My Journey Using Literary Context to Understand and Teach the Bible
May 9, 2024

From Missio Dei to Motus Dei: The Recovery of Movement

By Wes Watkins

We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God. This is true not only of the individual Christian, but of the company of Christians that composes the Church. Always the most revealing thing about the Church is her idea of God.

-A.W. Tozer

I usually feel okay about my appearance when I look in the mirror. But when someone shares a photo of me from a different angle, I realize, “I am clearly an overweight, middle-aged man who needs hair implants.” A slight shift in viewpoint changes a lot. Sometimes painfully so.

Similarly, common ideas we believe to be “okay” can seem very different when we shift our perspective. And some theological concepts become stale over time. Might we be facing that issue now when talking about “mission”?

Missio Dei

Originating in the mid-20th century, the concept of “missio Dei,” which translates to “the mission of God,” marked an important shift from understanding mission as an activity of the Church to seeing it as derived from the very nature of God himself. The idea emphasizes that God is a “missionary” God. The Church participates in the missio Dei; but it is God’s mission and God’s work.

This was a helpful corrective at the time. The Church had assumed responsibility for something that was ultimately God’s. Freeing the Church from a burden too heavy to carry, the missio Dei provided a comprehensive, holistic view of the activities of God by promoting Christian engagement in all parts of the world and in all spheres of life, including society, politics, economy, and culture.

Unfortunately, the term missio itself comes from 16th century Latin Church vocabulary with connections to colonialism. This does not imply that all expressions of mission are influenced by imperialism (far from it!), but we do well to recognize its complicated history.

For evangelicals, when the term “missional” emerged in the 1990s, nearly everything quickly became “mission” and everyone became missional. Today, it is difficult to find an evangelical church that would not describe itself as “missional.” The missional conversation has clinched the victory in the battle of ideas.

But at what cost? And what has truly changed?

The broad scope of missio Dei can lead to missional ambiguity. For many Christians, the term “missional” is most commonly used to describe the healing role that the church has in society. For example, if your church does important things like meeting the needs of refugees, addressing systemic racism, and tackling poverty alleviation, then you are missional. To be clear, these are good and necessary activities!

However, the Church is also easily seduced into activism that has little to do with Jesus (for example, Christian nationalism or theological progressivism). We are prone to wander aimlessly when we take our eyes off Christ. And tragically, sometimes the Church unconsciously moves in the opposite direction of the missio Dei.

But more to the point, most missional churches never reproduce and are ineffective in disciple-making. For example, the missional church movement has transpired over the last 25 years in North America, while the church there has simultaneously lost 40 million members. Something is wrong. The system is doing what it is designed to do, and nothing more. It may have been effective in the past, but not anymore.

It is all too easy to scapegoat the “culture” when the problem might actually be us. We have not, typically, sought after any changes to the missional shape of our churches or to the hierarchical power systems embedded within. We are far too comfortable with the unexamined, unconscious legacy of Christendom on our institutionalized ecclesiology. Churches become impotent when mission is simply domesticated by ecclesial forms that have something other than Jesus as the head. We have forgotten how God is missional.

Motus Dei

So then, what if the most faithful expression of a missional church was a movemental church? Enter motus Dei, Latin for “movement of God.”

In Christian theology, we believe God never changes. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8). This means we can always trust him, no matter what happens. This unchanging nature of God is called “immutability.” But what if one of the things that never changes about God is that He’s always active, forever creating, constantly moving to redeem and transform? Motus Dei reflects the idea of a dynamic immutability and challenges stale ideas about God.

God is not a static deity but a vibrant presence, deeply intertwined with his creation. Motus Dei highlights the movement of God that guides and shapes the universe. The God of the Bible is motil (Latin for “moving”) and has communicated that attribute to humanity. As Paul told the Athenians, “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

Along these lines, we exist in a motil world with constant flux and change. The implications for human migrations (motus humanitatis) in light of the motus Dei have been brilliantly discussed recently (here and here). The motus humanitatis and the motus Dei have an intrinsic relationship, as roughly 3.6 percent of the world’s people today live outside their birth country in diaspora contexts.

But there is still much more of the motus Dei to explore, specifically as it relates to the motus ecclesiarum (the movement of the Church).

