Ryan Kelly: Missional One More Time

(From: Kevin DeYoung )

I hope these posts on mission and missional are producing more light than heat. My aim is not to beat the proverbial equine representative, but to keep the ole conversation going. This is a critical, volatile, confusing issue.

You may know Ryan Kelly as the third person in the TGC round table discussion (Greg Gilbert and I being the other two). Ryan is the pastor at Desert Springs Church and an all around cool guy (and smart too!). He’s been thinking a lot of mission and missional, so I asked if I could post his thoughts on my blog. It’s long, but worth the read.


Kevin kindly invited me to write some follow-up thoughts to a recent TGC video we did with Greg Gilbert on the mission of the church. Since my contribution to the video consisted of little more than anecdotes of Puritan cultural-engagement, and because I don’t really have a blog of my own, I was glad to have the opportunity to say a few more things here.

Some Background

I don’t exactly remember how long ago it was, but at some point I began filing away in my head, and later on paper, what I could gather that people meant by the term missional. Whether from a book, an article, a blog post, or a personal conversation, the variations seemed to me to be many and fairly significant. Missional could mean or seem to imply:

* Cultural engagement, preferably of the hipster-flavor
* Social justice, cultural transformation, and love of neighbor
* Entrepreneurial and aggressive church expansion
* Anything but the church-growth, attractional, programtic model of evangelism
* A serious and constant awareness of our “sent-ness”
* Simple gospel proclamation—what our dads used to call witnessing or evangelism, but perhaps a slightly more thoughtful and/or natural version of it
* Thoughtful gospel proclamation + any of the above

You might think that this is already headed in the direction of a critique of anything missional, but it’s not. I think I can put a check-mark next to just about each one of the above bullet points. I think I’d vote for them (at least if I can qualify a couple of them—but I won’t chase that rabbit trail now). I pastor a young church, of which many are self-consciously and thoughtfully “culturally-engaging.” We care about practical, human needs. Alongside our gospel-efforts, we give a good bit of time and money to micro-finance, medical-care, and improved water in South America. We do both word and deed ministries on Native American reservations. The word missional is used occasionally in our church, and I’m friends with many pastors that happily use the term far more than I do.

That said, I want to be unashamedly clear that I believe in the centrality of gospel proclamation. This is what I see as the capital-M “Mission” of the church in Scripture. I don’t see mercy ministries being one wing of the plane and the mercy message being the other. I’m not sure what picture I’d draw on the whiteboard as an alternative, but that one doesn’t cut it for me. I also think there are good reasons to ask what this friend or that author means when they say that they are missional and that we should be missional. And I think there are some good reasons to painstakingly and collectively think through the theory and wording of how our deeds relate to our proclamation.

Let’s be honest, many of us come to the discussion of the mission of the church with some partisanship. There are unofficial camps within Reformed evangelicalism on some of these issues. On the one hand, there are those known for being missional who think that others aren’t totally engaging the world with the gospel and the full range of its implications. On the other hand, there are those who prioritize gospel proclamation, and have concerns that some of what flies under the banner of missional has or could drift from the priority of proclamation, or even the gospel itself. Many have some sympathies with each of these perspectives, and I’m one of them. I think there’s a lot to learn here, and simultaneously some things to be cautious about. And I think the discussion is important and healthy, and it should continue.

So with that preface out of the way, I’d like to make three suggestions for the ongoing discussion of the vocabulary and content of the church’s mission.

Three Suggestions

1) Insisting on a definition of missional or asking for specifics of one’s view of the mission is not curmudgeon fundamentalism—it’s still needed. There are plenty of books that have the words mission or missional in the title which describe that mission primarily in terms of deeds, justice, culture, community, etc. (e.g., McNeal). Some missional authors are so post-modernly squishy that when they try to define the word missional they get lost debating the definition of “definition” (Roxburgh and Boren). And there are many ministries and seminaries that still use the term missional to describe what most of us TGC-type think of as emergent.

On the other hand, Driscoll, Keller, Stetzer, et al, use the term missional in a way that prioritizes or centralizes gospel proclamation among the many other good things Christians are called to do. I’m enormously thankful for such men—for their minds, their labors, and for God’s blessing through them. Nevertheless, what this demonstrates is that we have good reason to ask what this or that person means by being missional, even if we are willing to use the term for ourselves and our churches. It’s not necessarily a critique of everything missional to ask for a definition. In fact, it’s rather bubble-ish to think that no one uses the term poorly any more.

There are a few take-aways here. 1) Those skeptical of the term missional should give the benefit of doubt about another’s definition until there’s reason to be concerned. The term itself has no necessary bearing on gospel fidelity. 2) Conversely, those who identify themselves with the term missional should be gracious and eager to clarify when another asks him what that word means. I’ve seen too many young pastors get bent out of shape simply for being asked what missional means to them. That’s silly. 3) We should all strive to avoid repetitive empty vocabulary, and instead make pains to be clear about what we think the church should be doing. Again, this is a good discussion if we navigate it openly and graciously.

