Missional is a word with a thousand faces. I like some of the faces. I like it when Christians want to do evangelism. I like it when Christians think hard about cultural engagement and the do’s and don’ts of contextualization. I really like it when sleepy churches are challenged to love their neighbors in word and deed. If that’s all we mean by missional, I love missional.

But if Reggie McNeal’s new book is a popular expression of missional theology, count me among the concerned. McNeal, a Southern Baptist, is well-respected in many evangelical circles. He’s a dynamic speaker and has a heart to see churches make a difference in the world. No doubt, God is using his ministry to help inspire many Christians to look outside of themselves. Certainly this book is a practical and provocative challenge to do just that.

But his latest book is not without some serious problems. Missional Renaissance: Changing the Scorecard for the Church, glowingly blurbed by Alan Hirsch, Neil Cole, Leonard Sweet, and even the RCA’s General-Secretary, is full of hyperbole, false dichotomies, and strong indictments on all those who “don’t get it.” And the weakest part is the biblical exegesis. More on that in a minute.

What’s to Like?

Let me start this multi-part review by sincerely applauding much of what I see in the missional movement and in this book. At its best, missional represents everything Christians ought to be. We should be concerned about the lost and compassionate about the hurting. We ought to sacrifice personal preferences for the good of others. We should think critically about our own traditions and creatively about new strategies. We ought to bless people, love God and love neighbor.

Moreover, missional has happened for a reason. Some churches do get stuck in antiquated ways of doing things that are not tied to Scriptural principles. Some churches need to be shaken out of their lethargy and apathy. Some churches have entirely defensive posture toward their communities. Some churches are insulated and ingrown. So please don’t hear my critique of missional has an excuse for traditional churches to be smug, self-righteous, or indifferent to the world around them.

So just to make clear: there are many helpful practical suggestions in this book. There’s good counsel on prayer, finances, conflict resolution, spiritual health and a host of other broad topics. But the practical suggestions are built on a host of unsubstantiated assumptions and unconvincing biblical reflection. I realize McNeal’s book is a popular-level treatment of themes that are covered more exhaustively elsewhere, but the popular-level is where most people get their information. So if the missional movement is to have a positive, long-lasting impact on the church, even books like this (actually, especially books like this) need be more thoughtful and pay more careful attention to the biblical text.

Sloganeering

For starters, Missional Renaissance is too full of familiar anti-church-as-we-know-it cliches that resemble slogans more than substantial arguments. The blame Constantine motif needs more nuance and research or it needs to be dropped. Before we paint a picture of the early church as an organic, clergy-free movement, focused on the simple teachings of Jesus (13-14), we should realize that the early church had lots of theologizing, lots of structure, lots of liturgy, lots of authoritative leaders, even before Constantine! The church was more than “a way of life” for the first 300 years of its existence (14). Even a cursory look through the Ante-Nicene Fathers will demonstrate this.

Likewise, the anti-institution bent is ahistorical and unrealistic. James Davison Hunter makes a convincing case in To Change the World that institutions are necessary for cultural change, let alone for sociological identity. Contra McNeal, a “total conversion from the institutional model” of church is neither wise nor possible (58). We need to put to rest the mantra: we don’t go to church, we are the church (45, 19). Membership is New Testament language (1 Cor. 12:12-20) and so is the language of coming together as a church (1 Cor. 11:18). Going to church is biblical. Being a member is biblical. Discipline is biblical (1 Cor. 5). Church oversight is biblical (Acts 20:28; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:1-7; 5:17). Submitting to your leaders is biblical, and so is making the care of church members a serious priority (Heb. 13:17). Let’s not spur on mission by stomping all over ecclesiology.

That Bad, Really?

Unless traditional church is just code for “really bad churches,” missional leaders should be more careful not to paint traditional churches in the worst possible light. Missional leaders, says McNeal, have a passion to introduce people to the revelation of God’s heart for the world through Jesus while church-based leadership needs the props of religious authority and real estate (14). Kingdom-oriented leadership is organic, disruptive, personal, prophetic, and empowering. Church-based leadership, on the other hand, “can be described as institutional, maintenance-oriented, positional, pastoral, church-focused, and highly controlling” (131). Is that really what most leaders in traditional churches are like?

