When Missional Misses the Mark

Missional has become a buzzword in the last several years. Whereas one used to have the ability to find multiple “purpose-driven,” or “seeker-sensitive” churches in their city, it has now become customary for young churches to describe themselves as “missional.”

I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing. I’m a proponent of “being missional.” In essence, missional means “sent.” You see, one of the great potential mistakes of any church is to become too inward-focused and to lose sight of the mission that God has called us to partner with him in – seeking and saving the lost. In an effort to combat that tendency, many in church culture have embraced the missional lifestyle.

There is a way evangelism is supposed to work.

We seek. We share. He saves.

When believers don’t seek and don’t share, they don’t participate in God’s mission in the world, and thus forfeit their claim to be his people, body, or church.

So I’m thrilled to see the rise of the “missional movement.” I’m not one of “those” outsiders with nothing but criticism for anything other than the traditional forms of church structure. I’m genuinely excited to see books and conferences begin to dot the church landscape helping churches to begin to grasp what it means to be missional.

But…

Simply “being missional” can’t guarantee that we’re actually doing a bit of eternal good. Frankly, I’ve seen more missional churches and missional pastors and missional communities completely miss the mark of who we’re called to be than those that actually make significant Kingdom impact. With that said, I have seen – I have been part of – strong missional churches. Please don’t read me as saying that there is an inherent flaw in the missional church. But there certainly seems to be several examples of imbalance within the missional rank and file.

You see, the gospel must be at the very center of being missional. We’re sent for the gospel. But whenever we replace that central component with any other primary goal – whenever we spend concerted efforts on things other than proclaiming the gospel of Christ, baptizing new believers, and teaching them to obey the commandments of Christ – we miss the point. We miss the mark.

Missional misses the mark when we’re SENT for the sake of community

Community is very common to hear spoken of by those within the missional ranks. (Frankly, it’s a common word to hear in most frameworks today). But one of the hallmarks of the current missional trends is a place to belong – a people or tribe.

So, missional authors instruct us in methods to create “inclusive community,” in an effort to build relationships with those apart from Christ. And so we press down the study of the Word of God in an effort to create an atmosphere where all of our neighbors are welcome. And we find that while we have met our neighbors – and may have even hosted them for hours on end in our home – sadly, in an effort to be liked and popular and missional, we’ve opted not to share the hope that we’ve been given. And while I believe the Bible clearly teaches the believer’s responsibility and opportunity to be hospitable, I fear that we’ve completely missed the point.

Though we may pay lip service to the contrary, when we live in this manner (and God forbid lead our churches to live in this manner) our goal is not to lead people to Christ. The salvation of our friends and neighbors no longer becomes the pinnacle achievement. Instead, their inclusion into whatever state of community we’ve developed has become the focus.

This can be called many things, but without the gospel at the heart of it, it cannot be called a church.

Missional misses the mark when we’re SENT for the sake of social justice

Other voices in the missional movement have made bold, decisive efforts to care for the “the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, and the poor.” Their rallying cry for living missionally is to live simply and generously.

Again, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad teaching, but it is one that can be taken too far. We have a responsibility to “the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, and the poor,” to be certain. But taking a vow of poverty, living on a shoestring budget, reducing our carbon footprint, composting, and giving everything away is both unrealistic and (in some circles) has become a new sign of holiness.

What it doesn’t do is actually redirect the eternal destination of those we encounter.

Should we feed the hungry? Yes!

Should we care for the needy? Yes!

Should believers be known for their generosity and kindness? Yes!

But it’s all vanity if we never get to the gospel.

Caring for those in need should flow out of our response to the gospel, and should flow into our sharing of the gospel. But to do it without the gospel at the forefront is to ignore their greatest need of all – reconciliation with Christ.

Missional misses the mark when we’re SENT for the sake of pragmatism

Some churches are scared. They’ve picked up on this idea of missional because it seems to be working for others. Perhaps the church is in a state of decline and the leadership just needs something to work. Or maybe the church is in a lull and they just don’t have the momentum they once had. They’ve tried all of the tricks and suggestions of those in the church-growth movement, and despite their best efforts to become a mega-church, they’re still struggling week-to-week.

Whatever the case may be, some churches pick up “missional” because it seems like the new silver bullet solution to how we “do” church. After all, the churches that are talked about in the books are missional. And they’re growing!

Being sent has nothing to do with pragmatism. Most missional authors and pastors will tell you that this is a long, slow process of transition and incorporation into the community. It’s not a quick fix!

Missional misses the mark when we’re SENT for the sake of being sent

This one may be the most difficult to spot of all. Some churches have opted to be missional for the sake of the mission. They’re all about sending people in order to send people. They multiply rapidly. And then they send.

The question, however, is what are they multiplying and why are they sending?

Typically, we find these churches (and sometimes entire networks) are wholeheartedly behind church-planting (which if you know my story, I’m for!). They push churches to plant churches at a rapid pace. They call for denominations and other networks to join them in their effort to send more laborers for the harvest. They recruit, train, and send. Over and over and over.

Which is not only a good thing, but a great thing.

