The Missional Church in Free Fall?

It started well seemingly with Tim Keller:

what makes a small group missional? A missional small group is not necessarily one that is doing some kind of specific evangelism program (though that is to be encouraged). Rather, (1) if its members love and talk positively about the city/neighborhood, (2) if they speak in language that is not filled with pious tribal or technical terms and phrases, nor with disdainful and embattled verbiage, (3) if in their Bible study they apply the gospel to the core concerns and stories of the people of the culture, (4) if they are obviously interested in and engaged with the literature, art and thought of the surrounding culture and can discuss it both appreciatively and critically, (5) if they exhibit deep concern for the poor, generosity with their money, purity and respect with regard to the opposite sex, and humility toward people of other races and cultures, and (6) if they do not bash other Christians and churches—then seekers and nonbelieving people will be invited and will come and stay as they explore spiritual issues.

That was 2001.

Then Kevin DeYoung raised objections even while trying not to offend the missionally minded:

(1) I am concerned that good behaviors are sometimes commended using the wrong categories. For example, many good deeds are promoted under the term “social justice” when I think “love your neighbor” is often a better category. Or, folks will talk about transforming the world, when I think being “a faithful presence in the world” is a better way to describe what we are trying to do and actually can do. Or, sometimes well meaning Christians talk about “building the kingdom” when actually the verbs associated with the kingdom are almost always passive (enter, receive, inherit). We’d do better to speak of living as citizens of the kingdom, rather than telling our people they build the kingdom.

(2) I am concerned that in our new found missional zeal we sometimes put hard “oughts” on Christians where there should be inviting “cans.” You ought to do something about human trafficking. You ought to do something about AIDS. You ought to do something about lack of good public education. When you say “ought” you imply that if the church does not tackle these problems we are being disobedient. It would be better to invite individual Christians in keeping with their gifts and calling to try to solve these problems rather than indicting the church for “not caring.”

(3) I am concerned that in all our passion for renewing the city or tackling social problems we run the risk of marginalizing the one thing that makes Christian mission Christian: namely, making disciples of Jesus Christ.

That was 2010.

Now comes Mark Galli with even more criticism (the fourth column in a series):

But it turns out that the church is not a very efficient institution for making a difference in the world. If you are passionate about feeding the hungry, for example, churches can help here and there. But if you really want to make a difference, really cut the numbers of the hungry and malnourished, it’s better to give your time to a government or nonprofit agency that specializes in such things.

The same is true whether we’re talking about sex trafficking, drug abuse, exploitation of labor, environmental degradation, and so forth. The church as church can make a donation, organize a committee, sponsor a food pantry, but it cannot really make a significant, lasting impact. It is not set up to do that. In fact, it has many other really important jobs to do.

It is called, for example, more than anything, to provide a time and place for the public worship of God and for people to participate in the sacraments/ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s supper—to meet God as we glorify him. It is also called to teach children, youth, and adults about who God is, as well as the shape and nature of the Christian life. It is a place where Christians gather to receive mutual encouragement and prayer. It’s the place where we learn to live into our destiny, to be holy and blameless in love, to the praise of God’s glory.

Galli adds that it is harder for a church to be simply a church than it is to be missional (even if the former is likely a lot less expensive):

But if you want to do something that is really hard, and if you want to push yourself to the limits, if you want to be constantly tested by love, if you want to live into your ultimate destiny—if you want to learn to be holy and blameless in love before God—there is no better place to do that than in the local church.

Many of us today rightly note the great defects in the church, most of which boil down to its superficiality. Because the church thinks it has to be missional, that it has to be a place where the world feels comfortable, it has dumbed down the preaching and the worship, so that in many quarters we have ended up with a common-denominator Christianity. It goes down easy, which is why it attracts so many and why many churches are growing. But it is a meal designed to stunt the growth of the people of God. And it is a way of church life that eventually burns people out, where people become exhausted trying to make the world a better place.

What if instead the church was a sanctuary, a place of rest and healing and life, where the fellowship of believers lived together in love, where we just learn to be holy and blameless in love before God? And what if, having encountered afresh some sort of beatific vision, we go out from church in our vocations and ministries, serving the unchurched neighbor and, by God’s grace, make a difference in their world?

You’d have thought Galli read Machen. You might have also thought that someone who taught at Westminster Theological Seminary had read Machen.

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Rob Bell as Drag Queen

Talk about click bait. But if a drag queen could provoke Sorhab Ahmari to go digitally postal on David French-ism, the once-upon-a-time emergent church poster boy seems to have prompted Christianity Today’s editor, Mark Galli, to question the logic of the missional church:

I was interviewing Rob Bell for Christianity Today about his book, Jesus Wants to Save Christians. He wrote something in the book that surprised me (imagine that, Rob Bell saying something surprising). So I asked him to clarify himself: “What to you is the purpose of the church?”

“The purpose of the church,” he replied, “is to make the world a better place.” That’s what he had said in the book, and that’s the statement that puzzled me. I frankly couldn’t believe he had said that in front of God and everybody. But as I thought about it, I realized that Bell had expressed precisely the current zeitgeist of the American church. I was less concerned about Bell than I was about the church.

