Book Review: Missional Renaissance, by Reggie McNeal
Reggie McNeal, Missional Renaissance: Changing the Scorecard for the Church. Jossey-Bass, 2009. 224 pages.
Every few years, the evangelical church seems to go through a sort of mid-life crisis. The world regularly trumpets our irrelevance at best or our hypocrisy at worst. And as we are mocked, we assume our opportunity to gain a hearing for Christ is slipping through our fingers. Our significance is always up for debate.
Missional Renaissance: Changing the Scorecard for the Church by Reggie McNeal was written in a much more hopeful moment in society than now. But then, as now, there were many valid critiques of evangelical churches as insular, self-interested, and out of touch. McNeal attempts to address that irrelevance by setting out a roadmap for change.
The missional movement was “opposed to church-as-usual” and invested in making a meaningful difference in the world. Missional Renaissance is an attempt to begin the definition of what must be embraced in order for “missional” to make lasting change in Christianity (xv). McNeal’s own metaphor is apparent in the subtitle—we need to change the scorecard, because what we celebrate as a win is what we’ll promote and put energy towards. Yet for all the talk of revolution, McNeal’s new scorecard for the church seems to amount to helpful counsel in community, personal development, and total disinterest in matters of eternity or righteousness.
GOOD CONCERNS AND FALSE CHOICES
McNeal is aware of many problems with the way things are in a (stereo)typical suburban American church. Rejecting the status quo, he sets up a binary choice between building projects and programs or mercy ministry and people (e.g. 1, 131, 137). Given those choices, I don’t know of many pastors who would choose the former category. But why are these the only options?
The book is trapped in terrible dichotomies—choose either a ministry devoted to building a program-heavy, building-focused monstrosity in hopes it will attract people by addressing their felt needs, or choose a ministry devoted to building competent entrepreneurs, investors, and soup kitchens in hopes they will attract people by addressing their material needs. Both approaches will find themselves enslaved to the foibles of the cultural moment.
INSTITUTIONAL SKEPTICISM AND GOD’S INSTITUTION
McNeal’s desire to develop people for ministry rather than leave it in the hands of clergy is commendable (139–40), as is his concern that people’s lives not be governed by church activities that pull them out of their community. But McNeal seems unwilling to recognize that rejecting program-driven ministry does not entail rejecting the church as an institution. As a result, he shies away from any view of the church as an institution with a specific commission, authorization, and accountability structure. Yet Christ provided the church with precisely those things, as an institution, in order to complete the commission of making disciples (cf. Matt 16, 18, and 28).
Thus McNeal frames any concern about church attendance as self-serving (11, 93). His critique is based off a view of church involvement that equals perpetuating church programs. Again, if the choices are between keeping people busy with church events or empowering them to be active in their communities, I’m with McNeal.
But what if God has said gathering with a church is crucial to faithfulness in the world (Heb. 10:24-25)? What if the way Christians care for one another is meant to commend our Lord to the watching world (John 13:36)? What if the way the Holy Spirit intends to provide accountability and preserve our faith in a hostile world is through the institution of the church (Matt. 18, Jude 20–23)? What if guarding one another was the way the gospel message was preserved in purity and truth for not only the world around us now, but also future generations (Gal. 4:28–30, 1 Cor. 5)? What if pastors shouldn’t be life coaches and seminar instructors, but shepherds accountable to God for their care of God’s flock purchased with God’s own blood (Acts 20:28)?
Ironically, I think McNeal would benefit from a clearer view of the church as an institution, in order to differentiate between the many good things we want Christians to consider doing, and what the church gathered must do.
FINDING OUR MISSION IN THE NEWSPAPER NOT THE BIBLE
McNeal regularly references Christ’s statement that he has come to give life, and give it abundantly (35, 45, 82, 111).Yet nowhere does he ever suggest that “life” or “abundant” life as having anything to do with salvation, forgiveness, or, even “eternal life.” Instead, he treats it as a cypher for God’s concern that people live full-orbed, healthy lives—doing good, meaningful work, enjoying healthy family dynamics, contributing to a society that is growing in economic and social capital. Of course, all those are good things. But what does it profit a man to strengthen his community for fifty years, yet lose his own soul?
McNeal suggests we are to understand our mission as the church by seeing what God is doing in the world and joining him in it (23). In practice, that means setting our metrics according to secular trends. The rise of altruistic giving—through institutions like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Oprah’s Big Give are apparently indications of what God is up to (4ff). Should we really look to the Gates family, Oprah, and Warren Buffet to determine what is good and what the church ought to do? Surely we have a better (perhaps divine) authority that would have clearer instructions regarding our mission?
I don’t mean to demean McNeal’s concern for the material needs of our neighbors, nor his concern that churches are often disconnected from the communities around them. He has great practical advice for engaging a community. In these subjects his creativity and practical wisdom shine.
But what about preparing our neighbors to stand before the judgment seat? What about God’s righteous wrath? What about the sure hope of God’s mercy through repentance and faith in Christ’s atoning death?
THE MOST RELEVANT MESSAGE OF ALL
I trust McNeal would affirm the centrality of the gospel if you asked him. The trouble is you’d have to ask him. This book seems largely to have forgotten about the things of God. I’m grateful for Christians who invest in their communities, who help at the local school, who move to rough parts of town, who work to provide medical care to the disadvantaged. I’m grateful for Christians who make real, sacrificial decisions for the good of others. Those are good actions to take. Not only do they commend the gospel to the world, they also address real inequities and injustices.
Where the missional movement has made us uncomfortable with our comfort while a world in ruin needs our aid, I am thankful for them. I have many concerns about that movement (including calling it a movement). But I’m thankful to be pushed to feel the urgency of the mission. That kind of “missional-ism” is a far cry from the indifference to matters of eternity in Missional Renaissance. In that regard, McNeal’s book seems to be an excellent guide to what the church should do if heaven, hell, and the resurrection are not true, but we want to hold on to some semblance of usefulness.
In the world we do live in, though, we need more than practical advice on creative engagement. We need more than books in which much is said about being on mission, but somehow the atoning work of Christ never comes up. We don’t need a renaissance that changes everything. We need churches filled with Christians who encourage each other to be confident that our gospel is the most relevant message to the world, even when the world tells us it doesn’t matter at all.
 For example, as described in Jonathan Leeman’s chapter in Four Views on the Mission of the Church.
 On page 35, he does say that God has been on mission to “woo humankind back into intimate relationship with him.” But even that seems to be a means to an end. “Sin steals life. Jesus wars against life robbers in his life, death and resurrection. He declared that he had come to give life, life to the full. This means that missional Jesus followers are engaged in all aspects of human experience—political, social, economic, cultural, physical, psychological, and spiritual—to work for those things that enhance life and oppose those things that steal life.” Even the reference to spiritual concerns here is one part of the human experience. Not addressing our standing before a holy God.