What is the Missional Gospel? Part 6: Concluding Thoughts, Challenge to Define, and Timely Question

What is the Missional Gospel? Part 6: Concluding Thoughts, Challenge to Define, and Timely Question

By Keith Whitfield

Note: A couple of weeks ago we published five articles in a series by Keith Whitfield titled “What is the Missional Gospel?” We noted at that time that some concluding thoughts would be forthcoming. Over the next two days we will publish Keith’s final two articles, which wrap this series. For those just now tuning in, Keith is the pastor of Waverly Baptist Church in Waverly, Virginia and is a Ph.D. student in theology at Southeastern Seminary. If you have not read the earlier posts, please check out the links below.

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

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

What is the Missional Gospel? Part 3: The Ecumenical Missional Church

What is the Missional Gospel? Part 4: The Emerging Missional Church

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

What this blog series has sought to demonstrate so far is very modest. I have attempted to show that people and networks from diverse theological perspectives use the term “missional” differently, and further, their own theological conviction regarding how the gospel is defined shapes how each group applies what it means to be “missional.”

The ecumenical and emergent groups have both articulated a view of the gospel that is closely related to their conception of the kingdom of God, while lessening the personal significance of the gospel and emphasizing the corporate view of salvation. The ecumenical missional church’s view can be summed up as “sent to represent.” The emergent missional church’s view can be captured as “sent to reclaim,” for they go out into the culture seeking to reclaim God’s kingdom, shalom, in every area of life. The evangelicals define the gospel as the work of God through the death and resurrection of Jesus to forgive sins, and they maintain that this message requires a personal response from individuals in order to be saved. So, they use the “missional” label as a way to express their missionary posture towards an encounter with their changing Western culture to communicate the gospel verbally to individuals. The evangelical view can be summarized with the phrase “sent to proclaim.”

The reason for demonstrating these positions is to help frame the conversation, and avoid lumping all users of this adjective in the same category. The second purpose of this blog series is to propose a way to think about what is meant by being “missional.” Answering this question is both challenging and timely.

The Challenge to Define “Missional”

The word “missional” is an adjective, and adjectives are used to modify nouns and pronouns to note distinctiveness. Thus, it is tricky to define an adjective. When we use an adjective, we are really trying to be definitive about the object and not the modifier. It becomes a tool to define the noun or pronoun.

As Chris Wright says, “Missional is simply an adjective denoting something that is related to or characterized by mission, or has the qualities, attributes or dynamics of mission.” (The Mission of God, 24). This definition, though right and even helpful, is too thin to carry all the missional freight. If the adjective “missional” is going to serve the church in forming a people that engages its world with the gospel, then more is needed. “Missional” is a big word. Its popularity in part is due to its usefulness in describing the posture, calling, and activity of a missionary, as well as rooting it theologically in God’s mission. I propose three statements that will help us understand what is means to use the adjective “missional” to modify our church, life, vision, network, etc.

(1) Being missional is being directed by the Mission of God.

There were many developments in mission theology in the last century. One of those developments is the recognition that God’s mission is broader than the activities of the Church. The phrase missio Dei has been used to capture the fact that the mission is God’s and not the church’s.

Some have interpreted missio Dei as the “sending of God.” What is expressed here is that God the Father sent the Son into the world and the Father and Son send the Spirit into the world, and finally, the Son and the Spirit send the church into the world. While it is common and understandable that people use missio Dei to refer to the “sending of God,” it seems preferable to speak of God’s mission in terms of His purpose for the world. J. C. Hoekendijk interpreted the missio Dei in this way, arguing that God’s mission is to establish shalom (peace, integrity, justice, community, and harmony) in the world. However, shalom is better understood as a blessing enjoyed as a result of what God is doing in the world, rather than His purpose (Matthew 11:27-30, Hebrews 4:1-11, Romans 15:33, Philippians 4:7).

What we find when we read the scriptures is that God’s ultimate purpose is to be known as the Lord by His creation. We find this in demonstrative statements such as “I am the Lord” (cf. Gen. 15:7; Ex. 6:2, 6; 12:12). We also discern this in the indicative statements that no one compares to Him (cf. 2 Sam. 7:22; Jer. 10:6-7; Ps. 89:6-8). Finally, this is made clearest when God in fact tells us that He is doing something to be known (cf. Ex. 5:22-6:8). This was God’s purpose in creation and is His purpose in redemption.

God’s purpose in creation was challenged by the serpent’s temptation of Adam and Eve. The very nature, character, and purpose of God was called into question when the serpent asked, “Did God actually say . . . ?” Although God’s purposes are challenged by the lie of the serpent and the rebellion of Adam and Eve and all of their descendants, God’s plan continues. God accomplishes His mission to be known through making a covenant with his people, and ultimately, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (John 8:19, 14:6-7). “For God . . . made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6)

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 4: The Emerging Missional Church

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.