What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?

My observation is that mission theologians and academics speak a different language and have different concerns to mission practitioners.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been musing on the relationship between mission theology and practice. In particular, I’m interested in the differences between the way that academics and theologians talk about mission as compared to the way that missionaries and other practitioners talk about it.

For example, yesterday I came across this phrase:

We cannot understand evangelism and mission, without a theology of missio Dei.

However, my research and reading suggests that many mission practitioners get on perfectly fine without a theology of missio Dei (in English or Latin). These phrases and the concepts behind them are all over the more scholarly mission literature, but it is far harder to find them in mission magazines and they don’t often crop up in conversations with mission leaders.

My observation is that mission theologians and academics speak a different language and have different concerns to mission practitioners. I’m not making a value judgement; I’m just stating what I have observed. So what is going on here?

It seems to me that there is a disconnect between the academics and the practitioners. Over the last decade there have been two fora for mission scholars, leaders and other practitioners to get together and discuss issues, but both are currently moribund. That’s a shame.

I don’t have any solutions, but here are a few random thoughts.

Most mission leaders are incredibly busy people and do not have time to keep up with current trends in mission theology. If they have time to read and think, they need to see some practical, short-term benefit from their reflections. Perhaps there is a need for academics to look at the practical outworkings of their ideas and to publish some more pragmatic works.

It takes ten to fifteen years of experience before people move into mission leadership. This means that some of the cutting edge issues that they discussed at Bible college are well out of date before they get to a position where they can implement them. Perhaps it will be another decade or so before a generation comes into leadership who are heavily influenced by thinking about the Mission of God. At which point, the academy might well be highlighting something else.

It could also be the case, that academics are neglecting to adequately contextualise their work. By not interacting with current practitioners, they are failing to take into account the realities and concerns of those on the coal-face of mission. To adapt John Stott’s famous maxim, perhaps mission theologians need to study with the Bible in one hand and a mission agency magazine in the other.


I realise that Tertullian’s prhase that I used for the title of this blog post was referring to the secular academy, not to Christian scholarship. It just seemed too good not to use.

More importantly, I know people on either side of this issue who don’t fit the pattern. There are academics who are well rooted in practice and practitioners with a good academic background. However, these are the exceptions and the generalities of my post still stand. 


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6 replies on “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”

I wonder if this is a more general thing, this gap between theory and practice? I’ve been a mission partner for many years, but find exactly this mindset in the C of E (I’m ordained) – lots of high-flown theories, precious little practice, almost no ‘trickle-down’ effect. Sometimes I think it’s the wrong way round: the practitioners should talk to the theologians, and get them to develop theology for the practice. That seems to be God’s way often … the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost … took the church a long time and Paul the apostle to work out what that meant theologically, and Paul certainly always held theology and practice closely together.

So, my question is this – or consideration of a bigger problem.

Mission should be rooted in the church, working on the theory that God instituted the church rather than mission agencies to reach this world.

Caveat: Yes, agencies are able to do some things that individual churches or denominations can’t do, no problem with that.

How are church leaders supposed to understand theology, mission theology, practice and pastoral care (for want of an example), oh, and probably some UK charity laws too, and be effective leaders?

How do missiologists help and inspire church leaders to send and equip their congregations for what God has called us to do?

I really don’t know how church leaders are supposed to do everything that their congregations expect, much less the additional stuff that comes from legal responsibilities and the expectations of mission agencies and others.

I have some thoughts which might emerge as a blog post at some point!

I do see this as a particular instance of the general disconnect between “theology” (as carried out in certain quarters, which I only read about occasionally!) and practice (as carried on in churches).

But regarding “Perhaps it will be another decade or so before a generation comes into leadership who are heavily influenced by thinking about the Mission of God” – surely ‘missio dei’ has been around for about 90 years; I’m pretty sure it was a focus in my bible college in the 1980s; I’ve had time to be a mission leader (briefly) after that, and to ‘move on’ into a different career & local church life (& now leadership). But not time (or interest, frankly), to keep up with ‘ivory towers’!

Thanks again for the blog, Eddie. You often post things that I share with my fellow elders (or more widely).

Missio Dei emerged out of an IMC conference in Germany in the 1950s, but it wasn’t really adopted by evangelicals till the 90s and even then there has been a lot of different understandings of what it means.

Thanks for the encouragement, Peter. I’m glad the blog is useful.

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