(This is the third and final part of the series. Here is Part 1. Here’s Part 2.)

Conclusion

McNeal cites ten passages to “illustrate the Scriptural moorings of the missional church” (27). But none of the passages come remotely close to proving that we ought to partner with God in his work to redeem and restore the world. You can easily prove from the Bible that we should love others, do good deeds, and shine as lights in the world. So there’s ample room for stirring up lazy church people to live out the implications of the gospel. But there’s no room for McNeal’s sweeping statements about completely recalibrating the scorecard for the church around how much we are doing to serve the community.

McNeal’s final example of “missional renaissance in full flower” is the Souper Bowl of Caring, a charity that raises money to fight local poverty and hunger. “All [necessary missional] elements are present” in this example. “You have a movement that involves cross-domain collaboration for tackling a huge social issue. Not only do the efforts of the participants benefit others, but the participants themselves also grow by fulfilling their own fundamental needs as human beings to serve others.” Morever, the event is led by “a true kingdom-oriented leader who raises his own support” (178). This, then, is a model for the missional church. It’s this sort of work that counts on the missional scorecard.

Well, who is against fighting poverty and hunger? Not me. Except McNeal isn’t just arguing for fighting hunger. He’s arguing that this is one of the best examples of being the missional church. But there’s no mention here of making disciples, no mention of sin or the gospel, no talk even of Christ. To be fair, McNeal wants those things too. But if “missional renaissance in full flower” doesn’t have to include any of them, then this is not the right kind of plant. McNeal has taken something good, but hardly predominant in the New Testament (fighting hunger), and made it central, a measure by which church success should be gauged. This is the worst thing about certain strands of the missional movement: it displaces the center–cross, justification, atonement, sin, salvation, personal holiness, faith in Christ–and replaces it with ethical implications that are God-honoring but rarely explicitly advocated in the New Testament.

Caring for the hurts and needs of any human is a precious fruit of being a Christian and clearly falls under the rubric of being a good neighbor (Luke 10) and “do good to all” (Gal. 6:10). But the instructions we have for the first churches are much more concerned with what Christians believe, how Christians treat each other, and that Christian lives are marked by personal holiness than they are concerned with blessing their communities or tackling societal problems.

Admittedly, this emphasis is probably owing somewhat to the position of the early church as a powerless, tiny minority. They were just trying to survive, struggling to avoid the dangers of syncretism, factionalism, legalism and libertinism. Paul wasn’t thinking about Corinth being transformed. He just wanted the church there to make it. In a place like America, we have more options and more influence. So it is right that we would try to harness our resources and efforts, in some ways, toward the common good. But this must not be at the expense of the mission Jesus gave his disciples, which is, to put it simply: make more disciples (Matt. 28:18-20). I am certainly not asking that Christians stop trying to help people. I only ask that we stop making biblical texts say what they don’t really say.

As I said at the beginning, many churches need to be challenged by elements of the missional critique. There are some really good practical ideas and necessary emphases in the movement and in McNeal’s book in particular. But there are problems too. The Scriptural underpinnings in McNeal’s missional manifesto are weak, the tone is over the top, and definition of the term itself is not well founded. Despite good intentions and some good ideas, the book, I have to conclude, is a missional misfire.

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9 thoughts on “Missional Misfire (3)”

  1. Kwon says:

    Just wanted to mention a possible supplement to this particular post. Tim Keller has an engaging article on the interplay between the Gospel and the ministry to the poor in Themelios at http://thegospelcoalition.org/publications/33-3/the-gospel-and-the-poor

  2. Dave Shoobridge says:

    Wow, great article Kwon…Also wonder Kevin where this fits with the Reformed Theology and witness put forth in Augustine’s City Of God and Calvin’s understanding of Holy Commonwealth?

  3. Kevin,

    I enjoyed reading your critique of McNeal’s book and his version of missiological ecclesiology. It seems that the major concern of you and other conservative evangelicals is that McNeal and others too frequently mirror and reflect late 19th century social gospel theologies. It is good (and Christ-like) to give someone a cup of water, we are to do so in the name of Jesus, for the sake of the gospel, and the gospel is concerned with justification, faith, sin, redemption, etc.

    I think Keller’s article on the three motifs of the gospel in the NT is very helpful: doctrinal, renewal, and kingdom-restoration.

    I wonder much much N.T. Wright’s focus on the last portion of the gospel (kingdom – “Jesus is Lord”) has affected this stream of missiology. He certainly lacks the balance that Keller, you, and others have shown.

    Blessings,
    Daniel

  4. Dan says:

    Have you read, “When Helping Hurts: How To Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor … and Yourself?” I’ve only gotten started on it and am finding it very interesting so far.

  5. Kevin,

    I enjoy reading your books and blog posts, and this was no exception. This was an excellent analysis of the missional movement. I’ve been thinking through these new missions paradigms that many are touting, and they seem, like McNeal’s book, to arise from a confusion of the “Two Kingdoms.” Being Reformed, you would probably know about this and the delineation between the two, as taught by the magisterial Reformers and renewed in discussion by those like Dr. David VanDrunen at Westminster Seminary California. You touched on it in discussing how many try to make a case for transforming communities as the aim of the church; but it might be helpful, in reviews of these newer missional movements and their books, to focus on clearly delineating between the Two Kingdoms, especially in laying out the categories, as right thinking on this would help people see how the missional movement goes astray of a proper Biblical perspective of missions and the church in culture. But you definitely show what the mission of the church should and should not be, and I appreciated your perspective. Excellent piece!

  6. Chad says:

    I once asked a “missional” minded friend if blessing others without the goal of communicating the Gospel was somewhat trite. He didn’t think so and it definitely started me rethinking the whole “missional” movement.

  7. JT Caldwell says:

    Thanks for the review, Kevin. Sounds like a rather bad book by which to judge all things missional.

    For anyone interested, pick up “Total Church,” by Chester/Timmis at the popular level; “The Mission of God,” by C.J.H. Wright and “Transforming Mission” by David Bosch at the academic level — if you’re looking to learn the essence, foundation, and aims of the missional church.

    On the web, check out the “Gospel, Community, Mission Collective” (GCM Collective) engage in the discussion along with missional practitioners who share their theory & praxis, and learn together — http://www.gcmcollective.com/

  8. Lee Clamp says:

    Why is it that theologians spend more time analyzing trends and movements, rather than getting out from behind their computer and serving others? No wonder the poor and uneducated go for help at bars, the streets, and the governments for help. At least they will give them help, while the church sits around trying to figure out what the term missiological ecclesiology means.

    I am thankful to serve in a missional church…a church that cares more about those who do not know the gospel than themselves. A church that recognizes that they sometimes can’t hear the presentation of the gospel because their stomachs are growling. A church that loves those that others do not even know exist. A church that takes on the heart of God.

    Jesus makes things simple. Love God and Love Others. Love is defined in 1 Cor. 13 and on the cross. Try it this week. Pray one prayer all week long, “God, show me someone I can bless today.” I promise God will answer that prayer. Go for it.

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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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