Where are the Missional Evangelicals?

missional journal

David Dunbar, President, Biblical Seminary, writes his Missional Journal every couple of months and it is always something I make time to read.

This month he asks, “Where are the Missional Evangelicals?”

It’s a good thought provoking read where he first lays out the issue: “The positive and enthusiastic involvement of Evangelicals in the cause of global missions over the last century makes their comparative non-participation in the missional church movement intriguing. I am not saying that the movement is devoid of evangelical voices–that is clearly not the case. But given Evangelicals’ concern for gospel outreach, one might have expected that by now the word “missional” would be more clearly understood, that churches would be more engaged with the opportunities for incarnational ministries, that more Bible colleges and seminaries would be revamping programs in a missional direction, etc. So what’s up?”

Dr. Dunbar suggests that “perhaps a larger problem that has stood in the way of evangelical embrace is that the missional discussion has not seemed sufficiently ‘biblical.'” Now comes the heart of his argument. He writes that this current ambivalence of Evangelicals toward the missional church based on this assertion “is no longer justifiable (if indeed it ever was) in terms of insufficient biblical grounding. The game-changer is (or should be) the thoughtful and detailed work of Christopher Wright, an OT scholar and chair of the Theology Working Group of the Lausanne Movement. His massive study The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (IVP, 2006) argued powerfully for the theme of mission as integral to a faithful reading of scripture. He has recently published a very engaging follow-up entitled The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission (Zondervan, 2010).”

He then highlights several points from the books that he found particularly helpful: Mapping the Bible around the mission of God, election, and a holistic or integral mission.

Full text here in a PDF document.

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6 Responses to “Where are the Missional Evangelicals?”

  1. Linda says:

    The type of activism that evangelicals in general have embraced as their biblical mandate is almost antithetical to the incarnational nature of missional engagement. It is quite a radical change in worldview, theology, and activity from what evangelicalism has come to represent.

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  3. Rick Meigs says:

    Interesting observation Linda and I have found it to be often true. Yet it is fascinating that evangelical missionaries don’t find the incarnational nature of missional engagement antithetical or contrary to “biblical” teaching. Wonder how we inject that “missionary” mindset into mainline evangelism?

  4. As I see it, both conservative/evangelical and liberal/mainline are remnants that still suffer from the fragmentation of paradigm in the fundamentalist/liberal split over 100 years ago. And part of the reason for that split is, I believe, that both wings have a modernist analytic way of processing the Bible. It’s all about pulling Scripture details out of their original story-based context, dissecting them into theological bits, and then reassembling those pieces into abstract systematizing categories of segmented concepts.

    Said a different way, basically, both wings of the modernist split disembody the truth from how it was lived out in the daily lives of people and culture and history. Both wings ABSTRACT out principles in order to present it in a SYSTEMATIC cognitive framework. And I believe that is why the missional approach doesn’t find much favor with either evangelicals, fundamentalists, or mainliners – at least not *in terms of epistemology* – because missional is about incarnation into one’s host culture. And incarnation requires a gospel-embodiment that is a SYSTEMS discipline that involves storying the gospel through showing CONCRETELY how faith is lived out.

    How can there ever be much agreement on key theological categories when there is an almost irreconcilable differences between the paradoxical core epistemology of missional versus the atomizing epistemology evangelical, fundamental, liberal, and progressive?

    Perhaps one reason that mainliners have been more receptive to missional perspectives is at least social action involves interacting with the narrative of the host culture and the stories of people who have suffered injustice. Sadly, evangelicalism has gained a reputation for treating people mechanistically – as mere souls to be saved, as gospel-sharing projects, and there really isn’t much of a humanized narrative perspective to that! So, could that be part of why missional hasn’t easily gained ground among evangelicals, despite their missionary emphasis on sharing the gospel cross-culturally?

