Missing the Missional Mark

In September Brent Thomas, pastor of Church of the Cross in Peoria, AZ, took issue with a 9 Marks review of Jim Belcher's Book, Deep Church. Brent saw the review by Greg Gilbert as not only "snarky," but also unfair. In fact Gilbert's review actually received a response from Belcher himself on Trevin Wax's blog. There Belcher explained how Gilbert had somehow missed the point of his book. In his blog post Brent wondered if there was something of a growing rift within Reformed Evangelicalism related to the issue of the "missional church."

Just last week Brent's suspicions seem to have been confirmed through another 9 Marks publication by Jonathan Leeman. Leeman's article, "Is the God of the Missional Gospel Too Small" is troubling in that he argues missional thinkers place a heavy emphasis on social justice that moves the church away from a proper emphasis on the gospel. Brent explained,

    Throughout his piece, Leeman equates "missional" with a focus primarily on "social justice." I don't know any Reformed, missional believers who make this equation, and I know many Reformed Evangelicals who would indeed call themselves "missional." Nowhere does he admit that he is speaking of a specific subset of the use of the word "missional" in the larger Reformed, Evangelical world. I just wish that Leeman had pointed out, just once, that he is, in fact, using the word in severely different ways than most people. I'm sure that conservative believers like Ed Stetzer, Mark Driscoll, and Tim Keller take issue with Leeman's equation of missional = focus primarily on social justice = new liberalism but nowhere does Leeman acknowledge that such conservative believers use the word "missional" in very, very different ways.

(Leeman wrote a generally helpful article a few years back on "What in the world is a Missional Church?")

I share Brent's concern. Clearly there is a misunderstanding at some level. Either men like Leeman are not putting much effort into understanding missional thinkers, or some missional thinkers are not being clear enough. My guess is, guys like Leeman can try harder, and some missional thinkers could be more clear.

Of course the truth is, there are different streams of missional thinkers, just as there are different streams of Presbyterians (or Baptists, or Calvinists, or charismatics). To say that one is missional doesn't necessarily imply anything other than a recognition that all believers and churches are sent by God on mission. Of course, we need to be clear about what that mission is. I have written on that extensively right here on the blog in my "Meanings of Missional" series. Yet Leeman seems to believe that "missional" necessitates some baggage.

He argues that the missional emphasis leads to a social-justice emphasis which is the first step toward liberalism. He then attempts to connect "a small view of God," "an inconsequential view of Hell," "a de-emphasis on conversion," and a "reductionistic Biblical storyline" to the missional crowd. This is obviously not true of many of the well-known missional thinkers out there.

Tim Keller is a well-known pastor/theologian who has been speaking and writing on the subject of the missional church for some time. He certainly doesn't fit the description given by Leeman. Tim not only preaches the reality of Hell, he teaches his church members why it matters, and gives advice on how to help non-Christians better understand the terrifying reality and appropriateness of Hell.

As for me (my name tends to come up a fair bit when the subject of "missional" is tossed around), I believe in a big God, an eternal Hell, the need for the new birth, and that we need to be clear about priorities in the church.

Although this particular dust-up is focused on the Reformed world, the issue is bigger than the Calvinist corner. Evangelicals have embraced all things missional - sometimes as a genuine shift and sometimes as just updated jargon. But, there is much confusion and a need for clarity.

A few of us have talked and we are going to try to forge something of a definition - at least for how we use the term. As part of that, later this year, July 12-14, I'm partnering with a few others to launch a new conference called missionSHIFT that I believe will help us with the discussion.

As a part of this conference, we are prayerful that a helpful statement can be forged on what it means to be missional. Several leaders in the missional church conversation (Keller, Hirsch, and others to be announced), who write about all-things missional, have already agreed to be Framers for the statement and some of the Framers will be at the conference for discussion and dialogue.

The intention of "The Missional Manifesto" is to allow the Scriptures to guide our understanding and involvement in the mission of God as it applies to the whole of life and doctrine. The document will strive to show how "missional" intersects with truths about the gospel, the local church, evangelism, missions, social justice, and contextualization, among other things.

The intent would be to say, "This is what we mean when we talk about being missional." It is not our intent (or within our ability) to say this is what everyone should think or say about the term. Words mean different things to different people (for example, "grace," "justice," and "gospel" all have different meanings to different groups). However, it is our hope that it will help us be clearer and more mission-shaped in our own thinking and practice.

Finally, every Monday I will be blogging about all things missional. It is my hope that we can clear up some of the erroneous perceptions among conservative evangelicals and speak into the movement that does need a missional turn, but also a robust biblical theology. We need a gospel-centered, mission-focused church to be faithful to God's agenda in the world.

More soon...