Similarly, is it really fair to say “Self-centeredness and self-absorption are tolerated, even encouraged, in the traditional church”? (65) Can a traditional worship service really be likened to bringing people into the Y once a week, feeding them coffee and donuts, and letting them watch their instructor work out? (98) And is it accurate to say “the program-driven church often focuses on teaching, in an autocratic manner” and that “those who carry the responsibility for this teaching” measure their effectiveness based “on delivery prowess, not on the level or scope of transformed living among their listeners”? (101)

More Than Assumptions

More seriously, Missional Renaissance fails to lay the necessary groundwork for many of its practical exhortations and examples. We are often told to move from a church-centric worldview to a kingdom-centric worldview, but there is no biblical reflection on the nature of the kingdom or its overlap with the church. It is more or less assumed that the kingdom is all the good stuff we want to do in the world and the church is an institutional dinosaur. Likewise, before we commend those who frequently cancel their weekly worship service in order to serve in the community we should think about why we worship and whether gathering on the Lord’s Day for covenant renewal can be missed so easily.

Furthermore, there’s precious little biblical reflection on church polity and the nature of the church. The missional model may have pastors as community service agents, but the biblical model is that they be shepherds of the flock. Missional folks may feel like the church doesn’t exist for itself, and in some ways they’re right. But what about all the one another commands? What about Paul’s careful instructions for the widows in the church (1 Timothy 5)? What about “Do good to all people, especially the household of God” (Gal. 6:10)? It sounds prophetic to lambaste the church for being focused on its own members, but there are lots of commands that tell us we should be (Acts 20:28; Romans 12:3-13; Eph. 4:1-16; 1 John 3:17).

Part 2 is coming on Thursday. Part 3 on Friday.

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Comments:


21 thoughts on “Missional Misfire (1)”

  1. Doug says:

    Wonderful post Kevin! You’ve put words to what I’ve felt for a long, long time. Thank you.

  2. John says:

    nail. head. bam.

  3. Dave Wilson says:

    Kevin,

    Thanks for your thoughtful review. Though I haven’t read the book, I have had concerns about some of the venom I’ve seen in the blogosphere for the traditional church.

    Even though I’m a member of a non-denominational church that few would describe as “traditional,” I have benefited from the orthodox theology championed by many those in established mainline fellowships.

    That said, I welcome many of the fresh ideas and creative approaches of those under the missional banner. I just wonder if we have to throw stones through stained-glass windows to declare and demonstrate the Gospel to our dying world.

    Dave

  4. David Axberg says:

    I have been way to critical of the institutional church in the past and I believe we need to focus more on Christ and the gospel. If we did then the extras would all fall into place from our King of kings. We often try to predict how God is going to work His blessings instead of doing what He has directed in the scriptures. I think you said in “Why we love the Church” that we have often lost sight that the foundation is still Christ and He will never leave His Bride/Body. Disiplines but never leaves or lets go.

    You are right on Kevin and I have relationships to hopefully rekindle due to my over zealous passion. I wanted to help out God, instead of relizing who I was in Christ.

    David

  5. Zabur 16 says:

    As David said, there are many freckles and wrinkles in the American church, but the body of believers is still Christ’s bride.

    I am saddened, however, to look at the billions of dollars that go into our buildings, our seminaries, our staffs, and everything else in the U.S. – all while none of this is even necessary in many countries where God is raising up thousands of churches. It seems like we often hinder the growth of church planting movements in America by attaching man-made systems to the gospel.

    I believe the “missional” folks are often right-on about so much that’s broken with the Western church, but there’s a way to talk about these things without demeaning one another or speaking harshly.

    Thanks for your review, Kevin.

  6. Paul says:

    Kevin,
    Thanks for your thoughts here and especially thanks for Why We Love the Church, which I discuss in my entry“Churchless Christianity?”. Your and Kluck’s book did much to engage many of the issues I have encountered.

    I wonder, though, your comments:

    “We need to put to rest the mantra: we don’t go to church, we are the church (45, 19). Membership is New Testament language (1 Cor. 12:12-20) and so is the language of coming together as a church (1 Cor. 11:18). Going to church is biblical. Being a member is biblical. Discipline is biblical (1 Cor. 5). Church oversight is biblical (Acts 20:28; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:1-7; 5:17). Submitting to your leaders is biblical, and so is making the care of church members a serious priority (Heb. 13:17). Let’s not spur on mission by stomping all over ecclesiology.”

    While these concerns are valid, I believe they need better clarification. Aside from the equivocation of “church,” going to a church, for example, means little if I do not already hold membership in God’s Church through faith in Christ. Nor can oversight, discipline, submission, et al. have much effect from a traditional church if I am not first part of God’s Church. In other words, everything hangs on membership in the Body of Christ being united to Christ through faith. Without this, the traditional church hardly has much value other than evangelism.

