In my previous column, I summed up the diagnosis given by Mark Galli (editor in chief at Christianity Today) for the malaise in evangelical circles today.
Mark believes we have replaced a vibrant relationship full of longing for God with a host of religious activities. The activist strain within evangelicalism has exceeded its proper bounds to the point that our desire to do good works for our neighbor has outstripped our desire for God himself. We no longer desire or depend on him as we should.
What has caused this sickness within evangelicalism? What has led to a life of frenetic activity no longer marked by hunger and thirst for God?
It’s the missional movement, Mark says. However different they may appear on the surface, both the missional church movement that influenced evangelicals this century and the social gospel movement that influenced the mainline denominations last century share a foundational error: they both see the church as existing for the sake of the world. Both movements spring from an instrumentalist understanding of the church’s ultimate purpose.
Before I critique Mark’s critique of the missional understanding of the church, I want to give a fuller account of what he says is wrong with the missional movement and then in the next column lay out his proposal for a more biblical understanding of the church.
Problems with the Missional Mindset
Mark recognizes that coming to grips with the missionary nature of the church—when the church is conceived as “existing for the sake of the world”—energizes many Christians. Rauschenbusch “wanted the church to get out of the pews and into the streets.” Newbigin’s prophetic call to “self-satisfied British churches woke many people up.” Mark sees the appeal in an instrumentalist view of the church’s purpose, in both its social gospel and missional manifestations.
Unfortunately, this vision of the church making the world a better place gets co-opted by different political agendas, whether manifested as the religious right or the evangelical left. Despite their profound differences, Mark finds similarities:
Both left and right are anxious to make a difference in the world, to make the world a better place according to their own lights, because they both believe that the purpose of the church is to make the world a better place. Instead, in my view, they will end up marginalizing the church left and right even more.
Another problem with the missional mindset, according to Mark? Seeing the church as existing for the sake of the world leads to a dumbed-down Christianity that fosters religious activity to the point of spiritual exhaustion.
Because the church thinks it has to be missional, that it has to be a place where the world feels comfortable, it has dumbed down the preaching and the worship, so that in many quarters we have ended up with a common-denominator Christianity. It goes down easy, which is why it attracts so many and why many churches are growing. But it is a meal designed to stunt the growth of the people of God. And it is a way of church life that eventually burns people out, where people become exhausted trying to make the world a better place.
A third problem with the missional movement is that the prescription exacerbates the symptoms. As the church becomes exhausted by missional fervor, people get burned out. The temptation for the leader who sees the church in missional terms is to double down on the importance of the church’s mission. But this is the wrong medicine, Mark writes.
The more we are fascinated with the missional, the more we take this medicine as the malady of church sluggishness, the sicker we are going to become. And the more people in our midst will become frustrated. And that will lead to more people leaving the church. We already see signs of it.
I don’t want to get too deep into a critique of Mark’s view here (I’ll save that for later), but before I move on to his proposal, I’ve got to point out just how many different church philosophies Mark seems to be stuffing into the category of “missional.” Because he has defined (or “re-defined”) missional as any philosophy that construes the purpose of the church as being for the sake of the world, virtually anything he finds problematic can now fit his definition of “missional.”
For example, Mark sets his sights on politicized versions of the church, claiming they stem from the same root as the missional movement. But it has often been the missional movement at the forefront of critiquing blindly politicized churches.
Next we see Mark claim that missional churches dumb down preaching and worship. But the most important books written from the missional perspective are often the most critical of the seeker-sensitive approach to worship and preaching. Newbigin popularized the necessity of a “missionary encounter / confrontation” with the world, and in Models of Contextual Theology, Stephen Bevans described Newbigin’s posture and purpose for the church as being “countercultural.”
What’s more, Newbigin’s vision of the church as the “hermeneutic of the gospel” has appealed to missional advocates as an example of why we cannot and must not dumb down our worship. Our display of the glory of God in our midst is, yes, for the good of the world. But that display of glory necessitates a countercultural community that has nothing to do with “making people comfortable” and everything to do with manifesting the holiness and love of God.
One more thing. Mark claims that the response of missionally minded leaders is to dispense more missional medicine when the church is sluggish, as if the response to dealing with an exhausted people is to tell them more things they should do. But the best of missional thinkers start not with the mission of the church but with the character and nature of God. It was John Stott who said we are a missionary people made in the image of a missionary God. Experiencing the missionary heart of God is what inspires and empowers us to be about his mission in the world.
In the next column, I’ll lay out Mark’s proposal for a different way of seeing the purpose of the church, and I’ll set it in context of debates going back for centuries now.
This is the second column in a series. See the follow-up posts below.