by Cheryl M. Peterson
The story of the decline of the “mainline” Protestant churches is all too well known these days. These shifts are causing many congregations in North America to wrestle with what their “mission” ought to be in the world. To face the challenges posed by the post-Christendom context, new thinking about ecclesiology and mission has emerged.
Lutherans and other Protestants with roots in the Reformation articulate a clear scriptural foundation for the gospel of justification, but the scriptural basis for sharing that gospel has not always received the same attention.
In my essay published in Post-Christendom Studies 5 (“God’s Mission has a Church, but does God’s Mission have a Scripture?”), I first examine that charge that the Reformation (and Lutheran tradition in particular) has a “missionary deficiency,” that is, that the focus has been more on the content of the gospel message—that we are justified by grace through faith—than on the command to share that good news with others. I then go on to explore a key shift in missiological thinking in the twentieth century, from a focus on the church as the agent of mission to God, and how this shift has reshaped the concept of mission in a post-Christendom context. This emerging ecclesiology draws a distinction between the missio Dei and the missio ecclesia, proposing that mission is first and foremost something God is doing into which the church is invited to participate.
With this background in mind, I return to question of a scriptural basis for the church’s understanding of the mission of God. I begin with the “classic” missionary text, the so-called “Great Commission” in Matthew 28:18–20, evaluating it light of the above shift in missiological thinking, and propose 2 Corinthians 5:14–21 as an alternative scriptural foundation for the missio Dei, with its focus on God’s reconciling action in Jesus Christ for us, and through us as the church.
I propose that it is important to frame our understanding of the church’s mission by first considering what God’s mission is in the world—a mission of reconciliation. The church is called to participate in God’s reconciling mission in a world that is increasingly polarized, and which includes an increasing number of people who, while they reject institutional religion, may be open to the reconciling, transforming message of the gospel.
In the final section of the essay, I consider what the four commissioning texts in the New Testaments gospels contribute to an understanding of the church’s mission (missio ecclesia) in light the scriptural foundation for the missio Dei in 2 Corinthians 5:14–21. These commissioning texts offer guidance to churches in their mission to be “ambassadors of reconciliation,” through ministries of discipleship, proclamation, witness, and accompaniment.
[Editor’s Note: The above is a synopsis of Dr. Peterson’s article in Post-Christendom Studies 5. If you are interested in reading this article in full, it is available on the website here.]
Cheryl M. Peterson is Associate Dean for Academics and Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Lutheran Seminary at Capital University.
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of McMaster Divinity College or the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies.*