Mission of the Spirit


  • Stephen Bevans

“The Holy Spirit is the principal agent of the whole of the church's mission.”

“Mission is finding out where the Spirit is at work, and joining in.”

These two lines are from two of the most revered religious leaders of our time. The first was written by John Paul II in his landmark encyclical, “The Mission of the Redeemer.” The second is from a speech to evangelical Anglicans by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.1

It is with the same conviction and the same faith in the Holy Spirit that the document, Together Towards Life, Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes, we present to you this morning has been written.

It is with the same conviction and same faith in the Holy Spirit that this document proposes a fresh, dynamic approach to engaging in the work of mission and evangelism in today's changing landscapes.

Mission, the document proclaims, is rooted in the overflowing love and world-embracing communion of the triune God.2 God is mission. That mission is the creation, protection, and redemption of all creation.

Mission is about cosmic flourishing. God's mission works with and within all creation to lead it to justice and peace. God's mission works with and within all creation to lead it to life in abundance.3 God's mission is God's holy mystery calling the entire creation into life-giving communion through Jesus the Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit.4

The Spirit is God's power present and active from the first nanosecond of creation (see Gen. 1:2). The Spirit is God's power guiding the formation of gases and countless numbers of stars.5 The Spirit is God's power guiding the process of emerging life – microbes, koalas, elephants, trees, human beings on this tiny planet in an average size galaxy, and perhaps life on so many more than we can imagine.6 The Spirit is God's power at the origins of the world's religions,7 and the creative, healing, prophetic, and life-giving presence of God in Israel's history.

The Spirit is God's power taking flesh and a human face in the life and atoning work of Jesus of Nazareth. It is the Spirit who anointed Jesus at his baptism in the Jordan. It is the Spirit who worked through him in preaching good news to the poor, healing the lame, giving sight to the blind, proclaiming forgiveness to sinners in a year of favour of the Lord (Luke 4:18; Matt. 11:2-5) – he came that humanity might have life, and have it more abundantly (John 10:10). It is the Spirit in whom he cried out Abba, Father (Luke 10:21-22), and it was surely the Spirit who gave him the courage to endure his passion and death on the cross for our salvation.

It is in the Spirit that the Father raised him from the dead (Rom. 8:11), and it is the Spirit that Jesus breathed on the disciples, sending them as the Father had sent him, so that they would be agents of life as well (John 20:22-23).8 That same Spirit anointed those fearful, timid disciples at Pentecost, in the same way that Jesus himself had been anointed. 9 And it was the Spirit, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, who expanded the early community's vision to see that all peoples, all nations, all cultures, all lands are included in God's offer of abundant life (see Acts 2-11).10

The Spirit leads us – together – towards life. Together in the Spirit we commit ourselves to lead our world towards life. That life comes in its fullness when women and men accept Jesus' identity as God's true icon among us (Col. 1:15), who has poured out life-giving forgiveness in his ministry, death, and resurrection, and who has shared his Spirit with us.

We acknowledge that it is the Spirit who is the principal agent of communicating that good, life-giving news, and that our task is first of all to find out where the Spirit is at work in the world, and then to join in that life-giving work.

What this document proclaims is that the Spirit is at work in movements of eco-justice throughout the world, from tree-huggers in India to tree-planters in Zimbabwe, from green seminary projects in the US to Green Parties in Europe, from efforts to save species in the Brazilian rainforests to efforts to save the whales in our oceans.

Mission is recognizing that here the Spirit is at work and calls Christians to join in.11

What this document proclaims is that the Spirit is at work in movements throughout the world that privilege the poor and the marginalized. It proclaims boldly that mission is not so much to such poor and marginalized peoples as from them to those of us at the privileged centre. They are where the Spirit is working, and the task of all Christians is to join in in action and solidarity, resistance and struggle.12

What this document proclaims is that the Spirit is at work among all cultures, all peoples, and all religions, and that the work of contextualizing or inculturating the gospel – as well as the hard, difficult, and sometimes dangerous work of inter-religious dialogue – is where the Spirit is at work, calling us to join in.13

What this document proclaims is that the Spirit is at work in the hearts of all women and men, calling them gently yet persuasively to the way, the life, and the truth found in Jesus of Nazareth, the Savior and Redeemer of the world.

It is Jesus who shows us the face of the Father, especially on the cross, where he gave up his Spirit (John 19:31), and in the resurrection, when he shared his Spirit with us, the church.

It is the work of spreading this good news of the true face of God that the Spirit calls us to join in. When we see the true face of God, our hearts are stirred to conversion and repentance, our sins are forgiven, we turn to one another in peace, we work together for justice, we band together to protect creation, we recognize God's Spirit in all peoples, cultures, and religions.14

The Spirit is the principal agent of mission. Mission is finding out where the Spirit is working, and joining in. Veni, Sancte Spiritus. Come, Holy Spirit. Ven, Espiritu Santo. Vien Sant Esprit, oh so seo seong lyeong nim! Lead us together towards justice and peace! Lead us together toward life!


  1. 1

    John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Redemptoris Missio (RM), http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_07121990_redemptoris-missio_en.html, §21; Rowan Williams, “Fresh Expressions” website, http://www.freshexpressions.org.uk/guide/about/principles/transform. Cited also in Kirsteen Kim, Joining in with the Spirit: Connecting World Church and Local Mission (London: Epworth Press, 2010), 1.

  2. 2

    Jooseop Keum , ed., Together Towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes, with a Practical Guide (Geneva: WCC Publications, 2013), 46, §2 and 19. Hereafter, TTL.

  3. 3

    TTL, §1, §102.

  4. 4

    Ibid., §105.

  5. 5

    See Denis Edwards, Breath of Life: A Theology of the Creator Spirit (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 2004), 48, 172.

  6. 6

    See Thomas F. O'Meara, Vast Universe: Extraterrestrials and Christian Revelation (New York and Mahwah: Paulist Press, 2012).

  7. 7

    See Vatican Council II, Decree on the Missionary Nature of the Church (Ad Gentes), §6, with special attention to the first footnote to this paragraph. See also Vatican Council II, Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate), §2; RM §28.

  8. 8

    TTL §13, §14.

  9. 9

    See Yves Congar, I Believe in the Holy Spirit (Complete Three Volumes in One Volume) (New York: Crossroad, 1997), Vol. I, 19.

  10. 10

    Stephen B. Bevans and Roger P. Schroeder, Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2004), 1031.

  11. 11

    TTL, §§19-23.

  12. 12

    Ibid., §§36-54.

  13. 13

    Ibid., §§93-100.

  14. 14

    Ibid., §§80-85.


  • Rev. Prof. Stephen Bevans is a priest in the Catholic missionary congregation of the Society of the Divine Word (SVD), US. Ordained in 1971, he served as a missionary from 1972 to 1981 in the Philippines. He is currently professor of Mission and Culture at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.