What is the Missional Gospel? Part 4: The Emerging Missional Church

What is the Missional Gospel? Part 4: The Emerging Missional Church

By Keith Whitfield

Brian McLaren announced in 2004 at “The Billy Graham Center Evangelism Roundtable” that “we are in need of radical strategic rethinking of our current strategy as gospel-oriented Christians seeking to follow the Great Commission” (“The Strategy We Pursue,”). He argues that this need is urgent and apparent given the low church attendance by people in our culture, the number of Christian kids dropping out of the church after high school, the “mean-spirited, afraid, racist, and isolationist” attitudes of many Christians, and finally, the biblical mandate to make disciples. It is time for the church, according to him, to “Admit we may not actually understand the good news, and seek to rediscover it.” This conviction is repeated by Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo, in Adventures in Missing the Point (2007), where they call for the church to “reboot” its understanding of the gospel.

The Gospel in the Emergent Missional Church

The emergent church maintains that viewing the gospel as facts to believe in order to save one’s soul and go to heaven misses the point, so they propose an alternative approach. Their proposal is:

the gospel has something to do with the kingdom of God and perhaps the Kingdom of God is not equal to heaven after death, but rather involves God’s will being done on earth, in history, before death, in the land of the living (A Generous Orthodoxy, 3).

This position is built on their view that salvation is not mainly about the individual. The ultimate goal is being formed into and knowing Christ in the here and now. In Everything Must Change, McLaren writes, “All who find in Jesus God’s hope and truth discover the privilege of participating in his on going work of personal and global transformation and liberation from evil and injustice” (80). Salvation is then not primarily about having one’s sins forgiven, but it is about being rescued from maladies, distress, fear, violence, and enemies.

This approach to the gospel shines light on the emergent missional church’s position on the atonement. They are critical of the traditional evangelical view of the gospel and salvation that is “atonement-centered,” or at least, they are critical of how this view overemphasizes penal substitution as the “center” of the doctrine of the atonement. The emergents have moved away from substitutionary atonement being the center of their understanding of salvation and the gospel, because they moved away from salvation being from sin and alienation from God. McLaren explains why Jesus is important when he writes, “Jesus came into the world as the Savior of the world . . . . Through his life and teaching, through his suffering, death, and resurrection, he inserted in human history a seed of grace, truth, and hope that can never be defeated” (Everything Must Change, 79)

In a biographical statement, McLaren confesses,

But as precious and indispensable as this perspective [reconciliation to God and inheritance of eternal life] is for me, over the years a feeling grew within me, usually vague but sometimes acute, that I was missing something, perhaps something important. Jesus’ cross in the past saved me from hell in the future, but it was hard to be clear on what it meant for me in the struggle of the present. And more importantly, did the gospel have anything to say about justice for the many, not just the justification of the individual? (A Generous Orthodoxy, 48)

This sentiment has not just shaped McLaren’s view of the atonement, but it has also shaped the view of the atonement of many proponents of the emergent model. What makes this a workable view of the atonement is that their “primary reference point is no longer their former alienation but their present and future identification as part of God’s new order, which was inaugurated with the first coming of Christ” (Emerging Churches, 54). They argue, therefore, that the gospel is not restricted to a message about individual assurance of eternal destiny. The cross of Christ offers an example of sacrificial love as well as the means for reconciliation to God. They say that the kingdom is the path to the cross and the kingdom is the pathway Christians walk throughout their lives with the cross, as those who have died to self with Christ to live in his grace and power. This, for them, is a retrieval of the gospel.

How does God save in this view? God saves by judging, by forgiving, and by teaching. Through Jesus, God intervenes into history as savior. He judges by naming evil for what it is and confronting self-denial and delusion. McLaren described the process in these words,

The consequences of our bad behavior loom over us, we hear God’s judgment and realize we’ve done something stupidly wrong and we have second thoughts about what we’ve done. As we repent, as we become truly sorry, as we have a change of heart, God goes further by forgiving us, thus bringing salvation in an even fuller sense. Salvation is what happens when we experience both judgment and forgiveness, both justice (exposing the truth about our wrong) and mercy (forgoing the negative consequences we deserve) (A Generous Orthodoxy, 95).

The judgment is first for those who are doing evil against others, and can also be for those who are being saved. God judges by revealing the evil character and actions of people through the light and truth of Jesus. Jesus both judges and brings forgiveness. McLaren says, “This is the window into the meaning of the cross,” namely, that Jesus takes the worst humanity has to offer and after experiencing it, He offers grace and forgives. Then, the third way that God saves is by teaching us. “[B]ecause we are so often ignorantly wrong and stupid,” says McLaren, “Jesus comes with saving teaching, profound yet amazingly compact: Love God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, Jesus says, and love your neighbor as yourself” (A Generous Orthodoxy, 97).

Evangelism in the Emergent Missional Church

The proclamation of the gospel in the “emergent missional church” is not primarily informational but relational, and inviting people into a relationship with a King and with members of a Kingdom whose foremost concern is wholeness for a broken world takes priority over sharing how someone may have security in their eternal destiny. The gospel, McLaren explains, starts “with God’s concern for the world, in which God creates a community called the church, comprised of persons who stop (or repent of) being ‘part of the problem’ and choose instead to join God as ‘part of the solution’-thus simultaneously entering a mission and a community in which one is accepted by grace, through faith in Jesus” (“The Strategy We Pursue”). The focus is to create a culture of the kingdom and to allow God to do the work. It is this conviction that sets the course for the emergent missionals. They are critical of what they view as a preoccupation with eternal salvation of the conservative evangelicals because of its overemphasis on beliefs, and at the same time, they are critical of the liberal Protestants because their good deeds serve their civil religion. They, however, seek to find the balance in defining the gospel by their conception of the kingdom of God.

Their focus is on recruiting people who will follow Jesus by faith as disciples and who will participate in God’s mission in the world. Their approach to the gospel results in a collapsing the difference between “evangelism” and “social action,” which is reflected in McLaren’s proposal to “Recenter the Great Commission in the Great Commandment.” Thus, the gospel is contained in words embodied in good deeds. The logic of this statement is tied closely to their view of the gospel as the realized kingdom of God.

Evangelism is the calling to become a part of the kingdom of God by becoming disciples of Jesus. This position opposes the missionary vision that the church is taking God to the world. Rather, it is God who pursues redemption of everything in creation that needs direction and repair, and the church is an active participant in God’s mission. This vision of evangelism re-envisions the church as a community that shares in a mission with God, but a mission that God is already working out in the world. When the church refocuses its attention to becoming a community and being deployed to serve, it then becomes a community that is open and welcomes strangers as Jesus welcomed sinners.

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 fourth 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.