What is the Missional Gospel? Part 4: The Emerging Missional Church
By Keith Whitfield
Brian McLaren announced in 2004 at “The Billy Graham Center Evangelism Roundtable” that “we are in need of radical strategic rethinking of our current strategy as gospel-oriented Christians seeking to follow the Great Commission” (“The Strategy We Pursue,”). He argues that this need is urgent and apparent given the low church attendance by people in our culture, the number of Christian kids dropping out of the church after high school, the “mean-spirited, afraid, racist, and isolationist” attitudes of many Christians, and finally, the biblical mandate to make disciples. It is time for the church, according to him, to “Admit we may not actually understand the good news, and seek to rediscover it.” This conviction is repeated by Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo, in Adventures in Missing the Point (2007), where they call for the church to “reboot” its understanding of the gospel.
The Gospel in the Emergent Missional Church
The emergent church maintains that viewing the gospel as facts to believe in order to save one’s soul and go to heaven misses the point, so they propose an alternative approach. Their proposal is:
the gospel has something to do with the kingdom of God and perhaps the Kingdom of God is not equal to heaven after death, but rather involves God’s will being done on earth, in history, before death, in the land of the living (A Generous Orthodoxy, 3).
This position is built on their view that salvation is not mainly about the individual. The ultimate goal is being formed into and knowing Christ in the here and now. In Everything Must Change, McLaren writes, “All who find in Jesus God’s hope and truth discover the privilege of participating in his on going work of personal and global transformation and liberation from evil and injustice” (80). Salvation is then not primarily about having one’s sins forgiven, but it is about being rescued from maladies, distress, fear, violence, and enemies.
This approach to the gospel shines light on the emergent missional church’s position on the atonement. They are critical of the traditional evangelical view of the gospel and salvation that is “atonement-centered,” or at least, they are critical of how this view overemphasizes penal substitution as the “center” of the doctrine of the atonement. The emergents have moved away from substitutionary atonement being the center of their understanding of salvation and the gospel, because they moved away from salvation being from sin and alienation from God. McLaren explains why Jesus is important when he writes, “Jesus came into the world as the Savior of the world . . . . Through his life and teaching, through his suffering, death, and resurrection, he inserted in human history a seed of grace, truth, and hope that can never be defeated” (Everything Must Change, 79)
In a biographical statement, McLaren confesses,
But as precious and indispensable as this perspective [reconciliation to God and inheritance of eternal life] is for me, over the years a feeling grew within me, usually vague but sometimes acute, that I was missing something, perhaps something important. Jesus’ cross in the past saved me from hell in the future, but it was hard to be clear on what it meant for me in the struggle of the present. And more importantly, did the gospel have anything to say about justice for the many, not just the justification of the individual? (A Generous Orthodoxy, 48)
This sentiment has not just shaped McLaren’s view of the atonement, but it has also shaped the view of the atonement of many proponents of the emergent model. What makes this a workable view of the atonement is that their “primary reference point is no longer their former alienation but their present and future identification as part of God’s new order, which was inaugurated with the first coming of Christ” (Emerging Churches, 54). They argue, therefore, that the gospel is not restricted to a message about individual assurance of eternal destiny. The cross of Christ offers an example of sacrificial love as well as the means for reconciliation to God. They say that the kingdom is the path to the cross and the kingdom is the pathway Christians walk throughout their lives with the cross, as those who have died to self with Christ to live in his grace and power. This, for them, is a retrieval of the gospel.
How does God save in this view? God saves by judging, by forgiving, and by teaching. Through Jesus, God intervenes into history as savior. He judges by naming evil for what it is and confronting self-denial and delusion. McLaren described the process in these words,
The consequences of our bad behavior loom over us, we hear God’s judgment and realize we’ve done something stupidly wrong and we have second thoughts about what we’ve done. As we repent, as we become truly sorry, as we have a change of heart, God goes further by forgiving us, thus bringing salvation in an even fuller sense. Salvation is what happens when we experience both judgment and forgiveness, both justice (exposing the truth about our wrong) and mercy (forgoing the negative consequences we deserve) (A Generous Orthodoxy, 95).
The judgment is first for those who are doing evil against others, and can also be for those who are being saved. God judges by revealing the evil character and actions of people through the light and truth of Jesus. Jesus both judges and brings forgiveness. McLaren says, “This is the window into the meaning of the cross,” namely, that Jesus takes the worst humanity has to offer and after experiencing it, He offers grace and forgives. Then, the third way that God saves is by teaching us. “[B]ecause we are so often ignorantly wrong and stupid,” says McLaren, “Jesus comes with saving teaching, profound yet amazingly compact: Love God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, Jesus says, and love your neighbor as yourself” (A Generous Orthodoxy, 97).
Evangelism in the Emergent Missional Church
The proclamation of the gospel in the “emergent missional church” is not primarily informational but relational, and inviting people into a relationship with a King and with members of a Kingdom whose foremost concern is wholeness for a broken world takes priority over sharing how someone may have security in their eternal destiny. The gospel, McLaren explains, starts “with God’s concern for the world, in which God creates a community called the church, comprised of persons who stop (or repent of) being ‘part of the problem’ and choose instead to join God as ‘part of the solution’-thus simultaneously entering a mission and a community in which one is accepted by grace, through faith in Jesus” (“The Strategy We Pursue”). The focus is to create a culture of the kingdom and to allow God to do the work. It is this conviction that sets the course for the emergent missionals. They are critical of what they view as a preoccupation with eternal salvation of the conservative evangelicals because of its overemphasis on beliefs, and at the same time, they are critical of the liberal Protestants because their good deeds serve their civil religion. They, however, seek to find the balance in defining the gospel by their conception of the kingdom of God.
Their focus is on recruiting people who will follow Jesus by faith as disciples and who will participate in God’s mission in the world. Their approach to the gospel results in a collapsing the difference between “evangelism” and “social action,” which is reflected in McLaren’s proposal to “Recenter the Great Commission in the Great Commandment.” Thus, the gospel is contained in words embodied in good deeds. The logic of this statement is tied closely to their view of the gospel as the realized kingdom of God.
Evangelism is the calling to become a part of the kingdom of God by becoming disciples of Jesus. This position opposes the missionary vision that the church is taking God to the world. Rather, it is God who pursues redemption of everything in creation that needs direction and repair, and the church is an active participant in God’s mission. This vision of evangelism re-envisions the church as a community that shares in a mission with God, but a mission that God is already working out in the world. When the church refocuses its attention to becoming a community and being deployed to serve, it then becomes a community that is open and welcomes strangers as Jesus welcomed sinners.
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 fourth in a series of six articles.