When the missional tail wags the biblical dog

A recent series of posts on the Missional Church by Ed Stetzer drew my attention to a Missional Manifesto that Stetzer and others wrote five or six years ago. In many ways, it’s a very good document—a safe, conventional, but in its way compelling exposition of the currently fashionable idea that “God’s mission has a church”. The practitioner in me wants to endorse it. It speaks well to the church as it endeavours to recovery a community based missional dynamic. But the argument about mission is tied to the New Testament, and the narrative-historical interpreter in me is reluctant to endorse the assumptions that are made. It leaves me thinking that there must be a better way of joining up the narrative dots between the New Testament and the practice of the church today.


The preamble to the Manifesto states that the currency of the term “missional”, for all its shortcomings, “represents a significant shift in the way we understand church”. That already suggests to me that the underlying logic will move from practice to interpretation: the church in the West increasingly finds itself driven to mission, therefore we need theological clarification of this “calling”. This probably can’t be helped, but it can be corrected, not least by entering into dialogue with critical interpreters who are less concerned to defend significant shifts in the way that we understand church.

The central theological axiom of the Manifesto is encapsulated in Jesus’ statement to his disciples after the resurrection: “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (Jn. 20:21). God is by nature the “sending one” who “initiates the redemption of His whole creation”. How this saying relates to the biblical narrative as a whole is not discussed. This is, of course, a summary document, but the casual disregard for context strikes me as further evidence for the utilitarianism of the missional hermeneutic.

The “sending” principle leads to the corollary: “God’s mission has a church”. Paul’s argument that he has preached the gospel to the Gentiles “so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10) is used to some effect here. But notice that there is no sending of the churches involved. The apostle has been sent—by definition. But the church is urged to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1–3). By its essential character as a redeemed community the church stands as a sign to the heavenly powers that determine the course of history that a new order is coming into existence. The church addressed in Ephesians is not a missional church by the definition given in the Manifesto.

With this distinction in mind, I don’t think it is entirely trivial to point out that Paul’s comment about being “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Cor. 5:20) has nothing to do with personal evangelism. He is not encouraging “all believers to live out their primary calling as Christ’s ambassadors… to those who do not know Jesus”. That is a plain misreading of the passage. Paul’s “we” refers to the apostles (as throughout this part of the letter), who have been entrusted, as Christ’s ambassadors, with the task of reconciling the alienated church in Corinth to God.

1. Authority

The Manifesto asserts that “we can only truly understand the mission of God by what is revealed through the Scriptures”. Amen. But if we then go on to say that “our understanding of the missio Dei and the missional church” must be determined by scripture, haven’t we rather prejudged the matter? These are loaded theological terms, and all we have had so far to justify their use is the arbitrary, decontextualised reference to the sending formula in John. Where is the biblical evaluation of the rightness of the hermeneutical foregrounding of this mission Dei? There is an ostensible deference to scripture, but in the end we are simply asked to take their word for it.

2. Gospel

“Gospel” is defined before “kingdom”. This is illogical. “Gospel” (euangelion) simply means “good news”. It has no intrinsic content, it could be about anything: return from exile, the birth of Caesar Augustus, the overthrow of Rome, the discovery of penicillin…. So the Manifesto jumps the gun when it states that the gospel consists in the fact that “God, who is more holy than we can imagine, looked with compassion upon humanity made up of people who are more sinful than we will admit and sent Jesus into history to establish His Kingdom and reconcile people and the world to Himself”.

If the gospel is an announcement about the imminence of the kingdom of God (cf. Mk. 1:15), then we should establish what “kingdom of God” means before we rush to the conclusion that it’s all about God reconciling the world to himself. What if it were to turn out that “kingdom” meant something other than God reconciling people to himself?

3. Kingdom

Here the Manifesto actually says that “the gospel is the good news of God’s Kingdom”, and kingdom is defined as the “active and comprehensive rule of God over His whole creation”. So according to this definition the “gospel” is not that God is reconciling people and the world to himself. It is that the “active and comprehensive rule of God over His whole creation” is at hand.

