Christian Living

The God Of The Missional Church Is Too Small

February 1, 2016

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The God Of The Missional Church Is Too Small

“Missional” is one of those newer words used in theological circles. Depending on who uses it, it can have vastly different meanings. What does it mean to be “missional”? And should we embrace it?

“Missional” #1

One definition of the “missional church” is the assumption that all Christians should be involved in the Great Commission of Jesus (cf. Matt. 28:19-20). When all church members view themselves as disciples of Jesus 24/7, instead of just for a few hours a week at some church building, that church is said to be “on mission.” When all Christians see themselves as missionaries of the Gospel wherever they go, instead of just compartmentalizing the local church with a separate “missions” department or “evangelism” budget, that church is said to be “on mission.” This is a perfectly legitimate use of the word “missional.” Indisputably, every Christian should be an agent, or representative, of the kingdom of God in every sphere of life. All Christians are missionaries sent into the world (cf. Matt. 5:13-16). And faithful Christians have been saying this since the beginning of the church, long before the “missional” fad began in Christendom.

“Missional” #2

But there is another definition, however, that is more widely used. In several circles, “missional” is used in terms of social justice. One writer claims that if more Christians develop a “missional” mentality,

…many people would benefit. Oppressed people would be free. Poor people would be liberated from poverty. Minorities would be treated with respect. Sinners would be loved, not resented. Industrialists would realize that God cares for sparrows and wildflowers – so their industries should respect, not rape, the environment. The homeless would be invited in for a hot meal.[1]

Proponents of this “missional gospel” claim that Jesus’ primary mission on earth was to correct the social ills of His day, and therefore that should be our primary task today. A growing number of influential, self-identifying ‘Christian leaders’ have begun to relegate issues like salvation, the cross, worship, and the Bible into what they believe to be an inconsequential, “small gospel.” They arrogantly speak about how they once viewed the gospel in such a small way (i.e. teaching people how to be saved, cf. Mark 16:15-16; Acts 2:38), then go on with great excitement to describe how they are now more interested in matters like social justice, income inequality, poverty, and environmental sustainability.

In one leader’s words: “Yes, it’s helpful to consider styles of worship, approaches to teaching, discipleship, and prayer, but far more important is doing what we think the church is about”[2] – as if these things are somehow mutually exclusive. In another leader’s chilling words: “More important to me than the hell question, then, is the mission question”[3] – because, according to him, improving someone’s temporal earthly living conditions is more important than improving their eternal condition.

Referring to the so-called “small gospel” of bringing souls to Christ and saving them from God’s wrath, one writer wrote:

Our problems are not small. The most cursory glance at the newspaper will remind us of global crises like AIDS, local catastrophes of senseless violence, family failures, ecological threats, and church skirmishes. These problems resist easy solutions. They are robust—powerful, pervasive, and systemic. Do we have a gospel big enough for these problems?[4]

Does Jesus believe this? Is His gospel primarily concerned with fixing earthly problems or spiritual problems? Did Jesus come primarily to heal bodies or to heal souls (Luke 19:10)?

What Should Be The Church’s Primary Objective?

The “missional church” movement is just another distortion of the New Testament of Jesus – just another flavor of liberalism in the church today. And the danger of liberalism lies in catering to what the world believes to be the problem instead of what God says is the problem.

Of course, it goes without saying that Christians must be sympathetic to the problems of our fellow man. We are to care for the “orphans and widows in their affliction” (Jas. 1:27). We are to defend the helpless and provide for those who have been abused, assaulted, exploited (cf. Luke 10:25-37). Serving our neighbor should be second nature to us (Gal. 6:10). We are to be more concerned about the welfare of others than ourselves (cf. Matt. 7:12; Jas. 2:14-24;). We are to love our enemies (Matt. 5:43-48). Accordingly, Christians frequently have led the way in charitable giving, manning soup kitchens, organizing clothing drives, protecting human rights, defending the unborn, relieving third-world suffering, and the like. Compassion should, and always has, be characteristic of Christians.

But should social justice be our primary objective? Is God actually displeased when we concern ourselves with studying and teaching people the Bible? Forget the fact that temporal compassion is often a means by which we teach someone the gospel; if given the choice between feeding someone’s soul and feeding someone’s belly, should Christians always choose the latter?

