What in the World is the Missional Church?
Talk about being behind the curve.
Several months ago, I began noticing how often the words “missional church” kept showing up in evangelical books and blogs. Reading up on the topic since then has left me feeling a bit like Rip Van Winkle, Washington Irving’s colonial American character who dozed off one afternoon as a loyal subject of King George III, only to wake up twenty years later and find that he had a foot long beard and that something called the Revolutionary War had been fought.
I don’t have a beard, but I have woken up to find that planters have planted, reformers have reformed, and now the first generation has turned to training a second in a small army marching under the banner of missional.
In this issue of 9News, Eric Simmons does a great job of describing the missional life. Ryan Townsend and Andy Johnson both refer to the topic in their articles. The pastors’ and theologians’ forum on the corporate witness of the church touches on some of the underlying principles of the missional church. Yet in case you’ve been asleep like me, it’s worth poking our heads up and asking, what in the world in the missional church?
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE DISCUSSION
The term wasn’t coined by Darrell Guder, but this Princeton Seminary professor suggests that the book Missional Church, which he co-wrote and edited in 1998, “must be held accountable, it appears, for the rapid spread of the term missional in many circles of discussion dealing with the situation of the church in North America.” 
Guder and the members of his “Gospel and Our Culture” (GOC) team, however, will quickly trace the missional church story back to conversations begun in missiological and ecumenical circles in the 1950s and earlier, about the same time that Donald McGavran’s Church Growth theories were arousing interest among evangelicals in North America.
At a conference of the International Missionary Council (IMC) in 1952, Wilhelm Anderson, building on the work of Karl Barth, proposed that both church and mission should be taken up into the missio Dei—the mission of God. Missions is not just a function of the church. And the church is not just the outcome of missions. Rather, both are grounded in a Triune God on mission. The Father sent the Son; the Father and Son sent the Spirit; and now the Spirit sends the church. The church has a missionary—we now say missional—nature. Johannes Blauw captured the basic premise in the title of his 1962 book: The Missionary Nature of the Church.
Ecumenicals embraced this way of speaking more fully with the merger of the IMC and the World Council of Churches in 1961, followed by Roman Catholics and Vatican II’s pronouncement that “the Church on earth is by its very nature missionary since, according to the plan of the Father, it has its origin in the mission of the Son and the Holy Spirit.”  Signaling this shift in thinking among many, the World Council of Churches in 1969 dropped the “s” from its journal International Review of Missions to become International Review of Mission. 
The Anglican missionary to India Lesslie Newbigin, who was also writing on the church and missio Dei in the fifties and sixties, returned from India to Britain in the seventies and found not only a post-Christian society, but a church that failed to distinguish itself from society. Moving into the eighties and nineties, Newbigin increasingly called for a critical reevaluation of the church and its relationship to Western pluralistic and postmodern culture.
Ever since this process of critical revaluation began, Newbigin and others have generally cast the history of the church and the missionary enterprise over the last several centuries as the story of the church’s capitulation to modernity. David Bosch’s fascinating and thick Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in the Theology of Mission (1991) provides, as best as I can tell, the script from which ecumenicals, emergents, and traditional mainliners all read. Bosch sees liberals and fundamentalists as two sides of the Enlightenment coin. Both privatize Christianity. Both reduce the church to “a place where things happen,” like preaching, distributing the ordinances, and practicing discipline. (The church is not a place, it’s a people.) Both blur their culture with their Christianity, so that missions and “gospel” proclamation become, at best, the Western white man’s condescension to the pitiable, unenlightened native and, at worst, colonial imperialism. Both idolize reason, dichotomize facts and values, and idealize their objective version of reality. Here’s one example of many:
The subject-object dichotomy [one attribute of Enlightenment thinking] meant that, in admittedly very opposite ways, the Bible and, in fact, the Christian faith as such, became objectified. Liberals sovereignly placed themselves above the biblical text, extracting ethical codes from it, while fundamentalists tended to turn the Bible into a fetish and apply it mechanically to every context, particularly as regards the “Great Commission.” 
