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.

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