Has the Church Lost its Mission? Part II – How Jürgen Moltmann can help expand our mission horizons

Church buildings are important. Since COVID-19, we need no longer speculate what church might look like without buildings – we now know that church can survive without buildings. But those of us gathering together again after COVID-19 lock down can appreciate a world of difference between on-line church and live attendance!

The question is, how critical are our church buildings in delivering the mission of the church? Could we do mission without buildings? Even when we are in the building, it’s easy to drift away from Christ’s mission for the church and become distracted by the economics of maintaining buildings as I argued in Part I of this blog.

To better understand how we can use our buildings for mission, we need to look more closely at our theological assumptions about mission. Are we really going to bring God’s kingdom on earth by filling the world with more church buildings or do we need to expand our theology and mission horizons?

How critical are our buildings in delivering the mission of the church? Could we do mission without buildings?

Jürgen Moltmann helps us clarify our thinking on church mission in his book, The Church in the Power of the Spirit.  Moltmann starts by clarifying the missio dei (mission of God) as “a movement from God in which the church has its origin and arrives at its own movement, but which goes beyond the church, finding its goal in the consummation of all creation in God… [the church] is an element in the history of the kingdom of God.” 

“The real point is not to spread the church but to spread the kingdom. The goal is not the glorification of the church but the glorification of the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit.” 

Jürgen Moltmann

“The missionary concept of the church leads to a church that is open to the world in the divine mission, because it leads to a trinitarian interpretation of the church in the history of God’s dealings with the world.”1

We can make the mistake of assessing our mission based on church growth.  When churches flounder or close we can fall into the trap of seeing this as a failure.  A preoccupation with church growth can limit our vision of God’s kingdom on earth. 

When we limit our mission to small c church growth as expressed in localised congregations and fragmented denominations, it can prevent us from seeing the bigger picture from God’s perspective.  Bonhoeffer was critical of church leaders who put their concepts of church above God’s.

Are we really going to bring God’s kingdom to earth by filling the world with more church buildings or do we need to expand our theology and mission horizons?

Returning to Moltman’s book he says, “To grasp the missionary church theologically in a world-wide context means understanding it in the context of the missio deiMission comprehends the whole of the church, not only parts of it… To proclaim the gospel of the dawning kingdom is the first and most important element in the mission of Jesus, the mission of the Spirit, and the mission of the church; but it is not the only one.” 

“Mission embraces all activities that serve to liberate man [sic] from his slavery in the presence of the coming God, slavery which extends from economic necessity to Godforsakednness.  Evangelisation is mission, but mission is not merely evangelisation.  In the missionary church the widow who does charitable works belongs to the same mission as the bishop who leads the church, or the preacher of the gospel.”2

Refocusing our theology of church and mission in this way allows us to see the bigger picture of God’s kingdom coming to earth. Big C Church as in the universal Church in all its diversity – from local church to splintered denominations, from mission agencies to advocating social justice – is an integral part of God’s coming kingdom.

But Moltmann argues that God’s mission overshadows even the big C universal Church with the coming of the Spirit, present in the world and actively engaged in freeing all of creation. And we, as Jesus followers, the people of God, are part of this!

When we grasp God’s mission in the world on this vast canvas we should be excited and energised. Understanding God’s mission in the world frees us to move beyond our local churches and denominations, from the misconception that we carry the missio dei as an exclusive burden.

We can lift our gaze to the horizon of the future coming kingdom as the Church moves in the power of the Spirit. We are now part of this bigger vision of God’s kingdom filling the earth, which was given to the prophets, fulfilled in the coming of Christ and passed on to us as the Church.

It should reshape our mission, evangelisation and use of church buildings, opening us up to a different perspective that allows us to see our part in God’s universal history of redemption. It should also free us from preconceived notions of how we must do church and use buildings and inspire us to be creative and imaginative in participating in the coming of the Spirit that is transforming our world.

With God’s help, it might even free us up to work collaboratively with our brothers and sisters cross denominationally to partner together as Christ’s body in the Power of the Spirit in the redemption of our world. What might this mean for how we use and share our buildings?

There is a lot to think about on how we can re-imagine church and our buildings. But lets start with some practical, grass roots wisdom from an American bishop.

God’s mission overshadows the big C universal Church with the coming of the Spirit, present in the world and actively engaged in freeing all of creation. And we, as Jesus followers, the people of God, are part of this!

Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, the first Black woman to be elected diocesan bishop in the Episcopal Church, oversees 48 churches in central and southern Indiana.  She made the following comments in a recent interview with faithandleadership.com

“We talk a lot about how if you’re going to have a building, it’s got to be tied to the mission. And congregations then need to know what their mission is.”

“I’d say many of our church buildings are not best cared for by our own people. I’d rather see them be put in the hands of somebody else who can take care of it better – a different denomination, a different use – than to see what our churches do by letting them crumble around them because they can’t let them go. The demolition by neglect – that’s the train wreck.”

“Clearly, we don’t need the buildings to be a church community. We need to be able to gather, but we may not need to do it in the buildings we’ve historically done that in. And if the buildings are hampering our ability to do the ministry, then we need to ask some hard questions about that and confront the answers.”

The hard questions start with a reassessment of church mission.  An acknowledgement that the church is not the mission.  And maybe, just maybe, a realisation that there are creative and collaborative uses for our church buildings that might even free us up to do church and mission better.

  1. Jürgen Moltmann, (Translation by Margaret Kohl) The Church in the Power of the Spirit: A Contribution to Messianic Ecclesiology, (2nd edition), SCM Press, London, 1977, p11
  2. Jürgen Moltmann, pp10-11

Next blog – The Gnostic Church. A redemptive call for religious tourists to return to the planet from Larry Norman and Eugene Peterson – 9 July 2021

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Categories: Church, Mission

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2 replies

  1. Another thought provoking article. Sadly, the strategm of th enemy of the Church has been to divide the Church and the old adage divide and conquer is used to reduce the strength of the Church. Many resources including time has been spent upon internecine conflicts rather than galvanizing to strengthen our members and reach out to the world. The building becomes very important for many congregations due to the historic significance of a building – especially those of great antiquity – but as Notre Dame showed – the building can go up in flames in a moment – a sense of loss of architectural significance, but the people remain which matters more. Historically, the Church in towns and villages due to short distances was where people met together daily to pray, it served as a hospice to the sick and dying, a shelter for the homeless and hungry and a spiritual home to the members. Many of these services have been transferred to the state, but there are new challenges where the Church can provide support to the community. But ultimately, a hierarchy of objectives for mission exist – the spiritual descending to the physical – Jesus did both – he fed the 5000 and thru that act of grace proclaimed that he was the bread of life – would that we could do both with such simplicity and clarity – both sides of the equation – the spiritual and temporal in harmony – and of course NO CHURCH BUILDING when he did it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • David, you make a great point about how we used our church buildings in the past. They were not just places of worship but also community centres used for all sorts of activities from plays, lectures and as you say, hospices and shelter. There was a real sense of public ownership and participation in church buildings and communities compared to our privately held, competitive and denominational ‘brands.’ Separation of church and state not only privatised our religion but fragmented us as competitors in the family vineyard. The enemies’ strategy of divide and conquer has certainly been effective. The Church’s strength is in joining forces on whatever common ground we can find. God has called us together, not apart – as difficult and challenging as this is!


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