Evangelicals Don’t Own Missional

As a post-evangelical (progressive evangelical?), it wasn’t that long ago that I thought almost exclusively in a very narrow, evangelical theological framework. I remember thinking that — since evangelical (as an adjective/descriptor) seemed to be on the decline and missional was in its ascendency — that missional might even replace evangelical as the primary identification for Christians.

That, of course, assumes evangelical is the primary identifier right now and totally discounts or disregards the other ways that Christians the world over self-identify and categorize themselves. I’m glad to say my view of the Christian world has expanded, and while I still appreciate the evangelical world that formed me, I’m no longer under any illusions that that’s all there is.

So I was intrigued to read Dr. Craig Ott’s intro to missional for the Evangelical Free Church in America denominational website, which reinforces the conservative notion that missional just means being missionary in the post-Christian context of North America.

Ott, the GlobalReach chair of mission at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, makes a point of distinguishing the “evangelical understanding” of missional, in contrast to the mainline expression exemplified by the Gospel and Our Culture Network and the emerging church that has (in Ott’s estimation) merely “adopted the language of the missional church.”

Ott’s two main critiques of the mainline/emerging/emergent expression of missional seem to be the lack of “a clear emphasis on proclamation evangelism and global missionary sending.” And on those two points, I think he’s probably right.

'broadcast' photo (c) 2009, quickredfoxandkits - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/Proclamation Evangelism
The more dialogical approach of emergent and missional communities has de-emphasized preaching and proclamation to some degree (see Tim Conder’s Free For All: Rediscovering The Bible in Community). However, I’m encouraged by things like the announcement of Phil Snider’s forthcoming book Preaching After God: Derrida, Caputo, and the Language of Postmodern Homiletics, as well as a growing sense within the mainline and emergent missional circles I’m a part of that we need to be proclaiming the Gospel Jesus preached of the kingdom of God (or kin-dom, dream, realm, etc.) more often and better than we are right now.

While I’m more inclined toward the conversational style of more informal faith communities, I’m also encouraged by the existence of things like the Festival of Homiletics (which invited Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt to speak earlier this week) and the Academy of Preachers, which is nurturing a network of young pastors who are gifted in the art of preaching. I can always appreciate a really good sermon, when the Good News is truly good news and is delivered with excellence and passion.

What about evangelism though? Tony Jones says that the emergent movement is “purposefully non-evangelistic,” but I think he means that only in the sense that the movement is not out trying to convert others to the movement. When it comes to calling people to follow Jesus, my emergent friends are some of the most evangelistic I know. It doesn’t look like traditional evangelism, but it’s just as life-changing and meaningful for those who are finding hope in the Gospel these people are living out and that these communities are embodying.

Global Missionary Sending
Most mainline churches have been engaged in global missionary activity, in much the same way that evangelical churches have been doing it for 100+ years. So this critique doesn’t quite land as squarely on them as it does on the newer emerging churches and missional communities, which tend to be more focused on social justice issues in their own cities/neighborhoods.

At the same time, there is a very strong glocal emphasis in these communities, which is articulated in a variety of ways that live out the mantra of “thinking globally and acting locally.” This global engagement is missional, but it is usually not expressed in the same traditional, specific way that Ott is describing as “missionary sending.”

Very few of these new missional churches financially support full-time missionaries living cross-culturally, but instead they adopt places or projects in other countries that they send teams of people to participate in the ongoing efforts of people on the ground. Or they do things like special events that raise funds for organizations doing important work in other parts of the world.

The relative affordability of international travel and communication via the Internet has brought the stories of the people and the causes crying out for God’s justice right to our doorsteps, so there’s absolutely no excuse for new missional faith communities not to be engaged in some way with meeting needs and advocating for social justice for those who are their global neighbors.

What do you think? Is Ott’s critique of mainline/emergent missional churches in regards to proclamation evangelism and global missionary sending accurate? What would you add or change about my response?

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  • Adriene B

    The “missional manifesto” seems to be an evangelical attempt to redefine the word in accordance with their theological terms and methods. When I first read it I noticed two things: 1) The Bible is the only way to understand what God is doing, and nothing missional can be contrary to the Bible. 2) The gospel is defined strictly in terms of Penal Substituionary Atonement.
    So this seems to me not only evangelical, but calvinist. Note The emphasis on sovereignty of God and sinfulness of man. They want to clearly distinguish themselves from ‘Liberal’ and ‘emergent’ Christians.
    The churches I have seen that are ‘branding’ themselves as missional, are still conservative evangelicals when you look below the surface. No women elders/pastors, anti-gay, literalist reading of scripture, eternal damnation of non-christians.
    Evangelicals may not ‘own’ the word yet, but it seems like they want to, with their particular definition.

    See Ed Setzer’s blog with his comments on the manifesto.

    • http://www.knightopia.com/blog Steve Knight

      “Evangelicals may not ‘own’ the word yet, but it seems like they want to, with their particular definition.” Exactly, Adrienne. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • Adriene B

    Of course Ott Is going to defend the evangelical version of “missional”. He is one of the framers of The Missional Manifesto! http://www.missionalmanifesto.net/

    • http://www.knightopia.com/blog Steve Knight


  • Larry B

    I don’t want to speak for Ott, but I often hear from Evangelical circles the popular phrase, “Preach the Gospel and when necessary, use words.” I think many conservative Evangelicals would both affirm this notion and at the same time critique the missional movement in the same way that Ott is. I find it a bit contradictory.

    A friend of mine thinks that our eschatology influences our methods more than anything else. I am starting to agree with him. If we believe the world is going to end soon, then we need to get as many people on the lifeboats quickly, by whatever means necessary, before the ship sinks. But if we believe that God is slowly restoring creation to its original state, then there is no quick solution in the short-term, but rather many slow ones in the long-term. These include social justice, relationship building on a small and large scale, and mostly anything else that doesn’t involve shouting Bible verses on a street corner.

    There are, of course, many other eschatologies out there, but my main question is how can we go from talking about how the other side is wrong, to truly engaging and learning from one another–and ultimately working together to reach out glocally, as you said? Eschatology is no small matter, and this will be a long journey.

    I am excited to see where this blog goes!

    • http://www.knightopia.com/blog Steve Knight

      Larry, I love that you’re bringing eschatology into this discussion, because you’re right, what we believe about God’s plan for the world has great implications for our missiology here and now. And, like you said, my hope would be that we could have a discussion here about those differing views and learn from one another and ultimately learn how to work together. That would be beautiful!

  • David A.

    Having rejected the label “evangelical” for myself because society has defined the word which no longer fits me, I have been looking for another label. “Post-evangelical” might work (much better than “progressive evangelical”–isn’t that something of an oxymoron?), although I think I would prefer a label without “evangelical” in it.

    • http://www.knightopia.com/blog Steve Knight

      I’m struggling with you there in the self-categorization process, David. I hadn’t really considered “progressive evangelical” either, up until recently. It seems to be growing on me now. We’ll see …

  • Paul

    i like the statement in ORRs piece “this demands a rethinking of how we evangelize and relate to the broader community as prophetic witnesses” although the word “evangelize turns my stomach. Its sounds like a project not a concern for people.
    Why is it that when we see a good movie or read an excellent book or discover a musician we are passionate to tell every one and anyone about it, yet when it comes to what God is doing in our lives, or the lives of others and how He is reconciling us to Him whe become mute?
    If we are transparent with the people we come in contact with, Gods grace and mercy cant help but be shown. That is if you have plugged back into HIS power source and are eating from the tree of life and not the tree of Knowlege of good and evil.

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