The Missional Church Strips God Of His Power

If God is primarily concerned with man’s physical welfare, then either He is cruel or He is powerless. Jesus, the Son of God, could have healed everyone of disease, abolished hunger, and disposed of all the world’s corruption. But He didn’t.

Why didn’t Jesus heal everyone at the Bethesda pool (John 5:1-6)? Why didn’t He send 12,000 legions of angels to depose all the crooked government and obliterate all the morally bankrupt institutions (Matt. 26:53)? Why didn’t He feed the hungry crowds in Capernaum seeking more food (John 6:24-26)? Why didn’t He heal the sick or deliver the oppressed in His own hometown of Nazareth (Luke 4:23)? Why didn’t Jesus snap His fingers and fix all of mankind’s social ills for the rest of time? If social justice was Jesus’ primary mission on earth, then He did a lousy job. If the missional church is correct, then God is powerless to give us a world free of suffering.

However, the sovereign God of the Bible is powerful enough to do anything He wills (Eph. 3:20). In Jesus, we see a God Who was willing to die for a cause – not the cause of social justice, but for the cause of saving our souls (1 John 3:16). Our loving God is not apathetic to the world’s problems (1 John 4:8). Rather, in His wisdom, He realizes that we need something other than food, clothing, or equality; we need the Cross. Only in Christ can we find salvation so we no longer have to fear the eternal wrath of His Divine justice (Isa. 59:1-2).

The Missional Church Ignores The Real Problem

The missional church has turned upside down the real problem. It has made the truly big issues – sin, eternal death, salvation, eternity – “small” issues, while making the consequences of Adam’s Fall – disease, poverty, hunger, oppression – the “big” issues. It is as if the missional church does not actually believe people are lost in sin and need a Savior – they are merely oppressed and disadvantaged due to a corrupt social system. This present life, in other words, is what we must concern ourselves with; not the next.

Given, one of the reasons we are Christians is because we know Jesus will undo the curse of the Fall (cf. Rom. 8:22-25). We know Jesus will one day bring justice, healing, and peace. But that is not what the gospel is all about. The Biblical account of Israel reminds us that a nation can achieve prosperity, justice, and fair leadership (1 Kings 4:20-25), but something far worse will still lie beneath.

From the standpoint of eternity, the problem is not hunger; it’s spiritual starvation. The problem is not oppression; it’s slavery to Satan. The problem is not education; it’s Biblical ignorance. The problem is not inequality; the problem is mankind thinking he is equal to God. The problem is not healthcare; the problem is the disease of sin.

Ministering to these physical needs are a means to the end, not the end themselves. Meeting people’s physical needs so they will give thought to their spiritual needs is what Jesus did, and that is what we must do too. Social justice is not the ultimate goal. It is a means to the End, namely, Jesus.

Conclusion

The God of the missional church sounds big, but he is just a pion compared to the God of the Bible. Ignore the lofty words that missional authors use that make the missional and emergent church seem appealing. The Bible’s gospel is about teaching people that their sins have separated them from an eternal, really big God, yet that same big God still desires a relationship with His sinful creation. If, instead of teaching the lost about Jesus, you make your primary purpose meeting the physical needs of your neighbor, then you will end up with a vastly different gospel.

Sources
[1] McLaren, Brian. A Generous Orthodoxy. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, p. 121.
[2] Gibbs, Eddie and Ryan K. Bolger. Emerging Churches. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, p. 107.
[3] McLaren, Ibid. p. 125.
[4] McKnight, Scot. “The 8 Marks of a Robust Gospel.” ChristianityToday.com. Accessed 1 Feb 2016.

Ben Giselbach is the pulpit minister at the Edgewood church of Christ in Columbus, GA. He and his wife Hannah have two children, Ezra & Colleyanna. Ben is a graduate of Freed-Hardeman University and has written three books in his You Are A Theologian Series: Thinking Right about the Bible, Thinking Right about God, and Thinking Right about Salvation.
2 Comments
  1. janet

    Thank you we needed to hear that message.

  2. Steve Waller

    Sounds like a renaming of what we, for years, called the "social gospel."

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