But this presents us with another problem. The Bible everywhere assumes that God has always been sovereign over his creation—that has never been in doubt. So why does Jesus say that the kingdom of God is at hand—specifically, that it is coming within the lifetime of his disciples? Why does he teach his disciples to pray that God’s kingdom will come? What I think the missional argument fails to grasp is that the story of kingdom is not creational but “political”. It consists in acts of divine judgment and deliverance. It is about how God manages the historical existence of his people. This aspect, in my view at least, is absolutely critical for New Testament interpretation, but it is entirely absent from the Manifesto.

4. Mission

Because the biblical argument about “kingdom” has been de-historicised and assimilated to the modern evangelical preoccupation with salvation, mission is assumed to operate in a flat, universalised, non-narrative landscape. The mission of God is the redemption of sinful humans and the eventual restoration of corrupted creation. This mission is not limited to the church, but the witness of believers is an important part of it. The expectation is that ultimately “the missio Dei will encompass all of creation when God creates a new heaven and new earth”.

The question I would ask, however, is: What have we lost by de-historicising mission? My argument would be that we have lost both a proper understanding of the New Testament and the ability to address our own historical context.

Mission in the New Testament is not about redeeming humanity and restoring creation. It has in view, in a quite specific way, the coming judgment on Israel and the rule of Christ over the pagan world. This narrative certainly has implications for humanity and for creation, but the expansive historical narrative of the New Testament should not be squeezed into the narrow soteriology of modern evangelicalism.

But equally, mission as conceived in the Manifesto has no way of accounting for, or responding to, the particular historical crisis facing the church in the West. Whether or not we agree that Britain is no longer a Christian country and should stop acting as if it is, it seems to me that concretely speaking the primary mission of the church in places like the UK is to secure a viable and sustainable place and witness for itself in an aggressively self-determining secular society. As in the New Testament, the redemption of individuals is secondary to the “political” narrative.

5. Church

The “God’s mission has a church” slogan and the emphasis on the communal nature of mission is right in general terms. But if we rethink mission along narrative-historical lines, then we will also have to rethink the purpose and formation of the church.

6. Christocentric

Two main points to make here briefly. First, the Manifesto’s reliance on the Johannine formula about Jesus being sent into the world obscures the much more important missional motif of Jesus being sent to Israel—the Son sent not to save the world but to get fruit from the vineyard. Jesus is portrayed in the Manifesto as a universal redeemer figure. In this important respect, evangelical christology is closer to second century Gnosticism than to the thoroughly Jewish New Testament. 

Secondly, the missional argument puts much greater weight on Jesus’ death than on his resurrection. The New Testament affirms that his death had redemptive significance for God’s people, but the confessional emphasis is overwhelmingly on his resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God. The central proclamation is that Jesus has been given authority to judge and rule with respect both to Israel and the nations, which is the nub of the kingdom expectation.

7. Disciple-making

Here again the basic question, I suggest, is whether we understand discipleship as a generic training for a generic mission or as a contextually shaped training for a historically determined mission. The Manifesto already recognises that the church must train its members, on the one hand, to be “leaders in deeds of justice and ministry to the poor”, and on the other, to live out the consequences of their faith in their various walks of life. But the principle can be pushed a step further.

Jesus did not train disciples who would be leaders in deeds of justice and ministry to the poor. He trained disciples who would faithfully proclaim the coming kingdom of God to Israel in the face of intense opposition. Paul did not build churches that would “live out the implications of their faith in business, the arts, in politics, the academy, the home”. His aim was to build churches that would survive the coming day of persecution and still be standing at the parousia. Believers were trained to that end. Likewise, the church in the West today needs to articulate in prophetic fashion the particular challenges that loom in its own future and train believers to that end.

