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

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

By Keith Whitfield

The ecumenical missional church arises from a growing dis-ease with an approach to church that they claim was inherited from Christendom. Their concern with this approach to the church is that it views the church as a place and a “vender of religion.” Breaking from this, they attempt to return to the gospel to set forth a new vision for the church and recapture the essence of what it means to be the church. They call for the church to adopt a “missional vocation,” called and sent to represent the reign of God.

The Gospel in the Ecumenical Missional Church

Their understanding of the gospel is centered on Jesus and his announcement that the reign of God is at hand. The coming of Jesus, his death, and his resurrection are interpreted as eschatological events in which the power and presence of the kingdom of God breaks into human history. The kingdom of God is defined as:

a world characterized by peace, justice and celebration. Shalom, the overarching vision of the future, means ‘peace,’ but not merely peace as the cessation of hostilities. Instead, shalom envisions the full prosperity of a people of God living under the covenant of God’s demanding care and compassionate rule. In the prophetic vision, peace such as this comes hand and hand with justice. Without justice, there can be no real peace, and without peace, no real justice (Missional Church, 91).

Thus, their view of the gospel is closely identified with their conception of the kingdom of God, which they argue rescues the gospel from an over emphasis on “personal salvation” as the main goal of redemption. The ecumenical missional church almost always (perhaps even without exception) deals with the idea of personal conversion and forgiveness of sin as the aim of the gospel with the qualifiers “not just” or “not merely.” They consistently deemphasize personal conversion by suggesting that the gospel is “more importantly something else.”

What you have in the cross and the resurrection is the future reign of God breaking in as a sign of the world’s future, while creation waits to be fully and finally reconciled to God. As Craig Van Gelder explains,

Jesus makes his death and resurrection central to inaugurating the redemptive reign of God. The cross event is the watershed of human history. In this decisive moment the forces of evil are defeated and the full power of the redemptive reign of God through the Spirit invades human space. In this invasion, Jesus anticipates the creation of a new type of community, community created by the Spirit (The Essence of the Church, 76).

This view of the gospel and the kingdom of God emphasizes that Jesus entered human history with power to reign, and he reestablished kingdom life on the basis of redemptive power by way of a cross and the resurrection. Jesus introduces a new reality into human history, which is both a gospel reality and kingdom reality. The kingdom is the reigning presence of God, and the gospel is the means by which the reigning presence of God was established and continues to reign. They depend upon Peter Stuhlmacher’s explanation of how the cross establishes the reign of God, who says:

Jesus decides to do the utmost he is capable of doing on earth: to offer himself to spare his friends and foes from the judgment of death. By means of his death Jesus does not appease a vengeful deity; rather, on his way of the cross he is the embodiment of the love of God, as sketched in Isaiah 43:3-4, 25. This love wants to spare the impenitent daughters and sons of Israel, as well as his feeble disciples, from having to perish because of their doubts about his mission and the consequences of their reserve toward Jesus’ message. (Quoted in Guder, The Continuing Conversion of the Church, 43; See Stuhlmacher, Jesus of Nazareth – Christ of Faith, 52)

Evangelism in The Ecumenical Missional Church

The gospel is the news that the Jesus events are God’s acts to heal the broken creation. The church is part of this mission of God. The disciples of Jesus are sent out as witnesses and to adopt the missional way of life.

Witness involves proclamation, community, and service, as the essential dimensions of the mission to which the Christian church is called and sent. The spirit-empowered church demonstrates the life, service, and devotion of God’s people, putting on display the reality that God’s rule has in fact broken into the world. The life of the community serves as the primary means of witness. The church is called out and set apart for public witness in order to demonstrate to the world the presence and power of the reign of Jesus.

The church is a place where peace, compassion, and justice reign. The Holy Spirit forms this community. When the Holy Spirit is poured out, God’s promised reign of love and hope is actualized. The characteristics of God’s reign are incarnated in a new humanity, a people who are called, gathered and sent to represent the gospel of peace to the world.

The focus of evangelism is not personal conversion but the ongoing conversion of the Christian community. Guder writes,

The church is constantly being reevangelized, and by virtue of that it is always being constituted and formed as the church. The essence of what it means to be the church arises perpetually from the church’s origins in the gospel: it is in every moment being originated by the Holy Spirit as it hears the gospel and is oriented by ‘the present reign of Christ in which the coming completed reign of God . . . is revealed and becomes effective in the present’ (Missional Church, 87).

