Finding our Place in the Heart of God’s Mission

The Center Blog 2017-18 is a year-long album of research, experience and learning of the Center for Parish Development in its 50th year.

In this post, we look to unpack the first of the five previously named key assumptions that are essential for the renewal – the missional transformation – of the church in these times.


The transformation of the church’s mission is to be found in God’s mission.

“The nature and mission of the church are grounded in the nature and missionary activity of the triune God. The mission of the church is to participate in the reconciling love of the triune God who reaches out to a fallen world in Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit brings strangers and enemies into God’s new and abiding community.”

Daniel L. Migliore, “The Missionary God and the Missionary Church,
Princeton Seminary Bulletin, Spring 1998, p. 14.

The church is called to a unique and profound vocation – participation in God’s mission (mission Dei).  As churches seek their footing in this time of nearly constant change, God’s mission will shape their practices, language, and beliefs.

In powerful and practical ways many congregations today are seeking to become renewed in their vision and ministry by discerning afresh their participation in God’s mission.  They are learning how to engage as a faith community in shifting their focus from “our needs and wants”– even survival concerns – to seeking, perceiving, and taking part in God’s concerns.They are finding that discerning and participating in God’s mission is essentially a journey, and once begun becomes a way of life.

By collectively taking part in such a journey a congregation experiences an adventure of spiritual depth, a deeper encounter with Christ, and an engagement with their ministry setting that invites dialogue, learning and mutual partnerships.  Discerning, celebrating and participating in God’s mission stimulate a congregation’s potential, while reclaiming its unique giftedness.  It contributes to forming and even transforming congregational life together while renewing shared purpose and direction for the future.

What does this look like and how does it happen?

Discerning and participating in God’s mission goes to the heart of a congregation’s life – its worship and prayer, its service, outreach and all of its activities.  There is nothing more central to the life, health, and purpose of the congregation.

In practical yet potent ways, this involves a congregation in seeking and studying, praying and singing, learning and dreaming together. The goal is to discover new understandings and to experience afresh what it means to be the church. This is not to capture merely the ideas of key leaders, or even the community as a whole. Rather, the goal is to learn together God’s idea about the church, and explore God’s vision for its life and ministry.  Discerning God’s vision or calling for the church bypasses the usual methods of efficient, rational, and democratic decision making, and instead, involves movement and passion.

To draw the contrast even more sharply:  discerning God’s call is not focused on writing an objective mission statement or even a vision statement.  Imagine instead a communal practice that taps into the deeper hopes, and helps to identify the sources of passion and emotion.  And in sharing those hopes and heart energizes the church.  While linking these congregational gifts with the biblical vision of God’s calling, new possibilities emerge.  Thus, the renewal and transformation of the church’s mission is found in discerning God’s purposes and how a congregation concretely is being called to take part.

How is vision involved?

To say it another way, churches seeking renewal of their life and mission are invited into dreaming God’s dream for the world God loves, and to focus the purpose and practices of their church for serving that dream.

The vocabulary of vision is helpful here, the language of promise, future, and hope.  These hold our sense of reality open to what can yet come to be.  They enable a church in its current circumstances to be outstretched to the future drawing upon the power, promises and possibilities of God.  While taking current realities seriously, they realize that the church can never be defined exactly and exclusively by those realities.  Vision is a powerful resource for the life of the church in the midst of its current situation, providing direction and movement.  “Vision serves the church like the North Star serves the explorer.  When the faith community comes to a turning point, the vision, like the star, gives a sense of direction.” -Ben Campbell Johnson and Glenn McDonald, Imagining A Church in the Spirit: A Task for Mainline Congregations (Eerdmans, 1999), p. 6.

The church is invited to dream God’s dream for its life and ministry, to detect its call to action as its participation in God’s mission of the reconciliation of humanity and the healing of all creation.

Outcomes central to the process:

While the practice of discerning God’s call can take different shape within different contexts, the following six illustrate concrete outcomes central to this practice:

  1. To stimulate broad participation throughout the church in discerning and participating in God’s mission.
  2. To provide biblical, theological, and liturgical resources to cultivate faithful imaginations—the renewed capacity for hoping and dreaming.
  3. To surface, share, and test personal visions, hopes and dreams in the context of discerning a shared vision of God’s will for our church’s future.
  4. To offer processes which create the space, time, and opportunity for meaningful and honest dialogue among members of the church in a caring and supportive setting.
  5. To discover anew and celebrate the giftedness, diversity, and creative potential of the church.
  6. To enable members of the church to give substantive input to the expression of a faithful, hopeful, and compelling vision of God’s calling that will serve to guide the church into the future.