As Bosch, Guder, Newbigin, and the rest look out at the world of church and missions, they see a “crisis,” the kind that always precedes a Kuhnian paradigm shift. The symptoms of the crisis may be the stuff of polls: diminishing numbers, the loss of younger generations, biblical illiteracy, and so on. But the real crisis is spiritual and theological, stemming from the church’s failure to understand the postmodern context in which it now dwells. If the church wants to be relevant; if it wants to succeed in its mission, it must give attention to contextualization. It must learn to understand, communicate, and demonstrate the beauty of the gospel afresh. One GOC author writes,
What exactly is the gospel, then? Identifying the gospel is both simple and challenging. No culture-free expression of the gospel exists, nor could it. The church’s message, the gospel, is inevitably articulated in linguistic and cultural forms particular to its own place and time. Thus a rehearsing of the gospel can be vulnerable to the “gospels” that we may tend to read back into the New Testament renderings of it. 
The church, then, is tasked with sometimes affirming, sometimes critiquing the philosophies of the day. It thinks and breathes within those philosophies, but it is not of them. The church must explain and display the kingdom of heaven today, now, here. Yet it must do so as a “pilgrim people.” In other words, the church, like its Savior, must “embody,” “enflesh,” “incarnate” the good news that God’s redemptive reign of peace, justice, and healing now extends to all the world through his Spirit and his body, the church.
DEFINING THE MISSIONAL CHURCH
To repeat, the basic premise of the missional church is that “missions” is not simply one of the functions or programs of a church. It constitutes the very essence or nature of the church. Drop the “s.” God is a God on mission. And God has sent the church on mission. “As the Father has sent me,” Jesus said, “even so I am sending you” (John 20:21).
This is a larger claim than saying that every individual member of a church is a missionary, though this is what the missional church has become in some recent conservative descriptions of it. Rather, the church itself is a sign that the kingdom of God has begun on earth, and a foretaste of the consummated reign to come. It is also an agent and instrument of God’s reign, bearing the authority of the keys (Matt. 16:19) and the authority of forgiveness (John 20:19-23). 
It’s not the case, at least according to the writers we’ve been following, that you can have a non-missional church on one block and a missional church on the next block. Rather, the church is missional (it is what it does, says Craig Van Gelder). The Spirit creates the church as the body of Christ in the world, and the church then “incarnates” or “enfleshes” the continuing work of bringing the justice and peace of Christ into all the cultures of the world. 
It doesn’t exist to draw people to itself and merely perpetuate its own institutional life, as was professedly the case throughout the history of “Christendom.” Rather, the church exists to proclaim the kingdom of God among men and women. By the same token, the unbiblical and church-centered language of “expanding” or “building” the kingdom of God is dropped, and the more biblical, God-centered language of “seeking,” “receiving,” or “entering” God’s kingdom is adopted.
Conversion is not just a profession of faith in Christ. Salvation is not only the rescue of the individual’s soul from the threat of God’s retribution. The gospel is not merely the news of what God has done in Christ to pardon individual sinners.  Rather, the gospel, salvation, and conversion are construed much more “holistically” or “comprehensively,” with ethical implications for every dimension of life and the message of reconciliation, justice, peace, healing, liberation, and love for the entire world: “and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20, NRSV).
THE CONSERVATIVE TAKE-OVER
I have no idea when exactly conservative evangelicals co-opted the term “missional.”  My guess is that conservative writers and pastors in the emerging church movement like Mark Driscoll, after tromping through some of the same fields as their liberal counterparts, reached down, pulled up the missional plant by the roots, and then transplanted it into conservative soil.
Take an hour to troll the blogs of liberal-leaning Emergent websites, and you find the authors discussed above recommended prominently. Flip to the endnotes of books by conservative authors, and you will find the same authors quoted liberally.
Ed Stetzer, for instance, frequently cites Newbigin, Bosch, and the GOC gang in his book Planting Missional Churches. Yet where a GOC writer will say something like “missional communities are cultivated through participation in particular social or ecclesial practices,”  Stetzer will ask, “What does the Bible require for church?”  It’s probably unfair to say that conservatives like Stetzer want to build on a biblical foundation, whereas the ecumenicals don’t. It’s probably kinder to simply say that Stetzer sees the Bible as authoritative for the church’s mission, where as someone like Newbigin, drawing on the fiduciary epistemology of Michael Polanyi, will say that Jesus is the authority for its mission. What does this mean? It means that Newbigin does not want to give the Bible unqualified approval as Jesus’ inerrant word, so he pits Jesus and his word against one another.