8. Duality

This is another example of the muddle that evangelicalism gets itself in over proclamation and good works. The task of the people of God throughout scripture has to serve the purposes of the creator God in covenant relationship with him, obediently, faithfully, no matter what history throws at it. That is fundamentally a matter of doing. “Gospel” is simply a matter of announcing, along the way, what God for his part has done or is doing or is about to do to make that service possible.

Suppose a business is struggling to stay afloat in a hostile economic climate. An investor steps in and injects new money into the business to help it weather the storm and become profitable again. That is “good news”, and we might expect it to be announced in the press. But there is no “duality” here. The good news is simply the publication of what has happened.

9. Universality

The Manifesto declares that God’s mission extends to every section of humanity and encompasses every aspect of human life. Since I quibble too much anyway, I won’t quibble with this point—except to say that this rather complacent emphasis on universality continues to blind us to the seriousness and character of the particular historical crisis that confronts the modern church. 

10. Application

Perhaps encouragingly, I find myself broadly in agreement with the “application”, allowing for the fact that some of the terminology needs to be redefined:

We believe the mission of the church continues in multiplying and maturing the followers of Christ (discipleship), increasing the number of congregations (church planting) dedicated to God’s Kingdom (living under His lordship), extending God’s fame throughout the earth (worship), and doing good in the name of Christ (works of mercy).

It seems to me that the Manifesto grounds a good missional praxis in a faulty reading of the New Testament, one in which a generalised salvationist paradigm has been imposed on a “political” narrative that aims the concrete historical realisation of the kingdom of God. It occurs to me that there is some irony in the fact that the Manifesto has to recover the communal aspect of mission when this is precisely what has been obscured by the salvationist paradigm and the eclipse of history.

As we then return to application by way of a narrative-historical hermeneutic, what I think we gain is a clearer account of our own relationship to the God of history and a better framework within which to do discipleship, plant churches, extend God’s fame, and do good.

Hi Andrew — I do not know if you remember me. We met briefly at a CA gathering in Germany. I see your argument clearly and it reminds me of the homework yet to do by the missional movement. You have addressed a lot of the issues in the past here and in your books. Thank you for the good work! Since I do endorse the Manifesto, I was also reluctant to adhere to it in every letter, so to speak.

Missional praxis does forerun missional theology at this time in history. Your Title sums it up rather nicely! Thanks for your insights!

The homework remains to be done. Do you have a suggestion as where to start? I figured we need to address at least:

1. The incarnation as principle — it’s original meaning and the application in church
2. The pauline interpretation of discipleship and reconciling Jesus and Pauls take on what it means to be a follower of christ
3. the great commission and its implications in a harmony of all the gospels and the direct application in the Corpus Paulinum.

These are just some exegetical issues, that tend to be “muddeled” or assumed.

But furthermore I’d love to hear your take on the goal of Theology. The missional movement, to which I am counting myself, argues for a Missio Dei Primate in all theology. This sounds great, but does it hold water? What is the Mission of Theology if not the God of Mission? (I am deliberate in my circle argument here, to make the point)


Yours Bjoern

As I reflect on Israel’s “mission” in the OT, it occurs to me that they accomplished their mission primarily by -being- something, not going around trying to talk everyone else into becoming proselytes. By being faithful to YHWH as king and experiencing and displaying His work in them, they were supposed to be a faithful witness to the nations that would compel them to also worship Israel’s God.

I have often thought that the modern church makes a great deal about going out and calling people into the kingdom, but it’s a kingdom that nobody would really want to be a part of. We have no coherent sense of identity — our mission of being. It makes the church into something more like a multi-level marketing group. You get “saved” so you can go out and get other people “saved,” and they can go out and get other people “saved.” Is this really how we are a light to the Gentiles?

Yes, I tend to think that evangelism, like prophecy, even forward-looking prophecy, and like theology generally, is not a priori. It is a reflection or comment on, or interpretation of, reality. It is a statement about something. It is not a statement that seeks in principle to change a person’s reality.