To visualize further what can be involved for congregations concretely, watch this 3-minute video: .  God who is dynamic and active is always present in the midst of changing circumstances, “Behold, I am doing a new thing” (Isa. 43:19).  What is God up to in your congregation and its ministry setting?  And how will you take part?

The opportunity

printer_friendlyThe heart of transformation is to join in God’s mission of creating new life, redeeming and restoring what is broken, and making all things new in partnership with the church. It is to become open to the power, the promise and the possibilities of God’s vision for the church.  It is a communal process inspiring hopes, supporting hopes, and giving back to the church the capacity for dreaming.

Questions for discussion and reflection

  1. Why is discerning and participating in God’s mission (mission Dei) important for the church’s renewal today?
  2. What comes to your mind as you consider a communal process of discerning God’s mission?  What excites you about it?
  3. Consider the “outcomes central to the process” – which of these goals do you wish for your church?  How would you put these hopes for your church into words?
  4. How might a communal process of discernment be different from usual ways of planning the church’s program?

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

Being Faithful and Fruitful in the midst of Our Changing World

50 yearsA year-long album of research, experience and learning of the Center for Parish Development in its 50th year.

The church as “missional” is a sent community, a community called and sent by God into particular cultural-historical contexts. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, the purpose of the church is to discern, to embody, and to proclaim the life-giving gospel of Jesus Christ. This description of the church assumes that the church has something to offer the world that the world cannot know on its own. And more, it assumes that what the church has to offer is important, that it will make a difference to the life of the world. Much more than social service or social action, more than church growth or church planting, mission involves the identification, confrontation, and transformation of all that blocks the flourishing of life as intended by the one who came “that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

In the midst of a rapidly changing cultural context, where it often appears that the forces of fear and hostility have overcome the expressions of love and compassion, the church is challenged to transform its basic identity and vocation—to go to its very roots. Being faithful to a living and dynamic God who is actively present in changing historical situations—“Behold, I am doing a new thing” (Isa. 43:19)—requires that the church itself must be adventurous and open to radical change. For the community of God’s people to “sing to the Lord a new song” (Isa. 42:10), it must learn new ways to put the questions, develop new frameworks for dealing with them, and craft new proposals for shaping the church’s ministry and mission.

The Center for Parish Development has been a partner-in-learning with the church in general and local congregations in particular, discovering how to discern and participate in God’s mission more faithfully and fruitfully—at the speed of change. As promised last month we begin to outline some of the major themes and practices that support this time of transformation in the life of the church, offering hope and renewal of hearts and minds.


Here are five key assumptions that are crucial even essential for the renewal – the missional transformation – of the church as the world continues to change at a dizzying pace.  We look to unpack each of these to better understand biblical and theological foundations and their implications for ministry, the identification of practices and processes that are making a difference.

1.  The transformation of the church’s mission in this place and time is to be found in God’s mission.

God who is always doing “a new thing” (Isaiah 43:19) calls the church to discern, celebrate, and participate in God’s mission afresh.  The heart of transformation is to join in God’s mission of creating new life, redeeming and restoring what is broken, and making all things new in partnership with the church.

Implications for the church’s learning: If being the church is God’s idea, how will we ask and answer “What is God calling us to be and do NOW?” How might we engage our faith community in a journey of spiritual depth, changing the focus from our needs/wants to taking part in God’s mission? How will we cultivate our church as a discerning community, celebrating, and taking part in God’s mission?

2.  The church, therefore, is called to bring the good news of the kingdom into engagement with the deep yearnings and concrete challenges of its worldly context.

Implications for the church’s learning: How will we discover the contours of the church’s changing cultural context and the implications for our life and ministry? How might we cultivate redemptive relationships in community, that is, in partnership with neighbors in our ministry setting? How will we move beyond coffee-hour relationships with each other, or marketing strategies to our neighbors, and meeting one another in newer and deeper ways of caring and supporting?

practice3.  To engage today’s context with the good news requires the formation of a disciple community – the faithful body of Jesus Christ – in both proclamation and practice.

Implications  for the church’s learning: What would be involved in forming ourselves as a community of disciples? How can we cultivate a climate of learning and mutuality within and beyond our church? How might we embrace a commitment to becoming people of the Way as our way of life?

