What is the Missional Gospel? Part 1: A Survey of Perspectives
By Keith Whitfield
An adjective is causing a controversy. The adjective “missional” has become a popular description of the church and its ministry for many people in recent years. The use of this modifier has attracted concern and criticism from more than a few people.
Some have expressed concern because it seems faddish. It might be. No doubt, there is a certain danger with fads in that people adopt something new and different assuming that because it is new, it is better than the old. Another danger of fads is that people just get caught up in them, often times without much reflection. But, the truth is that fads are nothing new, and the fact that something has growing and recent popularity among a wide group of people does not preclude it from being helpful.
Others have expressed concern because it originates out of a movement of mainline churches. This concern also is not without merit. The origins of any idea are important to understand. So, because the mainline church is in fact where the recent use of the phrase missio Dei and the phrase “missional church” originates, this calls for careful reading and analysis from pastors and theologians from other theological perspectives. Nevertheless, I am not sure that this means that the “missional” adjective cannot be applied to express something helpful. Furthermore, I suggest that there may be something to learn from the origins of this movement regarding how the church should relate to its changing culture. What one finds when they read some of the earlier writings is that the “missional” adjective itself is not a theological concept, but a call to have a new disposition towards one’s culture. It is interesting to note that one is hard pressed to find a movement of churches who use this label that have shifted theologically on the nature of the gospel as a result of adopting the term “missional.” Shifts have occurred regarding strategies in ministry and how the gospel is expressed, but not on what the gospel is. You may find individuals who have shifted their view on the nature of the gospel, but when they do, it is common to see them associate with a different group of churches or movement. Whereas these personal shifts may be alarming and tragic, it does not indicate a widespread shift within a movement of churches.
Others have expressed concern over the “missional” label because it seems to distract from global missions in frontier territories. The idea in this concern is that when “mission(s)” is used to refer more broadly to how Western churches engage their culture, it distracts from the biblical calling to reach the nations. This concern is a legitimate one. The church has a distinct calling and responsibility to reach the unreached people groups around the world. This responsibility needs to remain central to the church’s mission. However, churches also have a responsibility to reach their culture. When their culture has changed and the receptivity to the Christian message has declined, then the church may be called to adopt a new posture in its own land to engage its culture. This recognition has led to the adoption of “missional” as a description of the ministry of the church.
The most sweeping concern and critique of “missional” comes from the unease that social justice will replace the verbal gospel witness to individuals. This critique has recently been expressed with the question, “Is the God of the Missional Gospel too Small?” We understand where this concern comes from. There has been a growing interest across denominational and theological lines promoting the church’s role in social justice. The arguments often used for this call are rooted in the gospel, and sometimes they obscure the gospel, muddying the waters as to what the gospel is and what it means to share the gospel. But, not everyone associated with the adjective “missional” is guilty of this offense. More than that, not everyone standing in the muddy waters wants to be standing there. They need help to sort these things out. I am not convinced that a widespread, indiscriminate critique of the word “missional” is the right way to help them. Further, it is true that not everyone who is promoting the church’s responsibility toward the poor has collapsed the gospel into social action. Christopher Wright, in The Mission of God, argues that God’s mission is to make himself known, and this mission is only accomplished through the living God making himself known in the person and work of Jesus Christ. On that basis, Wright demonstrates with cross-centered clarity and balance the relationship between evangelism and social action. He writes,
[A]lmost any starting point can be appropriate, depending possibly on what is the most pressing or obvious need. We can enter the circle of missional response at any point on the circle of human need. But ultimately we must not rest content until we have included with our own missional response the wholeness of God’s missional response to the human predicament-and that of course includes the good news of Christ, the cross and resurrection, the forgiveness of sin, the gift of eternal life that is offered to men and women through our witness to the gospel and the hope of God’s new creation. That is why I speak of ultimacy rather than primacy. Mission may not always begin with evangelism. But mission that does not ultimately include declaring the Word and the name of Christ, the call to repentance, and faith and obedience has not completed its task. It is defective mission, not holistic mission. (The Mission of God, 318-319).
Survey of Perspectives on the Missional Church
The truth is that there is no consensus as to what is meant by being “missional.” There appears to be three distinct groups of churches waving the “missional” banner over their ecclesiology. These groups may be distinguished in this way: the “evangelical missional church,” “emergent missional church,” and “ecumenical missional church.” Brian McLaren and the book Emerging Churches by Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger represent the “emergent missional church” model. For the “ecumenical missional church” perspective, the book Missional Church edited by Darrell Guder serves as the main resource promoting their vision of the churches’ mission. The “evangelical missional church” is represented by people like Mark Driscoll, Tim Keller, and Ed Stetzer. The use of the term “evangelical” is used to designate a very select group of missional proponents. I recognize that there are some missional thinkers and church leaders who may use the word “evangelical” to describe their position that may have different positions than those that we have chosen to represent this group. That, however, does not take away from one of the purposes of these posts, which is to demonstrate there are perspectives on the nature of the gospel and on approaches to evangelism among those using the adjective “missional.”
It is true that these three groups have common emphases, but the goal of this series is to demonstrate what distinguishes these three groups from one another and to help clarify what it means to be missional. In the next blog post, I will offer a brief overview of the history of the term “missional.” After that, I will pursue the main focus of this series. To do this, I will compare the respective understandings on what the gospel is and the way the gospel is presented by the missional churches that I identified. The question this series explores is, “does the adjective ‘missional’ shape their view of the gospel and their practice of evangelism?” I seek to demonstrate that the adjective “missional” does not shape the practice of evangelism in any of the three perspectives, but rather, it is the reverse, their view of the gospel shapes their application of what it means to be “missional.” In the final post, I will reflect on how this observation helps us understand what it means to be missional.
Keith Whitfield is pastor of Waverly Baptist Church in Waverly, Virginia, and a doctoral student in theological studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. This post is first in a series of six articles.