2) Especially we younger evangelicals have to give a more sober and careful hearing to our fathers in ministry when they warn us with historical examples of when the church’s deeds eclipsed, or became, her gospel. I’ll go out on a limb here: missional thinking could lead to a confused gospel,…but no more than any good and right idea can have an ugly, backwards step-child. We all know that there have been many historical gospel-perversions, and none of them were born overnight. Theological liberalism, for instance, didn’t start out as an overt plan to turn to “another gospel.” There was a slow and sometimes sneaky trajectory. But, in short, the story is as simple as this: good things eventually became gospel things.

Now, I think that an older generation should also be prepared to admit that some pockets of evangelicalism and much of fundamentalism in previous generations wrongly reacted to the social gospel and liberation theology by being rather neglectful of Matthew 5 (“salt and light”), Luke 10 (the good Samaritan), James 1:27 (care for the helpless), and others. Especially with fundamentalism, no doubt there was a wrong-headed retreat from culture, politics, and the arts.

But as we Reformed evangelicals today try to seek the proper place and language for all these potentially good, cultural, humane things, we should perhaps more humbly consider, even study, the stories of how these deed, mercy, justice, culture issues overtook and became gospel proclamation in an earlier day. To quote Stetzer, “It would be, in my opinion, the height of historical naïveté to have the same conversations about the same issues and not consider the results of the last two times such conversations were had (the missio dei movement and Social Gospel both having struggled with similar issues as we do today).”

Read Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism every five years. Read the work of George Marsden, especially Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism, which chronicles the missteps of both fundamentalism and left-wing evangelicalism in the last century. Surely we don’t think our generation or our camp is so sharp, so vigilant that we are above repeating such mistakes. So perhaps we young, mission-impassioned, ambitious types need to do a little less eye-rolling and a little more prayerful listening when others—especially those more historically astute and/or experienced—seem more cautious and suggest more careful nuance about the relationship between deeds and gospel.

3) Partly influenced by the need to protect the gospel (see #2 above), but mostly based on the Bible itself, it seems to me that there is warrant for prioritizing gospel proclamation over other important commands Jesus gives his followers. I know this is difficult for some who see any prioritizing of one thing to inevitably make the others optional, to inevitably treat important things with mere lip service. Well, I can’t remember which logical fallacy that falls into, but I know it’s one of them. Yes, perhaps some of us are too quick to say “of course Christians should care for the poor, love their neighbor, be good citizens, but…,” and then we go on for several minutes about witnessing and never mention the other things again. I can appreciate that that may sound imbalanced. But, speaking only for myself, I truly don’t want any one of Jesus’ commands to be treated lightly; I will not choose between the gospel message and the gospel’s implications. Kevin, in my opinion, did an excellent job of making that clear in a post last week. Of course, the real dilemma for most of us is not whether gospel or deeds are optional, but what the relationship is and how we communicate it.

Jonathan Leeman recently made a good case for the gospel having “central” rather than “first” or “primary” place amidst other good Christian tasks. That might seem like needless wrangling to some, but I think that’s the kind of thinking and formulating we need to keep attempting. We also need more discussion about the relevant Bible texts themselves. I have already stated upfront that my understanding of the capitol-M “Mission” of the church has gospel proclamation at its core. Other things are expected (commanded!) to come alongside that proclamation, but it seems to me that there are several biblical indications that some form of gospel-centrality is needed. Quick examples:

* While Jesus healed and fed, the gospel accounts culminate with the disciples’ commission to proclaim and make disciples. This doesn’t mean that this is all they are to do, but “famous last words” do seem particularly noteworthy, especially when they are quadruply given.
* The book of Acts not only begins with another such commission (1:8), but continues with dozens of preaching/conversion stories to makeup a rather overwhelmingly consistent theme.
* Paul insists that the facts of the gospel weekend—Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection—are of “first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3). Those who want to have social and cultural issues right alongside the gospel have to provide a satisfying explanation of what Paul meant here if he didn’t see any priority. I, personally, haven’t heard one yet.
* The word “gospel” implies that there’s a message—a message which must be proclaimed. As Carson recently wrote: “…the very nature of announcing or proclaiming (good) news—whether ευαγγελιζω or kηρύσσω—is that words are the primary medium. What we might call the logocentrism of Scripture is massively reinforced by the nature of the gospel itself: it is news, good news, to be proclaimed.”
* There are some very good NT scholars who have written on the mission of the church and have rather consistently put the emphasis of the church’s mission on its proclamation (e.g., Kostenberger, O’Brien, Plummer). As I’ve already noted, this seems to be a growing consensus among some of the most prominent missional leaders as well.
* Most agree that good deeds are, in part, validation of the gospel message to unbelievers. But by nature this sets up some kind of priority: the validation of a thing cannot be greater than or completely on par with the thing itself.

I’ll close with an illustration. I can’t help but think of the relationship between word and deeds and their place in the world as something like marriage. My unmarried and romantically inexperienced neighbor might watch my wife and I sharing affection, laughter, touch, food, children—really just life—over several evenings. And he might conclude from that that marriage is beautiful and desirable. But he may not necessarily know anything about the process of courtship culminating in thoughtful, theological wedding vows. Watching my marriage over several evenings has validated or even beautified marriage in his eyes, but that does not necessarily help him understand how we got there and what undergirds it all. The gospel undergirds everything we do as Christians. We can and should demonstrate that to unbelievers in hundreds of ways. But they have to be told how we got there. We have to tell them the gospel or they will not be saved.