Is “Missional” Sending People to Hell?

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American Church leaders love buzzwords. Toss a buzzword around long enough and you seem smarter, more with it. “He uses that word a lot. He must be an expert.”

Past buzzwords of note include these “winners”:

Visioncasting

Transformational

Impact

Best of breed

Leverage

Organic growth

Long tail

For the past five years or so, the American Church has fallen over itself to let potential local church members and disaffected believers looking for an “active” church know that it groks its mission to the world. The answer it offers is missional.

The word missional came from the title of a 1998 book assembled under the auspices of the World Council of Churches that sought to rediscover the true mission of the Church in the 21st century. It outlined de-emphasizing the Church as an institution and instead concentrating local church purposes on the “gospel mission,” doing the things the Bible depicts the Church doing in Acts.

All that sounds great—well, except for the World Council of Churches’ involvement.

Cerulean Sanctum exists to help Christians consider what it means to be New Testament believers living in 21st century America. When someone mentions the Book of Acts, my ears prick up. Missional appears to align perfectly with this blog’s intent.

But as I’ve watched churches scamper to redo their mission statements to include the word missional, even as church after church rejiggers its advertising to ensure people know it’s missional, I get a bad feeling about this swing to focusing on mission.

Missional church?Serving the poor is great. Healing the sick is a beautiful calling. Living simply is a must. Putting the mission of Jesus central in all we do is wonderful.

Or is it?

The problem  with the massive move to missional in the Church is that Christians ARE doing a much better job of putting the gospel activities of the Church central. More and more churches are effective at being less institutional and more missional.

So how is that a problem?

Making the activities of Christian mission central is subtly distinct from making Christ Himself central.

In the midst of all this missional hubbub, I wonder if we have forgotten Jesus.

A couple weeks ago, a friend mentioned that he was seeing a massive shift in the local church ecosystem. Large churches known for their programs were banding together to be more aggressive in missional practice, uniting under the banner of a missional program known as 3DM.

On the surface, this sounds amazing. Never mind that unifying under something calls into question that something’s ultimate message, Christians have long seen a need to be both more ecumenical and more mission-focused. This looks like a possible answer.

But as my friend described what was actually playing out, it sounded to me like a lot of great work done, but without a lot of “being.” in other words, this missional thrust looks super as an action, but what is going on in the spiritual depths of the people doing all those missional activities?

One of the most startling verses in the Bible, spoken by Jesus:

And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
—John 17:3 ESV

Jesus gives us the very definition of eternal life: Knowing God and knowing Jesus Himself.

Knowing.

Knowing is distinct from doing. It is possible to do and not to know. One can take part in activities that look and feel godly without knowing God. Fact is, this is what Protestants have accused Catholics of since the Reformation.

Is it possible to be missional and yet not know God and Jesus Christ whom God sent?

Sadly, I believe it is.

Consider the source of the word missional, a World Council of Churches book. Does a more doctrinally suspect organization exist? While that may be a “guilt by association” argument, researching the beliefs of those most ardent about missional uncovers compromises, usually with regard to traditional orthodoxy. The most missional-focused folks on the national stage often seem fuzzier about who Jesus is or what He says. They sometimes make statements that it’s OK to be a Muslim-Christian or a Buddhist-Christian. Or that the Church must embrace whatever the latest spirit of the age is to stay relevant. Relevance seems to be critical to being missional. As long as one stays relevant, one stays missional, so it doesn’t matter what happens to 2,000 years of Christian doctrine.

But if people who claim to know Jesus don’t track true to what His entire word says, in what way are they really following Him?

If a person does Gospel-looking activities but doesn’t adhere to everything in the Gospel, how can it be said that person is a Christian? How can the argument be made that such a person knows the real Jesus at all?

Jesus had a response to this:

Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”
—Luke 10:38-42 ESV

In many ways, missional is a reaction against a moribund Church that sat at Jesus’ feet and soaked up the goodness—without doing anything with what was soaked up. But like so much that happens in the American Church, fleeing to one polar extreme after dwelling at the other is not the way to achieve balance.

Christians can’t just do works that look Christian. We must know Jesus. We must sit at His feet and dwell there.  It is as important to be as it is to do. In fact, as we see in the above passage from Luke, it may be MORE important.