Unless…

It’s a great thing unless they’re multiplying confusion because mission is at the center of their movement. We need to be sent. We need to be “on mission.” We need to go and plant more churches. Yes!

But, we need to do it for the sake of the gospel.

We should be sent for the sake of the Gospel

We need to be sent for a world that needs to hear the eternity-changing message of Christ crucified. We need to go in order that they may be saved. We need to see our lives and our churches as a community of believers sent into our specific contexts (workplace, school, neighborhoods, and families) in order to share the Good News of Christ’s atoning work on the cross for their sins.

Community, social action, and sending exist not as the goal, but as the result of the spread of the gospel.

When people respond to the hope of Christ, they’re drawn to a community of faith – the Body Christ. And they gather for the proclamation of the Word and for the sacraments for the glory of God and their good. Community is the result of the gospel.

When people respond to the hope of Christ, they seek every opportunity to share that hope with those who haven’t heard. They take the commission of the Scriptures seriously and serve their fellow man in loving compassion. But how tragic it would be to feed a man without offering him the bread of life?! How tragic it would be to give a village a clean water well and not offer them the living water?! We should respond to needs, but ultimately we do so for the sake of the gospel!

And when people respond to the hope of Christ, and they understand that Jesus came to us – sent by God the Father – to reveal the nature of God to fallen humanity and to die as a propitiating sacrifice for the sins of the world, they can’t help but go and tell. They can’t help but send and be sent!

My prayer for the Missional Church (and every missional church) is that the gospel will remain (or in some cases – return) to the forefront of the movement. That she would remember her calling, her purpose, and her Savior. That she would not miss the mark. And that she would be sent so that those dead in their trespasses would be made alive in Christ.

(image via flickr: sabley)

  8 comments for “When Missional Misses the Mark

  1. Michael Whittle
    6 September 2011 at 11:16 am

    Right on, David! Everyone should be missional! That’s not an option. But is everyone to be “sent out”? Or is this just for those who are “called” to do so? Churches are missional in a number of ways, primarily supporting those who are “sent out”. I appreciate your thoughts on the topic. We have seen a shift in missional thought over the past decade or so. The thought was to put a family in the remote parts of the world and have the mirror the community they are living in. Dress like the nationals. Look like the national. Live in houses like the nationals. Build orphanages. Feed the poor. Those are all very good things, but if you don’t give the people the gospel you have done nothing more than what the Red Cross or Salvation Army does. Now the focus is on training and discipling the nationals to do the missional work. It is about the nationals reaching the nationals and multiplying. We (the Church) support that effort by being missional. By turning the focus off of our big buildings and high payroll and sacrificing some of that to reach the lost world. Anyway, I think I may have drifted off topic. Thanks again for the post.

    • 6 September 2011 at 12:47 pm

      Michael,

      Thanks for giving us a great example to learn from!

  2. Tommy Kiker
    6 September 2011 at 1:11 pm

    Well spoken, enjoyed the read.

    • 6 September 2011 at 1:19 pm

      Thank you Dr. Kiker.

  3. 6 September 2011 at 4:27 pm

    David, thanks for putting in the time and thought here.

    First of all have you read the Mission of God by Christopher Wright. Just getting into it, very challenging look at theology and missiology.

    Also I completely agree that missional and/or emergent(ing) has a tendency to go old school liberalism and social gospel.

    However I also recogonize that many missional churches believe they are embodying the Gospel by reaching out. Sharing the good news means they are going to them.

    Curious as to how you respond to someone in the missional movement reading this and saying

    “yes, we are sharing the Gospel using the methods you critique”

    • 6 September 2011 at 4:36 pm

      I haven’t read it.

      And to answer your question, I repeat my affirmation of “missional.” My issue is not with any of these “methods” themselves, but with their potential usurpation of the gospel as the central witness to Christ.

      Creating community is not sharing the gospel, but sharing the gospel does create community.
      Meeting needs is not sharing the gospel, but embracing the gospel frees us to meet needs.
      Doing things because they work is not sharing the gospel, but the gospel works because “it is the power unto salvation.”
      Being sent is not the gospel, but we are sent for the proclamation of the gospel.

      The gospel is not something we live out, demonstrate, or do. The gospel is the good news that it has been done by the only one who could do it – Jesus Christ – and that he did it on our behalf, “and not ours only, but for the whole world.” As long as we proclaim that reality, we hit the mark of what it means to be missional.

      • 14 September 2012 at 10:47 am

        I just came across this conversation about a year after it originally happened, but if I may add a thought: I think the key question behind this discussion is, “What is the Gospel?” The good news of the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed is much broader, far more encompassing in scope than the way many believers today tend to view it. Scot McKnight takes up this question and sheds light on it brilliantly in his recent book “The King Jesus Gospel.” Totally worth a read.

        • 14 September 2012 at 12:43 pm

          Steve,

          I’m glad you didn’t just pass it on by. The substance of the gospel is crucial in this discussion. That is exactly what I had hoped to address in this post – that missional (or missional church) fails when it replaces the gospel as taught in Scriptures (Rev 14:6-7 as a very clear text) with these other definitions.

          I haven’t had a chance to read McKnight’s book yet, but have heard good things.

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