In addition to beginning with a different doctrine of Scripture, conservative writers begin with a different understanding of the gospel than the ecumenicals. Both will explain the gospel in terms of the advancing kingdom of God as well as in terms of Christ’s work on the cross. Yet where conservatives unashamedly embrace Christ’s work of substitution as the center of the gospel, ecumenicals downplay, if not altogether jettison, the latter explanation.  Like I said, the soil is different.
Still, the plant is similar. Stetzer criticizes the Reformers as defining the church as a place where things happen. This degenerated during the Enlightenment, so that the church became a vendor of religious goods and services, epitomized in today’s technique-driven seeker churches. Both explanations, Stetzer says, miss what the church fundamentally is: a people sent on mission. “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men” (Mark 1:17).
Now that Christendom has come to an end, the church must recognize that it’s no longer chaplain to the culture. Christians are as foreign in the post-modern West as they are in unevangelized lands overseas. They must therefore exegete their Bibles and their cultures both. Here’s Stetzer approvingly quoting Van Gelder:
We need to exegete . . . culture in the same way the missionaries have been so good at doing with diverse tribal cultures of previously unreached people. We need to exegete . . . the themes of the Rolling Stones . . . Dennis Rodman, Madonna, (and) David Letterman. . . . We need to comprehend that the Spirit of the Living God is at work in these cultural expressions, preparing the hearts of men and women to receive the gospel of Jesus Christ. 
(Keep in mind, the two authors mean something slightly different by “the gospel of Jesus Christ,” even though one is quoting the other to make his point. )
Stetzer rejects the “attractional” and “extractional” church, which attempts to attract non-Christians with traditions or technique and to extract them from their cultures. Churches should focus instead on being “missional” (moving outward) and “incarnational” (moving deeper into the culture). As Mark Driscoll puts it, churches should help new believers remain within “their tribes,” whether that tribe is punk rock, a ghetto block, or yuppie stock, just so long as they don’t sin.
Stetzer supports the work of church reform. As one notable example of reform, he points to the work of J. D. Greear, who helped to transform Homestead Heights Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina, into a missional church called The Summit. (Click here to read Greear’s answer to our pastors’ and theologians’ forum question on the corporate witness of the church.)
Yet in general, missional church thinking tends to veer toward church planting, and it’s not difficult to see why. Picture a missionary entering a foreign land, like Adoniram Judson traveling to Burma in the nineteenth century. How does he begin a church? He moves into the culture. He learns the language. He makes friends on Burmese terms. He explains the gospel in a way they can understand. Years might pass before someone converts, but when an individual does, Judson does not pull him or her out of Burmese culture. He equips them to be fishers of men inside of Burma. And so, gradually, the church is built.
This, I take it, is the missional church-planting mission.
Now, Western Christian, apply this lesson in New York, Los Angeles, Florence, or Stockholm. Learn the languages of nihilism, cynicism, or spiritualism. Befriend the natives and equip them to reach others.
Futhermore, there’s no model or template to follow. Megachurches and house churches should both be missional. So should emerging hip and rural plain. Stetzer writes,
Indigenous churches look different from culture to culture. You expect a biblically faithful, indigenous church to look different in Senegal from an indigenous church in Singapore. You also expect an indigenous church in high-tech and blue-state Seattle to look different from one in apple-pie Sellersburg, Indiana. 
IRONIES, ISSUES, AND INSTRUCTIONS
At the very least, I hope I have accomplished the primary purpose of this article—describing what the so-called missional church is. Different writers have different emphases. The theologians sound a little different than the practitioners. The group I have been generically calling the ecumenicals sound a little different than the evangelicals. But common themes run throughout the discussion.
Let me conclude by observing three ironies, five issues, and four areas of good instruction.
1) If I may be permitted to brush in very broad strokes, I find it ironic that, in the latter half of the twentieth century, the ecumenicals have proposed a more biblically faithful ecclesiology than all the evangelicals enamored with Church Growth. Missional church theology is not perfect, but it attempts to be biblical. The pragmatism of Church Growth, at its worst, sets the Bible aside.
