Missionalism, Church Style

Jason J. Stellman
Friday, April 29th 2011
May/Jun 2011

Even the least traveled among us understands that there are such things as cultural "no-nos" that one would be wise to avoid. Wearing a Los Angeles Lakers jersey in South Boston would be one example (albeit a commendable and heroic one to be sure). In the world of American evangelicalism, one of the most offensive expletives that one can utter in mixed company is the word "Calvinism," for in the minds of many the term is synonymous with a failure’and even a refusal’to evangelize. After all, we hear that if God has elected a small and elite few to be saved, and if his choice was made before the world was created, then what's the point of sharing the gospel with anyone?

In order to answer this charge, some Reformed and Calvinistic leaders have adopted a term designed to highlight the flavor and character of our churches. That term is "missional." Rather than being heady, we are told, we should be missional; instead of focusing on doctrine, we should be missional; rather than being insular and self-satisfied, we should be missional. When put like that, it's hard to disagree. If our choice is between being missional or being a theological egghead, or between being missional and preaching a twelve-week series of sermons on the magisterial Reformers' understanding of the communicatio idiomatum (the communication of attributes of Christ's two natures), we would choose the former every time. My purpose in this article is not to denounce missionalism or to call for the "frozen chosen" to circle their TULIP-affirming wagons and take a defensive posture against all things non-Reformed, but to open the door for discussion about how the seeds of missional ecclesiology can be sown in churchly soil, which pays due attention to things such as the marks of the church and the ordinary means of grace. In a word, I want to argue that Reformed churches, by being self-consciously Reformed in their identity and philosophy of ministry, can by definition thereby be truly missional.

The Mission and the Marks

A brief glance at many churches' websites will be sufficient to demonstrate that the issues of identity and philosophy of ministry are considered to be extremely important; they have pages outlining not only their vision but also their goals, core values, and mission. Redundancy aside, it is worth asking: What should our church be about? What is it we are trying to accomplish, and how?

The task of crafting a pithy yet profound vision statement, as well as an action plan to achieve it, can appear overwhelming, especially to those in nondenominational contexts without much in the way of history or tradition to fall back on for guidance and counsel. The Reformed are at an advantage here, for not only has our vision been set for us by our forefathers in the faith, but the keys to our success are already made known. Now, those in other corners of the broader church can also claim to have a tried-and-true formula in place that guarantees success, but there are some important differences between that claim and the one I am making. For example, the steps to realizing the vision of a Reformed church are quite simple, as opposed (oftentimes) to those of other fellowships. Less attention and money are usually paid to things such as interior décor, sound systems, and professional musicianship in a Reformed church than in a more broadly evangelical one. Moreover, it is less necessary for a Reformed pastor to be a dynamic and edgy personality or a witty and humorous speaker than it is for those in other congregations. In fact, successful Re-formed church planting can take place without any electric instruments, tattoos, PowerPoint, or hair product.

How do we do it? The answer comes back to the issue of vision, which necessarily causes us to redefine "success" and seek to reclaim it from the lexicon of contemporary culture. If a church's vision is to transform the society, bring about justice in one's community, and redeem the arts, sciences, and the economy, then success will be a pretty tall order (although that church's failure will be easily measurable, being displayed every time one of its members opens a newspaper). Further, such a lofty and ambitious vision will have to be undertaken with a severely deficient tool chest, for no rational person would claim that the Bible furnishes us with the means to achieving such secular ends. No, "the weapons of our warfare are not carnal," and therefore the tools for spiritual warfare cannot be brandished for the purpose of winning the culture war or achieving earthly goals, even when these goals are good ones (2 Cor. 10:4; Eph. 6:12). If a church's vision, however, is to minister Word and Sacrament to its members and to disciple them into mature Christian fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, children, then not only is the mandate clearly laid out, but the tools to accomplish it are also present.

