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Doing Mission Today: Where and How We Dance

September 19, 2013

Posted by Inagrace Dietterich

Steve Bevans

Stephen Bevans, SVD

This post contains the second of four presentations from the 2013 Missional Church Convocation in Chicago in July by featured speaker Steve Bevans.

We dance, first of all, in this particular North American context—a secular and even narcissistic society—yet still shot through with the Spirit’s presence and God’s grace. Second, how we dance is, on the one hand, by participation in God’s freedom-respecting action in the world, a spirituality of openness, vulnerability, and mutuality. On the other hand, it is a dance of witnessing to and proclaiming a gospel of love and life, affirming God’s future cosmic flourishing, and challenging all injustice.


In the August blog, I tried to engage our theological imaginations in order to come to a fresh way of understanding mission. Mission is first of all God’s mission, as God moves through the world as all-pervasive Spirit and in the concrete body and history of Jesus of Nazareth, calling all creation to communion with the mystery at creation’s heart. God’s act of creation is God’s first act of mission, and God has been active, flowing through creation with a life-giving, loving, challenging, redeeming, and healing embrace from the first nanosecond. We do mission not so much because we are commanded, but because we have been plunged into God’s very life by baptism. We are called to be God’s partners in God’s own dance of mission.

In this second discussion, I want to explore the practical implications of what all this means, particularly in a more secularized culture like our own American one. I’m going to do this in two parts. In a first part I’m going to reflect on where we need to do mission today, and I’m going to speak very briefly and very broadly about the American context. Second, I’m going to reflect on how we need to do mission in this particular context, and suggest that it should be done with a spirituality of “prophetic dialogue.”1

Where We Do MissionAlmost a quarter century ago in his great encyclical on Christian Mission, RedemptorisMissio (RM), Pope John Paul II spoke of mission as carried on in three kinds of situations (see RM 33).   Read More…

How We Do MissionWhen I speak here of “how to do mission,” I am not speaking of a kind of “instruction manual” for doing mission. Mission is not something that can be pre-programmed or worked out in advance. It can only be done in day-to-day reflection on and prayer about our ministry, in community discussion and discernment.  Read More…

The Nature of ProphecyProphecy, like mission itself, is a complex reality. It has several aspects, often intertwined. It is accomplished through words, and it is accomplished through deeds as well.   Read More…

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. Why is it important to consider “where” we do mission?
  2. What do you think are some of the elements of American culture that call for new methods of evangelization? Where do you find hope for this mission?

  More Questions…

Where We Do Mission

Almost a quarter century ago in his great encyclical on Christian Mission, RedemptorisMissio (RM), Pope John Paul II spoke of mission as carried on in three kinds of situations (see RM 33). In the first situation the church addresses “peoples, groups, and sociocultural contexts” in which the gospel has not been accepted or adequately taken root. The pope calls this mission ad gentes(to the nations). Second, the church’s mission is carried out in Christian communities that are solid in their faith, have appropriated its content in terms of their culture and context, and are engaged in witnessing to and proclaiming the gospel to the world that surrounds them. This is the work, says the pope, of pastoral care. In the third place, in particular situations throughout the world, the church recognizes that “entire groups of the baptized have lost a living sense of the faith,” or simply exist without faith at all. This is the situation addressed by what John Paul, since early in his Pontificate, had spoken of as the “New Evangelization.” This says the pope requires a “new ardor,” “new methods,” and “new expression,”2 to re-present Christianity to the women and men of many technologically advanced secularized societies, like our own American society.

wheremissionPope John Paul admits that the boundaries between each of these situations “are not clearly definable,” and that it would be wrong to put them in “water-tight compartments” (RM 34). He even recognizes that there is a growing interdependence that has developed. In fact, all three aspects of mission are needed in Europe, North America, and Australia and New Zealand. There are needs for primary evangelization, for pastoral care, and for the New Evangelization. Mission is complicated by the dazzling diversity of nationalities and cultures in our countries and in our church communities, often through migration. Mission is faced with a culture that is highly secularized, highly individualistic, virtually addicted to accumulating material goods, influenced by narcissistic athletes and entertainers, the youth of which, according to Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, are practitioners of a “therapeutic deism,” by which religion basically functions to help people feel good about themselves, and not to challenge them to fuller and greater life.3

Especially in the last several years as well, Catholics in these areas have been alienated from the church and religious practice. In the United States, we say that if Catholics are the largest religious group in the country, the second largest group, are former Catholics. And one of the fastest-growing movements in American religion is the growing number of people who do not identify with any religion—“nones,” as the sociologists call them. All the problems of the Western, globalized, secular world are here in spades.