    Complex stuff … and I don’t know that I expect to see much migration toward missional by people from any non-narrative, non-holistic theology. As David Dunbar points out via his review of Christopher Wright, a missional hermeneutic requires following the scriptural storylines to see where those on mission go. The deepest levels of hermeneutics and epistemology in the competing modernist and missional paradigms are just too different, and typical attempts to resolve the differences seem to lead more often to conversations at mid-paradigm levels of theological concepts or the even more surface levels of practices. And these mid- to surface-level issues, while important, are likely to snap back to their previous default that’s dictated by the underlying thinking tools … unless we change our epistemology, our hermeneutics, and the integration points for our systems of theology.

  5. Rick Meigs says:

    “And these mid- to surface-level issues, while important, are likely to snap back to their previous default that’s dictated by the underlying thinking tools … unless we change our epistemology, our hermeneutics, and the integration points for our systems of theology.”

    This is so true, but I do hold out hope that the missional movement, like the Jesus movement and others since, will have a tempering and leavening effect on the evangelicals.

  6. I spent some time today contemplating this very issue, Rick. I work with paradigms and especially epistemology, which are more comprehensive and much deeper than looking just at theological systems. Here’s why I think the missional movement can have significant effect on post-Christendom Christianity in the long run – and probably even provide the standard operating approach to paradigms for the post-modern post-Christendom era.

    In terms of paradigm systems, there are two key features of a truly biblical paradigm that got broken with the fundamental-liberal split over a century ago. One was a Hebraic mindset – and that’s more in the realm of epistemology. Both sides lost most of their sense of paradox, and became far more analytic – either/or. The loss of a Hebraic both/and mindset led to very black-and-white thinking which ALWAYS leads to “reductionism.”

    That kind of analytic thinking dissects everything, and leads to the second loss: holism. That’s more in the realm of the entire paradigm system. Each side – liberal/progressive and fundamental/conservative – ended up with only part of what previously had been a relatively comprehensive set of issues that God revealed He was concerned about. One side took ecology, the other took economy. One took social action, the other took evangelism. One took socio-political ethics, the other took personal morality. One took cultural relevance (and ended up syncretized), the other took cultural resistance (and ended up isolated). etc. etc. etc.

    As I see it, the missional mindset is more paradoxical, and its paradigm is more holistic-comprehensive-integrated. Those who’ve deconstructed their progressive, liberal, moderate, conservative, fundamental, charismatic, Pentecostal, evangelical, emerging, emergent, [?Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox?] experiences enough to recognize the brokenness AND who’ve come to the place of desiring mystery and wholeness again may well find a balm of Gilead in the missional movement. The missional perspective holds forth the appeal of keeping in dynamic tension the very polarities that were broken apart and the fragments laid claim to by opposite sides in the liberal/fundamental controversy.

    HOWEVER, I’m also concerned that missional not become The Next Stopping Spot on the post-emerging deconstructive trail. That will kill missional’s core strengths, which are its paradoxical perspective and integrative holism. These are the deep paradigm elements which lead to incarnational ministry, cultural engagement with countercultural challenge, and discipleship.

    I’m just not convinced yet that the post-emerging celebs and streams that are now calling themselves missional have a comprehensive enough SET of epistemologies to work with in recreating a fully biblical axiology (values), theology (worldview), and praxology (cultures, organizations, and lifestyles). Just because missional has the possibility of healing the polar elements that were breached and broken, that doesn’t mean it has all the resources possible (and needed) to take care of other issues that haven’t been addressed well yet.

    And there are still huge issues afoot. Like centralized, decentralized, and virtual organizational designs. Like the contours and borders and limitations of “embracing the other,” and by extension, interfaith alliances and activities. Like missional being off the modernist map, i.e., don’t start talking in terms of the same divisions in “missional” that previously happened in “emerging.” (Like “missional evangelicals” or “missional mainline liberals.”) Otherwise, *missional* merely becomes yet another optional add-on twist for the same old modernist divisions of the THEOLOGICAL spectrum from progressive to fundamentalist, with everything in between.

    Or maybe we just need to talk about post-missional already, before missional” gets co-opted? Sighhh … as if we need yet another conversation about the conversation about the misuse of “missional,” and the death of the term “missional,” etc.

    Anyway, I do believe missional can have a “tempering and leavening effect” as you said, Rick, on evangelical and other movements from the modernist era. But I hope it never becomes The New Hub for The Next Big Thing …