2) At the same time, I find it ironic that some ecumenicals simultaneously lose missions from the mission, and the evangel from evangelism. Consider, for instance, how the GOC team characterizes “preaching” the gospel. Preaching in the New Testament, the reader is told, means “to announce” or “to proclaim publicly.” This is not so much done on Sunday morning, as it is done in the community at large—publicly. Does that mean the GOC team envisions preachers standing on park benches and bus stops proclaiming the gospel of sin and forgiveness? No, it means bringing the reign of God to bear in every aspect of public life:
For a more benevolent government, that may mean legislation that benefits the poor or the marginalized. For a bank, it might mean granting loans in formerly redlined neighborhoods. For a public school, it might mean instituting peer mediation among students. 
This, apparently, is “preaching” the “gospel.”
3) I find it ironic that evangelicals have co-opted the storyline of the ecumenicals—complete with plot and characters (though I don’t find it ironic that they have been putting it to better use). I do wish, however, that the evangelicals would take greater care in transplanting some of these ideas, as the failure to do so leads to the following issues.
1) I take issue with the historical revisionism that characterizes both ecumenicals and evangelicals. It’s striking how almost every one of these authors begins by retelling the history of modernism and postmodernism (one finds the same thing in emerging church literature. Think of Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian). Why do they all do this? Because, like Bill Clinton’s political advisor James Carville demonstrated so clearly in Clinton’s 1992 campaign against George H. W. Bush, he who establishes the terms of the debate wins the debate. At Clinton campaign headquarters, Carville famously hung the sign, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Clinton convinced the country that the election was about the economy, and not about the first Iraqi War. This helped him win the election, because Americans were feeling an economic squeeze at the time.
The crisis in our churches today, each one of these authors tells us, is about the transition from modernism to postmodernism. Really? I suppose it is if you accept the terms of modernism in the first place, which Bosch explicitly does:
it is futile to attempt nostalgically to return to a pre-Enlightenment worldview. It is not possible to “unknow” what we have learned. . . . The ‘light’ in the Enlightenment was real light and should not simply be discarded. What is needed, rather, is to realize that the Enlightenment paradigm has served is purpose; we should now move beyond it. 
The problem, in my opinion, is that Bosch and others have capitulated more completely to the philosophies of this world than they realize, even as they accuse fundamentalists of doing the same. (It almost feels like a number of mainliners are looking for a way to explain their dying denominations, and can’t help but draw those rigid inerrantists into their malaise.) I should unpack all this much further, but I’ll leave it at that.
2) I take issue with the reductionism which results from this revisionism. Since the conservatives adopt the historically revisionistic storyline of the ecumenicals almost wholesale, they fall into some of the same reductionism. Both emphasize the fact that the church is a people, and not a place. That’s absolutely correct. But answering the question “Where on earth will we find the church?” requires us to fall back on the three marks of the Reformers—preaching, practicing the ordinances, and practicing discipline. As Mark Dever likes to say, three Christians who bump into each other at the grocery store do not comprise a local church.
Both emphasize the fact that the nature of the church is “missional,” that is, defined by the fact that the church is “sent.” True enough. But we must also define the nature of the church as the blood-bought, new covenant people of Christ. We’ve been sent because we’ve been bought. And the people of God will worship, obey, and go as they increasingly identify themselves by that amazing purchase. Don’t overlook it.
Along these same lines, the conservatives writers should take care to define “attractional” more carefully when they pit it against “missional.” The church should be attractive. In fact, this new covenant, Holy Spirit indwelled community of love, holiness, and unity should be the most attractive people of all!
I know that’s not what Stetzer is getting at when he critiques the “attractional” church. He’s talking about fancy programs, not a holy people, and he’s right on. But let me state for the record that the most attractive church—one that images its Savior through faithfulness to his word—will be the most missional church. Interestingly, the ecumenical crowd does a better job of being explicit on just this point whenever they emphasize the church as a sign and a foretaste of God’s kingdom. 
