There is a place in the Gulf of Alaska where two oceans meet but do not mix. This happened because fresh water glaciers melted and flowed to join the ocean water. Because of the difference in the salinity and densities of these two water bodies, a surface tension developed between them that acts like a thin wall which prevents them from mixing. The boundary between the two is outlined by a thin layer of foam. It’s kind of poetic isn’t it? Two powerful bodies of water, relentlessly standing together, but unable to become one.1
I’m navigating my ship in the confluent boundary waters of two different oceans. On the port side is the missional church movement and on the starboard is traditional evangelicalism. At first glance the two bodies look completely different from one another. The dissimilar mineral content and salinity of the two oceans tint the water and cause a slight contrasting in color. There are some differences, that’s obvious to anyone looking at the them, but the essential nature of the two bodies is exactly the same. They are each large and wet, they both support life, and they both will move when the wind moves over the face of their waters.
I am an evangelical and a fundamentalist,2 and I am not ashamed to say it. I was raised in a conservative evangelical Baptist church, I happily maintain relationships and interact with fundamentalist and traditional evangelical friends, and I continue to benefit from the ministries of men like John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul, Mike Horton, and John Piper. At the same time, I have been deeply influenced and persuaded by the teaching coming out of the missional church movement. Men like Jeff Vanderstelt, Steve Timmis, Tim Chester, and Alan Hirsch have challenged me and blessed me immensely. I will never think of the church and our mission in the world in the same way, for having been taught by these men.
What's the big deal?
For some of you reading, who are unfamiliar with the missional church movement, it may not be clear why I should make a distinction between the missional church and traditional evangelicalism; or why it should be remarkable that anyone would find themselves navigating their way through the two. Let me try to explain it, briefly.
First, what do we mean when we speak of the missional church? The missional church is paradigmatically unique among churches. While all evangelical churches recognize that we have been commissioned by Jesus to go into all the world and preach the gospel and make disciples of all peoples, and every church is carrying out that charge in varying degrees of commitment and priority, the missional church is distinct in that it identifies and prioritizes itself primarily around the mission of God. That is, the missional church holds that we are intrinsically and principally missionary in nature.3 We are a missionary people sent by a missionary God.
This missionary identity affects everything that happens in the life and organization of the missional church. If it is true, that identity informs who we are, and who we are determines what we will do, then it makes sense that a missionary identity will result in a missionary response. And when this identity permeates through the organism of the church, it affects everything. It affects how we live, how we worship, how we preach, how we structure and organize our churches and Sunday gatherings; nothing goes unaffected because every decision is pressed through the grid of the apostolic commission. And since missional churches worship, preach, and organize with mission in mind, they tend to develop practices which break from some of the historical conventions of evangelicalism and traditional church forms. It is for this reason that most missional churches would also fall into the category of the emerging church movement. That is the rub for some conservative evangelical teachers, and this leads me to my next point.
Second, why would it be remarkable for anyone to be found moving through or between these two movements simultaneously? It is not remarkable because I am some sort of pioneer. I don’t think that my position is unprecedented, or that I am the only one working between these two movements. Its remarkability is, rather, subject to a person’s opinion of the missional movement. Some folks, from more conservative circles, do not like the movement for reasons other than its DIY missional ecclesiology. They are, instead, disturbed by some of those who have been identified with the movement. Their concerns are not without cause.
The missional church is not a monolithic movement. Like evangelicalism, there is a vast range of theological perspectives and methodologies which represent themselves under a common banner. In the evangelical movement you will find men such as Sinclair Ferguson, Arturo Azurdia, and Steve Lawson; men who are conservative pastor-theologians and stalwarts of the faith. But you will also find teachers such as T.D. Jakes, Greg Boyd, and Kenneth Copeland within the movement; men who are considered heretics by the majority of conservative evangelicals. Similarly, the missional movement is an admixture of both good and bad. There are men such as Tim Keller, Terry Virgo, and Matt Chandler who are widely respected and who are helping to drive the missional advance. But you will also find neo-liberal pastors and teachers like Rob Bell, Tony Jones, and Doug Pagitt associated with the movement. Unfortunately, it is this latter cohort of heterodox teachers who grabbed the majority of the press early on in the missional and emerging church movements. These men unabashedly reject core doctrines of the faith and promote a missional church which is nothing more than a warmed-over version of Rauschenbusch’s social gospel. And since these guys are associated with the roots of the movement, and promote similar ideas, and share a common vocabulary, the entire movement has been indicted through an unwarranted association.
