Christ’s heart-cry prayer in John 17 brings to focus with unique clarity a very significant tension that has marked the whole history of the church, namely that we are in and not of the world. One danger is to abuse the fact that we are “in the world,” such that we lose our identity in Christ. The other danger is to abuse the fact that we are “not of the world,” such that we lose the purpose of Christ in us for the world. We are “in the world” to glorify Christ and we are “not of the world” to glorify Christ. Therefore we fail to glorify Christ when we confuse either case: we are IN NOT OF THE WORLD.
A relatively recent movement in the American church may be blurring this distinction and thereby potentially distorting the clarity of the church’s purpose in the world. I am referring to the ‘missional’ movement. What follows is a look at a few essential concerns that should not be overlooked or dismissed when evaluating a ‘missional’ program.
Descriptions and implementations of the ‘missional’ mindset vary, and so it follows that not all points of concern are equally represented in all cases of advocacy and implementation. It should also be noted that a typical ‘missional’ mindset offers a number of healthy challenges to the complacency of many modern conservative American churches. That being said, these challenges are not unique to a ‘missional’ mindset rather they are challenges derived from the Word of God, which has always confronted the church in these areas. Whenever the church has been faithful to apply the Word in the areas of her responsibility to be a witness and messenger of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world with compassion and an earnest humble care for the people around us, she has likewise been confronted. True need for change in the church in any age will always find its basis in the Word of God rather than in movements, strategies, or human inventions.
In his very concise article, entitled “The Missional Church,” Tim Keller concludes his introductory statements by promoting the need for a new approach to evangelism, “We don’t simply need evangelistic churches, but rather ‘missional’ churches.” Perhaps the greatest distinctive of this new ‘missional’ approach is its interest in culture.
The Influentials Issue of New York Magazine featured Dr. Keller as “the most successful Christian evangelist in the city by recognizing that young professionals and artists are ‘disproportionately influential’ in creating the country’s culture and that you have to meet this coveted demographic on its own terms.”
(1) In as much as a ‘missional’ program promotes the idea that the church must engage in the culture of her community in order to advance repentance from sin and faith in Christ, it is mistaken. This idea is clearly contrary to the thrust and explicit exhortation of the epistles of the NT. The call to personal holiness calls for separation from the world, its ways, profanities, practices, images, and even styles (cf. 2 Cor 6:14-7:1; 1 Pet 1:13-19; 2 Pet 3:11; 1 Tim 2:9; 1 Pet 3:3-4). The notion that we are called to be missionaries to the culture is simply not found in the NT. We are sojourners in a foreign land (cf. Heb 11:13; 1 Pet 1:1; 2:11), knowing that this world is not our home (cf. 2 Cor 5:6-9; Phil 3:20). We recognize that we are missionaries and ambassadors of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the people in the world, but not for the sake of the world’s culture. Making the church more like the world, or the world more like the church, in culture—as experience has taught us in the latter days of the puritans—leads to confusion between outward morals and inward faith in the vicarious substitution of Christ. A fundamental danger is that the central purpose and motivation to call upon the name of Christ is distorted and possibly embellished by non-essential auxiliaries. All peoples, of all cultures, of all time desperately need Jesus Christ, and the common ground of communicating this message is not found in the image of man in man’s culture but in the image of God in God’s creature. Engaging the world begins here and necessarily moves to the innate sin nature of man; not merely the quality of life but the spiritual condition. Sin and enmity against God is truly ubiquitous, transcending all cultural manners and customs, but the gospel more than transcends all manmade boundaries to present the truth of God’s grace in Christ so that it is shown to be relevant to every person on earth. The church must remain unmistakably conscious of the power of the gospel, that it transcends culture and is directly relevant to all people.
