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.


Trueman on Protestant Urbanism

Like the moth drawn to the candle flame, I will once again comment on the apparent discrepancies of Carl Trueman, the Lord Protector of Westminster Seminary, whom I hope will not do to me what happened to Charles I. What has to be striking to many readers is that Trueman is critical of many of the quirks of people with whom he is associated. He has been rightly critical of celebrity pastors but is connected to parachurch organizations that thrive on such celebrity. He has been critical of inspirational conferences as a form of binge-and-purge-spirituality but speaks at such gatherings. He is also critical of God-and-country Republicanism but dedicates his most forceful expression to a God-and-country pastor-scholar. Yet, when he has had the chance to comment on authors who share his perspective on these matters (and others), Trueman will sometimes dismiss them as peculiar and idiosyncratic.

Be that as it may, the English historical theologian who admires Oliver Cromwell has a set of important observations about the phenomenon of urban-love that has swept up much of the conservative Presbyterian and evangelical world for the last two decades.

First he wrote this about the romanticization of the city that lurks in the urban-ministry model:

This superiority of the urban at an economic level has been reinforced with a veritable arsenal of cultural weapons, from the linguistic (e.g., city life is often described as `authentic’ while that in the suburbs is `artificial’) to the ethnic (city folk are seen as quick, sharp, savvy, sophisticated; country folk as slow, thick, simple – think accents, whether Mississippi or Gloucestershire). One could easily make the case for the existence of an urbanism which parallels Edward Said’s orientalism. Now the church is apparently on the bandwagon: missions to the city have a cool, hip status; missions to the bumpkins and the yokels (that’s English for `redneck’) not being quite so sexy. The secular aesthetic receives biblical sanction through baptism by a dodgy hermeneutic.

It is a real, practical, pastoral shame that influential churches are jumping on this urban-aesthetic bandwagon. Not that cities are not important. As I said, they are important because they contain lots of people. And, of course, almost by definition, big influential churches are in the cities because of the concentration of resources. But the suburbs are important too (and not simply for the faux urbanites who commute from thence for their urban church experience on a Sunday); and the countryside has its reached and its unreached. They may not be as cool in secular terms, and I would certainly not want to portray them as superior to or more authentic than the city in a way that some do (let’s not forget that as Marx romanticised the industrial proletariat, so the Fascists romanticised the feudal countryside); but it would be good to see the obsession with cities as some kind of eschatologically unique or superior entity disappearing from the trendy reformed discourse, to be replaced by much less contentiously significant biblical categories: those who see the cross as foolishness or an offence, and those who see it as the power of God unto salvation. It would also be good to see suburban and rural pastors being given their due as well.

Then he followed up with a pertinent post on the dangers of mulit-site churches:

These are sad days, when the biblical models of church and pastoring are being swept away by the avalanche of numerical success allied to personality cults and corporate values. The Apostle Peter clearly likens pastoring the church to shepherding, connects this shepherding to Christ as the great shepherd and, by implication, to the kind of quality of relationship Christ has with his sheep (1 Pet. 5: 1-5; cf. Jn. 10:14). Can multi-site, out-of state ministries even approximate in the vaguest and most attenuated way to this? Is there even a debate to be had here? Is there a single one of these megachurch outfits that isn’t basically identified with one or maybe two big personalities? Is that not a warning light that something may be amiss? And isn’t it about time that somebody who carries real weight in the young, restless and reformed world spoke out about this kind of ecclesiastical madness? Or are we so steeped in the celebrity/corporate/megachuch culture and so mesmerisied by numbers that nobody sees the problems any more?

All of us have our inconsistencies and some of us have two-kingdom theology and Christian liberty to explain them. But as long as Trueman does not let his associations with celebrity pastors and presence at inspirational conferences prevent him from incisive critiques of the American church, I’ll continue to appreciate his observations even if few of his associates seem to be paying attention.