We can do everything that looks like Christian mission and yet not know Jesus. The Muslim world has studied how Christian ministry works and now models many new Islamic charities off their Christian counterparts, which is winning converts to Islam. In short, missional success, just without Jesus.

Jesus is the difference. We must know Him. We must know what is truth. A Christianity that acts like the early Church but doesn’t know Jesus well—or at all—will fail because it is the arm of flesh and not the working of the Spirit.

How tragic to someday find yourself before the Lord and hear Him say He never knew you, despite all the missional things you did.

People are dying to know Jesus. Really, that’s all that matters. If our churches neglect to give Jesus to people in ample measure, all the missional in the universe will not save them.

11 thoughts on “Is “Missional” Sending People to Hell?

  1. When programs or marketing strategies or identity politics replace Christ as our focus we invariably go astray. You can see this in plenty of groups. It sometimes seems like converting people to reformed theology is more important to some Christians than preaching. Or in the organic/house church movement not being institutional is the main thing and a solid foundation in Christ seems less crucial. Some Anabaptist groups have the same problem, living in community (Hutterites) or being separate (Amish) or being “conservative” (some Mennonites). Wherever we find our identity in something other than Christ the potential for abuse and misuse abounds.

    • Good observation, Arthur. You’re right; all those groups maintain their identities through their ONE BIG DISTINCTION, but then Jesus gets pushed off to one side as a result. Those groups would never say they are doing that, but it’s almost instinctual in an effort to preserve distinctiveness. “Sure, Jesus is central, but look at this thing over here that makes us unique and better….”

  2. Diane R

    Right on, Dan. This basically reeks of liberal Protestantism in which I grew up. You are correct that the World Council of Churches is basically a liberal Protestant organization. In my liberal Protestant church we were told two things: Be good and Do good (i.e help the poor). In the past few years I have attended these “missional” churches and this is what I have found:

    1. Because in many churches today the cross is being played down, instead of putting their gulit on the cross, they try to put their guilt by helping the poor. In other words, they use the poor to absolve their guilt.

    2. Many black and Latino pastors are getting creative ideas from God on how to help their communities. Frankly, they do not need nor ask for middle class white boy and girl do-gooders to help them.

    3.The results of this so-called missionalism does not really do much. In other words, poor results for the money and energy spent,.

    4. Since these missionals do not understand the poor well, they really are not that helpful except for a once in a while successful prloject.

    • Interesting thoughts, Diane, especially your comment about black and Latino pastors who may be experiencing interference from well-intentioned (but misguided) white missional advocates.

      You may also be correct that much work wins precious few, resulting in a less than efficient use of everyone’s time, energy, resources, and money. Not that we are aiming for an efficient business-use justification, just that perhaps the Spirit has a better way.

  3. It seems I am woefully behind the curve on questioning missional and noting its major weakness. The man behind 3DM, Mike Breen, wrote this in September 2011:

    If you’re good at making disciples, you’ll get more leaders than you’ll know what to do with. If you make disciples like Jesus made them, you’ll see people come to faith who didn’t know Him. If you disciple people well, you will always get the missional thing. Always.

    We took 30 days and examined the Twitter conversations happening. We discovered there are between 100-150 times as many people talking about mission as there are discipleship (to be clear, that’s a 100:1). We are a group of people addicted to and obsessed with the work of the Kingdom, with little to no idea how to be with the King.

    {emphases in the original}

    Indeed. In some ways missional combined ideas from house church and from emergent and gave it a new name and context, but it left out “the deep that calls unto deep.” What Breen notes is the problem I see.

    This inability to give people Jesus is alarming in the modern Church. We are facing an age where the people leading our churches are incapable of directing people into intimacy with Christ, which is the very bedrock of discipleship. If we can’t get there, then all is lost, at least for the Church in America. We don’t so much need a traditional revival as we need a rediscovery of the person and divinity of Jesus in intimate relationship with us.

    Rather than reading books about being missional, perhaps all these leaders should be pulling out the old mystics to learn a thing or two about cultivating, enjoying, and perpetuating the presence of Christ.