(2) In as much as a ‘missional’ program promotes the idea that part of the church’s commission and responsibility is to change culture and meet the social needs of the unbelieving world, it is mistaken. The whole notion of the ‘Incarnational’ purpose of the church to indiscriminately serve the physical needs of the world at large is unfounded in the NT. The church is expressly called to meet the needs of the ‘one anothers’ but her mission is not to attend to the physical comfort and satisfaction of the world. The general notion that spiritual needs are met through meeting physical needs is repeatedly demonstrated as untrue in the NT (cf. Luke 17:12-19; John 6). When the whole city of Jerusalem suffered from famine, the church was called to gather a collection for the church only (cf. Acts 11:28-30; Rom 15:25-26; 1 Cor 16:1; 2 Cor 8:1-24). That the church is charged with the responsibility to care for her own is abundantly clear. The church is designed to display a radical love and care for one another, such that the world would see the mark and testimony of Christ and be drawn (cf. John 13:34-35; 1 John 3:10-17). The church is a spiritual community that should display a kind of unity and bond of love distinct from the world and its communities (cf. John 17:20-26; Eph 2:12-22; 3:6, 21; 4:1-6, 15-16; etc.). This is evident in Acts as we see in Acts 2:44-45 that “all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need.” This is a picture of the church ‘sharing’ in wealth and provisions to ensure that all among them who had need were cared for. This is explicitly attested to in Acts 4:34-35, “For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostles’ feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need.” What is particularly striking is that immediately following the amazing picture of love and meeting physical and material needs within the church in Acts 2:44-45, we see Peter tell a man lame from birth that, “I do not possess silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you: In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene–walk!” (Acts 3:6). Now this does not mean that individual Christians can harbor a hard and insensitive heart toward those in the world who are without, but it does challenge our loose mindset. So the church is charged with overt care materially for the needs of its own, while commands to meet the material needs of the unbelieving world are absent. This too does not mean that the church’s love, even for its own, can be abused. For instance, only widows who were clearly identified as possessing evident faith and character consistent with Christ-likeness were admitted support by the church (cf. 1 Tim 5:9-16). Moreover, the church’s unique care and love for one another does not negate personal responsibility and stewardship over one’s own life—even in the church (cf. 2 Thess 3:10-13; 1 Tim 5:8). In conclusion, the church’s commission is to ‘make disciples’ through the preaching of the gospel and the teaching handed down by the apostles (cf. Matt 28:19-20); this is the means through which the needs of people are met, both spiritual and physical. Spiritual and physical needs should not be confused in our ministry to the world, but the very use of the term ‘incarnational’ invites confusion. The ‘Incarnation’ of the Son of God is altogether unique to Christ supremely for the matchless purpose of atonement (Heb 9:5-10; 1 Pet 2:24). The Son of God took on flesh not to profit our flesh but our souls. Christ’s Incarnation was to meet our spiritual need not improve our physical quality of life. The Resurrection is what gives us hope for a physical future without the curse and corruption of sin. While I trust that the intentions are motivated by compassion, I believe that we would be wise to avoid using terms like ‘incarnational’—some things belong to the ministry of God alone.
(3) In as much as a ‘missional’ program promotes the idea that social services are to be considered equal to the ministry of the Word, it is mistaken. Keller suggests that “in a ‘missional’ situation, lay people renewing and transforming the culture through distinctively Christian vocations must be lifted up as real ‘kingdom work’ and ministry along with the traditional ministry of the Word.” Similar to the last point, the church must strive to differentiate between her deeds of compassion and her priority to the understanding, living, and proclaiming of the Word of God (cf. Acts 6:1-7). The church is charged to hold “fast the word of life” and rather than correct a crooked and perverse generation, she is to “be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world”(Phil 2:15-16). The church’s commission is to live and deliver the only message that can truly change lives; we are not charged to change our environment, and doing so is not fulfillment of our commission.
