I never planned for my initial response to Mark Galli’s series “The Elusive Presence” to balloon into so many columns. Still, I’m glad for the opportunity to have this interaction with Mark, an astute evangelical observer, because the missional conception of the church really matters.
I resonate with Mark’s description of a malaise within evangelicalism, but I believe the pietistic response he gives—a response he sets up in opposition to missional church movement—isn’t the right medicine. What bothers me is that I see in Galli’s approach the same problematic posture of Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option.”
Let’s talk about the Benedict Option for a moment. The strength of Dreher’s proposal is his call to fortify the faith of the people in our churches in order to withstand coming cultural pressures so that we are able to offer back to the world something precious and life-giving. Dreher is right when he says it’s pointless to fight a culture war on the front lines if back in the barracks we’re spiritually weak and malnourished and have no alternative culture to display or deliver to the world.
At the heart of Galli’s critique of the missional movement I find a similar warning—one we should heed. What’s the point of a busy, activist approach to faith if it masks a hollowed-out and fireless relationship with God? Right on.
But the posture recommended in both Dreher’s Benedict Option and Galli’s “elusive presence” is primarily defensive. And that’s not the posture I see when I read the New Testament. Both postures I’m afraid would lead us to prioritize maintenance over mission, to turn inward instead of turning outward. The posture is the problem. (You can read my full review of The Benedict Option here.)
The main problem Galli sees in the missional conception of the church is that it makes the church out to be an instrument of the kingdom rather than the end—the goal of everything else. And that’s what has stretched us too thin, leaving us exhausted in our efforts at evangelism, missions, or “making the world a better place,” because it has come at the cost of an inner life on fire for God.
But what if we need the missional conception of the church in order to maintain a strong relationship with God?
What if the outward-focused missional impulse causes us to press deeper into our utter need for God, stirring up within us a sense of desperation as we learn our weaknesses and inabilities, as we recognize our need for the Spirit’s power?
What if the grandeur and glory of a missionary-hearted God captures our affections until we long to see his name made known to the world, to see the fame of Jesus spread to the ends of the earth?
Mission and Worship
Missions is a means for increasing worship. All our good deeds in the world should be ultimately directed toward the glory of Christ, both in how we display his glory in our actions and also in how we invite more people to bow the knee to his lordship. Our purpose is the Great Commission remix of the cultural commission given in Genesis. We are to be fruitful and multiply in faith so that more and more people bear the image of God our Creator and Christ our Redeemer. Worship fuels mission; mission increases worship.
Mark is right to call us back to our first love, but wrong to blame the missional church conception for our present malaise. The posture he recommends would turn us inward, whereas all throughout Scripture, we see the outward-facing posture of God’s love—in creating, in loving, in choosing, in drawing, in wooing, in redeeming, in judging, in seeking, in working through his people on behalf of a creation he is determined to restore.
Identity and Function
The question of what comes first—“identity” or “function,” as if the missional church says we are defined by what we do, not by who we are—does not accurately represent Karl Barth’s missio Dei theology, nor does it capture the best of missionary theologians today. Identity and function go hand in hand. Instrument and expression are both present here, which is why Lesslie Newbigin said the church is both sign and instrument of the kingdom.
Jesus said, “You are my witnesses.” The identity comes before the task. We are witnesses before we ever engage in the task of witnessing. But the fact Jesus gave his followers that specific identity presupposes a non-negotiable task that would be fulfilled.
It’s like someone being crowned king. That’s a new identity, no matter what happens next. But a king is known through ruling. To be crowned king and yet fail to issue judgments or rule the people would betray the identity you’ve been given. A king doesn’t step back into a community of likeminded individuals where all the talk is about kingship; at some point, he must step out and fulfill the calling.
Jesus said we are the light of the world. Moments later, he said to let our light shine and warned against the light being put under a bowl. Once again, the emphasis falls on our identity (light of the world) as it is tied to its purpose (to shine). To what end? The glory of God. We are the light of the world (identity) in order to shine (purpose) so that people would see our good works and give glory to God (goal).
If the mission of the church is to express the glory of God, then how else can the redemptive self-giving love of God be displayed unless it overflows from churches full of redeemed self-giving people?
Yes, there is the temptation that we become so busy for God that we neglect our relationship with God. The church has many a Martha who is busy serving while forgetting “the better thing” that Mary treasured. Due to the natural drift of the self-centered human heart, this is a perennial temptation for the church.
But lest we forget, there’s also the temptation to turn inward so that we focus only on our own relationship with God and with each other, until an inward-focused apathy sets in, and we no longer know the power or promise of our identity as Great Commission believers. The inward turn can be just as problematic for our relationship with God, because unless we see ourselves on mission, we lose a holy desperation for the Spirit’s power. Mission drives us back to our knees in repentance and prayer. Mission does not distract us from worship, but drives us to it.
So let’s not dismiss Peter’s mother who immediately upon being healed of a fever began to serve, or the demon-possessed man who begged to go with Jesus and was sent instead into the town to spread the news of Jesus’s power, or the many parables Jesus told about people who did not bear fruit.
And let’s not forget Isaiah in the temple, who upon seeing the holy glory of God raises his eyes to the heavens and pleads to be sent. There’s something about this encounter with God—the missionary God whose essence is holy, self-giving love—that leads to a fiery desire to join in his sending: the Father sending the Son, the Father and Son sending the Spirit, the Spirit empowering us—the sent ones—as we join him in His mission.
Beauty of the Missional Church
To abandon the missional understanding of the church—that God has a church as both expression and instrument of his mission of receiving glory by giving himself for the enjoyment of his people forever—is to diminish the connection between our identity and responsibilities as Christ’s followers.
Properly understood, the missional understanding of the church is a beautiful expression of the nature of a self-giving God who brings glory to himself by means of spreading his Trinitarian joy to people from every tribe, tongue, and nation. To lose this theology, to decry it, to compare it to a watered-down “social gospel,” and attribute evangelicalism’s malaise to its prevalence, is a radically wrong diagnosis.
This is the last column in a series. See the previous installments here.