A Critique of Being Missional & Gospel Centered

This post is written to explain practices that stem from a theological perspective. I write this not as an exegetical, theological rebuttal filled with quotes and references, but as to the consequences of theology and philosophy. Today’s topic of being missional, being on mission and the broadly used term gospel centered, depending on who you are is either outdated, or timely. 

For quick reference, I am referring to a movement and way of thinking about the gospel and the mission of the church that believes that the primary purpose of Christians and the local church is to be missionaries within its local context. It believes that all Christians are in some sense missionaries, and have a duty to view their life and work as missionaries, and in so doing will bring the gospel to bear on all of their life. In summary, the church is a mission sending agency and also a gathering of missionaries. A missionary isn’t limited to someone who lives in an un-evangelized foreign country, but includes all Christians. The end goal of this movement would be to see the kingdom of God bear on earth. Thus, an accountant, urban farmer, teacher, lawyer, artist, etc, are missionaries and have missionary endeavors.

I first encountered being missional and gospel centered teaching while in seminary. Being honest, I was a rather bitter person for various reasons that are for a different time and article. I mention bitterness first because I want to let you know what was happening with me personally, and that in no sense am I blaming my prolonged bitterness on any missional minded church or teaching. If missional thinking creates bitterness, that’s for another writer to discern and explain. I can only speak to the time at which I began to read and consider these things.

At any rate, I became attracted to the missional, gospel centered movement because it was saying many of the things that I was feeling about the church, my seminary and fellow students. The bitterness, combined with the intrigue of the writings drew me into a large amount of reading and thinking about the mission of the church and the role of the gospel in the Christian life. I read quite a bit of the writing, and was energized and hopeful about being missional and gospel centered, believing it was the thing that would change the church. Being missional, I felt, was better able to give weight and value to the calling of Christians and to the things we do in life. I had previously believed that most activities were considered less than valuable to many in my circles if they weren’t directly tied to evangelism, pastoral ministry, church growth, etc. As well, being missional was clearer as an application of theology rather than a call to do Christian work. There is a lot of talk of theological doctrines and application in missional and gospel centered circles, and this was important to me because the thing I felt most embittered about was arguing with those I felt had no theological thought or understanding. This is a discredit to me, because many of those people understand well their traditions and theological basis. While I still disagree in many ways, the real problem was me, which leads me to how I moved away from the missional movement and thinking.

Three very important things happened for me to begin to change. First, the Spirit of God through friends and pastors made me aware of the deep sense of bitterness, self righteous, entitlement, and pride that was in my heart and spewing out of my life. Second, I was ordained and serving in my first non-student minister role of pastoral ministry. Thirdly, the birth of our first child. Combining my sin being exposed and subsequent repentance with full time pastoral work with adults, and having to consider things in light of having children to raise and care for, the missional, gospel centered thinking began to unravel. I began to reconsider the doctrinal teachings and practices that gird and come forth from being missional, I read older traditions that were steeped in a different application of some of the same doctrines I previously thought were misunderstood, more study of Christian history and practices, and asking questions about the long term consequences and confusions I was seeing, and how that would affect my family. When I considered all these things, I came to understand that the missional, gospel centered movement, while not all incorrect, often doesn’t and can’t accomplish the things it desires. Allow me to address some particulars.

1 Incorrect application of the doctrine of the incarnation
As a note, my critique isn’t to say all missional, gospel centered teachers and pastors aren’t orthodox in their belief about the nature of Christ being fully God and fully man. I don’t recall knowing personally one person in this movement and stream who denied the historic doctrine of the incarnation. My critique is over their application of it. The belief follows: as Jesus himself came amongst us and was sent on mission from God to seek and save the lost, so the church finds its missional nature to be incarnation, to the degree that we are encouraged to “be Jesus,” “live the incarnation” and “embody the gospel.” While we can find mission encouragement from the incarnation, the incarnation is never meant to be seen as something we can do. You can’t be Jesus because you aren’t Jesus. The incarnation uniquely belongs to Him and no other. The incarnation is something we are to stand in awe of, and invoke gratitude in us that God would come and live amongst us. It is mean to show the glory of Christ, not to show us how to live in the world. It is meant to show us the degree to which Jesus understands us, to which he suffered, the degree of our depravity, the wonder of His deity to never sin, and many other things. While I can find encouragement to sympathize with someone those outside of God’s atoning work in Christ and to care for them in a uniquely Christian way, the incarnation isn’t meant for me to embody or live. It’s meant to show that only Jesus is the mediator between God and man, that only God could save me and only a man like me could bear the wrath of the sins I committed in the flesh. A spirit can’t do that. I’m not to be Jesus, I am to imitate Jesus.