But there is also an amazing vitality. We Americans are among the most religious nations on earth. This religiousness is borne out time and time again in polls and surveys. Gallup Pollster Frank Newport in a book significantly titled God Is Alive and Well: The Future of Religion in America,4says that although Americans tend to shy away more and more from “organized religion”—“I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious”—this does not mean that Americans are abandoning religiosity as such. Newport says that the statistics point to the conclusion that “Americans have potential religious energy locked up, ready to be converted to activated energy if and when the time is right. This sets the stage for future religious developments.5

From this perspective, as a theologian and missiologist, my sense is that with the proper spirituality and methods of evangelization by a church that is deeply faithful to the spirit and message of the gospel on the one hand and faithful “signs of the times” on the other, evangelization has a real chance of achieving some modest success in this time and this place. The challenge of evangelization is somehow to tap into the experience of transcendence that people continue to experience in their lives.6 This is why the how of mission are important. And so it is to this that I turn in the second part of my presentation.

How We Do Mission

howmissionWhen I speak here of “how to do mission,” I am not speaking of a kind of “instruction manual” for doing mission. Mission is not something that can be pre-programmed or worked out in advance. It can only be done in day-to-day reflection on and prayer about our ministry, in community discussion and discernment. When I speak of the how of mission, rather, I mean the basic attitude that we need to bring to mission, or even the basic spirituality that is behind our missionary activity. My friend and colleague Roger Schroder and I have called this attitude or spirituality one of “Prophetic Dialogue.”

Mission as Dialogue

To speak of mission in dialogue is by no means arbitrary. We do mission this way because God does mission in this way—it is a Trinitarian practice. As Pope Paul VI expresses it in his wonderful encyclical on dialogue: “the whole history of humanity’s salvation is one long, varied dialogue, which marvelously begins with God and which God prolongs with women and men in so many different ways.”7 If the triune God carries out the divine mission in dialogue and for dialogue, so must those women and men baptized in the Trinity’s name.

dialogueWhat does it mean to do mission or evangelization in dialogue? Primarily, it means that we must have a heart “so open,” as African American novelist Alice Walker describes it, “that the wind blows through it.”8 The first step is that of deep listening, docility (the ability to be taught), gentleness, the ability to forge real relationships.9 Australian missiologist Noel Connolly suggests that “most people listen more willingly to people who appreciate them and are learning along with them.”10 Connolly writes, “we are most missionary when we move out to discover what God is doing around us. Then we will be a more authentic and convincing sign of God’s hopes for the world.”11 Participating in God’s dance of mission cannot be saying the same thing we’ve always said, but saying it louder.Perhaps rather than always speaking, Archbishop—now Cardinal—Luis Antonio Tagle says that the church needs to keep silent and listen: “The Church must discover the power of silence. Confronted with the sorrows, doubts and uncertainties of people she cannot pretend to give easy solutions. In Jesus, silence becomes the way of attentive listening, compassion and prayer.”12 To be an open church, a learning church, a vulnerable church—what a witness to the world we could be!

Mission as Prophecy

Within—and only within—the context of dialogue, we also do mission in prophecy: proclaiming hope, proclaiming the message of the gospel, witnessing to the transforming truth, confronting any injustice. If mission is and must be dialogical because God is dialogical both in God’s deepest nature and in the way God acts in the world, it is and must be prophetic because God’s inner nature is also prophetic, and because God is prophetic in dealing with creation. In the dialogue that is the Trinity, Holy Mystery eternally “speaks forth” the Word and, through the Word, breathes forth the Spirit.

proclamationFrom the first moment of creation, that Spirit has been breathed forth upon the whole of creation and has been made concrete in the incarnate Word. It is the Spirit who comes with power upon the prophets and anoints them to speak God’s Word faithfully, to bring good news to the oppressed, healing to those who are discouraged, liberty to captives, release to prisoners, comfort to those who mourn, but condemnation to those who have betrayed the covenant (see Is 61:1-4). As we read in 2Peter 1:21, “no prophecy ever came by human will; but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit from God.” As Edward Schillebeeckx and many others have argued, the best way to understand Jesus and his ministry is to understand him as he understood himself—as a prophet, the eschatological prophet who preached, demonstrated and embodied the Reign of God, the fulfillment of all the hopes of Israel, and through Israel, humankind.13

If, then, God is a God of prophecy, and the church shares in God’s mission, mission must be lived out as prophecy as well. It is our task, as members of Christ’s body and conformed to him in Baptism, to preach, demonstrate and embody the Reign of God in our ecclesial and individual lives.

