The Mission of the Church: Alternative Popular Approaches, Part 2

Eucharist-Mission1The Missional Church

Missio Dei

Technically, “missional” is a newly coined adjective for “mission.” A church truly on the right mission is missional. But, sadly, the term has been co-opted by some to refer to their particular way of being missional.

Advocates of the missional church have observed that the traditional understanding of the church as the place where the word is preached and the sacraments are administered fits within the context of Christendom but is inadequate in a post-Christian era, for its focus on the church as “the place where” offers no understanding of its mission.

Thompson, James W.. The Church according to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ (p. 12). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The goal, therefore, is to leave the building and enter the world as salt and light.

This view focuses on the mission of God the Father, who sends the Son into the world, and who, with the Son, sends the Holy Spirit into the world. The church is not the vendor of religious goods and services but the people called and sent. Its task is to discern what God is doing in the world and to participate in this mission.

Thompson, James W.. The Church according to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ (p. 13). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

This is all good, except when taken to the extreme of denying the need for the local church to be attractive. Some young ministers take “missional” and “attractional” to be opposites, so that we can only be missional outside the building. Anything that serves the members is taken to be a waste of time and money. And that kind of misses the point.

The Reign of God

Although conceding that the gospel of the early church was about Jesus, Hunsberger devotes his primary attention to the gospel that Jesus preached. Because the central message of Jesus was the reign of God, the faithful church will continue to proclaim this message. Hunsberger summarizes the message of the kingdom as a “world characterized by peace, justice, and celebration.” This understanding makes the work of God in the world larger than the mission of the church, although the church is directly involved in the kingdom.

Thompson, James W.. The Church according to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ (p. 13). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The Church of God

The church, which is rooted in the message of the reign of God, is an alternative community. Lois Barrett says that, living in anticipation of the ultimate reign of God, “the church as an alternative community can make a powerful witness when it chooses to live differently from the dominant society even at just a few key points.”

Thompson, James W.. The Church according to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ (pp. 13-14). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Now Thompson (and I) consider these all very good things. But the theory seems to fall short in some particulars.

The claim that mission originates in the mission of God may be ultimately true, but it is reductionistic. While a major theme of Scripture is God’s role of calling and sending, God cannot so easily be confined to that category. Nor is the self-understanding of the church limited to being sent, as I will argue in this book. It is not clear that the whole character of God or of the church can be defined by mission.

Thompson, James W.. The Church according to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ (p. 14). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Yes, the church is sent. The Great Commission says what it means; means what is says. But the Gospel of Matthew says quite a lot more. God is active in ways that the church cannot share (not in this age, at least). And aren’t there things that the church is to do rather than God? I mean, why have a church at all if our role is limited to doing what God is already doing without us?

Jesus did not invite his listeners to discover what God was already doing, but announced that the long-awaited kingdom was present in his ministry. While others healed and did acts of compassion, only Jesus inaugurated the kingdom. Thus one is left to wonder what the missional church advocates mean by their references to the kingdom.

Thompson, James W.. The Church according to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ (p. 15). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

That is, how can there be a Kingdom without the church? If the church isn’t the visible presence of the Kingdom, where is the Kingdom to be found? And if the goal is social justice, why evangelize the world? Is it enough to work for a better world without converting the world to follow Jesus?

Indeed, many teach a Kingdom theology that is all about volunteerism and good works but doesn’t need Jesus. Jesus reigns, but he is not worshiped. That is, in the kingdom teaching of many, the church isn’t needed. In fact, it kind of gets in the way.

The Emerging Church

Although Thompson doesn’t say so, in fact the emerging church movement is pretty much dead. Much of it was absorbed by evangelicalism. Many of its more radical teachings are now mainstream. Today’s generation of Bible majors never knew the old perspective, and so, to them, the New Perspective is just how things have always been.

Thompson writes,

The common themes include (a) the necessity for change, (b) an emphasis on orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy [right actions rather than right doctrine], (c) submersion into the postmodern culture, (d) a highly communal existence, (e) a refusal to be pinned down to a single ecclesiology and an openness to all ecclesiologies, (f) a reluctance to place boundaries describing who is in and who is out, (g) participation in spiritual activities, and (h) identification with the life of Jesus.

