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.
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.