That is why most conservative evangelical teachers are suspicious and critical of the missional church, as a whole — we do things a little bit differently and we have some wolves mingling in and around our sheep. And that, I suppose, is what makes my journey a little bit unique. I am a conservative evangelical Christian but I am also a missional churchman. I have associations and friendships on both sides of the divide, and I am being influenced by teachers and ministries on both my left and my right. Honestly, I sometimes feel like a man with no country. My conservative and traditional evangelical friends look at me with a head-cocked curiosity, not knowing what to make of me. And some of my missional and emerging church friends, I would not be surprised to find out, that they might have wondered if I was an undercover MacArthurite sent to infiltrate and subvert the movement. I am honestly, simply trying to navigate my way as wisely and faithfully as I am able, in the border region between the two movements.
What I have discovered
Here is what I’ve discovered along the way. Those two oceans that meet in the Gulf of Alaska, there is very little that separates them or makes them different from one another. Salts and other suspended minerals change the density and color of the water, but that is all. That’s not to suggest that the differences between the two are insignificant or inconsequential. The differences do matter and they do change the way the water will behave. Water is water. And traditional evangelicalism and the orthodox missional church are essentially the same at the molecular level. Both movements love Jesus, both has a desire to see that his name be made great in the world; both want to see sinners reconciled to God, and both wants to see his glory cover the earth as the waters cover the sea! Very little divides us, just a thin superficial veil and a little bit of foam.
Where I am headed
With that said, let me make my intentions clear. I want to expose you, my conservative evangelical and fundamentalist friends, to consider what I have seen. I am not simply making an appeal toward having you extend the warm hand of Christian fellowship to the missional church, I want to persuade you to consider linking arms with it. I’m afraid that many of you have dismissed the movement without cause. Perhaps, you don’t care for the cheeky language of the missional conversation; or you despise the liberal theology of some of our supposed leaders; or you think that your church is already effectively working out the Savior’s commission where you live and in the world. Whatever your reasons might have been in the past, for dismissing or ignoring the missional church, I want you to lay them aside. Lend me your ear. I am not a fire breathing disenfranchised ex-fundamentalist who is now thumbing his nose at traditionalists because he was forced to burn his rock-n-roll cassette tapes in the 1980's. That is not my heart at all, but I know that that is what some of you have come to expect from some of us in the emerging and missional church. I love you and respect you because we are united as one in the Body of Christ. I will not attack you, but I want to challenge you. You might not agree with all that I write or share many of my conclusions, but I pray that you will walk away from this conversation having learned something about yourself and the missional church.
Over the coming days and weeks, I will be writing a series of articles that address this topic. I hope you will comeback and read some more and share the articles amongst you and your friends.
For more reading on the missional church see:
“It is not so much that God has a mission for his church in the world, but that God has a church for his mission in the world” — David Bosch
1 Without Credit. "19 Interesting Facts”. OMG n.p. [8 May 2013]. Online: http://www.omg-facts.com/Science/There-Is-A-Place-In-The-Gulf-Of-Alaska-W/55290 ↩
2 Fundamentalism is, here, to be understood as the fundamentalism of the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy of the 1920s, as defended by J. Gresham Machen. This should be distinguished from the cultural fundamentalism of the late 20 Century and today. ↩
3 Without Credit. "What is Missional?” Missional Church Network n.p. [8 May 2013]. Online: http://missionalchurchnetwork.com/what-is-missional/↩