The Unfortunate Pedigree of the Missional Church

Why we need to rethink the church.

A few years ago, I was interviewing Rob Bell for Christianity Today about his book, Jesus Wants to Save Christians. He wrote something in the book that surprised me (imagine that, Rob Bell saying something surprising). So I asked him to clarify himself: “What to you is the purpose of the church?”

“The purpose of the church,” he replied, “is to make the world a better place.” That’s what he had said in the book, and that’s the statement that puzzled me. I frankly couldn’t believe he had said that in front of God and everybody. But as I thought about it, I realized that Bell had expressed precisely the current zeitgeist of the American church. I was less concerned about Bell than I was about the church.

So far in this series, I’ve begun arguing (links to this series can be found here) that the American church, and the evangelical church in particular, has let our activism in the name of God eclipse our passion for God. There is no better place to begin thinking more deeply about how the horizontal has eclipsed the vertical—and how we can reimagine the vertical—than to think about the church. For the next three essays, I want to look at our operative (and I believe mistaken) theology of church. From there, I’ll use some essays to look at how this works itself as well as how it affects various aspects of church life.

Evangelical faith is often criticized for having no ecclesiology, that is, no doctrine of the church. I beg to differ, and instead say that it has an inadequate and truncated doctrine of the church. It’s one reason I believe the movement is in crisis.

From Social Gospel to Missional

From the mid-’60s until 1989, I was a member, and then a minister, in what is now called PC(USA), the mainline Presbyterian church. The next 14 years, I was a member of the Episcopal Church. For over four decades, I had been embedded in mainline/liberal Christianity. And most in this tradition assume that the church’s purpose is to make the world a better place. This is not held by everyone, everywhere in the mainline, nor is it always said in just this way. But it is clearly a widespread assumption.

The purpose was “born” in the late 19th and early 20th century. It was articulated most cogently by Baptist theologian and activist Walter Rauschenbusch in his A Theology for the Social Gospel. In it, he said, “The new thing in the social gospel is the clearness and insistence with which it sets forth the necessity and the possibility of redeeming the historical life of humanity from the social wrongs which now pervade it.”

Rauschenbusch was driven to this conclusion by his conception of the kingdom of God. While acknowledging the need for individual salvation, he was most concerned about social salvation—thus the social gospel. “To those whose minds live in the social gospel,” he said, “the Kingdom of God is a dear truth, the marrow of the gospel, just as the incarnation was to Athanasius, justification by faith alone to Luther, and the sovereignty of God to Jonathan Edwards.”

Therefore, he said later, “Since the Kingdom is the supreme end of God, it must be the purpose for which the Church exists. ... The institutions of the Church, its activities, its worship, and its theology must in the long run be tested by its effectiveness in creating the Kingdom of God.”

He believed that the kingdom of God/social gospel was the concept that could invigorate a dead church: “If the Kingdom had stood as the purpose for which the Church exists, the Church could not have fallen into such corruption and sloth.”

On the one hand, this conception elevates the church: “Within the field it has chosen to cultivate, the local church under good leadership is really a power of salvation.”

But lest the church take itself too seriously, he also noted, “The Kingdom of God is not confined within the limits of the Church and its activities. It embraces the whole of human life. It is the Christian transfiguration of the social order. The Church is one social institution alongside of the family, the industrial organization of society, and the State.”

In other words, the purpose of the church—like all other social institutions—is to make the world a better place. Or to put it another way, the church exists for the sake of the world.

Rauchenbusch’s theology, and the entire optimistic liberal project, was seemingly discredited by the disasters called World War I and World War II and the incisive and bold critiques of neo-orthodox theologians. But it has since been making a comeback. It may have started ironically enough with the neo-orthodox Emil Brunner, who in The Word and the World said, “the church exists by mission just as a fire exists by burning.” In other words, the purpose of the church, its very life blood, is its work in the world.

At the end of the last century, the great church statesman and missionary theologian Lesslie Newbigin reinvigorated the missionary purpose of the church. Newbigin has been a deep influence on contemporary evangelicalism, and his thought is nuanced and careful, as well as invigorating. But missiologist Wilbert Shenk’s summary of Newbigin is what many of his readers have taken away:

... we are being called to reclaim the church for its missionary purpose. ... Mission is often treated as a stepchild or, even worse, in some cases an orphan. That is to say, traditional ecclesiology has had no place for mission. Yet the church was instituted by Jesus Christ to be a sign of God’s reign and the means of witnessing to that reign throughout the world. The church that refuses to accept its missionary purpose is a deformed church. ... We are being called to reclaim the church for its missionary purpose in relation to modern Western culture.

As I just noted, Newbigin’s theology is larger than this, but this is what has made a great impact on evangelical leaders. Perhaps the prime example is what’s called the missional movement. As with most movements, the very term itself is in dispute and comes to us in many colors. It is often combined with a fresh appreciation of kingdom theology, an attempt to let Jesus’ preaching about the kingdom of God become the hub of the wheel of our theology. We needn’t deny the many flavors of missional, or its obvious strengths, to grasp that for many pastors and theologians, the purpose of the church can be summarized like this (from a church blog I happened upon):

After Jesus was resurrected and after he had spent significant time schooling the nascent church, as He Himself had been sent, He sent His church on a mission, and sent the Holy Spirit to empower them for that task until the end of time, to the very ends of the earth. As Jesus was sent, and as the Spirit was sent, in like manner, the church has been sent. Therefore, the church exists missionally, sent by the triune God to carry out the mission of making disciples of all nations. Wherever the church exists, it exists for the sake of the world, as a sign and proclamation of the kingdom of God.

Given my travels and readings especially in the evangelical subculture, this strikes me as a near-perfect summary of an evangelically orthodox expression of much missional thinking today. For all its inspirational value—and this is not to be denied nor denigrated—in the end, it reduces the purpose of the church in the same way as does Rauschenbusch: “Wherever the church exists, it exists for the sake of the world.”

The careful reader will have suspected my point in rehearsing all this: I think this approach is mistaken.

In particular, it is mistaken on two grounds. I believe it is an unbiblical view of the church. And I believe it is an unhealthy diet for the church. Why? Ultimately because it only encourages our addiction to activity and makes it ever harder for us to want to seek out God.

I’ll explore this idea more in-depth over the next three weeks.

Mark Galli is editor in chief of Christianity Today. If you want to be alerted to these essays as they appear, subscribe to The Galli Report.

The Elusive Presence
As Christianity Today's editor in chief, in this column I reflect on American Christianity, but especially evangelical Christianity. I’ve been embedded in the movement for over five decades, so I should have something to say by now. And what I have to say about the movement is more or less what I have to say to myself, as I see in myself the same shortcomings and potential that I see in the movement at large. The title of the column, “The Elusive Presence,” is deliberately borrowed from The Elusive Presence: The Heart of Biblical Theology by Samuel Terrien, originally published in 1978. I read the book soon after it was published, but today I don’t consciously remember much from it except the title (though I suspect it has formed me in ways I remain unaware of). As this series goes on, the careful reader will understand why this is an apt title for the column. (Subscribe to The Galli Report newsletter for updates.)
Mark Galli
Mark Galli is editor in chief of Christianity Today and author, most recently, of Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals.
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