Thompson, James W.. The Church according to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ (p. 15). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Obviously, some of these things are very good things indeed. Who could question the need to add orthopraxy to orthodoxy? Who could question identification with the life of Jesus?

While its central premise of the need for change has some value, the total submersion of the movement in postmodern culture prevents it from being an effective counterculture. Because all institutions need boundaries that establish identity, the reluctance of this movement to draw boundaries will ultimately undermine its identity. Moreover, the openness to all ecclesiologies and the preference for praxis over theology leaves the movement without an adequate doctrinal foundation as a basis for praxis.

Thompson, James W.. The Church according to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ (p. 16). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

In my view, not all those influenced by the emerging church literature are guilty of these errors, but there is certainly a tendency toward refusing to draw lines. While I believe the Churches of Christ, and Christendom in general, have drawn their lines far too easily and narrowly, there are lines. Not everyone is saved. Some really are lost. And it matters which side of the line you are on.

It’s frequently observed as supposedly great wisdom that salvation is a process. And of course it is. Therefore, it is concluded that we should not draw lines between the lost and the saved as we’re all at different places on the same continuum. Which is utter nonsense. The NT is quite clear that salvation is a process that culminates in passing from damned to saved, from not having the Spirit to having the Spirit, to being outside the church to being inside the church. It’s a process but it’s a process that crosses a line. And the line is faith in Jesus as Messiah, that is, loyalty to and trust in Jesus as King of his Kingdom, in which we serve.

Cornelius was a God-fearer and good man. But he was not saved until he came to faith in Jesus.

Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
This entry was posted in Missional Christianity, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Mission of the Church: Alternative Popular Approaches, Part 2

  1. Bob Brandon says:

    The problem with co-opting orthopraxis is that the orthodoxy may still be build on sand. After all, as Paul stated, we may be able to move mountains but, if we don’t have God’s agape, it’s still nothing.

    Full disclosure: my copy of Thompson’s book arrived in the mail last week, and I – as usual read the introduction and conclusion first. His conclusions meet up well with a increasingly strong Christian dissent in this society. Well worth skipping Sunday School for independent study over Hy-Vee coffee.

  2. R.J. says:

    Does anybody know of any progressive churches of Christ around El Paso, TX?

  3. Larry Cheek says:

    Jay,
    I believe that the story of Cornelius was a full enactment of an individual and family who had (the faith of Abraham). Therefore, the faith of Abraham would always reflect itself in the same manner as Cornelius, obeying the words given to them. In fact, an individual who claimed that faith and refused to obey or follow Jesus would be just like the Jewish leaders.
    I really do have a problem with the concept that what was good enough for Abraham and Israel is good enough for me/us on this side of Christs sacrifice. When we read the status of Cornelius it would be a tough call for any human to believe that his dedication was not counted as righteousness just like Abraham. Cornelius was informed in the vision that Peter was to deliver words by which he could be saved. If he was already saved by having the faith of Abraham, this message was false.

  4. Dwight says:

    Cornelius wasn’t saved prior to his salvation, but he was blessed, because he sought God and thus sought Jesus with the right heart. One thing naturally led to the other.

    We have made “church” such an institution that people have a hard time thinking for themselves. During the early church preachers and teachers were more relevant in some ways, because not everyone had access to the word of God. Then later it was that they people didn’t need the scriptures, they needed to be told what the scriptures meant by the clergy.Now we have the word and we can personally read the scriptures and make up our own minds.
    Do we need teaching and preaching within our assemblies, maybe, but the world needs it more.
    In many ways the assembly was to be focused on the people who came together in Christ in sharing…each other, food, and mostly God. The gospel wasn’t disseminated but shared and applied.
    The church was the people who were bonded in Christ, not a system or membership, and spread the word to the world.
    I know many who think it a sin to miss church and read the scriptures at home once in awhile with the family or to help others who are in need. This is not forsaking the assembly. And assembly can be accomplished by the saints in many ways as long as God is at the center of it all and throughout, especially at home. We both constrict from both sides what assembly means and what it means to be a church.

Leave a Reply