in its vision of common mission and evangelism.


[1]. TTL was accepted by the WCC’s policy-making Central Committee in September 2012 and was formally presented during the Tenth General Assembly.

[2]. See the references given throughout Tormod Engelsviken, “Missio Dei: The Understanding and Misunderstanding of a Theological Concept in European Churches and Missiology,” International Review of Mission 92, no. 367 (2003): 481–97.

[3]. “Mission and Evangelism: An Ecumenical Affirmation,” in You Are the Light of the World: Statements on Mission by the World Council of Churches, 1980–2005 (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 2005), 9, §6.

[4]. Jacques Matthey, “Missiology in the World Council of Churches: Update; Presentation, History, Theological Background, and Emphases of the Most Recent Mission Statement of the World Council of Churches (WCC),” International Review of Mission 90, no. 359 (2001): 429–30.

[5]. General Board of Global Ministries, “Theology of Mission."

[6]. Charles W. Ranson, ed., Renewal and Advance: Christian Witness in a Revolutionary World (London: Edinburgh House, 1948).

[7]. Duleep de Chickera, “Theme Plenary Presentation by Bishop Duleep de Chickera,”

[8]. Ibid.

Thomas Kemper is general secretary of the General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church. He served as a missionary in Brazil (1986–94), then led ecumenical learning for the Lippische Landeskirche in his native Germany. He was mission leader for the United Methodist German Central Conference, 1998–2010. —

To cite this article:

[Chicago] Kemper, Thomas. “The Missio Dei in Contemporary Context.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 38, no. 4 (2014): 188–90.

[MLA] Kemper, Thomas. “The Missio Dei in Contemporary Context.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 38.4 (2014): 188–90. Web. 28 Oct. 2014.