This is a cross-post of an exchange between Rick Meigs, one of the Missional Tribe instigators, and Ed Stetzer that was recently posted at Missional Tribe.
Ed is not just a talking head, guru or theorist, he is a practitioner. He has planted churches in New York, Pennsylvania, and Georgia and transitioned declining churches in Indiana and Georgia. Ed has trained pastors and church planters on five continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books. He is currently interim teaching pastor of First Baptist Church of Hendersonville, TN. But his primary role these days is President of LifeWay Research and LifeWay’s Missiologist in Residence.
Ed’s must read blog is edstetzer.com.
MT: In simple terms, what issue(s) or problem(s) do you believe helped give rise to the “missional movement”?
Ed: The quality streams in the missional movement are good course corrective to some of the problems in the church growth movement (which, ironically, was mainly a response to the missio dei movement that de-emphasized evangelism in a the name of a holistic gospel). I think perhaps the common thread through all the variations “missional” would be the concern that churches have become inward focused and self-concerned and have given up the missionary nature of the Christian and the Church. “Mission” isn’t just a program or something some of us do, but something we are and something we’re all called to do as it reflects the characteristic mission of God.
MT: You mentioned the missio dei movement has/can lead to a de-emphasis on evangelism. This is a huge concern of mine. Can you unpack your thoughts just a bit on this?
Ed: Well, the last folks who put a strong emphasis on the missio dei actually did so to the detriment of evangelism. In a rather ironic reality, what became known as the “Church Growth Movement” was largely a response to the “missio dei” movement. The CGM (before it lost much of its way) was created to help the church refocus on evangelism because everything was defined as “mission.”
Missions historian Stephen Neil expresses the concern that when churches focus on societal transformation, and particularly when they call it missions, then “everything” is mission. Neil explained, “when everything is mission, nothing is mission.” Those words were prophetic: he spoke those words to a movement that progressively moved away from church planting and evangelistic missions to a near total focus on social justice (for more information, see the history of the Conciliar missions movement).
Moreover, are there historical patterns that further confirm Neil’s concerns? When we look at the history of missions, it is frequent (dare I say common?) that those churches which focus on societal change lose their focus on evangelism and church planting. The most healthy churches engage in evangelism (individual transformation), church planting (collective transformation), and societal impact (cultural transformation). And one tends to lead to the others. The best societal impact occurs when it is a reflection of individual and collective, gospel transformation.
So, when you hear someone you consider less “missional” that you say, “Let’s tell them about Jesus because if we serve the hurting we will lose our focus on missions,” it might have more historical validity than you would choose to believe. Thus, many are convinced that if churches have to choose between evangelism and social action, they should choose evangelism. And with good reason.
I just think that it’s short-sighted for churches to choose. Evangelism, church planting, and societal impact are like fruit that blossom and grow from healthy church trees. We do not have to bow to the tyranny of the “or.”
So, the church growth people reminded us that we needed to reach the lost. And, as we emphasize mission again, we would do well to be careful to not lose the evangelistic impulse as we also think more fully on the mission of God.
MT: Any practical advice to pastors and leaders on how to ensure that proclamation (as Frost would put it) is not de-emphasized in their efforts to move their faith communities toward a more missional stance?
Ed: I think you have to see it as one mission but with different facets.
To see all of this as one mission requires a biblical understanding of the gospel and the mission. The beginning point is to bring people into the mission (by seeing them become believers and followers of the King); the second phase involves forming groups of these believers together into transformational units (churches); the third aspect involves fulfilling the one mission (of bringing more into the mission AND serving the hurting) to the point that societal and cultural impact takes place.
While these often do not happen in a perfectly sequential way, a progression can be witnessed or identified. Hence, because of the order some conclude that a priority of evangelism exists. It is a fair statement, but incomplete.
A “priority” often creates a dichotomy where there can only be one. It is not either/or. Really, it is not even “both/and”it is “one mission.” Churches that chooses to join God on his one mission see the transformation of individuals because it is intensely evangelistic, the transformation of cooperative units as new congregations are formed, and the transformation of society because it cares about the world, because Jesus called the church to advance His kingdom in the world.
Perhaps a solution to our false trichotomy can be found by understanding the gospel and the Kingdom. Though the church is not the Kingdom of God, it is a sign and an instrument of the Kingdom. But, how does one enter the Kingdom? Well, by repenting of sin (a response to evangelism). Note the message and the response, “But when they believed Philip, as he proclaimed the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, both men and women were baptized” (Acts 8:12, HCSB).
