What is the Missional Gospel? Part 5: The Evangelical Missional Church
By Keith Whitfield
At a recent conference, Tim Keller addressed the challenges of evangelism in a post-modern context and gave six principles on how to pursue evangelism in this context. The first principle was “Gospel Theologizing,” and what he meant by this is phrase that all theology should articulate the gospel message. He says our theology should be an exposition of the gospel, and our presentation of the gospel should be situated within the biblical story. In order to engage the post-modern society, he argues, the gospel must fit into a coherent story that interrupts all of life. Ed Stetzer echoes this point as he emphasizes the need to be aware of the changes in our culture and the need to realize that proclaiming the gospel in the West is like cross cultural missions.
The Gospel in the Evangelical Missional Church
In the evangelical missional church, there is an effort to recast the message of the gospel. The recasting does not involve a change in the nature of the gospel, but it rather involves situating the historic orthodox gospel message within the Christian worldview so as to make the gospel clear, coherent, and holistic. Mark Driscoll models this when he writes that to “understand the doctrine of Jesus’ death on the cross, also known as the atonement, we must connect it to the doctrines of God’s character, God’s creation, human sin, and the responses of God to sin and sinners” (Listening to the Beliefs of the Emerging Churches, 29).
What you find in Driscoll’s words is that the gospel message entails the doctrines of God, sin, and God’s response to sin. He affirms that a historic fall affected all humanity, leading everyone to committing sinful actions. He affirms God’s holiness and just punishment towards sin. He affirms that God deals with the problem of forgiving sin by satisfying His holiness and justice through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus. He argues that this view of the atonement matters because “Salvation is defined as deliverance by God from God and his wrath” (Listening to the Beliefs of the Emerging Churches , 34).
This approach to the gospel is related to older approaches to gospel proclamation, like The Four Spiritual Laws booklet: (1) “God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for your life,” (2) “Man is sinful and separated from God,” (3) “Jesus Christ is God’s provision for man’s sin,” (4) “We must individually receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.” However, the new trajectory among missional evangelicals is to situate gospel truth within the story of redemption. The evangelistic impact of this approach is that it offers a story that can confront and challenge the alternative stories people are trying to live.
In a short article, “How Can I Know God?,” Keller argues that the gospel requires that people understand three things: “who we are,” “who God is,” and “what you must do.” The story of redemption tells us that we are created by God and for Him, but we have sinned against him. It also tells us that God is just and loving, and these two characteristics of God come together in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Finally, the story of redemption tells us what we must do, which Keller captures in the words “repent,” “believe,” “pray,” and “follow through.”
Regarding ministry to our changing culture, Driscoll asks, “In our fast-paced and ever-changing culture of insanity, many Christians are prone either to cling to yesterday or to run headlong into tomorrow searching for a home. What’s our goal?” He answers himself,
The gospel requires us to proclaim and embody the full work of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus has accomplished four things which people long for. First, Jesus takes away the sins that separate us from God so that we can be connected to God, which fills our spiritual longings. Second, Jesus takes away the sins that separate us from each other so that we can be reconciled to each other as the church, which fills our social longings. Third, Jesus forgives the sins we have committed, thereby cleansing us of our filth, which fills our emotional longing for forgiveness. Fourth, Jesus cleanses us of the defilement that has come upon us through the sins of others, which fulfills our psychological longing for healing, cleansing, and new life (The Radical Reformission, 82).
Evangelism in the Evangelical Missional Church
One of the key features of the missional approach to evangelism is a shift from program-driven and attractional evangelism to relational and missional evangelism. This shift is stimulated by the realization that people are not able to convert from one worldview to another by a mere decision. Rather, they need established relationships where the credibility of the gospel can be demonstrated. Stetzer and Putman write,
What we are discovering is that those who are effective in breaking the code understand that there has been a radical shift in how we do evangelism. We can no longer just appeal to people to come ‘back’ to an institution of which they do not remember being a part. With this fading memory, proclamation evangelism has decreased in its effectiveness. Asking people to literally change their worldview after simply hearing the gospel, with no previous exposure to a Christian worldview, is usually unrealistic. While churches that effectively evangelize the unchurched/unreached do not abandon proclamation evangelism, they set it in the context of community, experience, and service (Breaking the Missional Code, 84).
With this cultural change, the evangelical missionals realize that they cannot simply ask people to say yes to a presentation of religious truths. The task of evangelism is pursuing the process where people’s thinking and worldviews change. Evangelism then must become more process-oriented and relationally based, where the gospel truths are lived out before their eyes in the lives of others and the gospel reality is worked out in their own lives. The process approach assumes theological convictions. First, it maintains a belief that God is at work in the lives of lost people. Next, Christians should build relationships with people and value them. Third, it is important to listen and learn where God is at work in people’s lives. Fourth, we depend on God to lead us in how to share with people about the gospel and help them connect the gospel story with their own story.
“Missional,” for the evangelicals, is a strategic disposition towards its culture that directs how the church seeks to fulfill its calling. Stetzer says, “missional means being a missionary without ever leaving your zip code” (Planting Missional Churches, 19). Driscoll captures this vision in these words, “a radical call for Christians and Christian churches to recommit to living and speaking the gospel . . . to continually unleash the gospel to do its work of reforming dominant cultures and church subcultures” (Radical Reformission, 20). For Keller, missional means attempting to communicate so that non-Christians will understand the gospel. Its vision involves retelling the culture’s stories with the gospel, training lay people to “think Christianly” in public life and vocation, and creating counter cultural Christian communities. Keller sets forth this vision to demonstrate that what God is doing in the church through the gospel is radically different than what is happening in the culture around the church (“The Missional Church“). The gospel that he is referring to has at its center a substitutionary atonement and a call to repentance, and thus, for the evangelicals, being missional demands pursuing the spiritual conversion of individuals.
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 fifth in a series of six articles.