Yes, The Missional Church Needs a Deep Theology

Dr. Kyle RobertsThat’s what Dr. Kyle Roberts argued yesterday over at the Cultivare blog (on the Evangelical channel of Patheos) in his post “How Theological Is the ‘Missional Church’?

He writes,

“Reading about the origin of the modern movement in the theology of [Karl] Barth — and theological missiologists — makes me wonder how much of the missional church / missional theology movement is currently grounded in a deep theology? How pervasive, within the movement, is a reflective (and critical) theological articulation of the church’s existence — in relation to the trinitarian God and to the fully-orbed nature of the Gospel? I don’t know the answer to this, but it does seem that ‘missional church’ could easily become a catch-phrase which works well for marketing, but would not have much staying power if it is not grounded in a deep theological perspective.”

I share Dr. Roberts concern about “missional” being minimized to a meaningless buzzword, but it’s been my experience that missional practitioners are deeply engaged in theological reflection around the nature of God, God’s mission in the world, the kingdom and issues such as contextualization. But, like most church settings, that deep theological reflection is not always shared with or by the people in the communities we are forming.

Just as Joe Blow in the church pew at your traditional church does not know and is not taught half of what the seminary-educated pastor in the pulpit knows and has learned, many missional communities are not passing along a deep missional theology, perhaps because the pendulum has swung (in some cases) so far from an overemphasis on orthodoxy to an overemphasis on orthopraxy.

In other words, we’re so busy participating in God’s mission, that we don’t take time to talk about the theological underpinnings of why and how we are to be doing that missional work in the world.

I could be wrong, but that is my sense. So I agree with what Dr. Roberts is suggesting here, and that is part of the reason I’ve started this Missional Shift blog, to bring together all the various discussions around missional church (including the deep theological ones) into conversation with each other so that we can all learn and grow together. That’s my hope anyway.

What do you think about this question about deep theology in the missional church? Is my assessment correct? Have we swung the pendulum to far to orthopraxy?

  • Nathan

    Hi Steve,
    I appreciate your blog postings. I help edit a new, online publication called Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis. We started the journal in an effort to fill the very gap of which you speak, albeit our focus is not just on the ‘missional church’ movement in the U.S.
    Check it out at Our fall issue (released in August) will focus on the theme of the city.

  • Nathan

    I should add: the first issue (1.1) speaks directly to your posting.

    • Steve Knight

      Thanks, Nathan, I’ll check it out!

  • Mich

    Send him a copy of The Open Secret.

    • Kyle Roberts

      Mich, yes..I’ve read the Open Secret. I’m a definite fan of Newbign (and Bosch, and Guder, and van Gelder, and Franke, etc.). My question is about whether there are missional theologians and leaders who are theologically deep and able to articulate a nuanced theology of the church in light of God’s ‘missionary’ nature. Rather, it’s a more ‘on the ground’ sort of question. Is the theology of Barth, Bosch, Newbign, etc., also making its way into the congregational life of missional churches? (I think Steve captures my point quite well in his post here)

  • Adriene B

    I recall Ray S. Anderson saying pretty much the same thing about the charismatic movement when I was at Fuller Seminary. Where’s the theological thinking? How can the movement continue without deep theology?

    The late Dr. Anderson did some theological work regarding Emergent movement too. (I’d expect a strong Barthian perspective from him, although I haven’t read this particular book.)

    Perhaps the doing and experiencing of what God is up to I the church and the world is SUPPOSED to precede the deep thinking about what it all means. And perhaps it is fine that there are many more practitioners than theorizers.

    • Steve Knight

      I love your perspective, Adriene! Being the postmodern that I am, I guess I’ll just have to pushback and say that I think it can (and should?) be both/and – theology and praxis. There’s a balance to be struck here, and it’ll probably be different for everyone (some are called to be apostles, some teachers, some evangelists, etc.). But I distrust the missional theologian that’s never put their theory into practice in a community (flesh on flesh, so to speak) as much as I distrust the practitioner that’s never developed a robust, thoughtful theology for why they are doing what they’re doing. We need both. And … let’s keep talking! ;-)

  • Kyle Roberts

    Steve, thanks for the conversation. You’ve captured my question very nicely. And I’m glad that others share the concern that drives my question. I suppose at one level my question isn’t all that fair, because we could ask the same thing of any variation of evangelicalism. Is it theological (enough)? But it does seem that “missional,” in part because it’s so trendy, but in part because it is naturally driven toward ‘praxis,” has a unique potential to spin toward the direction of a sort of relentless, frenetic ‘activity.’ How long can be people (congregants, e.g.) be expected to be ‘missional’ if their actions are not undergirded and inspired by theological awareness? Further, it seems that “missional” can become an excuse to “do more,” while “thinking less,” which is not always a productive direction to go. In any case, I’m glad that you’re doing what you are (and I look forward to checking out the online journal).