As Christians we have an obligation to care about society and the increasing evangelical consensus on the Kingdom of God calls us to plant new churches and engage in good works because of our Kingdom obligation. Jesus calls us to serve the poor and care about our communities so that we might obey the King and demonstrate His Kingdom, showing and sharing the good news of Jesus.
Thus, proclamation leads people to Christ who then join together in the larger mission. That mission is to see the world transformed by the gospel. The focus is to see people and society more like Jesus would have it be and the church is the tool God uses to accomplish that agenda. The church is not the goal; the gospel of the Kingdom is the goal and the church is the tool. As such, we invite people to “repent and be baptized” (Acts 8:12) and then to be a part of the mission of Jesus to serve (Luke 4) and to save (Luke 19:10).
MT: In “Breaking the Missional Code,” you and Putman wrote that “what is really needed is not just an understanding of missiological thinking, but a commitment to apply “˜missional’ thinking.” Are you seeing a commitment to applying missional thinking taking place? If so, what leads you to believe this and can you give some examples? If not, why do you think this is the case and/or what is hindering it?
Ed: The problem with the so-called “missional conversation” is that it too often stops at conversation. We have lots of professional and armchair missiologists, but very few practitioners. I do think there is a tide turning; however, time will tell if it involves actual commitment to applying missional thinking or if it is merely a new coat of paint on to what is perceived as the next technique for church programming or growth. There are mega-churches interested in what it might mean to implement “missional” in their communities. Church planting organizations are nurturing missional churches from the ground up and facilitating their multiplication. And then there are numerous smaller churches that are planting unconventional and gospel-centered — yet indigenous — communities.
MT: How are the leaders and pastors of your denomination responding to this whole missional discussion and movement?
Ed: Open but cautious. Which, incidentally, I think is a wise response to any biblically coherent movement or trend perceived as “new.” My denomination is facing its decline admirably in most cases and wanting to do what is biblically and practically necessary to do what it’s always meant to do: reach the lost near and far with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
They let me hang around, so clearly they are not closed off to the missional discussion! And the research we are conducting is both waking us up to the problems before us and helping us problem-solve. Denominational publications “ both books and resources — are exploring “missional.”
We face an uphill climb, because the first guys to jump ship in my denomination were our creative, entrepreneurial young pastors and leaders, the guys most inclined toward missional vision. We’ve got to woo some of them back and nurture the ones rising up in the ranks, and I think the leaders in the denominations are realizing this.
And let’s be clear, as well: the SBC’s Cooperative Program is the largest and most successful denominational/organizational missions effort in the world. The task before us is converting that cooperation and focus in a concentrated way across the life of our local congregations.
MT: Thanks for the insight on the Southern Baptist Convention. As an aside, I think the SBC produced one of the best “missional” text (for lack of a better expression) in Blackaby’s “Experiencing God.” I remember well when Henry, who was still a Pastor and DOM in Canada, spent a weekend with our SBC church leaders and staff back in the 80s. He worked us through the material that would become Experiencing God. It was a profound weekend for me. Brought understanding to so much of what I was feeling and struggling with that we now label as missional.
In your latest book “Sent,” you talk about living the missional nature of the church. In simple terms, what does this mean?
Ed: In simple terms it means every Christian is called to live on mission. Wherever he or she is, whatever his or her location or vocation, he or she is to live on mission. We are ambassadors for Christ, as Paul says. Having been reconciled to God, he now carries the “ministry of reconciliation.” Mission isn’t something “other people” do in other parts of the world, or certain people do in your church program (as in the evangelism pastor or whatever). It is the call of every believer, and therefore the call of the Christian community. And it means the community not existing for its own sake like the self-interested Jerusalem church we see in Acts, but existing to share and “be”the good news of Jesus for the sake of its neighbors.
MT: Do you have a word of counsel for the pastor/leader who wants to help move his people towards living this missional nature?
Ed: A few things: You must live it yourself. It cannot be a theoretical technique you’re trying on. Pastor by teaching but also by being an example. Secondly, be prayerful and patient. Don’t take a sharp 90 degree turn. Cast a vision through your example and through consistent teaching over time and providing opportunities for missional service. Don’t push; lead. There’s lots of other things, but the last I’d mention is to network and seek counsel with other churches and leaders. See what’s worked for others and what hasn’t, get encouragement and advice, and develop cooperation between congregations.
MT: Thanks so much Ed for taking the time to share your experience, knowledge and heart with us.
There is a lot of great stuff here to contemplate. If you have a question or comment for Ed, please leave it here and we’ll ask Ed if he can pop over and respond.
You can also see a video exchange between Ed and David Fitch here.