2 Incorrect understanding of the identity of the church
Because the incarnation is applied incorrectly, this often leads to an incorrect understanding of the identity of the church. Missional thinking sees the identity of the church as mission, and thus all the members are missionaries. This is a kissing cousin of highly evangelistic churches that view one to one witnessing as the highest calling of the Christian. Missional thinking calls all Christians to embrace their identity as teachers, bankers, architects, real estate agents, waiters, mechanics, farmers, and all other vocations as the avenue in which God has you as a missionary to your community, town or city. As the thinking would go, whatever your vocation, don’t identify yourself as that first, but as a missionary from God. You are to be Jesus to those people, to embody the gospel to them.

But the church should not understand itself primarily as a mission, or as a people on mission first. We are to understand ourselves first in terms of our identity as the people of God, as those in the world in union with Christ. The language of the Scriptures is filled with this: adoption, children, reconciled, family, people, bought, chosen. These are all titles that reflect our nature as a people who belong to God.

Further, for the church to understand its identity as mission over being a people of God, then our identity is in something we do, and not what we have received. We have received the gospel. We have been brought into the kingdom, into the family of God. That defines us above all other things. The gospel is precisely about what God has done for us. If you want people to be on mission, then they must know who they are before what they do. If you don’t know who you are, how can you know what you are to do? Fundamental to reform in the church is knowing our identity. This will in turn shape how we see our mission to the world. 

3 An incorrect use of, and watering down of the term gospel
Often in this teaching, nearly anything can be classed as gospel work or gospel ministry. If the mission is a gospel mission, and all of our life is mission, then the natural result has been the overuse of the term gospel. Gospel driven literature, Gospel driven teachers, Gospel based coffee shops, Gospel based views on political issues such as immigration, social security, taxes, gospel based urban renewal, not to mention that everything we do is based on the gospel and asking, “What does the gospel say about this?” The gospel message of the life, death and resurrection Christ and his ascension to the right hand of the Father doesn’t provide the answer to every single thing. It is a specific message that is uniquely Christian. A good correction here would be to speak of common grace, wise practices and Christian principles that have long been held and taught, such as the Christian understanding of tyranny, depravity, the love of neighbor, good of creation, sphere sovereignty, the kingdoms of the left hand and the right hand, etc. 

While there may be other theological flaws in missional, gospel centered thinking and the movement overall, It seems to me that these three doctrinal errors tend to produce the negative consequences that come with missional thinking. While there has been good fruit and work coming from this, there have been unintended consequences that I think are much worse than a theological critique. So what are the errors and consequences of the missional and gospel centered movement?

Corporate worship has been devalued because the missional activities of the church become primary over the gathered worship of the church.
Small groups, outreach efforts, service projects and the like have become the main duty of the church. This can be tested by asking what missional churches, pastors and teachers emphasize and desire for their members: small group attendance or corporate worship, and which ones are you warned to never forsake? What meal are you encouraged to participate in more, the Lord’s Supper, or the dinner at small group?

Corporate worship changes from being a time to meet and fellowship with God and be renewed in His grace, to a time for missionaries to be equipped and/or to be an event to invite non-Christians to help them understand Christianity.
While guests should be welcomed, the purpose of gathering and the intended audience need not change for the sake of mission. Worship is for the gathered congregation, the body of Christ and to feed their souls with His gospel of grace, and this will naturally feed into the normal lives of the congregation.

Cultural importance becomes improperly emphasized.
Missional thinking places cultural importance and change over the change and growth within the church. This is a direct consequence of the misunderstanding of the doctrine of the incarnation. The culture is important, but the health of your local church and the wider Christian church is more important. We ought not want a healthy city over a healthy church. But if you want a healthy city, then you must have a healthy church.

Further, the missional and gospel centered movement is often unable to provide clear answers to cultural problems and will at times echo popular culture talking points. In fact, much of the talk feels like a Christianized version of popular discussion, such as urban renewal, caring for the poor, marginalized and hurting, the opportunity to open borders as a Christian mandate, the value and beauty of multiculturalism, police brutality, systemic injustice, and a few other things. Certainly all of these points have Christian answers and response to some degree or another, but my emphasis here is to see how similar the language is of that in the culture. Christians certainly may speak about these issues and form opinions, but it is no mere coincidence that the language in these circles is eerily similar to those in the main stream culture. While that may not be inherently wrong, it is inherently inconsistent to speak with such similarity to the culture on many important subjects, while also emphasizing the need to change the culture.