Evangelism is the “entire manner in which the gospel [or, the kingdom of God] becomes a reality in man’s life” (The Continuing Conversion of the Church, 24). It is the process of making known, witnessing to, and inviting response to Jesus’ reign. Reception of the invitation grants the benefits of the kingdom of God in this life, but might not be required for the life to come. Rather than trying to recruit or co-opt those outside the church to an invitation of companionship, the church witnesses that its members anticipate with hope God reigns with love and intends to do good for the whole earth (Missional Church, 149).

The ecumenical missional church’s approach to being “missional” could be captured as “sent to represent.” They represent the reign of God as a community, as servants, and as a messenger. In summary, for the ecumenical missional church, the church on mission is a sign of the Messiah’s coming and sign of the hope for the renewal of the human community through the final reconciliation of all things to God through the Lord Jesus Christ.

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 third in a series of six articles.

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  1. Tim   •  

    Will you be addressing the problems with each position at some later date, or is that beyond the scope of your project? The reason I ask, you’ve made some broad statements in the above post that lead me to suspect a negative view of the “Ecumenical” movement. While I’m by-no-means supporting the movement, I’m curious as to your specific problems with it.
    looking forward to hearing your thoughts…

  2. Bishop   •  

    I am having a hard time wrapping my mind around the whole concept of being ‘missional’ and ‘relational evangelism.’
    The reason for this is because I believe that the Gospel is effective and effectual – regardless of whether or not we build relations with those we share it with. It will achieve its intended purpose. I have a hard time with it because repeatedly we are told in Scripture that we are not to be friends with the world. I read in Scripture that it is the Gospel that is the power of God unto salvation, not our friendliness, or our likeableness. I read in Scripture that the world is supposed to hate us and that any who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.
    This is why I’m having such a hard time wrapping my mind around this concept of being missional and relational evangelism.
    Please explain how I’m wrong.

  3. A Missionary   •  

    In my experience with those that advocate this position this statement devolves into evangelistic inertia unfortunately.

    “The ecumenical missional church almost always (perhaps even without exception) deals with the idea of personal conversion and forgiveness of sin as the aim of the gospel with the qualifiers “not just” or “not merely.” They consistently deemphasize personal conversion by suggesting that the gospel is “more importantly something else.”

    See cautions made by:

    Donald A. McGavarn, “Missiology Faces the Lion,” Missiology: An International Review, V. 17 (July 1989):335-41.

    Note as well, the the emerging ecumenical missional paradigm was described in detail by David Bosch in his classic piece, “Transforming Mission”at approximately the same time that McGavran wrote this piece. McGavran alerts the reader to a pending diminishing of conversionist theology & evangelistic practices. Bosch follows on and details the contours of the ideology that justifies the tendency. Bottom line, some are aided with wholistic approaches that make people physically better off on their way to a biblically defined and real hell. So social transformation without intentional evangelism is a diversion from Jesus’ teaching and life example.

    This is the heart of the issue that some have with the use of the term “missional”. Without dying the death of a thousand qualifications, it is perhaps better to simply speak of “missions” since the term is so variously read and interpreted.

  4. Keith Whitfield   •  


    Thanks for your question. Unfortunately, I do not plan to evaluate the views that I am surveying. That is beyond my scope. I am trying to do something very modest here, and that is, to demonstrate that there are in fact differing positions on the gospel and evangelism among those using the missional label.

    However, I will note two things here with reference to your question.

    1) Whatever I am saying is not intended to be a sweeping critique of the whole Ecumenical movement. That would be a much more expansive project. The “ecumenical missional church” (EMC) label merely intends to note that there is a missional movement within mainline/ecumenical churches. Further, EMC would acknowledge a connection to the discussions on missions in the WCC, dating back to 1910.

    2) It is not my intent to express a negative view. I am coming at this discussion from a theological perspective that is evangelical, but I am trying to let the voices from each position speak for their view. I would hope that if anyone followed up on the references in the posts, they would find that I have communicated the views in way that is consistent wiht the way the proponents express it. So, if you discern a bias from me, please disregard it. What I am trying to do is help people understand what each the particular view claims about the gospel and evangelism.

    Thanks Tim, Keith

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