4.  In many churches this requires a radically new vision, new ways of thinking, and new patterns of behavior. 

Implications for the church’s learning: How can we help one another to see more clearly – with the eyes of faith – to what is really real? How can we make the Christian practice of discerning God’s calling central to the on-going life of this church?

5.  The church – leaders and members together – are given talents and gifts by the Spirit. Out of abundance and generosity God is giving gifts for creating, restoring and renewing life – abundant life – and for the work of ministry.


Implications for the church’s learning: How, before the watching world, might our church become a community of overwhelming gratitude and extraordinary generosity? How will we support one another to discover, own, develop and use the gifts God has given us? How might we become equipped with skills, support, and resources for leading the journey?

Questions for discussion and reflection

Consider the key assumptions raised above: 

a.  What strikes you about these foundations for renewal?

b.  What are some common assumptions about renewal that you have heard?

c.  How do these key assumptions help frame what will be involved in the church’s missional transformation?

d.  What are your hopes about transforming the church’s mission? What are your concerns?

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

Going to the Roots of Renewal and Hope

A year-long album of research, experience and learning of the Center for Parish Development in its 50th year.

In 2018 the Center for Parish Development will be celebrating 50 years in service to the church.  We – the staff, partners, Board, advisors, and clients of the Center – have learned much that is worthy of attention in the church today.  In the North American context where so much has changed we want to share some of what is making a difference. We will be sharing fruit from this work in this Center Blog over coming months to celebrate the Center’s 50th Anniversary.


The staff of the Center for Parish Development

So let’s begin.

I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert. Isaiah 43:19 NRSV

This quote is one of many throughout the biblical narrative that points to the God to whom the apostle Paul refers  —

“…who gives life to the dead and
calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17).

Many churches today are considering their need for renewal.  But it is transformation that the biblical narrative refers us to:

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds,
so that you may discern what is the will of God—
what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2)

Transformation involves congregations in learning to make major changes in their ways of perceiving their calling and mission, in ways of thinking about their calling and mission, and in ways of living out and demonstrating that calling and mission. 

What is this reframing?When the Center was founded in 1968, churches in North America were taking to the streets – that is where the energy and creative edge was located as the church sought to enter into the world’s fray and engage society’s great challenges toward peace, reconciliation and justice.  But at the same time also, all of the statistical indicators of church life – size of membership, worship attendance, income, and status – began a steady decline that continues to this day.  Today, survival concerns haunt many churches erected over these decades and before.  How do we get more members, especially younger people? is a question heard almost everywhere.  The challenges facing the church today are many and varied, often presenting themselves as problems to be solved, or failures that need fixing, all with a great sense of urgency.

What we have found through the long and steady work of the Center for Parish Development is that churches are energized to begin a journey of renewal when the conversation’s focus is shifted.  Heads bent over with worry and concern, with ringing hands and dejected faces, begin to lift when the starting point for their conversation about their church is re-considered or even challenged.  What is this reframing? We experience the reframing in this way:  It is not merely renewal, it is missional transformation.  That is, discerning and taking part in God’s mission in and for the sake of the world God loves.

So what does that mean?

The mission of the church starts with God’s mission.  Consider these words from the Apostle Paul:

So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. (2 Cor 5:17-19).

The mission of the church is to discern, celebrate, and participate in God’s mission.  The greatest challenge facing churches today is to develop sensitivities, vision, and practices for taking part in what God is doing in the world today.   The many efforts churches are making to “keep up” or “survive” are futile if this fundamental challenge is not addressed.  This challenge often presents a learning curve for churches.  Indeed, missional transformation of the church is a learning journey of spiritual depth with congregation leaders and participants together as they discern and embody God’s mission anew.

To reframe the challenges churches are experiencing today as a theological challenge and strategic opportunity is to take up the journey of living missionally. And that is, essentially, to consider a congregation’s life and ministry in all of its aspects in light of its participation in God’s mission.

Taking part in God’s mission invites a congregation to become open to the Holy Spirit together, to hear the Gospel as though for the first time. As a congregation it involves allowing the Spirit to examine and convert the faith community into Gospel-like habits and fresh attitudes.  Missional transformation involves engaging hearts and minds with the gift and call of the Gospel for God’s mission in these times.  It is NOT as much about developing new programs and activities for the church as it IS about re-discovering and cultivating the church’s core and life-giving practices.  It is an opportunity to discover the motivation and energy for being God’s “sent” community in very concrete ways in a very real world.