    • Steve Knight

      Thanks for coming by and commenting, Kyle! Well said.

  • ron cole

    Christianity for the most part has not understood the ” Kingdom “. Jesus redemptive imagination was infinitely filled with the Kingdom…he lived in that reality. His Kingdom was about now, the embryonic beginnings around us, and in our midst…and of a glorious future fullness. His Kingdom was a startling alternative subversive world that stood visibly beside the ” empire’s ” world. His Kingdom stories and living critiqued the world around him…it was the real alternative, and abundant life for all humanity, not just a few.

    Has Christianity really revealed, and built the alternative subversive Kingdom in the world around us? I wonder if Christianity’s demise, especially in the west has been it’s irrelevance of not critiquing the world…and crossing it’s fingers for the future instead of “now”.

    We need a theology that is based on Jesus passion, a theology the echoes the voice of the prophets…of God’s righteousness ( right living ), of justice. So if that is ” deep theology ” count me in. Anything less is just scratching the surface. Where is a theology on the Kingdom that consumes Jesus, verses the theology of Heaven…that consumes us.

    • Kyle Roberts

      Ron, yes, that’s really what I mean by “deep theology” — an understanding of the Gospel that isn’t truncated, and that doesn’t divide the horizontal and the vertical in a way that no longer resembles the gospels and Jesus’ preaching of kingdom. I think that’s a lot of what Barth was getting at with his interest in Reconciliation.

  • adam mclane

    Having only read this post and not the broader conversation, my thought it’s easy to dismiss what you don’t fully grasp or just don’t prefer. Even in asking the question it feels dismissive to me. (Maybe I’m misreading intent?)

    I love all the missional stuff, it’s what I think about and dream about. But I also go to a big ole’ honking non-denom church. Both are good. Both do great things for the Kingdom. And in a big view both reflect my heart.

    The church in America is in such horrid shape that we, as practitioners/connectors/writers/speakers/whatever need to see that it’s going to take ALL kinds of churches. We need house churches, fundy baptists, stuffy suits, boring church, laser tag church, all kinds of churches.

  • Eric Brown

    We need to have BALANCE! There needs to be an understanding of why we are doing to keep on task. I see a hunger for knowledge in our church. There are plenty or opportunitys for learing. As a church, we need to keep focused on the fact that understanding of why we do things is fundamental in doing them. This of course plays out many ways. In Christianity, Jesus was portrayed as well versed in the law,(Theology) but lived a life ruled by love that was informed by that law. Love always trumps law, but Love must be informed by law to be true.

  • Jamie Arpin-Ricci

    The problem with evaluating something like this is that you have to decide if you measure against everyone who identifies with the term or those who do so more critically & intentionally. The former approach is most common, yet by that measure, for example, examining “Christians” gets messy!

    When I wrote “The Cost of Community” a significant intention was to write a practical theology for missional discipleship. However, the word “missional” only appears twice in the book (intentionally), two of those being in end notes. Perhaps that was a mistake, as it is not often seen as a book of missional Christianity and more as a “new monastic” book (which I do not think it is). So in that sense, some shallow theology is called missional and other missional theology isn’t explicitly identified as such.

    In the end, the concern about shallow theology is good, but I agree that most genuinely missional Christians are digging deeper.

  • Adriene B

    As a charismatic emergent theological pastor, I say we need all 4 of these: theology, missional praxis, real experience/in dwelling of the Holy Spirit and healing/loving relationships. (as an artist, i want to add creative expression in there too!) But most people and churches and movements are going to lean more towards one or two of those.

  • Donald Buck

    I have started reading “Salt, Light, and a City, Introducing Missional Ecclesiology” by Graham Hill, WIPF and Stock Publishers, June, 2012. Graham is Lecturer at Morling College in Sydney, Australia. In his introduction: Forming a Missional Theology of the Church, he says, ” The proverbial ‘elephant in the room’ seems to me, however, to be the lack of systematic or intentional ecclesiology in much of this missional conversation – or lack of theology for that matter. This is not only a shame but is deeply problematic…” The book seems to address, at least in part, Kyle’s question(s). I will comment more as I get further into it.

    • Steve Knight

      Sounds great, Donald, thanks for sharing!

  • David

    As a forge hub participant in Canada I can assure you that the Missional movement is indeed deeply theological. And we are attempting to find ways to make sure this theology finds it way to the people formerly known as the laity and doesn’t just sit in books.

  • Gary Simpson

    Well, Steve & Kyle, please don’t just read my colleague Craig Van Gelder, rather come and visit us here at Luther Seminary. We’ve been doing this long before Craig was called here. In fact, that’s precisely why we called him. Our entire curriculum for all five of our educational processes (MA, MDiv, MTh, DMin, PhD) is oriented around what I like to call the confessional-missional splice, our curricular gene pool. I’ve got at least a dozen colleagues across the disciplines that concentrate in missional theological imagination. Read our dozen or so, so far, PhDs in Congregational Mission and Leadership, and our 40+ (actually I’ve lost track) CML DMin theses. All of these are simultaneously deeply theological and contextually rooted and embodied through the use of social scientific research methodologies. Just as an example, I teach our PhD seminars, Trinity and Mission and Gospel and Global Media Cultures. Having built on some of the authors that you’ve mentioned above, we’ve been going far beyond them. And that’s just a couple of examples. So, come spend a week with us and visit our graduates who are now infiltrating both the mainline and some even the evangelical worlds :-)

    • Steve Knight

      Thanks for the invitation, Gary! Kyle is a lot closer to you to take you up on that offer, but I was born and raised in the Twin Cities, so a trip back “home” is always a nice thing ;-)

      BTW – I’m working on a blog post highlighting missional degree programs at seminaries and colleges, and Luther will definitely be featured in that list (and, ironically, Bethel probably will not – unless Kyle can tell me about a missional degree program that they offer, because I’m not aware of any)!

    • Kyle Roberts

      Gary, I’m familiar with the Ph.D. in Congregational Mission (we use a graduate from the program as a theology adjunct!). It’s got a great reputation and, as I said, I’m familiar with (and greatly respect) van Gelder’s work. I didn’t realize, though, how widely the missional theological stuff permeates the various degree programs–that’s great to hear. I’d to come by and find out more sometime. I have been enjoying Paul Chung’s “Reclaiming Mission” (and I cited him in the blog post Steve linked to here). In short, it seems pretty clear to me that the the best “missional theology” has been happening in the mainline denominations and seminaries, but — like you suggest — it’s making its way into the non-denom and baptistic evangelical world too. I just wish that would happen more quickly.

      Steve, as for Bethel’s programs, you’re right that we don’t have a “missional church / missional theology” degree program, as such. The program I lead, “Christian Thought,” has a missional element to it. For example, the senior seminar is “Missional Apologetics” (communal, holistic, embodied living as apologetic witness), and we have courses like “Church and Social Issues,” and “Theology in Global Context.” But the program is (intentionally) slanted a bit toward the philosophy/theology/culture end of the spectrum.

  • Scott Frederickson

    As one of Gary’s colleagues at Luther Seminary, as well as a parish pastor, we at Prairie Table Ministries make theological investigation and reflection the foundation of all our ministry. I wonder how the question arises, as I began research on this topic of the missional church in 1994, and I have seen great progress in available theological resources over the past 18 years. Not only Luther Seminary, but others have sought to make the practice of Christianity arise from the life and being of God, and theological work is often at the heart of those practices. Granted, some people have believed my work is too theological, and by that they usually mean that no one could actually participate in such a Christianity. But the materials are out there, and it’s a lot easier to access them these days than it was in 1997!

    • Steve K.

      I think there’s so much out there now, and it’s so scattered in all different directions that the challenge is actually getting one’s arms around all of it! Which, again, is part of the purpose of this blog. I’m grateful to everyone for stopping by and sharing thoughts and ideas here. Indeed, a lot has changed since 1997!

    • Kyle Roberts

      Hi Scott, I think the question arises (for me), from my location in conservative baptistic evangelicalism. As I mentioned in another comment, there’s some really great stuff out there, but most of the great stuff is coming from the mainline traditions. I see a lot of books written on missional theology / missional church within the conservative neo-evangelical world, some of which does not necessarily reflect a serious engagement with deep theology as undergirding mission. Further, I wonder how much of “the good stuff” gets disseminated in the local churches? Again, I’m not saying it’s not happening, I’m just raising the question from where I sit.

      • Scott Frederickson

        Thank you Kyle for clarifying that for me. Sometimes I get so caught up in my own little world, that a question such as yours seems to come from out-of-nowhere. I appreciate the post especially because it opened me to re-examine those kinds of questions. Keep up the questioning, and blessings on the journey.

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