When “Missional Church” gets too outwardly focused

“Missional church” has been a big movement and buzz word in recent years. The thrust of the movement is to recall the Church’s identity as a sent community, one that reaches out to those around them. It serves as a critique of the “attractional church” that attempts to attract people with great product offerings and marketing. (Less corporate words may be used, but the idea is the same.) Want a helpful 2-minute video primer on “missional church”? Try this.

I’ll start with this. I think the missional church’s critique of the attractional mindset is good and needed. See my posts, “Attracting with Buildings” and “Offer the Gospel!” And I think the missional church folk have generally had a good message for us: the church must get outside the walls of its own buildings and its programs for members.

But I’m also concerned that some of those influenced by missional church ideas have gone too far and are misunderstanding the church. An example comes in this blog post that was just sent to me. The post is actually very good. A helpful assessment with some great points. You should read it. But this statement in it made me cringe:

Theologically, I’m convinced that the Church is in the business of putting itself out of business. The mission of the Church, after all, is not the Church but the coming reign of God (emphasis mine).

This statement comes from an understanding of the Church that has an entirely outward focus. It calls on the Church to go into the world in outreach and witness until no more outreach and witness are necessary. If those goals were accomplished, the author reasons, there would no longer be a need for the Church.

Some use this mindset to say that the Church can and should bring the kingdom of God on earth by ridding the earth of all social evils. We’ve seen that before. In one of its most popular and recent manifestations, it was called the Social Gospel movement.

Others have rightly said that the kingdom of God and the defeat of evil will only come at Christ’s return. Still, they have argued that the Church’s sole purpose should be to work toward those goals. Even if we can’t “put ourselves out of business,” we should still work as if that’s the goal.

But for the Church to try and put itself out of business tragically misunderstands the nature of the Church. This kind of understanding assumes that the Church’s only calling is outward in witness and outreach. That understanding forgets that the Church is the bride of Christ, that Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her (see Ephesians 5:22-33). That understanding likely assumes that corporate worship is only for equipping people to go back out into the world in mission. It would see the only purpose of Christian fellowship as a form of preparation for the mission.

This article by John MacArthur – “Inward, Upward, or Outward?” – illustrates that mindset well.* I saw the article’s title and thought someone else was making my point. Instead, I found MacArthur proving the problem. In the article, he makes it clear that the Church’s “inward” and “upward” activities are fine and good, but the Church’s real purpose is “outward.” His concluding words:

Fellowship, teaching, and praise are not the mission of the church but are rather the preparation of the church to fulfill its mission of winning the lost. And just as in athletics, training should never be confused with or substituted for actually competing in the game, which is the reason for all the training.

I think MacArthur is totally wrong. I was excited to see his title, thinking he was going to argue that the central calling of the Church is inward, outward, and upward. They can’t be teased apart. One can’t be favored. And all three are essential. I was disappointed to find him making the opposite point.

Fellowship, teaching, and praise are not training – they are the very being of the Church! If we call our worship, our fellowship, our prayer, our sharing in communion, and our study of Scripture simply training, we take the typical pragmatic, man-centered turn that seems to plague most of the American Church’s thinking today. We make all of these into pragmatic steps toward accomplishing the mission and miss the deeper point of these actions.

The Westminster Catechism famously asks, “What is the chief end of man?” and famously answers, “To glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” In all, I’m concerned that some influenced by the “missional church” movement have a new response to that question. They want to answer that the chief end of man is to glorify God by outreach and witness. All else is just training.

Why do we worship? Not primarily to be equipped for mission, but primarily because we are the people of God. 

The central purpose of our worship is to worship God – to praise and enjoy him. And that’s enough! I hope it prepares us for mission, but that’s a secondary purpose.

The central purpose of our prayer is to pray to God. And that’s enough!

The central purpose of our fellowship is to share deeply with each other as the Body of Christ. And that’s enough!

