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.