Rethinking the Church’s Theology of Missions: Reflections on Jonah

Once in a while the church should pause to review its direction, mission, plans, and activities, especially when Covid-19 has changed much of the life of the church. This article is specifically interested to rethink the participation of the church in the mission of God. Even for local parishes that look promisingly missional, it is beneficial to take a step back to consider the nature of mission before finding creative ways to do God’s mission within today’s pandemic context of a “new normal”. Here I attempt to offer four pertinent points of reflection from the well-known Old Testament story of the prophet Jonah.

Before jumping into Jonah, let us briefly discuss a few terms. As Christopher Wright puts it, missiology is the solidifying of “intellectual and heady theology” with “practical and dynamic mission” into one field of consideration—there is “no theology without missional impact; no mission without theological foundations”. The mission of God, or missio dei, is to reconcile all of creation into God’s kingdom, where life and all creation are no longer oppressed by forces that seek to subjugate or destroy, where our righteous King is fully in control, and where mercy, justice, and peace reign. And the church, as God’s primary agent, is to point others to the Kingdom of God as just described.

Given that mission is a rather all-encompassing and loaded term to define, it may be helpful to exhibit what mission is not as based on Jonah.

First, mission is not what is done by the missionary or church, but what is initiated, sustained and completed by the Triune God. The first chapter of Jonah (1:5,10,14,16) is evidence that God transformed the lives of the seamen in the midst of Jonah’s rebellion. Throughout Jonah, God is portrayed as controlling the wind, sea, creatures, and events. God “appointed” (the same Hebrew word is repeated each time) the great fish (1:17; 2:1), strange plant (4:6), worm (4:7), and east wind (4:8). We see God working despite Jonah’s questionable motivations and rebellious heart. As David Bosch puts it, “mission is what God is doing to and through the Servant, not what the Servant does.” God does what he does in spite of Jonah.

Next, mission is not exclusivist or patriotic. Jonah is not about a missionary who was sent to proclaim God’s word to a pagan nation. It is about a prophet who wrongly assumed God’s election to be only for his people; he ran away so that the Ninevites would not receive salvation. Bosch argues that the point of the book of Jonah is the “fundamental conviction that Israel’s election was unmerited and an expression of God’s gratuitousness”. The thrust of the story “ridicules the narrow ethnocentrism of Jonah (and Israel) who allowed God to work only within Israel and sulked about God treating those outside the covenant the same way he treats those inside”. The mission of God was never meant to be expressed and owned by only one people group; it is for all.

Thirdly, Jonah was not called to participate only in “missions” (plural) but in “mission” (singular). “Missions” is the activity or method employed by churches or organizations to fulfill God’s mission, while the “mission” of God, or missio dei, refers to the purposes and activities of God to redeem and reconcile our universe, which includes everything God created. The God in Jonah was performing the latter term, “mission”; he was interested in the whole nation of Nineveh, not only the individual salvation of people. Following the Abrahamic promise, the story of Jonah is about blessing a nation, in this case the enemy nation of Nineveh. As Christopher Wright explains, an evil nation of Sodom (or in this case Nineveh) is the kind of world in which we are called to engage in mission. Also, God was interested in all of creation as seen in the decree and the Lord’s compassion that extended to animals, crops, and everything else (3:8; 4:11); it was definitely not only human-centered.

Finally, and on a positive claim, “compassion is a mark of our missionary

God”. Jonah’s angry reaction contains the theological heart of the book that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (4:2). God’s compassion is evident in his treatment of Israel’s enemy state (3:1). Moreover, God does not only show compassion to Nineveh, he shows compassion to Jonah too. Jonah’s last word is a wish for death (4:8-9) but God’s last word is an affirmation of his mercy (4:11).

Having presented the above four points on the nature of mission, here are several questions for deliberation:

First, if mission is primarily the work of God (often done in spite of us), is the church discerning God’s mission or creating its own mission? The mission of God must go ahead of the mission of the church; the role of the church is to discern the work of God and participate in what God is already doing. Moltmann nails the difference with precision: “It is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfill in the world; it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the church.”

Secondly, have we truly understood God’s mission as inclusive of all tribes, colours, backgrounds, statuses, friends, enemies, and strangers?

Thirdly, have we overemphasized missions-related programs and only concentrated on the individual salvation of humans to the neglect of God’s larger mission of reconciling all of creation back to himself?

Fourthly, does the church carry the mark of compassion that drives the mission of God?

In conclusion, if mission is at the heart of God, then God’s mission should also be at the heart of the church. However, before investing in new missionary strategies or evangelistic programs, the church could look to the story of Jonah for what not to do. Perhaps before deciding on what to do to invite people into the reign of God, we should learn to be the church that discerns God’s mission, reaches all peoples, is aware of God’s larger mission of reconciling all of creation, and lives out God’s compassion. Finally, it also means that missionary work is not the responsibility of the church’s mission committee alone but is the life and heart of the entire church.

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