  7. John says:

    Thanks for your thoughts Kevin. The idea of being missional while at the same time not rejecting the traditional Church structure is something very hard to accomplish. But at the same time we as Believers must make this one of our main goals. For some people the missional issue has either the group that keeps doing things the same way, or another that pursues the kingdom and rejects the traditional Church model. I personally believe that it is possible through study of Scripture to create a new more balanced way of being missional.

  8. Ted Bigelow says:

    If you think the church is God’s kingdom today, then you deserve this book.

    But if we recognize that the church is not the kingdom promised to Israel, we’ll never be tempted to pit the kingdom against the church.

    Nor will we have to deal with being missional in a church way vs. being missional in a kingdom way.

    But for the folks who truly believe this is the kingdom and are looking for how to be “kingdom oriented,” you leave yourself open to this sort of nonsense on yourselves. It’s not the kingdom right now, its the church age.

    The O.T. promises of a kingdom will be literally fulfilled in the future after the church age. When we understand, then we are freed up to see the church for what it is – the church, and not the kingdom.

    Then we don’t run around chasing our tails with every wind of doctrine about the church. We aren’t tempted to try to “bring the kingdom” or “show the kingdom”.

    We won’t speak of “kingdom-oriented leadership vs. church oriented leadership”, we won’t have to sort through a “a church-centric worldview to a kingdom-centric worldview.”

    So let’s get to the root of the problem. It’s a poor theology that believes this now is the kingdom promised to Israel in the O.T. And its not. Confront that, and you’ll really help people see the book for what it is.

  9. Dan says:

    Maybe it is because of where I have lived and the churches I have visited, attended, and been a member of, but my experience says that most traditional churches are not like what Mark Dever advocates in his Nine Marks of a Healthy Church or his Deliberate Church. In my experience, most traditional churches are not gospel-centered; most traditional churches are not missional in the sense you endorsed in the first paragraph of this review. I wonder if Mr. McNeal has had similar exposure and has not benefited from all the wonderful, traditional churches that are gospel-centered and missional.

  10. The missional smugness is what bothers me. The snarled lip and the upturned nose are quite unbecoming for Christians of any stripe, missional or tradtional. First on the list of the seven abominations to the Lord in Proverbs 16 are haughty eyes, in James 4 He is opposed to the proud but gives grace to the humble. This year’s missional will be next year’s traditional.

    The issue for us all is are we gospel-centered, both in doctrine and practice, do we love in both word and deed? I would like to see our missional brothers be just as loving towards their traditional brethren as they are toward the poor and down-trodden. And, remember, if you don’t love your brother whom you can see then you don’t love the God whom you cannot see.

    There was a song by Barbara Mandrell titled, “I was Country when Country wasn’t Cool” There are many whom the missional would label as traditional, who were missional before being missional had a name and was cool and trendy. They didn’t need the title, they didn’t bother with putting others down as less spiritual and less insightful. They just went about being missional in their own life…living the gospel centered life understanding that the gospel was to affect every area of their life, without pounding their chest about it. I watched them, I learned from them, they mentored me, they impacted my life and advanced the kingdom.

  11. Excuse me…Proverbs 6:16

  12. Dave says:

    Reggie has spent to much time preaching the same messages at youth conferences. This book sounds like he just got back from church camp, figured out all that was wrong with the church and ready to change it all… uggh.

  13. Stan Kent says:

    That’s it, boys…just keep rearranging the deck chairs

  14. JT Caldwell says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful review, Kevin. Definitely some things in this book to be concerned about. Yet…

    Re: “We need to put to rest the mantra: we don’t go to church, we are the church (45, 19).”

    Well, regardless of the so-called mantra, there is truth here not to be ignored. “Going to church,” as contemporary society knows it, and gathering together as a church are two totally different things. A nuance in language does matter here.

    Here’s a link to a helpful article on the subject: http://www.boundless.org/2005/articles/a0002157.cfm

    Besides the list of (more) helpful missional church resources I included at the end of part 3 of this review, here are more insightful authors: Craig Van Gelder, Darrell Guder, Alan Hirsch, and Robert Banks.

    Especially related to this current comment’s concern regarding the essence of church/community, see Robert Banks’ two books: “Paul’s Idea of Community,” and “When the Church was a Family.”

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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