The Nature of Prophecy

Prophecy, like mission itself, is a complex reality. It has several aspects, often intertwined. It is accomplished through words, and it is accomplished through deeds as well. The prophet is someone steeped in God’s Word. The prophecy that she or he delivers is never her or his own word, but God’s. Sometimes prophecy is a joyful task (Jesus rejoicing in the Spirit in Lk 10:21-22); sometimes it is difficult (as when Jeremiah complains about his task in Jer 20:7-18). It is always a task done out of love for God’s people, and never out of disgust or hatred. As Gregory Nazianzen powerfully says, Christians sometimes must correct their brothers and sisters, “but this with gentleness and love, not as an enemy but like a doctor who is precise and knows where to cauterize and cut.” And he also cautions those who undertake this prophetic action to be aware of their own weakness.14 But the prophet must be faithful to the task, even to the point of persecution and death.

“Speaking Against” without Words: Being a Contrast Community

contrastChristian life goes against the grain. It is not anti-cultural, because a faith rooted in the doctrine of the incarnation loves the created world, loves people, recognizes the deep goodness of human culture. But it is profoundly countercultural. Living the commitments of the Reign of God as Jesus articulated them in the beatitudes or in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7; Lk 7:17-49) offers a different vision of the world than what is the natural drift of society. Leading a simple life, standing for peace and justice, learning to forgive people who have offended us, living with the conviction that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies it remains just a single grain” (Jn 12:24), learning to serve not to be served (Mt 20:28)—these are all prophetic actions in a world that envisions success as being self-centered and having power over others. Christians live life in openness and dialogue, but even these attitudes are ones that often go counter to prevailing cultural values.

Christian community, being church, is also countercultural and prophetic. This is the people who by their prayer, their life together in community, their attempts to live as reconciled and reconciling, their efforts to mirror the justice for which they work in society form what Gerhard Lohfink calls a “contrast society.” “The church serves the world best when it takes with radical seriousness its task of being a ‘holy people’ in the sense of 1Peter 2:9-10. The church is the salt of society precisely by living symbolically God’s societal and social order.”15 Stanley Hauerwas and William Willamon, echoing Phil 3:20, 1Peter 1:1, speak of the church as a community of “resident aliens” in this world. Christians are to live as a colony of the Reign of God in the midst of the world, showing forth by their lives together and by their care for the world around them what the gospel can be if it is lived seriously.16

“Speaking Forth” without Words: Witness

witnessAlways listening, always open, always learning from the peoples among whom it works, the church witnesses to the truth, the joy, and the life-giving power of the gospel. Pope Paul VI says that the “first means of evangelization is the witness of an authentically Christian life.”17 In the same document, the pope speaks famously about the power of witness. People today, he says, do not listen very much to what people say—to teachers. They listen rather to witnesses. And if they do listen to teachers, “it is because they are witnesses.”18 The pope talks eloquently about how a community of Christians might be witnesses in a way that is a truly prophetic act.

The great British missiologistLesslieNewbigin spoke of the Christian community as a “hermeneutic of the gospel,” the way Christians interpret the gospel to the world and the way the gospel is interpreted by others. As Christians live a life of vital community, of community service, of ecological integrity, of shared prayer that is beautiful and inspiring to visitors, they speak forth without words what the gospel is, and what human life might be if the gospel is lived authentically. To allude to a phrase attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, this is the way that Christians can preach always, but without words.

“Speaking Forth” with Words: Proclamation

Christians in mission prophesy the future—God’s future. Like Jesus they explain to one another and to the world—if asked (see 1Pet 3:15)—what the future of the world will be under God’s loving providence. Like Jesus, in other words, they proclaim the message of the Reign of God. They can only use images, stories or symbols, but they proclaim with conviction that God’s plan for creation is one of full flourishing. Women and men will live in peace and justice, and will enjoy the fullness of freedom; all creatures, animate and inanimate, will live in harmony. When and how this will come about is not certain, but that it will come about is. It will be a time when “swords will be turned into ploughshares” (Is 2:4), when “the veil that veils all peoples” will be destroyed (Is 25:7), when people “from every tongue and nation” (Rev 7:9) will live together in joy and friendship.

conclusionEven more, however, humanity and creation can have a taste of this future now. The joy, the peace, the love, the harmony of God’s future Reign can be found in faith in Jesus, and in his community, the church. Of course, to prophesy in such a way demands a commitment on the part of the church to be what it is in its deepest essence—God’s holy People, Christ’s body in history, the community open to the Spirit’s creative power, molding it into a temple that shows forth God’s presence. The church, as we know all too well, will never fully live the truth that it is, but it can commit itself to try. It can be an open society, confessing its failings and sinfulness. Often that is enough for people—and already a true foretaste of what God has in store for God’s entire creation.