God’s mission has a church

Consider the daily news on the web, in the newspaper, cable TV, radio talk, or even the conversation with friends and neighbors.  It doesn’t take long to realize how much the world is in need of a new creation!  God’s mission is a mission of hope, healing, and reconciliation for the world.  And God’s mission has a church – a body of people called to a common, singular purpose to proclaim and embody God’s New Creation in the middle of the old.

Most folks want good things for their church’s future.  Why wouldn’t they?  But the temptation is to think that a new parking lot or more vibrant worship is the primary need, or maybe a dynamic outreach program, more satisfied members, or better sermons.  While deep down, there is a sense that something is missing if these “needs” become the focus and starting point.What a difference it makes when the understanding is shared that the starting point is God.  The church, after all, is God’s idea, not ours.  The church has no mission apart from God’s mission to the world.

Instead of starting with our needs, let us start with God:  God is powerfully present in this world, actively loving the world and calling a people to share in that work.  Imagine your church as a people chosen and called for this purpose (I Peter 2:9-10).   Imagine your church existing for this purpose alone.  God’s mission has a church – your church – and is calling your church to bring the good news of the Gospel into engagement with the deep yearnings and concrete challenges of this worldly setting.  Imagine.

Participating in God’s reconciling work in the world is not a solo project for isolated individuals.  God’s reconciling work requires the formation of a disciple community – the contemporary body of Jesus Christ, faithfully working, learning, worshipping, and witnessing together so that all might know, believe, and live by the wonderful Good News of Jesus Christ.  God’s Spirit is forming, reforming and renewing the church in each generation for God’s mission in the world.  God’s mission has a church.

God’s mission has a church because God’s loving purposes on behalf of the whole creation do not just fall from heaven.  Instead, God’s mission gets carried out through God’s active calling, sending, and equipping a body of people to discern, celebrate, and participate in God’s mission. And that ‘body of people’ is the congregation.

Missional transformation then is about what God is doing.  And for the church, missional transformation involves discovering and discerning what God wants to do through us in this time and place for the sake of the world God loves.  Will you join the mission?  Will you seek to discover what God is doing anew, what God wants to do through your congregation now?

In the coming weeks and months as we get started on a year-long, Going to the Roots of Renewal and Hope, a few major themes and practices of missional transformation and hope will be unpacked.  We invite you to come back for more, and to engage in the dialogue through the interactive features in this blog!

Questions for discussion and reflection

  1. What difference does it make to “start with God’s mission” when we are considering how to strengthen and renew our church life and ministry?
  2. In your own words, what would you say an invitation to missional transformation in the church is about?
  3. What are your hopes about missional transformation? What are your fears?

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

Work in the Spirit

This post offers some initial reflection on the contributions of Miroslav Volf. He identifies the wide-ranging significance and implications of work, declaring it is “the basis of individual human life and all human history.” Volf seeks to develop a broad framework for a theological and ethical discussion of work.


Join this conversation by leaving a comment below as you read. Come back to this blog often in coming months as we share key insights of Dr. Phil Kenneson keynote speaker at this year’s convocation, July 21-23, 2016, on the topic of “Redeeming Work: Living Wholly within God’s Reign”.


In his book, Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work, Volf offers a comprehensive definition of work: “Work is honest, purposeful, and methodologically specified social activity whose primary goal is the creation of products or states of affairs that can satisfy the needs of working individuals or their co-creatures, or (if primarily an end in itself) activity that is necessary in order for acting individuals to satisfy their needs apart from the need for the activity itself.”Believing that economic systems should follow the dictates of theological reflection, he suggests three normative principles by which economic systems should be judged: freedom of individuals, satisfaction of the basic needs of all people, and protection of nature from irreparable damage.

The Crisis of Work.

Exploring the “problem of work,” Volf outlines the ways in which current world economic systems are not meeting these criteria. He sees a worldwide crisis manifesting itself in negative attitudes toward work. On the one hand technology has transformed people from crafters to machine workers to machine overseers. The progression obviously has certain economic benefits. On the other hand no society, regardless of its relative industrial progress, has completely solved such problems as child labor, unemployment, discrimination, exploitation, and pollution. Moreover, market forces and corporate decisions beyond the control of rank-and-file laborers alienate them from their jobs and each other.


God’s New Creation.