(4) In as much as a ‘missional’ program promotes the idea that the church must eliminate distinctions between the church and the world around her, it is mistaken. Again, Keller writes, “The missional church avoids ‘we-them’ language, disdainful jokes that mock people of different politics and beliefs, and dismissive, disrespectful comments about those who differ with us.” While many ‘conservatives’ in the church are guilty of inappropriate slander and arrogant condescension toward those of our communities who maintain opposing political and social views, to argue that the church is obligated to avoid ‘we-them’ language is the wrong solution to a problem that requires biblical rebuke and correction of the heart. An effort to eliminate real distinctions between ‘the saints’ and ‘the world’ is misleading at best and in essence runs contrary to Scripture. The Bible is abundantly clear that the church and the world are distinctly different, and are called to be increasingly so through sanctification. Therefore, the real question is not “is there distinction?,” but rather where and what constitutes a biblical ‘we-them’ understanding? Nor is the issue a matter of merely using or not using ‘we-them’ terminology, it is an issue of understanding core differences in a person’s nature. The answer is certainly not found in the idea that the church is to be distinct in all points of culture and environment, for we are indeed “in the world” (John 17:11). However, in this heart-cry prayer of Christ, He overtly draws attention to the distinction of His disciples and ‘the world’ when He says, “I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom You have given Me; for they are Yours” (John 17:9). He then makes it clear that this distinction applies to all who will abide in the same faith as His immediate disciples, “I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word” (John 17:20). Therefore, though the church is in the world it is not of the world, and thus a real spiritual ‘we-them’ distinction exists. This understanding is in accord with Christ’s prayer, “I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth” (John 17:15-17). At this point, it is critical to notice that Jesus here overtly connects His own approach, as a missionary to the world, to theirs, and emphasizes the importance of consecration (a set-apart devotion to God) in both, “Sanctify [consecrate] them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified [consecrated] in truth” (John 17:17-19). This is for the purpose that the church (‘we’) may be one—singularly devoted to the proclamation of the word of Christ—so that the world (‘them’) may believe the gospel (cf. John 17:21). Thus, according to Christ, the gospel is promoted by the distinction of His church in her unity of love and service for the promotion of God-centeredness in the world. So rather than diminishing distinctions between the world and the church in an effort to promote the gospel, we ought to be cultivating distinctions in the right areas. We must not neglect to utilize every means available to reach the world, to speak to them where they are, to communicate on their frequency, and be sensitive of every hindrance to the gospel, but this is not the same as eliminating distinctions between the church and the world around her. The church should not offend the world through stumbling blocks that stem from arrogance and insensitivity (her message and faithfulness to it ought to be the only stumbling block presented), but let it be known that the world and the church are, and should be, distinctly different (John 15:19; Rom 12:2; Gal 6:14; Titus 2:12; James 1:27; 1 John 2:15-16).
(5) In as much as a ‘missional’ program promotes the idea that the priorities of the local church during the time of assembly must change in order to serve skeptical and unbelieving souls, it is mistaken. This, of course, does not imply that communication and interaction during the assembly be unwelcoming or intentionally negligent of those who are skeptical or unbelieving. It does mean, however, that the church gathers to worship God and serve ‘one another’ (the saints), and she scatters to witness and proclaim Christ in the world—these two should not be confused.
In summary, in as much as a ‘missional’ church promotes biblical convictions to reach the lost and present a radical Christ-like testimony to the world around her, she is fulfilling her commission given to her by her Lord. The matters of proclaiming Jesus Christ and Him crucified, addressing sin, death, judgment, justice, hell, mercy, grace, love, humility, repentance, redemption, reconciliation, regeneration, new birth, faith, forgiveness, fellowship, gratitude, praise, newness of life, sanctification, corporate holiness, edification of the saints, eagerly longing for the Lord’s return, resurrection, eternal life, the new heavens and new earth, worship, and God-centeredness is the churches charter. All of these realities transcend culture and are therefore not gated by cultural barriers. This is where our emphasis and focus should be. In as much as redeemed people influence the world around them through the fruit of the Spirit in their lives, degrees of the surrounding culture may change, but the order of change is ever so significant. The church, through the Spirit of God, serves in the work of directly changing people, who then change culture. The choices and lives of people change culture—not church programs. So the church changes culture through changed people not through changed priorities. If the people change, you will have a changed culture; if the culture changes, you may have the same people.