At Exile Presbyterian Church where I pastor, our vision statement on the inside cover of our weekly order of worship reads: "Welcome to Exile Presbyterian Church! Our greatest desire as a church is to preach Jesus Christ from the law and the gospel, to nourish baptized believers with the body and blood of our Lord at His table, and to encourage our members to walk in faith and holiness, bringing our heavenly citizenship to bear upon our earthly callings in this present age." As you may have noticed, this is a slightly fleshed-out way of saying that as a church our mission is to simply display the marks that characterize what all churches are supposed to be. To put it even simpler, our church's vision statement could just as easily read, "Welcome to Exile Presbyterian Church, where our goal is to be the church." In their book Resident Aliens, Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon write that the church is meant to be "a new people, an alternative polis, a countercultural social structure….The church does not exist to ask what needs doing to keep the world running smoothly and then to motivate our people to go do it….The church has its own reason for being, hid within its own mandate and not found in the world. We are not chartered by the Emperor." Thus the church's mission is incredibly simple, and yet utterly staggering at the same time: "[We] seek to influence the world by being the church, that is, by being something the world is not and never can be." (1)

The Means to the Mission

If the mission of the church is to "be the church" by displaying the distinctive marks by which a true church can be identified, the question then arises: What will this look like in actual practice? It is here that our discussion must move from the mission of the church to the means of grace. The Westminster Larger Catechism asks:

Question: What are the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of his mediation?

Answer: The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to his church the benefits of his mediation, are all his ordinances; especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for their salvation. (Q/A 154) (2)

The next question is:

Question: How is the Word made effectual to salvation?

Answer: The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word, an effectual means of enlightening, convincing, and humbling sinners; of driving them out of themselves, and drawing them unto Christ; of conforming them to his image, and subduing them to his will; of strengthening them against temptations and corruptions; of building them up in grace, and establishing their hearts in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation. (Q/A 155) (3)

The Heidelberg Catechism shares this outlook; the only difference being that instead of speaking of the preaching of the Word of God, it states more specifically and refers to "the preaching of the holy gospel" (Q/A 19, 83, 84).

Why is this significant for setting a truly missional agenda for the church? The answer is obvious: If the mission of the church is to "be the church" by following Jesus' Great Commission, and if part of that commission is to preach the gospel to every creature, then what better way to be missional than to make the preaching of the holy gospel the cornerstone of the church's ministry?

There are many benefits that arise from this view of ecclesial missionalism. For example, it focuses the church's missional impulse in a concrete way’namely, toward the ordained ministry of Word and Sacrament. In many evangelical contexts the missional goal is rightly promoted, but the onus of achieving it often falls upon each and every member of the congregation. Thus the expectation of preaching the gospel is placed upon the accountants, mechanics, and soccer moms of the congregation, instead of upon the church's ministers of the Word who have actually been ordained to fulfill this very task. Remember, the Great Commission was originally given to the apostles, not to every single believer. This means that, while it is admirable and encouraged for all Christians to be witnesses to Christ in their lives (and in their speech when the opportunity arises), there is a specific context in which gospel preaching enjoys a promised blessing by God's Spirit, and that context is the pulpit each Lord's Day. Paul writes to the Romans: "For 'everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.'…How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, 'How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!'…So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ" (10:13-15, 17).

In the apostle's mind it seems inconceivable that the preaching that produces faith would be done outside the context of a duly ordained minister whom the church has sent out upon this holy errand. (4) It was of the church that Jesus was speaking when he issued the promise that "the gates of hell would not prevail against it," and it was of this church that Paul wrote to Timothy, calling it "the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth" (Matt. 16:18; 1 Tim. 3:15). In a word, while all believers are called to faithfully glorify God by fulfilling their earthly callings, it is not incumbent upon them to also fulfill the Great Commission. That holy task is given to men set apart from worldly endeavors’men who, like Paul, are "separated to the gospel of God" (Rom. 1:1, NKJV).

