The Missional Helix—Theological Reflection

The previous missiological reflection described the Missional Helix and attempted to show the intertwining, inseparable nature of theological reflection, cultural analysis, historical perspective, and strategy formation within the context of spiritual formation. This blog describes the role of theology within the Missional Helix.

A theology of mission describes the heart and motivation of God and thereby defines the rationale for mission. It identifies what God is about in his world and why he is doing what he is doing. Christian ministers then are able to understand God’s purposes and discern God’s will for their lives. Reflecting on these theologies leads them to ask, “How do our lives and ministries reflect God?” or “How do we design patterns of life and models of ministry which reflect the kingdom of God?”

RudderFor example, a theology of mission is like the rudder of a ship which guides the mission of God and provides direction. My wife is fond of remembering how our children frequently wanted to “drive” when we took them on pedal boats. At times, they were so intent on pedaling—making the boat move—that they held the rudder in an extreme position, and we went in circles. Realizing their mistake but still intent on pedaling, they would move the rudder from one extreme to the other, so that we zigzagged across the lake. Without the foundation of a missional theology, Christian leaders likewise zigzag from fad to fad, from one theological perspective and related philosophies of ministry to another. A theology of mission, like the rudder of a ship, provides practical direction for Christian ministry.

BoatA theology of mission is also like the engine of a ship, propelling the mission of God forward. One spring, my wife and I taught at Abilene Christian University’s campus abroad program in Montevideo, Uruguay. During the semester, we traveled with our students to Iguazu Falls, a spectacular waterfall between Brazil and Argentina. One highlight of our visit was a motorboat excursion against the mighty current of the river almost to the foot of the falls. I was impressed not only by the immensity of the water’s flow but also by the power of the engine to push the boat up the river against the surge. A mission theology, like the engine of a ship, provides the power that enables finite humans to carry God’s infinite mission against the currents of popular cultures.

As these metaphors illustrate, theology is indispensable to the mission of God. A theology of mission provides both direction and empowerment for developing practices of missions.

Each of these four internal elements of the Missional Helix (theology, culture, history, and strategy) is essential in reflecting on and planning for Christian ministry. Theological reflection, however, is the beginning point for ministry formation and the most significant element within the internal structure of the spiral. In order to mirror the purposes and mind of God, all missiological decisions must be rooted both implicitly and explicitly in biblical theology.

Too many missionaries—while acknowledging the Bible as the Word of God—allow culture rather than Scripture to shape their core understandings of the church. The Bible is used to proof-text practice rather than to define the church’s essence. Lacking a biblically rooted ecclesiology, the teachings and practices of the church are likely to be shaped either implicitly by the dominant evangelical culture or explicitly by random surveys to ascertain what people want. A biblical understanding of the church’s nature enables missionaries to plant and nurture churches that are rooted in the mission of God rather than in presuppositions of popular culture.

The church today is reaping the harvest of its own cultural accommodation.  I remember sitting in a congregational meeting 25 years ago when the words, “meeting felt needs,” were used 16 times in 30 minutes.  Although these words expressed the need for Christian sensitivity, within them were also seeds of the slow demise of Christianity in North America. Cultural accommodation began to supersede living Christ-formed lives transformed into God’s image (2 Cor. 3:18).

Missional Helix for BlogThe Missional Helix proposes that missionaries use Scripture to form a biblical understanding of the church. For instance, Paul, in Ephesians 2:19–22, uses multiple metaphors to describe the nature of the church. The church is a new nation:  Christians are “no longer foreigners and strangers” but “fellow citizens” in a community of faith (v. 19). The church is a family, or God’s “household” (v. 19). The church is a holy temple, well constructed, with each part joined together and built around Jesus Christ, the chief cornerstone (vv. 20–22). This fellowship comes into existence through conversion: people dead in sin (2:1–3) have been made alive with Christ (vv. 4–7) by God’s grace (vv. 8–10). Paul stacks metaphors one on another to illustrate a redeemed fellowship brought together under Christ (1:3–11) and existing “for the praise of his glory” (v. 12). These perspectives form an inspired picture of God’s divine community.

Stuart Murray says that often “mission work is done naively out of human planning rather than beginning with understandings of the nature and purposes of God and then moving from these theological frameworks to practice.” Church planters, he says, “operate within theological frameworks, but often these are assumed rather than articulated and adopted uncritically rather than as the result of reflection. Theological principles may influence strategy and practice less than unexamined tradition or innovative methodology” (2001, Church Planting: Laying Foundations, p. 39).

Theological reflection, however, extends beyond textual study. Christian ministers must realize that all readers understand and apply Scripture within their historical traditions, based on their rational systems of thought, and formed by their experience. The missionary therefore must be cognizant of four resources that shape theological reflection: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience (Stone and Duke 1996, 43–54). For example, in rural, face-to-face cultures, Christians tend to perceive the church as a “family”; in modern, industrial contexts, as a “business”; and in postmodern, informational cultures, as a “network,” or sometimes as a “community.” Missionaries and ministers, as theological “meaning makers,” must theologically reflect on the connotation of these metaphors, using all four resources.


  • Chapter 3 of Missions: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Strategies on “Theological Foundations of Missions,” pp. 63-64.
  • Chapter 13 of Missions: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Strategies, on “The Missional Helix,” pp. 311-312

Previous Blogs on the Missional Helix:

Dr. Gailyn Van Rheenen, Facilitator of Church Planting and Renewal

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3 Replies to “The Missional Helix—Theological Reflection”

  1. Hi Gailyn,

    In my limited church planting experience, I agree that contextualization and the pressing need to be culturally relevant has superseded our commitment to lay a solid theological foundation. I don’t know if it comes from a “I’ve been to seminary and I already took a ‘Introduction to Missions’ course,” or because I am an American and we are pragmatists to the nth degree, or simply out of laziness, but the mission field has revealed several areas where my theology has been found to be anemic or missing entirely.

    For example, it didn’t take very long to realize that our underdeveloped theology of the Holy Spirit was a liability and created a team culture where we were giving lip service to God in our team meetings and then leaving those meetings still thinking that the growth of the church plant depended upon our knowledge, people skills, charisma, or work ethic. This led us to look to others for answers instead of trusting in God and his guiding hand. While I am so thankful for those other voices that speak into the church-planting world, they can never take the place of learning to hear from and obey the voice of God.

    Another complication we had was in our biblical understanding of the church. Half of the team, unknowingly, proposed to simply replicate their past church experiences, and the other half wanted to create a worship gathering that was seeker-friendly and culturally relevant. What emerged was a church that had more form than substance. While we have worked hard to remedy that issue, we would have saved ourselves a lot of heartache if we had simply developed a proper theology of the church from the beginning.

    Building a theological foundation is not an option. If developed correctly the theological framework will act like guide rails in your church planting journey. When times get dark (and they will) and you cannot see the next step in front of you, they will not only guide your steps along the path but also protect you from falling off the cliff into the pit of syncretism or dogmatic traditionalism.

    Three books that have helped begin this theological process (besides Gailyn’s book) are:

    The Mission of God by Christopher J.H. Wright
    Announcing the Kingdom by Arthur Glasser
    Introduction to Ecclesiology by Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen

    1. Thanks for these reflections. Very well said. This blog comes out of a chapter called “The Missional Helix” in the Missions: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Strategy (Zondervan 2014). The Missional Helix is basically the organizational structure of the book with the first 5 chapters giving a Theology of Mission. May God bless you on your journey. Email me at if I can be of personal assistance on your journey in God’s mission.


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