Galli goes on to link Bell’s view first to Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel (without mentioning cultural Marxism!) and then to Leslie Newbiggin who has inspired a certain Presbyterian church in mid-town Manhattan:

Wilbert Shenk’s summary of Newbigin is what many of his readers have taken away:

… we are being called to reclaim the church for its missionary purpose. … Mission is often treated as a stepchild or, even worse, in some cases an orphan. That is to say, traditional ecclesiology has had no place for mission. Yet the church was instituted by Jesus Christ to be a sign of God’s reign and the means of witnessing to that reign throughout the world. The church that refuses to accept its missionary purpose is a deformed church. … We are being called to reclaim the church for its missionary purpose in relation to modern Western culture.

As I just noted, Newbigin’s theology is larger than this, but this is what has made a great impact on evangelical leaders. Perhaps the prime example is what’s called the missional movement. As with most movements, the very term itself is in dispute and comes to us in many colors. It is often combined with a fresh appreciation of kingdom theology, an attempt to let Jesus’ preaching about the kingdom of God become the hub of the wheel of our theology. We needn’t deny the many flavors of missional, or its obvious strengths, to grasp that for many pastors and theologians, the purpose of the church can be summarized like this (from a church blog I happened upon):

After Jesus was resurrected and after he had spent significant time schooling the nascent church, as He Himself had been sent, He sent His church on a mission, and sent the Holy Spirit to empower them for that task until the end of time, to the very ends of the earth. As Jesus was sent, and as the Spirit was sent, in like manner, the church has been sent. Therefore, the church exists missionally, sent by the triune God to carry out the mission of making disciples of all nations. Wherever the church exists, it exists for the sake of the world, as a sign and proclamation of the kingdom of God.

Given my travels and readings especially in the evangelical subculture, this strikes me as a near-perfect summary of an evangelically orthodox expression of much missional thinking today. For all its inspirational value—and this is not to be denied nor denigrated—in the end, it reduces the purpose of the church in the same way as does Rauschenbusch: “Wherever the church exists, it exists for the sake of the world.”

Let the reader answer: how is this any different from Redeemer’s mission statement?

The Redeemer family of churches and ministries exist to help build a great city for all people through a movement of the gospel that brings personal conversion, community formation, social justice, and cultural renewal to New York City and, through it, the world.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But if the editor of Christianity Today is thinking that missional Protestantism has set priorities for the church that are more transformational (and worldly) than they are doxological and evangelistic, someone in the home office may want to call a meeting.

Meanwhile, confessional Protestants who know how to distinguish between the church and the world (and have been doing so since at least the Second Pretty Good Awakening) did not need Rob Bell to understand what Galli has discovered.

Catching Up

Mark Galli thinks evangelicals have opened a new chapter on race. But I wonder if it is the chapter that mainline Protestants opened — oh — fifty years ago:

We are currently experiencing a new “God moment,” when God is shining his burning light on how our nation and our churches are fractured by racial division and injustice. In the past two years, we’ve seen image after image of injustice perpetrated against black Americans. We’ve studied the statistics. And most important, we’ve heard the anguished cry of a suffering community that is understandably hurting, angry, and demanding progress.

Moderate white evangelicals, who make up the bulk of our movement, see more clearly than ever how racism is embedded in many aspects of our society, from business to law enforcement to education to church life. We have been slow to hear what the black church has been telling us for a while. And in all that, we hear God calling his church to seek justice and reconciliation in concrete ways.

To be evangelical now means to be no longer deaf to these cries or to God’s call. In 2012, only 13 percent of white evangelicals said they thought about race daily (41% of black evangelicals did so). Today, we’re thinking about race more than daily—due partly to the news cycle, and partly to our rediscovering biblical teaching.

I used to hear a lot about how evangelicals were always about 10 to 15 years behind the times.

So I wonder when evangelical Protestants like Galli will get around to reading John McWhorter whose book, Winning the Race, came out ten years ago:

It’s not that there is “something wrong with black people,” but rather, that there is something wrong with what black people learned from a new breed of white people in the 1960s. . . . The nut of the issue is that [people who see racism everywhere] want neither justice nor healing. What people like this are seeking is, sadly, not what they claim to be seeking. They seek one thing: indignation for its own sake. . . .

Two new conditions were necessary for alienation among blacks to so often drift from its moorings in the concrete and become the abstract, hazy “race thing” that whites just “don’t get.”

One condition was that blacks had to be prepared to embrace therapeutic alienation, and ironically, this could only have been when conditions were improved for blacks. When racism was omnipresent and overt, it would have been psychological suicide for blacks to go around exaggerating what was an all-too-real problem.

Second, whites had to be prepared to listen to the complaints and assume (or pretend) that they were valid. This only began during the counter cultural revolution, within which a new openness to blacks and an awareness of racism were key elements. . . . Many whites were now, for the first time, ready to nod sagely at almost anything a black person said. And in that new America, for many blacks, fetishizing the evils of the White Man beyond what reality justified was a seductive crutch for a spiritual deficit that we would be surprised that they did not have. It was the only way to feel whole. Even blacks less injured were still injured enough to let the loudest shouters pass, as bards of their less damaging, but still aggravating, pains. (4, 5, 7)

What will Galli’s successor write about evangelicals and race in twenty-five years when she discovers John McWhorter?