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Mission as Prophetic Dialogue

Author: Stephen Bevans, SVD
Subject: Profetic dialog
Language: English, Spanish

“Prophetic dialogue” is a phrase that has its origins in the 2000 General Chapter of my religious congregation, the Society of the Divine Word, but over the last two decades it has caught on as a fresh and powerful way to speak about missionary thinking and practice.[1]

As I have developed it in the last few years, prophetic dialogue arises out of a deep spirituality and habit of contemplation. It is a way that disciples discern what God is doing in the world and joining in, to allude to a wonderful phrase of former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.[2] It can be done by a disciple herself or himself, but it is best done in community, in a spirit of mutual trust where everyone is convinced that “everyone has a piece of the wisdom,” a different piece, but an important piece.[3] Reflecting, praying, and discussing—even arguing—together, a community engages in a real exercise of contextual theologizing, examining a particular situation or locality, connecting the situation with the theological tradition and missiological insights, and then coming to a decision for action. This dialogue is the first step in the process of prophetic dialogue. The goal of this dialogue is to discover what kind of prophetic action needs to be taken, in the light of what God is already doing or is calling to be done.

It may be that the community’s dialogue would result in a decision to engage in an attitude or a practice of dialogue—a truly prophetic act in some situations. Such a decision might be to initiate or continue a “dialogue of life,” in the context of where the community does mission—being present and available to the people among whom it works. Or it might mean a dialogue of action as the community works with people of other faiths or no faith in meeting the needs of the local community: food banks, clinics, counseling services, for example. Or it might mean discovering together the riches of one another’s beliefs and spirituality.

But other decisions of prophetic action might be the result of the basic dialogue of reflection and discernment. It might be offering words and actions of hope in almost hopeless situations, like those in areas of violence, or after natural disasters, or in times like the present Covid-19 pandemic. It might mean making sure people receive accurate information—a real service in some situations where misinformation or a narrative of the lie is prevalent. It might mean standing up to injustice and greed, or working for a more equitable distribution of wealth, or, today, working for equitable distribution of vaccines. Perhaps in some situations, if the Spirit “opens a door,” to the proclamation of the gospel, this may be the prophetic action in which the community decides to engage. When we do this, however, we have to make sure that the message we offer is contextually relevant and faithfully expressed. As we dialogue together, we will discern where God’s Spirit is working and so we can join in, and the Spirit will guide us in our participation. In what was probably his last written article, Robert Schreiter—a participant in many of these SEDOS Seminars—emphasized that prophetic dialogue was more than trying to reconcile two ways of doing mission, where some emphasize a dialogical stance and other emphasize either an evangelistic or prophetic liberation stance. Rather, he writes, it “represents something that must characterize any missionary discourse when living between the times in search of deep transformation.”[4] Such times, certainly, are our own.

[1] See, for example, Bevans and Schroeder, Constants in Context; José Antunes da Silva, Prophetic Dialogue: Identity and Mission of the Divine Word Missionaries (Siegburg, Germany: Franz Schmitt Verlag, 2021); Rosalia Meza, Toward a New Praxis-Oriented Missiology: Rediscovering Paulo Freire’s Concept of Conscientizaçao and Enhancing Christian Mission as Prophetic Dialogue (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2020); Bradford E. Hinze, Prophetic Obedience: Ecclesiology for a Dialogical Church (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2016); Tim Noble, Mission from the Perspective of the Other: Drawing Together on Holy Ground (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2018); Cathy Ross and Stephen Bevans, ed., Mission on the Road to Emmaus: Constants, Context, and Prophetic Dialogue (London / Maryknoll, NY: SCM / Orbis Books, 2015; Bevans, “Theologies of Mission.”

[2] Rowan Williams, cited in Kirsteen Kim, Joining in with the Spirit: Connecting World Church and Local Mission (London: Epworth Press, 2009), 1.

[3] Mary Benet McKinney, Shared Wisdom: A Process for Group Decision Making (Valencia, CA: Tabor, 1987).

[4] Robert J. Schreiter, “Locating European Mission in a Wounded World in Deep Transformation,” Mission Studies 37 (2020): 342.



Stephen Bevans, SVD
Stephen Bevans, SVD

2 responses

  1. “…if the Spirit “opens a door,” to the proclamation of the gospel, this may be the prophetic action in which the community decides to engage”, it is true. It makes me to ask if the synodal method not the new prophetic vocie?

  2. Good intuition, Fr Saju! In one of his lectures, Fr. Steve said that prophetic dialogue harmonizes very well with the idea of the synodal path, and it can be used as a method to carry it out.

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