While there are certainly some elements of the ‘missional’ approach that are clearly biblical in principle and good for us to be challenged by, the mindset in general misses the heart and obscures the priorities of the NT church. For these very basic reasons, caution should be exercised when evaluating the approach.
Proponents of ‘missional evangelism’ typically classify four different kinds of churches (see below). But this sets up a false dichotomy. To say that a particular ministry either “ignores” or “loves”–in the same way–the church or the culture is to impose unbiblical categories on our thinking. It also fails to properly differentiate the manner of love we ought to have for the church and the world. The more precisely biblical conclusion would be that a ministry loves the saints (church) with a peculiar love while laboring to demonstrate compassion, sympathy, and genuine concern for our fellow human beings who are both in and of the world. No one should be ignored, but our level of love, commitment, and responsibility will vary.
||Ignores the Church
||Loves the Church
|Ignores the Culture
|Loves the Culture
The following chart helps to identify core distinctives of ‘missional evangelism’ as compared to what has been held to be the traditional commission of evangelism:
Traditional vs. Missional Evangelism
by Mark Driscol (from Radical Reformission)
|Believe in Jesus, then join a church
||Belong to a church, then you believe in Jesus
|Gospel is information that is presented
||A friendship is necessary to preset the Gospel
|Hearers are asked to make a decision
||Friends see the Christian life and are asked to participate
|Gospel is present in the church,
but non-believers are not
|Gospel is present and lived out in friendships
|Convert is trained for ministry by being separated from culture
||Convert is trained in a church that is connected to the culture
|Conversion happens to outsiders,
friends are viewed as outsiders
|Conversion happens to friends
of the church inside
- Frost, Michael and Alan Hirsch. The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century Church. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004.
(One of the foundational books for understanding what the emerging church means by ‘missional living.’)
- Stetzer, Ed and David Putman. Breaking the Missional Code: Your Church Can Become a Missionary in Your Community. Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 2006.
(Another formative book in the understanding of the word and concept ‘missional.’)
- DeYoung, Kevin. “Missional Misfire.” May 5, 2010. http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2010/05/05/missional-misfire-1/
- Augsburger, Bryan. “Evaluating the Missional Church Movement.” http://baptistbulletin.org/the-baptist-bulletin-magazine/evaluating-the-missional-church-movement/
- Leeman, Jonathan. “What in the World is the Missional Church?” http://www.9marks.org/ejournal/what-world-missional-church (some of Jonathan’s conclusions appear to lack consistency with other articles written; see below)
- Peters, George. A biblical theology of missions. Chicago: Moody Press, 1984.
- Wright, Christopher. The mission of God. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006.
 Tim Keller, “The Missional Church,” June 2001, http://www.redeemer2.com/resources/papers/missional.pdf(accessed August 26, 2011).
 Keller, 1.
 Biographical sketch of Tim Keller, http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/bio/timkeller.html (accessed August 26, 2011).
 Keller, 2.
 Ibid. It should be noted that Keller later states, “Today, however, it is much more illuminating and helpful for a church to define itself over against ‘the world’–the values of the non-Christian culture.” So while Keller says that we should avoid ‘we-them’ language, he seems to agree that our ‘values’ are different. His point regarding disrespect goes without saying but does not furnish biblical evidence in favor of a ‘missional’ approach.
 While this is explained in many places, the best is in Mark Driscoll, The Radical Reformission (Grand Rapids: Zondervon, 2004), 19-23.
 Notes from TH701 (Theology of Evangelism) course at The Master’s Seminary (2010).