Monday, April 27, 2009

Missional Balance

I believe Jonathan Leeman (of 9 Marks Ministries has a very balanced, fair and gracious review of the movement toward "missional" vocabulary. Jonathan offers five issues of concern as well as four ways the missional dialogue can help sharpen us.

Five Issues

1) I take issue with the historical revisionism that characterizes both ecumenicals and evangelicals. It’s striking how almost every one of these authors begins by retelling the history of modernism and postmodernism (one finds the same thing in emerging church literature. Think of Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian). Why do they all do this? Because, like Bill Clinton’s political advisor James Carville demonstrated so clearly in Clinton’s 1992 campaign against George H. W. Bush, he who establishes the terms of the debate wins the debate. At Clinton campaign headquarters, Carville famously hung the sign, "It’s the economy, stupid." Clinton convinced the country that the election was about the economy, and not about the first Iraqi War. This helped him win the election, because Americans were feeling an economic squeeze at the time.

The crisis in our churches today, each one of these authors tells us, is about the transition from modernism to postmodernism. Really? I suppose it is if you accept the terms of modernism in the first place, which Bosch explicitly does:

it is futile to attempt nostalgically to return to a pre-Enlightenment worldview. It is not possible to "unknow" what we have learned…The ‘light’ in the Enlightenment was real light and should not simply be discarded. What is needed, rather, is to realize that the Enlightenment paradigm has served is purpose; we should now move beyond it… [17]

The problem, in my opinion, is that Bosch and others have capitulated more completely to the philosophies of this world than they realize, even as they accuse fundamentalists of doing the same. (It almost feels like a number of mainliners are looking for a way to explain their dying denominations, and can’t help but draw those rigid inerrantists into their malaise.) I should unpack all this much further, but I’ll leave it at that.

2) I take issue with the reductionism which results from this revisionism. Since the conservatives adopt the historically revisionistic storyline of the ecumenicals almost wholesale, they fall into some of the same reductionism. Both emphasize the fact that the church is a people, and not a place. That’s absolutely correct. But answering the question "Where on earth will we find the church?" requires us to fall back on the three marks of the Reformers—preaching, practicing the ordinances, and practicing discipline. As Mark Dever likes to say, three Christians who bump into each other at the grocery store do not comprise a local church.

Both emphasize the fact that the nature of the church is "missional," that is, defined by the fact that the church is "sent." True enough. But we must also define the nature of the church as the blood-bought, new covenant people of Christ. We’ve been sent because we’ve been bought. And the people of God will worship, obey, and go as they increasingly identify themselves by that amazing purchase. Don’t overlook it.

Along these same lines, the conservatives writers should take care to define "attractional" more carefully when they pit it against "missional." The church should be attractive. In fact, this new covenant, Holy Spirit indwelled community of love, holiness, and unity should be the most attractive people of all!

I know that’s not what Stetzer is getting at when he critiques the "attractional" church. He’s talking about fancy programs, not a holy people, and he’s right on. But let me state for the record that the most attractive church—one that images its Savior through faithfulness to his word—will be the most missional church. Interestingly, the ecumenical crowd does a better job of being explicit on just this point whenever they emphasize the church as a sign and a foretaste of God’s kingdom. [18]

3) I take issue with the ambiguity of terms when moving back and forth between different authors, particularly over the all-important term, the "gospel." When conservatives co-opt ecumenical themes, they need to take greater care, I believe, in defining exactly what they mean by such essential terms. After all, the content of the soil will inevitably affect the plant.

4) I take slight issue with the term "incarnational." I understand and appreciate the impulse to see that our hands and feet, eyes and tongues, do and live and put on our creed. Yet it’s important for us to recognize that, historically, the term "incarnation" has referred to the unique, once-in-history event of God becoming man. No, the term is not a biblical one, but there are good reasons to preserve the uniqueness of the term in our usage. First of all, equating what the divine Son did in becoming Jesus the God-man with what I do when I imitate Jesus downplays the ineffable wonder of that one-time event. It might even be said to make the divine Son a little smaller and me a little bigger.

More significantly, the primary purpose of the incarnation, I believe, was for the Son to offer his life as the perfect sacrificial substitute in order to assuage the wrath of God against eternally damnable transgression. Yet when I make the incarnation primarily about something else, something that I can emulate in my own life, I risk shifting the focus away from Christ’s wonderous, astounding, amazing work of wrath removal.

5) I also take a little bit of issue with the equation between ethnicity and worldviews. The Mandarin and Cantonese languages are morally neutral. Nihilism and materialism are not. Bobo-ism, hip-hop, and Valley are not. It’s one thing to remain in the Cantonese tribe. It’s another to remain in the hop-hop tribe. I’m not saying one shouldn’t. I’m saying that the equation is not so clean cut. Frankly, I haven’t thought through all the implications of these differences. I’m simply suggesting that we should think them through.

Four instructions

Four Instructions

Those issues aside, I believe advocates of the missional church instruct us in at least four very helpful ways.

1) I am especially grateful for the emphasis the ecumenicals give to the witness of the corporate body. One author writes,

In North America, what might it mean for the church to be such a city on a hill? to be salt? to be a light to the world? It means, first of all, that the inner, communal life of the church matters for mission. [19]

Amen! This author goes onto emphasize the importance of love, holiness, and unity. The content he fills into these three words might be a little different than the content an evangelical pours in, but the trajectory is a good one. Conservative writers on the missional church tend to emphasize the mission of every individual member to share the gospel. That’s excellent. But let’s emphasize the importance of our corporate witness as well. Our churches should be attractive. They should be foretastes of Christ's consummated kingdom.

2) I’m grateful to be instructed by Stetzer and others to adopt more of a missional posture. We too easily fall into complacency in our "resident" status, as Eric Simmons’ reminds us. We need to hear Newbigin’s reminder that we are a "pilgrim people."

I spent a month in a former Soviet republic two years ago, living with a missionary family. The entire month I strategized to pour myself out for the kingdom. For instance, I developed a friendship with one non-Christian man who wanted to attend an American business school and then return to his country and help it economically. He had spent a year studying for the GMATs, but could not yet afford to pay the registration fee. I forget what the fee was -- $200 maybe? On an American income, that’s nothing. On my friend’s income, it would have cost him three or four months of labor. So I happily paid the fee for him (and congratulated myself on doing so). Praise God, my friend is presently at business school in the United States, and has now been baptized as a believer by a local church. I was not the principal witness in his life, but I trust that God used me to play one small part.

Yet here’s the point, and the question you should ask me: Jonathan, have you ever randomly given $200 to a non-Christian friend in the United States as a display of friendship and Christ’s love? Sadly, the answer is no. Too much of the time, I’m just a resident, not a missionary, more interested in buying books, cds (no, I don’t have an ipod), a nice dinner, and just a little bit more automobile or house. Yet imagine how the non-Christians around us would respond if we Christians became known for regular acts of generosity? We shouldn’t do it for the world’s favor; we should do it accompanied by a verbal explanation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Also, go read Eric Simmons’ article.

3) We do well to heed the instruction of missional church writers to exegete our culture, because studying it, ironically, helps us to distance ourselves from it. Learning about the culture should remind us that we are sojourners, and do not finally belong to any one time and place.

4) Finally, we do well to be instructed by the passion of missional writers like Ed Stetzer to be biblically faithful in planting churches and reaching the lost. I have offered the five critiques above not because I think he and others are on the wrong path, but because I think they are on the right path. They inspire me. My critiques are offered in the attempt to help the cause.

Read the whole article.

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