To be prophetic in our mission is to share with the world the good news of God’s future, the good news of a gracious, gentle God.

I would like to conclude these reflections on where and how we participate in God’s dance by emphasizing that mission in our world today is ultimately more of a spirituality than it is of one or a number of strategies. How we do mission, in other words, is much more important than what we do. To use a phrase attributed to Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, “We are not asked to be successful. We are asked to be faithful.” I think it ultimately comes down to a certain vulnerability that we have to assume—a vulnerability not unlike that of God’s Word itself, who “emptied himself … coming in human likeness” (Phil 2:7), a vulnerability like Mary, whose sinlessness made her totally available for God’s work.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. Why is it important to consider “where” we do mission?
  2. What do you think are some of the elements of American culture that call for new methods of evangelization? Where do you find hope for this mission?
  3. What is the difference between mission as dialogue and mission as prophecy? How are they related?
  4. How does the life and ministry of your church “speak against” without words?
  5. How does the life and ministry of your church “speak forth” without words?
  6. In what way does the life and ministry of your church prophesy God’s future?
  7. What does it mean to you to say that mission is more a spirituality than a strategy?

1 See Stephen B. Bevans and Roger P. Schroeder, Prphetic Dialogue: Reflections on Mission Today (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011);  andConstants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004).

2 See John Paul II, “The Task of the Latin American Bishop,” Origins 12 (March 24, 1983): 661. Referred to in Avery Dulles, “The New Evangelization: Challenge for Religious Missionary Institutes,” in ed. Stephen Bevans and Roger Schroeder, Word Remembered, Word Proclaimed: Selected Papers from Symposia Celebrating the SVD Centennial in North America (Nettetal, Germany: SteylerVerlag, 1997), 19.

3 On “therapeutic deism” see Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005).

4 Frank Newport, God Is Alive and Well: The Future of Religion in America (New York: Gallup Press, 2012).

5 Newport, 19.

6 Susan Smith, “What Needs to be ‘New’ about the New Evangelization in New Zealand,” Draft paper for SEDOS Conference in Rome, April, 2013, 8.

7 Paul VI, Encyclical Letter EcclesiamSuam,, 70. Accessed March 28, 2013.

8 Alice Walker, “A Wind through the Heart: A Conversation with Alice Walker and Sharon Salzburg on Loving Kindness in a Painful World,” Shambala Sun (January, 1997): 1-5.

9 See Claude Marie Barbour, “Seeking Justice and Shalome in the City,” International Review of Mission 73 (1984): 303-9.

10 Noel Connolly, “New Evangelisation in Australia,” draft paper to be presented at the SEDOS Conference, April, 2013, 8.

11 Conolly, 9.

12 Thirteenth Synod of Bishops, October 7–28, 2012, on the New Evangelization,,  (unofficial translation) Accessed March 29, 2013.

13 See Edward Schillebeeckx, Interim Report on the Books Jesus and Christ (New York: Crossroad, 1981), 64-74; and N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996), 147-97.

14 Gregory Nazianzen, Discourse on Moderation in Disputing, 29. Quoted in Brendan Leahy and Michael Mulvey, Priests Today: Reflections on Identity, Life, and Ministry (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2010), 42.

15 Gerhard Lofink, Jesus and Community (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 168.

16 Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1989).

17 EN 41.

18 Ibid.

Steve Bevans is an internationally acclaimed scholar and friend of the Center community. He has contributed significantly to a theology of mission in the 21st Century, which he immediately describes is more a ‘spirituality’ than a ‘strategy,’ a “prophetic dialogue” — a bold yet humble engagement with today’s cultures and contexts. Steve is Professor of Mission and Culture at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago, USA. He is a Roman Catholic priest in the Society of the Divine Word, an international missionary congregation, and served for nine years (1972-1981) as a missionary in the Philippines. His publications include: Models of Contextual Theology (2002), Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today (2004, with Roger Schroeder), Evangelization and Freedom (2009, with Jeffrey Gros), and Introduction to Theology in Global Perspective (2009). Steve’s most recent publication with Roger Schroeder is Prophetic Dialogue: Reflections on Christian Mission Today (2011 Orbis Books).

Inagrace Dietterich

Inagrace Dietterich

The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.

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