What is a missional church? And why I think Mark Driscoll is wrong

I forget quite how I got there - by what tortuous cyber-trail - but I came across a post on Mark Driscoll’s Resurgence blog promoting his new book Vintage Church, in which he touches on the question of what ‘missional church’ is. Driscoll is not naïve. Even from this brief statement the polemical agenda is clear: he is attempting to wrest control of the terminology from various progressive or emerging movements that have made things far too complicated and attach it to a neo-Reformed programme (see also Literal this that and the other, and for a different aspect of the debate Peter Wilkinson’s review of Tom Wright’s response to John Piper on justification). My comments here have to do not so much with the nature of missional church as with the underlying theological model that shapes our understanding of mission. According to one paradigm Driscoll is absolutely right, but I think that the paradigm is wrong - or at least seriously misleading.

There is a dominant paradigm that takes the missional task of the church to be a direct and straightforward continuation of the Great Commission. Jesus sent the disciples into the world to make disciples from all nations, to baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and to teach them how to live in accordance with his teaching. Although Jesus says nothing about the church in the texts that Driscoll cites in support of this paradigm (Matt. 28:19-20; Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24:46-49; John 20:20-31; Acts 1:5-8), Driscoll finds in these narratives the template for a missional agenda for the church that will eventually encompass the whole world:

Jesus speaks of going, evangelizing, making disciples, and planting churches that plant churches to continue the process. Therefore, the mission of the church is nothing less than bringing the entire world to Christian faith and maturity.

That task is not going to change - it will last until the end of the age. What the missional church has to do is not question the timeless mandate but in timely fashion ‘strategize how to carry out the mission to today’s increasingly non-Christian culture’.

The second paradigm, unfortunately, sets out by doing exactly that: it questions the simplistic application of the timeless mandate, on two grounds.

First, it recognizes the historical context in which the instruction to the disciples was given, asking in particular (I would suggest) what Jesus meant when he said that he would be with them not ‘always’ (as in many translations) but ‘every day until the end of the age’. In the context of the Gospels the end of the age can only refer to the decisive political-religious transition that would by triggered by the war against Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem (cf. Matt. 24:2-3). Acts 1:5-8, which Driscoll also cites in support of his argument, points to the pressing eschatological context: the sending out of the disciples to the end of the earth has something to do with the restoration of the kingdom to Israel. This cannot be reduced to a simple matter of endlessly producing disciples and churches.

This recognition encourages us to consider, secondly, how Jesus’ instruction to the disciples fits into the overarching narrative about the restoration of the people of God. Paul’s argument in Romans captures perfectly the missional programme that we find in Isaiah, which is that God redeems Israel, heralds are sent out to declare this fact to the nations, and as a consequence the nations acknowledge the glory of the God of Israel, even to the point of participating in the process. This is what Paul is getting at in Romans 15. Christ became a servant to the circumcised so that, on the one hand, the promise to Abraham would be confirmed (there was a serious risk of it failing), and on the other, so that the nations would have cause to glorify YHWH for his mercy - not towards the nations, as the following quotations make clear, but towards Israel (Rom. 15:8-12).

Not everyone who says, ‘emerging, emerging,’ will agree with the details of this analysis; but I think it is at least representative of the sort of constructive alternative that is taking shape, and it helps us to see the shortcomings of the traditional paradigm. Driscoll’s approach to mission relies on a drastic truncation of the biblical narrative. The price paid, I think, is a correspondingly diminished sense of the reason for the existence of the people of God in the world. If we reduce mission to the function of disciples making disciples, churches planting churches, we risk missing the wonder of being a historical people called to be - actually and prophetically - new creation in the midst of the nations.

It also ill-equips us to address the particular set of historical challenges that the church in the West, and probably globally, currently faces. By extracting the larger biblical narrative we recover a sense of God journeying with his people from slavery, through wilderness, into nationhood, into exile, through oppression, into revolt, along a narrow path of salvation, through vindication, into an ambiguous alliance with imperialism, and now out into a disturbing postmodern space in which we must imagine again what it means to be loyal to the Creator God. As long as we are tied to a limited Protestant-evangelical perspective, constructed as part of the Christendom experience, we will struggle to make sense of the emerging post-Christendom stage in the journey.

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Great post! I just stumbled upon your blog. I'm glad to find it. I'm just getting into all this missional lit stuff and I have a lot to learn. Thanks for your teaching!