Willingen, Germany, Site of the historic 1952 meeting of the International Missionary Council, where delegates adopted the term Missio Dei.

The reader already knows that Missio Dei means “the Mission of God,” but I will retain the original Latin phrase Missio Dei in this blog.

In 1952 the International Missionary Council met in a small village church in Willingen, Germany to consider adopting the term Missio Dei in light of the great missionary texts of the Bible:

  • God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting men’s sins against them, and giving us the ministry of reconciliation, We are, therefore, Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. I urge, be reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:19-20).
  • “I will bless you, and you will be a blessing to all the nations of the earth” Genesis 12:3
  • Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19).
Dr. Karl Hartenstein, Willingen, Germany, 1952

Karl Hartenstein began writing about Missio Dei in 1934. Hartenstein hoped Missio Dei would replace a trendy but less biblical phrase, missio ecclesiae, that is, “the mission of the church.” In Hartenstein’s mind, mission should never originate in the opinions of church administrators; God alone is the author and sender of missionaries. God sent Abraham to “a place that I will show you.” God said to Isaiah, “Who will go for us?” Isaiah replied, “Here I am; send me.” Mary accepted her mission as a mission from God: “Be it done unto me according to Thy will.” Jesus Christ prayed to God that the cup of His sufferings be removed, but submitted to His Father’s will. God brings the church into existence and sends the church into the world. The faithful church obeys God’s mission. But when a church feels free to invent its own mission, it has become a false church. Karl Barth agreed with Hartenstein. Together they pressed the delegates at the 1952 Willingen conference to adopt the phrase Missio Dei. In this effort they were successful. David Bosch wrote, “Mis­sion was un­der­stood as be­ing de­rived from the very na­ture of God. It was thus put in the con­text of the doc­trine of the Trin­ity, not of ec­cle­si­ol­ogy or soteriology.”[2] The mission is not of human origin. The faithful church studies the Bible to understand the Missio Dei. The obedient church prays and fasts and hears from the Holy Spirit. Beware, church administrators of conjuring new, softer mission ideas that are more to your liking.

The site of the 1952 meeting of the International Missionary Council is a restaurant today!

God the Father sent His son: “For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). Jesus Christ sends His followers: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). The Holy Spirit sends missionaries to all the peoples of the world: “Separate for me Paul and Barnabas for the work I have for them” (Acts 13:3). Thus, in Hartenstein’s theology and mine, the Trinity is the author of the Missio Dei. God brings the church into existence and sends it to the whole world. David Bosch is correct, “Mission is not primarily an activity of the church, but an attribute of God. God is a missionary God.”[3] Darrell Guder, a mentor for my dissertation, wrote:

The plaque marking the location of the 1952 meeting has been moved to another church in Willingen.

“We have come to see that mission is not merely an activity of the church. Rather, mission is the result of God’s initiative, rooted in God’s purposes to restore and heal creation. ‘Mission’ means ‘sending,’ and it is the central biblical theme describing the purpose of God’s action in human history…. We have begun to learn that the biblical message is more radical, more inclusive, more transforming than we have allowed it to be. In particular, we have begun to see that the church of Jesus Christ is not the purpose or goal of the gospel, but rather its instrument and witness.[4]

You can read more about the theological importance of Missio Dei here.

[2] David Jacobus Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991). 390

[3] Ibid. 389-390

[4] Darrell L. Guder and Lois Barrett, Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America, ed. Darrell L. Guder (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998). 4-5