3) I take issue with the ambiguity of terms when moving back and forth between different authors, particularly over the all-important term, the “gospel.” When conservatives co-opt ecumenical themes, they need to take greater care, I believe, in defining exactly what they mean by such essential terms. After all, the content of the soil will inevitably affect the plant.
4) I take slight issue with the term “incarnational.” I understand and appreciate the impulse to see that our hands and feet, eyes and tongues, do and live and put on our creed. Yet it’s important for us to recognize that, historically, the term “incarnation” has referred to the unique, once-in-history event of God becoming man. No, the term is not a biblical one, but there are good reasons to preserve the uniqueness of the term in our usage. First of all, equating what the divine Son did in becoming Jesus the God-man with what I do when I imitate Jesus downplays the ineffable wonder of that one-time event. It might even be said to make the divine Son a little smaller and me a little bigger.
More significantly, the primary purpose of the incarnation, I believe, was for the Son to offer his life as the perfect sacrificial substitute in order to assuage the wrath of God against eternally damnable transgression. Yet when I make the incarnation primarily about something else, something that I can emulate in my own life, I risk shifting the focus away from Christ’s wonderous, astounding, amazing work of wrath removal.
5) I also take a little bit of issue with the equation between ethnicity and worldviews. The Mandarin and Cantonese languages are morally neutral. Nihilism and materialism are not. Bobo-ism, hip-hop, and Valley are not. It’s one thing to remain in the Cantonese tribe. It’s another to remain in the hop-hop tribe. I’m not saying one shouldn’t. I’m saying that the equation is not so clean cut. Frankly, I haven’t thought through all the implications of these differences. I’m simply suggesting that we should think them through.
Those issues aside, I believe advocates of the missional church instruct us in at least four very helpful ways.
1) I am especially grateful for the emphasis the ecumenicals give to the witness of the corporate body. One author writes,
In North America, what might it mean for the church to be such a city on a hill? to be salt? to be a light to the world? It means, first of all, that the inner, communal life of the church matters for mission. 
Amen! This author goes onto emphasize the importance of love, holiness, and unity. The content he fills into these three words might be a little different than the content an evangelical pours in, but the trajectory is a good one. Conservative writers on the missional church tend to emphasize the mission of every individual member to share the gospel. That’s excellent. But let’s emphasize the importance of our corporate witness as well. Our churches should be attractive. They should be foretastes of Christ’s consummated kingdom.
2) I’m grateful to be instructed by Stetzer and others to adopt more of a missional posture. We too easily fall into complacency in our “resident” status, as Eric Simmons’ reminds us. We need to hear Newbigin’s reminder that we are a “pilgrim people.”
I spent a month in a former Soviet republic two years ago, living with a missionary family. The entire month I strategized to pour myself out for the kingdom. For instance, I developed a friendship with one non-Christian man who wanted to attend an American business school and then return to his country and help it economically. He had spent a year studying for the GMATs, but could not yet afford to pay the registration fee. I forget what the fee was — $200 maybe? On an American income, that’s nothing. On my friend’s income, it would have cost him three or four months of labor. So I happily paid the fee for him (and congratulated myself on doing so). Praise God, my friend is presently at business school in the United States, and has now been baptized as a believer by a local church. I was not the principal witness in his life, but I trust that God used me to play one small part.
Yet here’s the point, and the question you should ask me: Jonathan, have you ever randomly given $200 to a non-Christian friend in the United States as a display of friendship and Christ’s love? Sadly, the answer is no. Too much of the time, I’m just a resident, not a missionary, more interested in buying books, CDs (no, I don’t have an iPod), a nice dinner, and just a little bit more automobile or house. Yet imagine how the non-Christians around us would respond if we Christians became known for regular acts of generosity? We shouldn’t do it for the world’s favor; we should do it accompanied by a verbal explanation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Also, go read Eric Simmons’ article.
3) We do well to heed the instruction of missional church writers to exegete our culture, because studying it, ironically, helps us to distance ourselves from it. Learning about the culture should remind us that we are sojourners, and do not finally belong to any one time and place.
4) Finally, we do well to be instructed by the passion of missional writers like Ed Stetzer to be biblically faithful in planting churches and reaching the lost. I have offered the five critiques above not because I think he and others are on the wrong path, but because I think they are on the right path. They inspire me. My critiques are offered in the attempt to help the cause.
