The future of missional? Let’s hope not…

Posted on February 18, 2010

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Recently, the Resurgence featured a series of articles by Acts 29 church planter Jonathan Dodson entitled, “How Not to be a Missional Church.” In this series, Dodson identifies three “wrong approaches to being a missional church:”

  1. Event-driven
  2. Evangelism-driven
  3. Social-action driven

I don’t usually like to waste precious moments of the day critiquing other guys’ blog posts (or reading them for that matter), but I think this whole snipe-the-traditional-church-because-I-planted-my-own-better-version is getting a bit ridiculous.  And, in the this particular case, I think Dodson, in an effort to clarify what a missional church is NOT, actually undermines his own cause by failing to present a biblical case for his assertions. Consequently, I actually think he obscures and sets a dangerous trajectory for the missional movement, rather than achieving his goal of sharpening our understanding of the contours of a missional church.

I want to briefly respond to some of Dodson’s assertions from the article on “evangelism-driven” churches. Much of what Dodson says here, though not original (ironically his view on the relationship between community & belief is shared by many in the emergent movement – see quotes by Stanley Grenz, Brian McLaren, Peter Rollins, Tony Jones), is becoming mainstream in contemporary discussions on how churches should undertake their mission of gospel proclamation. With that said, let me say a few things about Dodson’s article:

1. Dodson does raise some valid points about our evangelistic methods

Undoubtedly, we have a great deal of work to do in some of our current expressions of “evangelism.” There is an urgent need for churches, especially those working outside of the Bible belt, to contextualize gospel discussions, engage people in a more authentic and relational manner, and move beyond simply persuading people to get saved because heaven is a better deal than hell.  Very few would quibble with these truisms – most are trying to do better.

2. Straw men are easy to construct and blow down

Dodson devotes a large portion of his post profiling an “evangelism-driven” church – they are program-driven, community-blind, fact-based, apologetic-loving, heaven-focused, and chronologically-challenged.  Dodson is generally uncharitable, employs a number of sweeping generalizations and caricatures, and finds it relatively easy to create and tear down this hapless “evangelism-driven church straw man.”

For example, Dodson tees off on churches that train individuals with prepackaged gospel presentations, accusing them of being “answer-based” and “heaven-driven.” Churches like the one he describes are only focused on getting people to ascribe to a certain set of facts, not to place their faith (I’ll come back to this in a second) in the risen King Jesus. I have one major problem with this caricature – I have never met any evangelical pastor (or church for that matter) who believes that somebody is saved by mere mental assent to a set of facts! Everyone knows that belief means trust, and I think that Dodson’s point here is off-target and irrelevant.

3. There is no biblical dichotomy between belief and faith

Dodson, summarizing the goal of evangelism-driven churches, says, “The goal is to get someone to say the right answer and to believe the right facts…what we need is less belief and more faith.”

Here is what he’s saying – mere belief (or what he would equate with mental assent to a set of facts) is not synonymous with faith (a more robust trust in Jesus as the ultimate treasure).  Unfortunately, this dichotomy is not supported in the Bible itself. While there is certainly a kind of belief that is satanic and demonic (James 1), the biblical word for both in the Greek is pisteuo (verb) or pistis (noun). In both cases, the meaning is always trust and has as its object God or Christ.

Consequently, the apostle John can explicitly state the purpose of his gospel to be “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” Similarly, Paul uses faith interchangeably in Romans 10:14 – “But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believe…So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”

It is clear that in the Scriptures belief and faith mean are synonomous, interchangeable terms (Rom. 10:17; 2 Thess. 2:13; Rom. 3:25; John 1:12).

4. Sharing the gospel does involve defining the gospel (using facts and propositions)

There has been a lot of discussion in recent years about the “reduction” of the gospel. In particular, the missional movement has been quick to point out (and rightly so) that the Gospel is much more comprehensive than God-Man-Christ-Response. The Gospel also involves the larger metanarrative of Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consummation.

However, at the end of the day everyone is a reductionist in one way or another. In order to become a follower of Jesus, there has to be some minimal criteria by which a person can “call on the name of the Lord  to be saved” (Rom. 10:13). When God is working on and drawing someone to Himself, and they approach us and ask “how can I be saved,” what should our response be? Do they have to understand the metanarrative? Do they have to fully grasp every aspect of inaugurated kingdom eschatology? Do they need to be able to articulate the doctrines of grace?

Regardless of how you answer that question, you must answer the question with something propositional, historical, and fact-based. This is the nature of defining the gospel – we must know and articulate minimally what it takes for a person to be rescued from their sins. Paul certainly understood this (1 Cor. 15:1-4), and I think we need to be honest about this and stop playing the reductionistism card all the time.

5. The Bible NEVER talks about being converted to a community

Finally, I wanted to mention something extremely troubling to me as it relates to the future of the missional movement. And let me clarify – I consider myself missional and love much of what has been going on with Resurgence, Acts 29, church planting, gospel-centered renewal, and the like.

Dodson makes this statement: “Statistics have shown that individuals are consistently converted to communities before they are converted to doctrines.” In defense of this claim, Dodson references John 17 as an example of people being converted to community (I’m assuming he’s talking about how the love of his disciples will be a gospel witness to the world).

I have no problem with saying that love, as it flows out of churches and spills into neighborhoods, cities, and the world, will undoubtedly attract people to the gospel of Jesus. However, I think it is VERY dangerous and biblically unfounded to say that people are converted to community before they’re converted to Christ. To me, this is one step away from neo-liberalism and all that has been rejected in the Emergent Movement.

In the book of Acts, we see over and over again the pattern of conversion: the apostles preach and confront people with the gospel (propositional facts concerning the person and work of Christ), the Holy Spirit cuts and convicts, and people respond in repentance/faith (inward) and baptism (outward). Then, the Bible records their being “added” to the community of faith. There is not one biblical example of Peter, Paul, or any of the apostles inviting people into the community of faith for a little pre-conversion test drive. They were not converted to community, but rather confronted with the gospel of Jesus and called to repent of their sin and trust Christ.

The danger inherent here is obvious – if all we are concerned about is conversion to a community, then the distinctions become blurred as to who is “in” and who is “out.” And, as Tony Jones and others have made clear, when we reach this point it no longer becomes important to even ask that question. Community devolves into some kind of vaguely spiritual support group, where the focus becomes validating everyone’s needs and psued0-spiritual pontifications and not calling people to holiness and obedience according to the Scriptures.

We must be careful, in our zeal for healthy, gospel-centered churches, to not subtly move away from the radical gospel proclamations which marked the the early church in the book of Acts. While this certainly does not negate important things like social justice, care for orphans & widows, and the need to serve our cities, these things should never replace the primacy of declaring the gospel and calling men and women to repent of their sin and trust Christ.

I hope this is not the future of the missional movement.

As I survey the landscape of church ministry, I don’t sense that our downfall is going to come from a landslide of backwoods fundamentalists scaring people away with their redneck theology. On the contrary, I would argue that our challenge seems to be a LACK of consistent, persistent gospel proclamation. In an effort to be more missional, I actually think we have shyed away from the perceived sins of our fathers and now face the monumental task of negatively trending conversions, baptisms, and evangelistic participation.

We need to define the gospel. We need to mobilize and train our people to proclaim the gospel of Jesus. We need to release them out into their communities and into the world for God’s glory and their joy. But we cannot assume this will just happen because we are missional.

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