Missio Dei is a Latin Christian theological term that can be translated as the "mission of the God," or the "sending of God."
Missio Dei as a term and concept became increasingly popular in the church from the second half of the 20th century and is a key concept in missiology being used by theologians such as David Bosch, Lesslie Newbigin, Darrell Guder, Alan Roxburgh, David Dunbar, Steve Taylor, Alan Hirsch, Dwight Smith, Martin Robinson, William Storrar, Tim Keller, and Ed Stetzer, as well as missional networks such as the Gospel and Culture Network (Guder), Forge Mission Training Network Australia (Hirsch), Together in Mission UK, and the Allelon Foundation (Roxburgh).
The received history holds that, in 1934, Karl Hartenstein, a German missiologist, coined the phrase in response to Karl Barth. This language, it is argued, was picked up at the 1952 Willingen conference of the International Missionary Council (IMC) and developed theologically by Lutheran theologian, Georg Vicedom.
A more recent account from John Flett maintains that while Hartenstein did introduce the actual term "missio Dei," he did not locate that mission in the doctrine of the Trinity. Such reference to the Trinity appeared in the "American report," a study document prepared for the 1952 Willingen conference, under the leadership of Paul Lehmann and H. Richard Niebuhr. This document suggested a link between revolutionary movements in history and "God's mission." Many of the later problems with missio Dei stem from these origins, and especially the failure to ground the concept in a robust account of the Trinity.
The acknowledged concerns with missio Dei also meant that reference to the concept went through a hiatus until it was given concise description by David Bosch. According to David J. Bosch, "mission is not primarily an activity of the church, but an attribute of God. God is a missionary God." Jurgen Moltmann says, "It is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfill in the world; it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the church." According to one opinion:
During the past half a century or so there has been a subtle but nevertheless decisive shift toward understanding mission as God’s mission. During preceding centuries mission was understood in a variety of ways. Sometimes it was interpreted primarily in soteriological terms: as saving individuals from eternal damnation. Or it was understood in cultural terms: as introducing people from East and the South to the blessings and privileges of the Christian West. Often it was perceived in ecclesiastical categories: as the expansion of the church (or of a specific denomination). Sometimes it was defined salvation-historically: as the process by which the world—evolutionary or by means of a cataclysmic event—would be transformed into the kingdom of God. In all these instances, and in various, frequently conflicting ways, the intrinsic interrelationship between christology, soteriology, and the doctrine of the Trinity, so important for the early church, was gradually displaced by one of several versions of the doctrine of grace …
Mission was understood as being derived from the very nature of God. It was thus put in the context of the doctrine of the Trinity, not of ecclesiology or soteriology. The classical doctrine on the missio Dei as God the Father sending the Son, and God the Father and the Son sending the Spirit was expanded to include yet another “movement”: The Father, Son and the Holy Spirit sending the church into the world. As far as missionary thinking was concerned, this linking with the doctrine of the Trinity constituted an important innovation …
Our mission has not life of its own: only in the hands of the sending God can it truly be called mission. Not least since the missionary initiative comes from God alone …
Speaking on behalf of The Gospel and Our Culture Network, Darrell Guder writes, "We have come to see that mission is not merely an activity of the church. Rather, mission is the result of God’s initiative, rooted in God’s purposes to restore and heal creation. ‘Mission’ means ‘sending,’ and it is the central biblical theme describing the purpose of God’s action in human history.... We have begun to learn that the biblical message is more radical, more inclusive, more transforming than we have allowed it to be. In particular, we have begun to see that the church of Jesus Christ is not the purpose or goal of the gospel, but rather its instrument and witness.... God’s mission is calling and sending us, the church of Jesus Christ, to be a missionary church in our own societies, in the cultures in which we find ourselves.”
Alan Hirsch believes the word missional "goes to the heart of the very nature and purpose of the church itself." He continues, “So a working definition of missional church is a community of God’s people that defines itself, and organizes its life around, its real purpose of being an agent of God’s mission to the world. In other words, the church’s true and authentic organizing principle is mission. When the church is in mission, it is the true church. The church itself is not only a product of that mission but is obligated and destined to extend it by whatever means possible. The mission of God flows directly through every believer and every community of faith that adheres to Jesus. To obstruct this is to block God’s purposes in and through God’s people.”
Peters states that the Bible claims “the end result of such missio Dei is the glorification of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”