To be sure, an ecclesial and churchly approach to missionalism also has its challenges, perhaps the greatest of which is the fact that a faithfully preached gospel will simply refuse to prop up or reinforce the agenda of this passing age, thereby limiting its popularity potential. The fact that this even needs to be said is itself troubling, but the reality is that a large number of churches in our day seem to desire little more than to improve this age rather than ministering the mysteries of the age to come. They feel that the way to "connect" with their audience is by appealing to their sense of responsibility to make a difference in their community. The only way to awaken sinners and saints from their idolatrous obsession with the American dream (whether in its secular or baptized version) is by the kind of evangelism that is bold, biblical, churchly, and disruptive. "Postmodern preaching," writes Willimon, "[considers itself] a word from heaven meant, not just to speak to the world, but rather to expose, unmask, and then to change the world through the generation of a countercultural community who now know something they could not possibly have thought up on their own." He continues:

All faithful preaching begins as an act of a determinately self-revealing God, Yahweh, who loves to talk, who delights in argument, declaration, epistemological conflict, assertion, and promise, who loves to create something out of nothing through nothing more powerful than words….It will be speaking that worries more about obedience to the text than about the allegedly contemporary context of our speaking. It will trouble itself more over proclaiming the Word than over any lack of contemporary response. Realizing modernity's grave limits, it will be preaching that is willing not to be heard, understood, or grasped by affluent, early twenty-first century people. It will be preaching that delights in the convoluted thickness of the biblical texts. (5)

He concludes with the exhortation that preachers ought never to forget that what Acts 2 wants us to call the gift of the Holy Spirit is what the world attributed to too much booze too early in the day.

In the Meantime…

As a young believer I remember wishing I could travel back in time and be an eyewitness to the earthly ministry of Christ, especially the Sermon on the Mount (it hadn't yet occurred to me that my Aramaic is a bit rusty). We often have a kind of romantic view of what it must have been like to see Jesus in the flesh and to hear him preach with our own ears. What we so easily forget, however, is that by the time Jesus' earthly ministry was drawing to a close you could count on two hands the people who actually understood what he was talking about, as well as the fact that the apostles, after Jesus' ascension, give no hint whatsoever that they wished they could return to the good old days when Jesus walked with them down the dusty streets of Galilee. In fact, all the evidence points to the apostles actually having a deeper understanding of and intimacy with Jesus after his ascension than before it. Paul writes: "For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come" (2 Cor. 5:14-17).

The fact of the matter is that Jesus is simply no longer present with his people in the physical and local way that he once was; but rather, in this period of overlap between Christ's ascension and second coming, the way his presence is mediated to his people is by the Holy Spirit through the church, an outpost of grace. Another way of putting this is that we live in the "meantime," in the gap between promise and fulfillment, with a foot in heaven and a foot in the here and now; and this necessarily puts certain limits upon our expectations about how Jesus works among us. This is important for us to wrestle with and accept, for it will not only protect us from becoming overly infatuated with stealing glimpses of Jesus' glory that are eschatologically illicit (for the time being anyway), but it will also enable us to gain a true appreciation for the churchly way that things such as the Great Commission are accomplished during this period of tension between the already of the kingdom's inauguration and the not-yet of its consummation. The Gnosticism and Docetism that threatened the early church are still alive and well today, and minimizing the importance of Jesus' body can take many different forms, not the least of which is an ecclesiology that allows the invisible church to swallow the visible one. In order to avoid such extremes, we must reconcile ourselves with the fact that Calvinism is not inimical to zealous evangelism, and that the visible church is the one place where the preaching of the gospel is sure to be granted blessing and success.

In sum, if we love Jesus then we will love evangelism, and if we love evangelism then we will love his church, for it is there that the gospel is proclaimed each Lord's Day, and where a community who were once "not a people" are called out and constituted as citizens of Christ's heavenly kingdom.

1 [ Back ] Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), 38-39 (emphasis added).
2 [ Back ] See WLC_fn_151-196.html - fn991.
3 [ Back ] See WLC_fn_151-196.html - fn992.
4 [ Back ] It is true that Paul also claimed to rejoice even when the gospel is preached by unworthy and self-serving men (Phil. 1:15-18), but that is far different from saying that the ordained ministry of the Word is in some way unnecessary or dispensable.
5 [ Back ] William Willimon, "Peculiar Truth: Postmodern Preaching," Modern Reformation (July/August 2003).
Friday, April 29th 2011

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology