Reformed and Missional

Reformed and Missional October 31, 2012

The word “missional” has a history: it owes its origins in Karl Barth who spoke about the action of God in this world but it was captured by the ecumenical movement to become mostly social activism in the public sector. Two theologians, probably neither “evangelical,” recaptured the term “missional” and reshaped it toward its more original sense. Those theologians were Lesslie Newbigin and David Bosch, Newbigin an English missionary theologian in India and Bosch a South African New Testament and theology scholar. This story is told by Tim Keller in his Center Church project.

Do you think there’s hope or value for the term “missional”? How do you understand it? Do you think “missional” stands itself against “evangelism”? Has it become a virtual synonym for social action in the public sector?

Keller himself captures “missional” within his own Reformed theology. His sketch reveals four dimensions of kinds of missional theology or missional ecclesiology:

1. Missional as evangelism.
2. Missional as incarnational: Frost and Hirsch.
3. Missional as contextual: Belcher, Kimball, Keller, Stetzer.
4. Missional as reciprocal and communal: Roxburgh.

But Keller thinks the four have some common features, including believing the church is in a post-Christendom age, that the church has been captured by culture, that the church is sent to be a blessing, and that the church ought to be a contrast community.

Keller though has problems with missional ecclesiology, and he finds major issues in it not being comprehensive enough (too many leave out too much of theology and gospel and Bible), that it is often tied into one form (anti-megachurch, small church, etc), and a loss of a clear understanding of the gospel (and here Keller develops his classic Reformed gospel of God’s wrath and penal substitution, finding a problematic expression in Dieter Zander).

Keller presses on, in spite of these, to offer “marks of a missional church,” a reformed, rejuvenated, and renewed understanding of missional:

1. It must confront society’s idols (esp self-actualization as the absolute).
2. It recognizes that most of our recently formulated gospels fall on deaf ears.
3. It knows all Christians are on mission in every area of their life. (Here “mission” is the transformationalist model of influencing culture.)
4. It is a servant community in the community as a counterculture for the common good.
5. It must be “porous”: the line between believers and nonbelievers/seekers/etc is not determinative for all the ministries of the church (here he sounds like the recent post I had about Andy Stanley).
6. It practices Christian unity on the local level as much as possible.

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  • Jesse Reese

    Missional thought and practice has produced some long-needed changes in the Church, but I have a pretty big problem with it, one that I see as far bigger and more closely related to the heart of “missional” than the ones Keller mentions. Those who use the term “missional” largely suggest that we should see the Church in a utilitarian manner; that is, the mission of God is USING the Church to accomplish its goal. I disagree with that. The Church, while contributing to the mission of God, IS one of the end goals. The Father wants a family of adopted children, Christ wants a bride, etc. ultimately the Church (before individuals, if I may) and God in eternal union is what salvation looks like and I believe that it is God’s desire. So, I am not particularly a fan of seeing the Church primarily under the category of “missional.” It is the People of God, God’s Beloved, not just a means to some other end.

  • Jesse Reese

    Oh, and by the way, this is based on observations of those who call themselves “missional” rather than the scholarly work around the term, but the persons/churches I am aware of seem pretty self-aware of what they are plugging into when they say “missional.” In any case, I am open to any correction or insight into a missional perspective on the Church in terms of the concerns that I have expressed.

  • RJS

    Jesse Reese,

    I think you are dead on right. Church, especially a local gathering, is not a means to an evangelistic (or social justice) ends. The church is not a utilitarian institution. It is called to be the people of God – and if we fail on this we will always be less than we could be. God will move anyway – but not because of our utilitarian evangelistic or justice goals.

  • Just Got Keller’s massive manifesto of “center church” a couple days ago and I am looking forward to digging into it. I would love to see some of the model Keller draws out equiped and embodying the message that you talk about Scott in KJG…I think that would be a dangerous combo!

  • Scott Gay

    To make an attempt at why the movement toward missional, there seem two over-arching contexts. The Church is leaving an era of power, resuming an earlier position where it’s influence is more relational than managerial. Also, we are entering a pluralist age, which highlights a need for a shift toward thinking in a more critically realistic way.

  • I’m curious to read this chapter. To be honest, I’ve read a few things on being “missional” and so far what I’ve come up with is “evangelism as consistent witness in all areas of life”, “think about culture”, and “not doing what what we used to do because that was poopy.” For me it means hanging out in coffee shops.
    I’d like to see what Keller does with it, though.

    Thanks for the reviews.

  • Jeremy P

    Jesse Reese & RJS,

    Utilitarianism makes perfect sense when talking about a missional emphasis. People who dive into “missional” churches or contexts do so because they desire to actually do something in the world, to see action taken to make a difference. They have a deep desire to see tangible change and progress in Kingdom types of ways.

    While you may have a point in a theoretical sense, people who have a driver personality (like to get stuff done) will struggle to see the value of this theological nuance.

    For them, doing is being. And I think we don’t create enough space for that sometimes.

  • RJS

    Jeremy P,

    I write here, for example, because I want to do, I want to make a difference, it is a part of being a Christian as I see it. We have a mission.

    But a church has to be deeply relational to make a difference … a utilitarian missional focus devalues this relationship at its very core. It gives artificial relationship to achieve the utilitarian goal, but devalues authentic relationship.

    I don’t think we can make tangible progress in Kingdom type ways unless we are driven by authentic love for each other and for those outside the church. We have to be the people of God before we actually have any hope of making a change.

    Here is the bottom line. It is fine to use a utilitarian institution. I use schools, supermarkets, and restaurants. It is dangerous to the very core to become too invested in a utilitarian institution, to depend upon a utilitarian institution, to “belong” to a utilitarian institution. They can change direction, change menu, you can outgrow them, they can decide to concentrate on a different market niche or develop a different mission.

    I do not use a church – I belong to a church warts, and all (at least this is how I see it). The church, the people of God, is the family of God. A family is not a utilitarian institution.

    The church is an open family – we want to invite all to join and to belong. But that is because we have something to offer, something worth belonging to. We invite people to belong, we invite people to believe, and we invite people to act on that belief.

    Missional church means too many things to too many people – and I don’t think it is a particularly useful word. To some it means social action, to some it means seeker sensitive, and it probably means other things to other people – but all of these too often loose focus on being in the adrenaline rush of achieving.

  • Marshall

    Not to argue about definitions, I want and expect my church to be known by those “six marks”. Except I’m not sure what “recently formulated” means … nothing is new under the sun, and deaf ears are always with us.

    Jesse & RJS:
    So how does a church express being a people of God?? It doesn’t seem fair to dismiss “doing something” as merely “utilitarian”. You sound as if authentic worship excludes being a blessing to the Nations.

    It’s true that a church needs to be on a mission (in the above 6-fold sense) to itself … first remove the plank from its own eye sort of thing. But I don’t think that’s what you mean, so what does a church do?

  • “Missional” is yet another meaningless descriptor. A ruse. A new way to make ridiculous distinctions between groups of people. And, another thing for Christians to feel guilty for not submitting to.

  • Jeremy P


    I absolutely agree that the church is a spiritual-relational entity at its core. However, I guess what I don’t like is if the being is put before the doing. Neither should come first or receive more emphasis, because both are essential.

    And I would also swap out the word “utilitarian” for something like “pragmatic” or even “useful”.

    My major point is that if you tell a driver personality to “be” the Church before “doing” the church/kingdom things, they won’t be able to see the value of that thinking.

    Maybe missional churches have swung too far to the utilitarian side in some contexts, but missional thinking has helped restore balance to (at least a perceived) over-emphasis on being/thought/spirituality at the expense of pragmatic, real-world action.

  • Phil

    Jeremy and RJS,

    Let me through my 2 cents in.

    The church is missional, or as Frost put’s it, God mission has a church, and I truly believe that familial relationship is forged in Fellowship (i.e. fellowship of the rings, not food – fun – fellowship). Therefore true valuable relationships is forged doing life together, life that includes missional, cultural engagement.

    Happy Halloween.

  • Scot,
    A brief reply to the questions. First: Yes: There is hope *and* value for the term “missional.” Skipping the second question for the moment, regarding the third question, No, but there is some potential for the term to omit verbal (or linguistic) witness to accompany the actions and service the church offers to the world. And for the fourth question, No, although, perhaps this question is an analog to the previous question: the potential for reduction is here as well.

    Let me take an attempt at the second question. God has a mission- most people reading your blog easily discern this in their reading of Scripture- and as part of the fulfillment of that mission, God calls the church into life in and through Jesus and leaves his Spirit as a pledge of the life come to be experienced in the present as part of the fulfillment of that mission; certainly, many of the proposals you make are necessary inclusions, like announcing the reign of God and social action, but those hardly complete the totality of the mission.

    So, getting to “our” part, it’s ok to run with “missional”, provided we account for what Scripture makes clear as part of its narrative: that the church practically and joyfully opens her life to those who are ethnically and culturally unlike themselves.

    I’ve asserted this before in the comments section. Remarkably, no one seems ready to respond to this claim. Let’s face up to something here: when it comes to the ethnic/cultural other, we all have some sense of fear, or estrangement, or uncertainty of the unknown and unfamiliar. Perhaps that is why some do not take up the claim or attempt to refute it. There may be other matters at hand as to why this consideration is dropped.

    Still, discussion of the adjective “missional” here, as well as beyond, persists in failing to address the person who is the ethnic other. In what are otherwise articulate and Biblical discussions, and here I am also referring to books and conferences and consultations, the “other” and “the neighborhood” is continually described in the abstract. Even some discussion that could be held as a case study (does Keller do this? He probably does; the section on Contextualization would have been a great location for this) would be a great improvement. I fear though, such would corroborate my claim: ethnic diversity is not a consideration in conversations regarding missional church. This complaint of mine also includes Hill’s book discussed here, as well as Goheen’s book, “Light to the Nations.” Indeed, pick up any of the popular publications or attend any of the blogs discussing missional church, and you can test my claim.

    Is this plea on my part regarding the inclusion of the ethnic other as informed and resourced from the Bible inadmissible to consideration of the adjective? Is there something else in play here that requires some clarity and exposure? I’m baffled, to be honest, as to why this transparent element of the biblical narrative remains opaque in the conversation on what is “missional.”