Monday is for Missiology: The Eschatological Dimension of the Missional Church

Over the next few months leading up to missionSHIFT, along with introducing to you to the folks who are joining us at Ridgecrest to be a part of the missional conversation, I want to make sure that we continue to trace the roots of the missional debate historically and theologically. These posts will be a continuation of my “Meanings of Missional” series that has been on hiatus for a while. Okay, since October of 2007 (grin).

For many of you, this discussion may not interest you. Your focus is, “Let’s live on mission.” Fair enough– we will actaully be talking about some practical discussion with some partners in the next few days. I don’t think this practical approach is a wrong approach– but I think that if we are to think deeply on issues of church and mission, it will require historic and theological reflection.

I believe we need to be careful not to assume that this is the first time there has been concern, for example, over the relationship between social justice, evangelism, and the Kingdom of God. We can learn a lot by looking at those who have gone before us and walked through these issues. In fact, if we don’t look at this part of the conversation, we could easily make some of the same mistakes that caused the leftward shift in a theological direction during the missio dei movement in the mid- and late-20th century.


When you look at the historical trajectory of the “church and mission” conversation, it was a deeply theological discussion. We must continue to filter this discussion theologically. In fact, I would say that missional must be tied– and I believe it is– to something inherently theological, particularly, the missio dei. If not, it is just another descriptor in a long line of descriptors: church growth, seeker-sensitive, church health, emerging.

In previous “Meaning of Missional” posts, we looked at the nuanced discussion over the relationship of the kingdom of God, mission, and the church. Today we will look at the role of eschatology (in this case referring to the coming of the Kingdom) and its relationship to mission and the church.

In the last century, the church began to be perceived (particularly within the conciliar missions movement) differently than in previous centuries. This would pave the way for a decidedly distinctive relationship between the church and the biblical concept of the Kingdom of God. In contemporary ecclesiology, the church moved away from being identified as institution and increasingly became acknowledged as “sacrament, sign, and instrument.”[1]

Gunther Gassman has shown that the broad reception of the ecclesiological use of the terms “sacrament, sign, and instrument” in ecumenical deliberation explains that this terminology is “helpful in describing the place and vocation of the church and its unity in God’s plan of salvation.”[2] The images of “sacrament, sign, and instrument” give articulation to the idea that the church is the only social order in the world that exists for the sake of those who are not yet members of it.[3]

The understanding of the church as sacrament, sign, and instrument also led to a new perception of the relationship between the church and the world. Missions became viewed as “God’s turning to the world,” representing a fundamentally new approach in theology. For centuries, a stagnant notion of the church had triumphed; the world outside the church was recognized as a antagonistic; the outside were, at most, “prospects” to be won.[4]

Put differently, according to David Bosch, the church was a world on its own and “it wasn’t until after the Second World War that the essential orientation of the church toward the world was being embraced more widely in Protestantism.”[5] Today, that view is widely embraced in most missiological circles (and many popular ones as well).

This idea was not first “discovered” in the modern missional movement or the missio dei movement that preceded it. At the turn of the twentieth century, New Testament scholars such as Albert Schweitzer contended that eschatology should be central to the church’s mission. It wasn’t until just after World War 2 (around the missio dei movement) that a climate would be created in which new eschatological thinking would be win the day.[6] But this “new eschatology” was far from homogeneous. Citing Ludwig Wiedenmann, Bosch states there were four major eschatological “schools” in German Protestantism, each of which had a noteworthy influence on missionary thinking.
1) Dialectical (Karl Barth, Karl Hartenstein, Hendrik Kraemer),
2) Existential (Rudolf Bultmann),
3) Actualized (Adolf Althaus), and
4) Salvation-historical (Oscar Cullmann, Walter Freytag).[7]
Wiedmann ascertains the first three interpretations to be paradigms of ahistorical eschatologies. Only the fourth model, the salvation-historical school, takes history sincerely, putting particular emphasis on the reign of God as both present and future.

Perhaps the most influential theologian in the salvation-historical “school” was the Lutheran theologian Oscar Cullman. Bosch says a case could be made that practically all contemporary schools of eschatology and of missionary thinking are “offshoots” of Cullman’s salvation-history approach and his understanding of eschatology is the “soundest base for an understanding of the eschatological nature of missions from earlier positions.”[8]

Now, evangelicals would have some robust concerns with many of the theologians and movements mentioned, but they have influenced much of evangelical thinking today. Putting names aside, perhaps it would be helpful to unpack it practically. George Eldon Ladd provides a helpful explanation in The Gospel and the Kingdom, “God’s Kingdom creates the Church and works in the world through the church.”

It might help to define the Kingdom of God a little further to fully consider the theology. One way to define it is that the Kingdom of God is where the will of God is done. Obviously, when Jesus the King came and lived on Earth, the Kingdom of God was here. Jesus prayed, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.” The reign of God is active, allowing His will to be done.

When Jesus returned to Heaven, the church was left here on Earth, clearly not the Kingdom of God, as it was still in a fallen world, but most would say that it was a sign and instrument, even a sacrament, of the Kingdom of God. For example, when people look into the church (not the building, but the relationships and community) and they see marriages restored, people made whole, and miracles taking place, they should say, “Oh, that’s what the Kingdom of God looks like.” Thus, the church is a sign and an instrument of the Kingdom. It engages in Kingdom work for a Kingdom agenda. The church is the Kingdom’s tool.

In order to understand the missional church, we must consider the Kingdom of God. Christians are talking much more about the Kingdom. I think that is good but not without some concerns historically and theologically.

I’ll unpack this more in the coming days, but let me pose a few questions:
-How do you view the Kingdom of God and its relationship to the mission of God?
-What needs to change to have such a Kingdom focus?
-How is that important to the missional conversation today?
-Are there any dangers inherent with a Kingdom focus?


[1] Avery Dulles, Models of the Church (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1974), 58-70.

[2] Gunther Gassman, “The Church as Sacrament, Sign, and Instrument: The Reception of this Ecclesiological Understanding in Ecumenical Debate,” Gennadios, ed., Church, Kingdom, World: The Church as Mystery and Prophetic Sign (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1986), 13.

[3] Dietrich Bonhoffer, Letters and Papers From Prison (London: SCM Press, 1971), 382.

[4] Howard Snyder, Liberating the Church (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1983), 52.

[5] David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991), 502.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ludwig Wiedenmann, Mission und Eschatologie: Eine Analyse der neueren deutschen evangelischen Missionstheologie (Paderborn: Verlag Bonifacius-Druck-erei, 1965), 26-49, 55-91, 131-178, as quoted by Bosch, Transforming Mission, 502.

[8] Bosch, Transforming Mission, 504.  

by Ed Stetzer
Ed Stetzer (Ph.D.) is author of Breaking the Missional Code, Comeback Churches: How 300 Churches Turned Around and Yours Can Too and Planting Missional Churches. For the second consecutive year, the LifeWay Research team led by Dr. Stetzer has contacted churches, gathered data and produced the OUTREACH 100 lists. Stetzer’s upcoming book, Lost and Found: The Younger Unchurched and Churches that Reach Them (B&H), tackles the 20-something trend he explores in this report. He currently serves as the President of LifeWay Research. You can interact concerning this article at
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