The past decade has seen exponential interest in the interconnection of ecclesiology and missiology, especially with the increase of church planting in the Western hemisphere where Christianity has otherwise seen its influence wane. Standing as the adjectival nom du jour to describe this phenomenon is the word "missional." Articles, books, and conferences abound in an effort to define and debate this elusive term. Entering the fray to provide direction for churches that desire to become missional is Reggie McNeal's monograph, Missional Renaissance: Changing the Scorecard for the Church. As a "Missional Specialist" working for the Leadership Network in Dallas, McNeal's style is akin to other notable leadership authorities such as Stephen Covey and Ken Blanchard, and therefore the book reads more like a missional "how-to" for those who are ready to trade in their outdated Purpose-Driven Church for the next big thing to sweep the evangelical landscape.
In this short easy-to-read monograph, McNeal comes out swinging by making the grandiose claim that the rise of the missional church is the "single biggest development in Christianity since the Reformation" (xiii)! If this self-understanding does not raise suspicion, then his next statement certainly will. "Whereas the Reformation gifted us with a plethora of denominations distinguished by doctrine and polity, the missional movement actually simplifies the taxonomy of Christianity into two groups: those who get it and those who don't" (xiii).
From the introduction to the conclusion, the author continues to draw the proverbial line in the sand between the traditional church and the missional church approaches to mission and ministry. The trouble is that McNeal leaves the reader guessing what "traditional" church he has in mind. At times he seems to have the consumeristic church growth movement of the 1990s in his sights (á la Saddleback or Willow Creek); at other times, however, it is the heritage of Luther and Calvin that he clearly confronts.
McNeal contends there are three significant shifts that church leaders must make in order to become authentically missional. First, there is the shift from an internal to an external ministry focus. Second, there is the shift from program development to people development. Third, there is the shift from a church-based to a kingdom-based leadership agenda. These three together form for McNeal the "signature characteristics of what missional means" (xvi). As he traverses each of these shifts in the following chapters, he repeatedly paints a negative picture of the traditional church (both neo-evangelical and reformational), which identifies the church as a "place where things happen and where congregants receive religious goods and services" (49). If by "religious goods and services" McNeal has in mind the traditional marks of the church, the proclamation of the gospel and the proper administration of the Sacraments, then he most certainly finds himself at odds with the Reformation tradition.
In chapter 3 he sets up a stark either/or scenario between the so-called "attractional" and "incarnational" church approaches. From his perspective, the attractional church is likened to the traditional church as a place the "people frequent and support by their participation and gifts of time, money, and energy" (50). The incarnational church, by contrast, understands itself as the body of Christ in the world, focusing on "being there"’at home, in the street, in the marketplace, at school, in the neighborhood’in the places people live their lives (50). Here and in many other places throughout, the author would greatly benefit from a refresher course on historical theology; for most of the examples he uses to describe the missional-incarnational method for fulfilling the church's mission would fall under the doctrine of vocation and the priesthood of all believers, for Lutherans and Reformed alike’something that has had a prominent place in traditional churches for half a millennium.
McNeal's directions for turning missional are often simply a repackaging of what the church has always done: prayer, social benefaction, partnering with the community to show our concern for the neighborhood, the importance of the laity, and so forth. The author is to be commended for his emphasis and concern for people via programs.
The real weakness of McNeal's approach is biblical. Jesus is crystal clear in the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20. The method of a true missional church according to its Lord is, and will always be, Word and Sacrament. And when we get a glimpse of the church at Pentecost, we find them gathered together around the apostles' doctrine, the prayers, and the breaking of the bread, which were preceded by a sermon and massive baptismal service (Acts 2). It is here in Christ's Word and Sacraments where we can be certain of Christ's presence and therefore find ourselves in a true church. As the Father sent the Son, and together Father and Son have sent the Spirit, so now our Triune God sends the church into the world, but he has not left us without means. And it is the author's undervaluing of God's ability to work through the ordinary means of Word and Sacrament that will leave many readers skeptical of McNeal's missional renaissance, and content to support instead the missio Dei of their traditional church.