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 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)