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April 2013 | by Kevin Bidwell

‘Missional’ — a new word

Have you noticed that the word ‘missional’ has recently entered the evangelical world? But what exactly does it mean?

Put simply, ‘missionalism’ means adopting missionary thinking and practices, in order to bring the gospel to contemporary society. It especially requires new ways of ‘doing church’ to facilitate this outreach.

But how does the missional movement stand at the bar of Scripture? My answer to that question may not be entirely satisfactory, because it is hard to give clear answers. Why? Because the missional movement is just that — a ‘movement’, fluid and hard to pin down.

Different missional adherents say different things and don’t provide a single, cohesive model. This is not surprising, because once the notion is accepted that the New Testament does not explicitly teach us how to do church, then a myriad of conceivably legitimate new ideas arise.

Positive aspects

We should note at the outset that there are positive aspects to the movement. Its advocates correctly remind us that, with the decline of Christianity in the West, churches should be outward looking.

They rightly tell us that we cannot afford to sit around passively as the world languishes in unbelief, sin and ignorance; and that the mission field comprises not only lands far away, but also the home front.

With all this we agree. And, if ‘missional’ only meant ‘mission-minded’, there would be little problem. However, there are negative aspects we need to be alert to. As commonly used, the word ‘missional’ conveys much more than simply being more ‘mission-minded’.

The narrative appears to run like this. The traditional mindset of ‘doing church’, with two services on Sunday, sung praise and propositional preaching, is an old Christendom mindset. This pattern is now obsolete and we need to do church in a way that fits our post-modern culture. For example, we need gospel ‘communities’, with lots of room for Bible discussion.

Quantum leap

But this new approach represents an unexplained quantum leap and a departure from historic Christianity.

Why a ‘quantum leap’? Because the missional narrative dismantles the doctrines of the Christian sabbath, especially the necessity of applied doctrinal preaching — a feature that should be the high point of Christian worship.

Perhaps one reason for the missional approach is that it believes all of life should be ‘worship’? But, worthy as that sounds, such a view, in practice, erodes the necessity for reverent public worship by Christians gathered together into congregations.

In addition, while all of life should be lived for the glory of God, the gathering of the people of God is about more than just evangelism or Christian edification, important as these are. It is, supremely, for the worship of the triune God.

Missional proposals for radically reshaping the church, on the premise that changes in the culture around us must be matched by changes in the church, likewise raise many questions.

Centrally, every new theological claim must be asked the question posed by Romans 4:3, ‘What does the Scripture say?’ This vital question was the yardstick of Reformation and New Testament thinking. How many times the Lord Jesus confronted false interpretations of Scripture with the words ‘Have you not read?’ We must ‘test all things’ (Ephesians 4:14; 1 Thessalonians 5:21).

New language

My concern in writing this article about the missional movement is threefold. First, it is to warn evangelicals to be slow to accept new theological language, as there is more to doing so than meets the eye.

The Cambridge University historian Quentin Skinner wrote, ‘The surest sign that a group or society has entered into the self-conscious possession of a new concept is that a corresponding vocabulary will be developed, a vocabulary which can then be used to pick out and discuss the concept in question with consistency’ (Visions of politics, Vol. 1, p.160; CUP).

If we accept Skinner’s assessment, new vocabulary is a sign of new concepts. So the acceptance of the word ‘missional’ is (knowingly or unknowingly) to accept new theological concepts.

But do we need new concepts, when Scripture is unchanging? And if Scripture has not changed, it must be our understanding of Scripture that has moved.

Those behind the missional movement believe the church must be contextually relevant and contemporary if she is to survive and thrive. But what if the acceptance of new concepts and practices comes at the expense of God’s ordained methods for the church — methods that transcend all cultures?

The preaching of pure doctrine, the right administration of the sacraments and a well-ordered and governed church are indispensable to every generation and society.

Apostolic pattern

My second caution is that we should be sceptical of the claim that the New Testament does not already give us an apostolic pattern for doing church.

The church throughout history has never accepted the view that the Bible doesn’t bring teaching to govern its own organisation and worship. Indeed much historic debate has revolved around the crucial question of what that teaching is.

My own conviction is that the Reformed confessional pattern for the church’s government, worship and doctrine is the one that most closely represents Scripture. However, my reading of missional authors is that they assert no fixed scriptural pattern for us to follow.

In fact, their default position seems to be that evangelism drives the church agenda (incidentally, the same claim as that of big crusade evangelists in the twentieth century). But is this really what Scripture teaches?

My third caution is that we should not readily abandon well tested paths for the sake of what is ‘new’.

Our Reformed heritage stresses the priorities of preaching sound doctrine, upholding written Reformed confessional standards and the purity of public worship on the Lord’s Day. It also includes the right administration of the sacraments and the belief that God’s moral law is binding on everyone.

Tried paths

Let us be extremely cautious regarding the missional movement’s suggestion that we abandon well worn evangelical paths, in an admittedly laudable desire to respond to spiritual barrenness in our land.

The sovereignty of God demands that the church continues faithful to biblical methods while praying for the return of fruitful seasons from God’s hand. That is not a static vision, but it does guard us from yielding to ‘new’ ideas that at first appear very exciting, yet eventually lead to complete barrenness.

Let us heed the words of Jeremiah: ‘Thus says the Lord: stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls’ (Jeremiah 6:16).

This article is intended to get readers thinking and to stir up critical analysis so we don’t swallow theological concepts that haven’t been properly tested and evaluated.

This evaluation is a demanding task. However, we dare not play around with the church or use it to fulfill our individual dreams or visions, lest we wake up one day and find ourselves belonging to something that is less than the true church faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ.

Kevin J. Bidwell

The author is minister of Sheffield Presbyterian Church, a member of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in England and Wales.


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