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.

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.

What is the Missional Gospel? Part 1: A Survey of Perspectives

What is the Missional Gospel? Part 1: A Survey of Perspectives

By Keith Whitfield

An adjective is causing a controversy. The adjective “missional” has become a popular description of the church and its ministry for many people in recent years. The use of this modifier has attracted concern and criticism from more than a few people.

Some have expressed concern because it seems faddish. It might be. No doubt, there is a certain danger with fads in that people adopt something new and different assuming that because it is new, it is better than the old. Another danger of fads is that people just get caught up in them, often times without much reflection. But, the truth is that fads are nothing new, and the fact that something has growing and recent popularity among a wide group of people does not preclude it from being helpful.

Others have expressed concern because it originates out of a movement of mainline churches. This concern also is not without merit. The origins of any idea are important to understand. So, because the mainline church is in fact where the recent use of the phrase missio Dei and the phrase “missional church” originates, this calls for careful reading and analysis from pastors and theologians from other theological perspectives. Nevertheless, I am not sure that this means that the “missional” adjective cannot be applied to express something helpful. Furthermore, I suggest that there may be something to learn from the origins of this movement regarding how the church should relate to its changing culture. What one finds when they read some of the earlier writings is that the “missional” adjective itself is not a theological concept, but a call to have a new disposition towards one’s culture. It is interesting to note that one is hard pressed to find a movement of churches who use this label that have shifted theologically on the nature of the gospel as a result of adopting the term “missional.” Shifts have occurred regarding strategies in ministry and how the gospel is expressed, but not on what the gospel is. You may find individuals who have shifted their view on the nature of the gospel, but when they do, it is common to see them associate with a different group of churches or movement. Whereas these personal shifts may be alarming and tragic, it does not indicate a widespread shift within a movement of churches.

Others have expressed concern over the “missional” label because it seems to distract from global missions in frontier territories. The idea in this concern is that when “mission(s)” is used to refer more broadly to how Western churches engage their culture, it distracts from the biblical calling to reach the nations. This concern is a legitimate one. The church has a distinct calling and responsibility to reach the unreached people groups around the world. This responsibility needs to remain central to the church’s mission. However, churches also have a responsibility to reach their culture. When their culture has changed and the receptivity to the Christian message has declined, then the church may be called to adopt a new posture in its own land to engage its culture. This recognition has led to the adoption of “missional” as a description of the ministry of the church.

The most sweeping concern and critique of “missional” comes from the unease that social justice will replace the verbal gospel witness to individuals. This critique has recently been expressed with the question, “Is the God of the Missional Gospel too Small?” We understand where this concern comes from. There has been a growing interest across denominational and theological lines promoting the church’s role in social justice. The arguments often used for this call are rooted in the gospel, and sometimes they obscure the gospel, muddying the waters as to what the gospel is and what it means to share the gospel. But, not everyone associated with the adjective “missional” is guilty of this offense. More than that, not everyone standing in the muddy waters wants to be standing there. They need help to sort these things out. I am not convinced that a widespread, indiscriminate critique of the word “missional” is the right way to help them. Further, it is true that not everyone who is promoting the church’s responsibility toward the poor has collapsed the gospel into social action. Christopher Wright, in The Mission of God, argues that God’s mission is to make himself known, and this mission is only accomplished through the living God making himself known in the person and work of Jesus Christ. On that basis, Wright demonstrates with cross-centered clarity and balance the relationship between evangelism and social action. He writes,

[A]lmost any starting point can be appropriate, depending possibly on what is the most pressing or obvious need. We can enter the circle of missional response at any point on the circle of human need. But ultimately we must not rest content until we have included with our own missional response the wholeness of God’s missional response to the human predicament-and that of course includes the good news of Christ, the cross and resurrection, the forgiveness of sin, the gift of eternal life that is offered to men and women through our witness to the gospel and the hope of God’s new creation. That is why I speak of ultimacy rather than primacy. Mission may not always begin with evangelism. But mission that does not ultimately include declaring the Word and the name of Christ, the call to repentance, and faith and obedience has not completed its task. It is defective mission, not holistic mission. (The Mission of God, 318-319).

Survey of Perspectives on the Missional Church

The truth is that there is no consensus as to what is meant by being “missional.” There appears to be three distinct groups of churches waving the “missional” banner over their ecclesiology. These groups may be distinguished in this way: the “evangelical missional church,” “emergent missional church,” and “ecumenical missional church.” Brian McLaren and the book Emerging Churches by Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger represent the “emergent missional church” model. For the “ecumenical missional church” perspective, the book Missional Church edited by Darrell Guder serves as the main resource promoting their vision of the churches’ mission. The “evangelical missional church” is represented by people like Mark Driscoll, Tim Keller, and Ed Stetzer. The use of the term “evangelical” is used to designate a very select group of missional proponents. I recognize that there are some missional thinkers and church leaders who may use the word “evangelical” to describe their position that may have different positions than those that we have chosen to represent this group. That, however, does not take away from one of the purposes of these posts, which is to demonstrate there are perspectives on the nature of the gospel and on approaches to evangelism among those using the adjective “missional.”

It is true that these three groups have common emphases, but the goal of this series is to demonstrate what distinguishes these three groups from one another and to help clarify what it means to be missional. In the next blog post, I will offer a brief overview of the history of the term “missional.” After that, I will pursue the main focus of this series. To do this, I will compare the respective understandings on what the gospel is and the way the gospel is presented by the missional churches that I identified. The question this series explores is, “does the adjective ‘missional’ shape their view of the gospel and their practice of evangelism?” I seek to demonstrate that the adjective “missional” does not shape the practice of evangelism in any of the three perspectives, but rather, it is the reverse, their view of the gospel shapes their application of what it means to be “missional.” In the final post, I will reflect on how this observation helps us understand what it means to be missional.

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 first in a series of six articles.