1. Darrell Guder, “The Church as Missional Community,” The Community of the Word: Toward an Evangelical Ecclesiology, Mark Husbands and Daniel J. Treier, eds (IVP, 2005), 114; Darrell Gruder, ed. Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Eerdmans, 1998).
2. Ad Gentes Divinitus, in Vatican Council II: vol. 1, The Conciliar & Post Conciliar Documents. rev. ed., Austin Flannery, ed. (Costello Publishing, 1987), 813 (1.2).
3. This history is recounted in Craig Van Gelder, The Essence of the Church: A Community Created by the Spirit (Baker, 2000), 32-36; also, David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Orbis, 1991), 368-362.
4. Bosch, Transforming Mission, 342.
5. Guder ed, Missional Church, 87.
6. Guder ed, Missional Church, 101.
7. Van Gelder, 32.
8. Intriguingly, descriptions of the missional church in the ecumenical, mainline streams I am presently tracing almost always (I have never encountered an instance otherwise) refer to more conservative formulations of the gospel, conversion, or salvation with the langauge of “not just” or “not merely” and so on. They don’t explicitly denounce a conservative understanding of the gospel; they habitually minimize or marginalize it. Read David Bosch’s 500-plus-page Transforming Mission, for one of many examples, and be amazed by how—as if following a script—he does this in chapter after chapter, like a verbal tic. Emergent writers today often do the same.
9. Craig Van Gelder suggests evangelicals began to incorporate certain aspects of a missional view in the seventies and eighties. Yet the only concrete example he cites is a report on “Evangelism and Social Responsibility” (No. 21) from the Lausanne Committee on World Evangelization, Essence of the Church, 34, 188.
10. Guder ed, Missional Church, 153.
11. Ed Stetzer, Planting Missional Churches: Planting a Church That’s Biblically Soudna sand Reaching People in Culture (B&H, 2006), 158.
12. D. A. Carson’s critique of N. T. Wright applies to the ecumenical, emergent, and traditional mainliners treatment of the gospel almost word for word. The following quotation is long, but it bears worth reading because the reductionism Carson observes is amazingly common today: “We have repeatedly seen how the ‘story’ of God’s advancing kingdom is cast in terms of rescuing human beings and completing creation, or perhaps in terms of defeating the powers of darkness. Not for a moment do I want to reduce or minimize those themes. Yet from what are human beings to be rescued? Their sin, yes; the powers of darkness; yes. But what is striking is the utter absence of any mention of the wrath of God. This is not a minor omission. Section after section of the Bible’s story turns on the fact that God’s image-bearers attract God’s righteous wrath. The entire created order is under God’s curse because of human sin. Sin is not first and foremost horizontal, social (though of course it is all of that): it is vertical, the defiance of Almighty God. The sin which most consistently is said to bring down God’s wrath on the heads of his people or on entire nations is idolatry—the de-godding of God. And it is the overcoming of this most fundamental sin that the cross and resurrection of Jesus achieve. The most urgent need of human beings is to be reconciled to God. That is not to deny that such reconciliation entails reconciliation with other human beings, and transformed living in God’s fallen creation, in anticipation of the final transformation at the time of the consummation of all things. But to speak constantly of the advance of the kingdom without tying kingdom themes to the passion narrative, the way the canonical Gospels do, is a terrible reductionism. To speak a couple of times of the cross in terms of the Christus Victor theme, as Wright does (though without using that expression), is unexceptional; to do so without burning with Paul’s “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2), and to show how this is tied in Paul’s thought to the setting aside of God’s wrath, and to the reconciliation of alienated rebels to their Maker, is irresponsible,” found here.
13. Stetzer, Planting Missional Churches, 34.
14. Craig Van Gelder’s understanding of the gospel can be found in Evaluating The Church Growh Movement: 5 Views (Zondervan, 2004), 97-99. It also surfaces from time to time in his ecclesiology, The Essence of the Church.
15. Stetzer, Planting Missional Churches, 31.
16. Guder ed, Missional Church, 136.
17. Transforming Mission, 273-74.
18. For example, see Guder ed, Missional Church, 103-04, 128-29.
19. Guder ed, Missional Church, 128.