    • Heartspeak

      Dan, I totally affirm what you’re speaking of in this post. Once again, the ‘new’ conventional wisdom puts the cart before the horse as Mike Breen so aptly points out.

      All the concern about the church caring for the world will be laid to rest quite naturally by a people who Know God, Hear His Voice, and Act in obedience.

      The ‘missional’ thing is merely a distraction that, once again, sounds good but misses the point entirely!

  4. Coincidental irony?

    I’m an Amazon Vine reviewer. This month, I saw a book soon to be released that I thought looked interesting: It features a “new way” to think about being made into the likeness of Jesus. Yes, please send that book my way.

    This morning, I wrote this post. This afternoon, the book showed up–and it’s pretty much from cover to cover a missional handbook, written by the founder of a missional community in the Pac NW. Needless to say, I do not believe this to be happenstance. Nor did I have any idea when I requested it that the book was missional. If anything, I was expecting more of a mystical kind of book along the lines of what I called for above.

    God’s doing something; I can tell.

  5. Michael

    Many people who use the word missional misrepresent the movement as does this post. Furthermore, the source of the word itself did not originate in the book you mention – I’m assuming you mean “Missional Church” edited by Darrel Guder. One of the earliest publications to contain the word missional was by Francis Dubose – a professor at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary – in his seminal work “The God who Sends.”

  6. I had mentioned that I wrote this post and then later that same day received a review copy of a book that surprised me by being something of a handbook of missional discipleship. I had actually anticipated something else entirely from that book, but coming as it did on the heels of this post proved interesting, since my thoughts were already on missional.

    The book releases Feb. 4, I believe. My review at Amazon:
    http://www.amazon.com/review/RZZCEIQJYCKI6/ref=cm_cr_dp_title?ie=UTF8&ASIN=0310333490&channel=detail-glance&nodeID=283155&store=books

  7. Rose

    Thank you for your thoughts. In a search for a new congregation after moving to a new area, my husband and I have been discouraged by the prevalence of these specious teachings. We believe that community is a natural outgrowth of God building His Church and calling people to Himself. Community isn’t the end so much as it is the nature of how God has shaped the church itself. Community is a natural outgrowth of our relationship with Christ. It’s Christ we aim for,and community happens.

    That said, we’ve been attending a church-plant with my husband that fits the character of what you describe here. Over time my conscience has nagged me concerning worrisome subtleties inherent in the preaching and ideology of this church. This has left me unsettled and contrary to commitment. Initially, I naturally expected that the desire within the congregation would be towards growth, but it has deeply troubled me that the pastor has come to define the nature of that growth, even though it largely runs contrary to the characteristics of the congregation itself (and I wonder whether this is contrary to God). I’ve also been troubled that every sermon, no matter how exegetical, always builds up to the application of this pastor’s particular ‘missional’ ideas. He has even gone so far as to outline a particular personality that God is looking for.In this there is an immanent pressure to identify with and fulfill the pastor’s personal vision of ‘community’ by making commitments on his terms. He has also made the point that traditional churches are too centered on greedy and consumptive Christians who have the audacity to want to be fed. He has indicated that we should feed ourselves and buck up and ‘do’ something in our communities instead.

    So why do I share these details? For one, I feel like the concept of ‘missional community’ in this setting is an idolatrous one. I also see that it is a man-centred one, which focuses on a leader’s strategic vision above God’s. Second, it’s interesting how in this particular instance, this supposedly more organic form of church living has become so prescriptive and legalistic. It’s strange to see such legalism come in the cloak of deconstruction (of old church rituals) declaring freedom, openness, and authenticity all the while pressing for the outward acts to satisfy the eyes of the leadership (i.e. participation in group communion—going up in groups of people instead of alone–no room for the decision to individually decline without being noticed). And lastly, I think that the assertions made by this movement demonstrate pride in assuming that everything happening within God’s Church from the time of the early Christians until now has not been right. The pride comes in assuming that this trendy brand of church is the catch-all corrective to what the church has been doing wrong all these years.

    My husband and I are deeply discouraged in our search for a place to submit in fellowship and worship. We feel confused by the blindness to the dangers in these teachings and often question ourselves. We are also at a loss about where to turn because we don’t want to be swept up in the tide of this age. So we appreciate you sharing similar concerns here.

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