The Recovery of Movement

If you travel much, you will find Christian churches in hot desert or tropical climates throughout the Arab World, Africa, and Asia with steeples and slanted roofs built to withstand heavy snow. This is emblematic of the paradigm of church that is entrenched in our global Christian subculture. A fixed mindset concerning church has been uncritically imported into the Majority World. Most Christians seem content with an understanding of church derived from its institutional form birthed in the Constantinian era and not from the New Testament.

Institutionalized Christianity tends to imply that the Church is still evolving into a more mature form than its rudimentary inception. For example, Jesus’ priority of disciple-making and the ministry of the Apostles in fostering church multiplication movements among the spiritually lost are assumed to be primitive examples whose methods and foci lack the sophistication needed for the complexity of the 21st century.

Many institutional churches who have shifted to a more “missional” posture did not, at the same time, modify their ecclesiology. They simply added missional programs and projects to what they were already doing, but without recalibrating the church in light of our apostolic and incarnational Head: Jesus. If presentations of the gospel are adapted to culture, then forms of church must be as well. Having a theologically grounded bias for movement means that we not only look for apostolic activities but also for apostolic structures. New wineskins are in order.

At this point, we might object and insist that God is calling us to faithfulness, not to movement, because only God provides “the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6). There are many criteria for evaluating missional faithfulness, with obedience being the most important. Sometimes, for various reasons, the church in a certain context finds itself in a period of stagnation or decline. But that is precisely the point – both for missional renewal and for crossing missional barriers, we can find what we need in the New Testament if we dare read it through the lens of movement.

It is not simply an issue of ministry methods, but rather of paradigm. The rise of disciple making movements in the Majority World provides a type of paradigmatic proof-of-concept suitable for apostolic redesign of both church and mission. We can see in these movements what movemental ecclesiology looks like in real life. We have the unprecedented opportunity to learn afresh how to recover the language, theology, and practice of church-as-movement.

Motus Dei is a type of meta-idea that can shape and support how we think of mission in fresh ways. Unlearning and relearning can be both uncomfortable and painful because a simple look in the mirror alone is insufficient. The missional conversation needs a boost, and hopefully the dawn of motus Dei in our missiological vocabulary will stir our apostolic imagination for movement once again.

As A.W. Tozer reminds us, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” We are a movement because God himself is movement. As the church advances, Jesus assures us that the static gates of hell will not withstand the force of his movement, the Church (Matt 16:18). In light of the motus Dei, we need to relearn to think and act like a movement if we intend to faithfully follow Christ into new frontiers.

 

Wes Watkins is assistant professor of missiology at ABTS and a facilitator of the network that produced Motus Dei: The Movement of God to Disciple the Nations

3 Comments

  1. Ashley Hardingham says:

    Thank you Wes. Always appreciate reading the ABTS posts. Thought-provoking to look at motus vs missio, as movement is v much a apart of the Christian the language of today. On Sunday, my colleague will preach on Luke 4:16-19 a text which very much identifies Jesus with the poor, captives, blind and oppressed – which I would have thought would be encouraging of us evangelicals to emulate such ‘missio’ actions.
    Here in the UK, the language of movement is very much allied to church & congregational planting. The decline of the church is, to my mind, a product of an array of factors and I would not be so swift to question the witness and actions of those churches who hold together ‘word and deed’. But hey, you made me think. Thanmk you.

    • warrickfarah says:

      Hi Ashley, the movements referenced in this short post are also inherently holistic and include Luke 4 ethos and activity. The point is that when “missional” is entirely social/physical then it is a reduction of the missio paradigm. “Motus Dei” intends to show how the missional church can multiply through apostolic structures, a distinctively generative spirituality, and intentional disciple reproduction.

  2. Mike Kuhn says:

    I appreciated this, Wes. Thanks for sharing it. I’ve also enjoyed looking over the linked articles. There’s a lot here to process when thinking of God as “movement.” The old word developed by the Fathers “perichoresis” was thought of as a kind of movement. Some have likened it to a dance where the Trinitarian persons interact in an exchange of other-preferring, self-giving love. If we see God in this way, it impacts the way we think of ourselves (your Tozer quote got that right) and our Christian community. Hopefully leading to a kind of movement that is less compromised by power and dominance and more characterized by self-giving love.

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