What is the Missional Gospel? Part 5: The Evangelical Missional Church

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.

What is the Missional Gospel? Part 2: A Brief History of the Term “Missional”

What is the Missional Gospel? Part 2: A Brief History of the Term “Missional”

By Keith Whitfield

The “missional” phenomenon is rooted in a broad movement to engage culture with the gospel. From Vatican II, the ecumenical movement, the rise of the megachurch, and seeker-sensitive churches, to the Gen-X churches of the 1990s, engaging the culture with the gospel is a defining mark of ecclesiology over the last sixty years. In the last twenty-five years, particularly in America, church leaders from a variety of traditions have begun to rediscover and reinvent the church for the current generation. Although the current concern for the missional nature of the church rises within this broader context, the Gospel and Our Culture Network (GOCN) is largely responsible for introducing the term “missional church” in America. GOCN identifies with the group that we call “the ecumenical missional church.” They stimulated a movement that has effectively re-envisioned ministry in America as a missionary encounter with Western culture. This movement is generated by both the changes in culture and the effect of those changes on the church. The GOCN began in the late 1980s to promote in America the gospel and culture discussion started by Lesslie Newbigin’s volume The Other Side of 1984: Questions for the Churches. His agenda was sharpened and began to have more influence in America with his 1986 publication of Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture.

These concerns spilled over into the evangelical world, and the result of this is the growth of the emerging church movement, which is a movement that seeks to engage the emerging culture with the gospel. There have been many attempts to describe what is going on in the emerging movement and to recognize the different perspectives, particularly since the publication of D. A. Carson’s book Becoming Conversant with the Emergent Church. Mark Driscoll sought to clarify the streams of thought within the emerging movement in a 2006 article for Criswell Theological Review. He shows that the emerging movement is a diverse, informal movement that is not well defined and the Emergent Church is an official organization led by Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, and Tony Jones and associated with Emergent Village. Next, Ed Stetzer has helpfully identified three groups within the emerging movement: relevants, revisionists, and reconstructionists. We are also acknowledging these differences with our labels “evangelical missional” and “emergent missional.”

One thing that all three of the groups have in common is the recognition that Western culture has changed and the church in the West must adopt a new posture toward its culture. Recently, Robert Webber, an evangelical voice, noted trends similar to that observed by Newbigin and GOCN. He suggests that there have been a “cycle of cultural shifts” from 1946 to 2004, and he sought to predict the impact of these shifts from 2004 into the future. He captures these time periods in four turning points: High Evangelicals (1946-1964), Awakening Evangelicals (1964-1984), Evangelical Unraveling (1984-2004), and The Emerging Church and the Younger Evangelical Leaders (2004-). With this, he demonstrates that there is continuity between changes in evangelicalism and the wider culture, and this situation, he argues, calls for a shift in approach to ministry.

Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch have also discussed the nature of the changing times with a more expansive timeline. They argue that the decline of Christendom as a sociopolitical reality has been underway for the past 250 years, citing that many historians have begun calling Western culture a post-Christendom culture. Frost and Hirsh write,

Whereas Christendom has unraveled because of its seduction by Western culture, the emerging missional church must see itself as being able to interact meaningfully with culture without ever being beguiled by it. This is the classic task of the cross-cultural missionary: to engage culture without compromising the gospel (The Shaping of Things to Come, 16).

It is within this climate that the so-called missional movement was generated. The church ministers within a culture, and the adjective “missional” is used to wrestle with how the church pursues its mission in its culture.

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 second in a series of six articles.

What is the Missional Gospel? Part 1: A Survey of Perspectives

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.