Turning to a theology of work which reflects upon the nature and consequences of human work, Volf explores the “ultimate significance of work” within the biblical and theological vision of God’s “new creation.” “Christian life is life in the Spirit of the new creation or it is not Christian at all. And the Spirit of God should determine the whole life, spiritual as well as secular, of a Christian. Christian work must, therefore, be done under the inspiration of the Spirit and in the light of the coming new creation.” Such a theology of work is normative since it is about what human beings should desire their work to be. “What people desire is objectively desirable only when it corresponds to what the loving and just God desires for them as God’s creatures. And God desires the new creation for them. New creation is the end of all God’s purposes with the universe, and, as such, either explicates or implicitly is the necessary criterion of all human action that can be considered good.” Thus a theological interpretation of work is valid only if it facilitates the transformation of work toward the coming new creation which will bring God, human beings, and the nonhuman creation into “shalomic” harmony.christian_life

The Role of the Holy Spirit.

Such a theology of human work rests in an understanding of God’s gifting humanity with clear purpose and a variety of abilities (charisms) to enable the fulfillment of that purpose. And at the heart of such a vision is the Holy Spirit. “The Spirit of God calls, endows, and empowers Christians to work in their various vocations. The charismatic nature of all Christian activity is the theological basis for a pneumatological understanding of work.” When the work of human beings exhibits commitment to the new creation (what Paul calls the “fruit of the Spirit”) then the Spirit is working in and through them. For Volf, the whole Christian life is a life of cooperation with God through the presence and activity of the Spirit. “As Christians do their mundane work, the Spirit enables them to cooperate with God in the kingdom of God that ‘completes creation and renews heaven and earth.’”

Questions for discussion and reflection

  1. How would you define “work”? What catches your attention in Volf’s definition?
  2. How well do you see current economic systems fulfilling Volf’s three criteria? Are there other criteria you would add?
  3. In what way does the concept of “God’s new creation” provide a valid framework for a theology of work?
  4. How does thinking of work in terms of the “fruit of the Spirit” impact the role and importance of work?
  5. Why should Christians seek to develop a theology of work?


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


Working with “stuff” in A God-Centered World

convo2016logo150Join this conversation on the theology and practice of ‘daily work.’  Leave a comment as you read, and continue the conversation at the missional church convocation in Chicago area, July 21-23, 2016, Dr. Phil Kenneson keynote speaker.


Living and working within a God-centered world—participating in God’s economy—means establishing a new standard of what is real and what is important. The New Creation inaugurated by Jesus Christ turns things upside down.

Our relationship with possessions is transformed in a God-centered world.

For example, the Gospel of Matthew illustrates an alternative approach to material possessions: Three central teachings can be identified:

(1) “You cannot serve God and mammon” (6:24). The story of the rich young man (19:16-30) tells of a pious Jew, following God’s commandments and living a good life. Yet when confronted with Jesus’ request to “go, sell what you possess…and come, follow me,” his possessions appear to mean more than his salvation.

(2) Acknowledging God as Lord affects the attitude that people have toward material with_gift_spiritgoods. While it is true that life is “more than food, and the body more than clothing” (6:25), both food and clothing are good things (7:11) given by God. Jesus went so far as to liken the reign of God to a marvelous feast (22:1-14). Although appreciating material blessings as God’s gifts, followers of Jesus are not to accumulate possessions or become unduly devoted to them.

(3) God’s people ought to regard material possessions as resources God trusts them to use as God wishes. Rather than storing up earthly treasures for personal use, devotion to God means devotion to the “least,” to those who are hungry and thirsty, the stranger, those who are naked and sick, as well as those who are in prison (25:34-46).

In the Genesis 1 account, all the created world and its resources and riches are pronounced “good.”  The biblical witness then goes on to envision their usage within the context of God’s economy. While we tend to talk about “our money” and “our possessions,” such ownership is illusory since all that exists belongs to God. As gracious gifts given by God, material goods are to be used for God’s purposes. In other words, possessions are not ends in themselves, but have an instrumental value. In a God-centered world, through what human beings receive, make, and possess they are to honor God and participate in God’s redemptive activity.

Questions for discussion and reflection

  1. What happens when we believe that everything we have belongs to God?
  2. What difference would it make in your relationship to material possessions – your stuff – to relate to these within the context of God’s economy?
  3. Read Gal. 5:16-25. This text invites us to “walk by the Spirit.” We might not immediately relate this text to human work or our work lives. Consider these questions:
    • Where do you see evidence of the “works of flesh” within cultural views of work?
    • What changes if the goal of work life is the “fruit of the spirit”?


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