It’s impressive when an author integrates sub-disciplines of theology. It’s even more impressive when this is done in less than 200 pages. In The Road to Missional: Journey to the Center of the Church, Michael Frost accomplishes all of this and more. Frost—vice principal of Morling College and a Baptist minister in Syndney, Australia—masterfully integrates biblical theology, missiology, and church praxis in less than 160 pages, all while raising some big missional questions and offering insightful, concise answers.
Should We Prioritize Social Action or Evangelism?
The opening chapter of The Road to Missional parachutes the reader right into the missional fray: “one of the dead giveaways you’re not missional yet is speaking of mission in the same terms that we once used when speaking of evangelism” (23). This statement cuts right to the chase of what it means to be missional. Is it a new term to designate new evangelistic methods for an increasingly post-everything culture? Frost avers it is most definitely not “another way of saying get out-there-and-invite-your-unsaved-friends-to-church” (24). Rather, he states that evangelism is a subset of the larger, missional enterprise.
What then is mission? Drawing on the insightful writings of South African missiologist David Bosch, Frost writes: “Mission is not primarily concerned with church growth. It is primarily concerned with the reign and rule of the Triune God.” What is the reign and rule of God? Frost notes that the rule of the Triune God is unmistakably Christ-centered, culminating in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The mission of God’s people is to announce and demonstrate the reign of God in Christ in this world. Mission includes both social action and evangelism because both demonstrate God’s awe-inspiring, creative, redemptive reign breaking into our world.
If mission is focused on God’s reign, should we prioritize social action or evangelism? With respect to this question, Frost cites six of the twelve historic positions noted by Bosch, which range from prioritizing evangelism over an optional social action (Position 2) to evangelism and social action as equally important with no priority of over one another (Position 6). Many evanglicals assume Position 5, which affirms the importance of both but prioritizes evangelism. But Frost suggests that both social action and evangelism are equally important ways of alerting people to the reign of God, and therefore, no priority should be made.
There is something refreshing about Frost’s God-centered (not evangelism-centered) approach to mission. He consistently argues that mission should be understood in terms of God’s reign and rule. This is a good corrective. Much of the missional conversation revolves around practice, and in so doing, is frequently divorced from God’s activity. Church leaders are often so preoccupied with best practices for social action, city renewal, and postmodern evangelism that they twist “missional” into a new works-based discipleship. I can easily slip into this thinking myself, calling people to succeed in mission without reminding them that we have joined an already successful mission, the mission of God. We must bear in mind that missional is adjectival; it ultimately describes God’s saving activity, not our missional activity.
It has recently become acceptable, and even fashionable, to refer to one’s church as “missional.” But many churches misunderstand the concept, thinking of “going missional” as simply being a necessary add-on to church-as-usual. This domestication of what is actually a very bold paradigm shift makes missional nothing more than one more trick to see church growth. With a light hand and a pastoral spirit, Michael Frost points out how church practitioners are not quite there yet. He reestablishes the ground rules, redefines the terms accurately, and insists that the true prophetic essence of “being missional” comes through undiluted.
However, is it possible to retrieve a more God-centered view (and practice) of mission, while still retaining a priority on evangelism? It depends on how you define the mission of God. Frost’s description of the mission of God is eschatological. He retrieves the often neglected passages that emphasize the eschatological character of the gospel (firstfruits, new creation) and its shalom-creating effects. Noting Jesus’ use of regeneration in Matthew 19:28 to refer to the whole world, alongside Paul’s use of the word to refer to personal salvation, Frost concludes that the mission of the church is much broader than evangelism. The gospel is accomplishing the renewal of all things. Citing Tim Keller, he writes, “The gospel is the good news that God himself has come to rescue and renew all of creation through the work of Jesus Christ” (33). In answering the question of priority, we must consider the eschatological character of the gospel, not simply the historic, individually redeeming character of the gospel. By raising these points, and restoring our definition of mission to its proper place within the mission of God, Frost advances the missional conversation. It should spark some healthy debate and heavier thinking.
How Mission Reconfigures Practice
In the remaining chapters, Frost brings a fresh, and often biblical, perspective on issues like church membership, consumerism, holiness, and mission. I’ll comment on two.
Lest we conclude that Frost has dispensed with evangelism or subordinated it to social action, bear in mind his argument—both are equally important. In fact, in chapter two he underscores the importance of evangelism when he writes, “Those who claim to be missional but who never ever find themselves in a relational place where they can proclaim the lordship of Jesus to a friend, even if that proclamation occurs over several conversations over a period of time, are hardly missional at all” (43). He goes on to advocate “Slow Evangelism,” a wonderfully freeing chapter on how evangelism actually occurs. He notes that we don’t have to get a prepackaged presentation out in a single conversation because mission is much bigger and different than “presenting the gospel.” We present the gospel with our whole lives and with our lips. This chapter deserves a “slow” reading, as it combines biblical arguments that must be weighed, as well as helpful practice on slow evangelism. Once again, Frost advances the missional conversation.
Like Alan Hirsch and Hugh Halter, Frost advocates a form of holiness that is Jesus-centered, bringing disciples closer to, not further away, from sinners. He calls us to “carry the death of Jesus” so that others might live. This means sacrificing comfort, empathizing with the suffering, and truly moving into your neighborhood. Debunking protests against the use of incarnational as a descriptor for mission, Frost points out that our imitation of Christ does not diminish the incarnation but lifts it up. He avers that incarnational mission isn’t a claim to pseudo-divinity but a way to embody the message and mission of Jesus. He moved into the neighborhood, knew his neighbors by name, and renewed it through his acts of healing, love, and teaching. Are we following in Jesus’ footsteps? Holiness is reconfigured around Jesus example, which advanced the mission of God, quite literally, in the world.
Think Harder, Live Better
The Road to Missional pushes the boundaries of conviction for both the theologian and the practioner; it forces the reader to think harder and live better. The book is littered with well-placed quotations, some of which continue to haunt me:
- “You say you care about the poor. Then tell me, what are their names?” Gustavo Gutierrez
- “We should allow church membership to be the outcome of Christian mission, not its goal.”
- “Pietism is fear-based Christianity.”
Frost has accomplished a lot in this short book. My hope is that it truly advances both the missional conversation and missional practice, so that Jesus Christ might be embraced as Lord among all peoples and in all domains of life.