Improper emphasis of mission and being gospel centered have led to improper critiques and expectations of Christians and “Christendom”
In many gospel centered places, the problems of our culture are laid at the feet of the old Christian culture, or there are sharp critiques of Christians for how we have mishandled the current social problems. While I said previously that a healthy city is linked to a healthy church, this doesn’t necessarily follow that all the failings of the culture are laid in the old Christian way, nor that the church has failed the culture by not solving a particular problem, or supporting a particular proposal or cultural change. We are told from this movement that we should want the old Christian way to be gone. I understand the sentiment. Christians and churches who have lost their way may need to be reshaped or simply disband. However, what is often missed in these circles is that the church becoming worldly is fundamentally different from a unique Christian church and society founded on true Christianity. The problem is that the world is in the church, and thus the church is sick and needs healing. But make no mistake about it: while the church may have approved, adopted, and welcomed many of the sins and morals of the world, it isn’t true Christianity, the old Christian way that is referred to at times as Mayberry, that brought these problems. Marxism, socialism, liberalism, perverse sexual practices being approved, redefining marriage, abortion, redefining gender, feminism, slothfulness, massive debt, worship education, broken families corrupt police forces, Donald Trump, deep seeded racism, social justice warriors, rampant violence, a love for the foolish and banal, and I’m sure a few other things don’t flow naturally from the old, true Christian way. The true, old Christian way isn’t Mayberry and is better than Mayberry, but it didn’t produce those things: Babylon did. Our problem isn’t that we are Mayberry or Babylon, but that we are committing adultery with Babylon. But if I had to pick between Mayberry and Babylon, I think the choice is clear. Christendom didn’t create the mess we are in, and often missional and gospel centered folks will critique the church for things that simply aren’t our fault, or presume upon all Christians what is the true gospel answer to issues. 

Cities and urban life are given an unnecessary, heightened importance.
Once mission and cultural change is the top priority, then where do you go to make the most impact and change? According to missional teaching, you go to cities. Biblically, this is not only a far stretch, but inherently prideful. God does not love cities more than small towns and suburbs. God is not urban in His sensibilities. Because cultural change is so important in missional thinking, urban emphasis becomes more important because cities tend to be the places where the stream of culture happens. Thus, if you live in a city, you are inherently affecting cultural change in small towns and suburbs more so than those who live there. This creates an unnecessary division on what is important and right use of time and resources for churches and Christians. Rarely is a Christian encouraged in a missional or gospel centered church to move to a farm to raise crops.

Impact becomes more important than faithfulness in daily vocation 
This follows from the previous point. If urban life and work is inherently more important because it shapes the culture, then certain urban places are inherently more important. This creates an unneeded tension in Christians, because the desire to be impactful creates friction with the desire to be faithful. Christians should desire faithfulness wherever they are over impact. Let the incarnate Lord decide the impact of what we do, and this goes for all vocations.

An over heightened sense of vision and calling for ministers Pastors are expected in this movement to be called to a certain place, which means they must have a certain plan, a vision for the work they are doing that is unique to their calling. Knowing what you are called to do is important, but a call to pastoral ministry should have significant overlap, no matter how urban or rural. An unintended consequence is that seasoned ministers may not be seen of value because they haven’t been in the context of what your calling and vision is.

So if this is what led me away from the missional movement and being on mission in this sense, what did I begin to see that was better? I’ll share them quickly.

  • That the gospel is a message proclaimed and received, not something you do or create. 
  • That being a child of God is what identifies me most.
  • That corporate worship is the height of the Christian week.
  • That faithfulness to God is more important than impact.
  • That obedience to God is desired more than creating culture.
  • That faithfulness and obedience in small things does more to create culture than any missional activity.
  • That being rooted in a tradition creates culture and stability.
  • That I’m brought into God’s kingdom. I don’t bring God’s kingdom.
  • That fellowship in Jesus is different from creating fellowship around a mission.
  • That I’m not a visionary, I’m a pastor.
  • That preaching to the people in front of me is more important and fulfilling than who hears my podcast.
  • That the Christians I preach to first are those in front of me, not the church or Christians I hope hear the podcast.
  • That historic, simple Christianity has often been marginalized and deemed irrelevant and still changed the world.
  • That the culture around me is inferior and always leaves me wanting.
  • That true Christianity never leaves me wanting, no matter how bad it may seem.

May 2016 A.D.