And the central purpose of our outreach and witness? To show compassion, to fight for justice, to advocate for the oppressed, and to testify to the gospel. And that’s enough!

All of these works are an end unto themselves. They don’t need to lead to another point. They are the point. Or if we insist, we may say they all lead to glorifying and enjoying God. But let’s make sure we keep that as the chief end of man and the Church — inward, upward, and outward. The business of the Church isn’t to put itself out of business. It’s to glorify and enjoy God, to be prepared as a radiant bride for Christ, to live in fellowship and mission as the body of Christ.

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* Note: MacArthur is no figurehead for the “missional church” movement. But I find his statement here reflective of the mentality that I see sometimes coming from that movement.

11 thoughts on “When “Missional Church” gets too outwardly focused

  1. I remember a dear friend telling me that sometimes for a balance to come about it requires more weight to be put on the seesaw to show how much weight was put on the other side. I fell like the “missional”/”Kingdom” mindset was just the balancing of the “attractional”/”individual” mindset. And maybe it is time to take a little weight off of the Missional side to truly have a balance? I’m a happy moderate and I am fighting within my own being the introvert and extrovert aspects and tendencies. I think the church is doing the same. I pray there are enough Christians out there that are fighting everyday for the middle of the seesaw and praying for the others that are on the far ends.

    Thanks Teddy. Blessings!

    1. Good comment, DG. I agree with you – when you see a boat sinking, you don’t jump on the middle, you go jump on the other side. And so jumping on the other side seems to be our natural reaction… and then the boat starts going the other way. Finding the “middle of the seesaw” or middle of that boat always seems to be the toughest. Is there a way to bring balance without overemphasizing the contrarian side until it becomes the problem?

      Incidentally, for as much as I love James K. A. Smith’s work, that has been my biggest criticism of him. He fights so hard for the role of desires and practices that he denigrates the role of beliefs. Why not show the importance of all three?

      1. Could we also redefine worship to include Missional service, or incorporate each into each other? For example, a deep liturgically based communion while at the same time building a habitat house or under the bridge of the homeless tent city? Maybe packing and wrapping Christmas gifts for the needy during a worship service? Wondering if the lines could be redefined or blurred, instead of just doing more or less of each side? Plus, it would be fun dreaming up those disciplines.

  2. Along these similar lines, I have seen a recent movement of churches who cancel worship for a Sunday or two a year, and instead ask everyone to come and spend the day / morning in some outreach to the community. While I think the intentions are noble (as intentions usually are), this has always rubbed me the wrong way for similar reasons as I think you outlined. Weekly gathering of the worship community shouldn’t ever be displaced.

  3. Great article Teddy.

    As for the missional attractional side of things I have a very hard time being one or the other. I think all churches should do both. In a meeting recently I tried to decide, b/c I was asked, if I was leading an attractional or missional movement. Since I was in the middle of Upward Soccer I examined that part of our “outreach.” Upward is a huge “attractional model” but in Upward there is a ton of mission for volunteers, kids and the church to be a part of. Yes we did newspaper articles, road signs, Facebook pages, etc (attractional), but we also did devotions, raised goods for a ministry in Guatemala, shared the gospel and are continuing to reach out to these families all which are missional and attractional.

    I loved DG’s see-saw comment b/c I think he hit the nail on the head. I might be wrong, but I can’t be either or so I’m going to run commericals and newspaper articles and I’m also going to walk over to Waggener high School and love them anyway they needed to be loved. I’m sure on the way over there I’ll trip on a crack in the sidewalk as I’m thinking, “Now…am I being missional or attractional while I’m doing this.” 🙂

    The real challenging part of the article to me was realizing that prayer, worship, preaching, growing etc is good within itself. If I’m not careful I always look at worship as “did it sound good,” my preaching as “was it good enough, challenging enough, but not too offensive” and I look at the inward ministries of our church and critique them based off the fact that we aren’t growing like Rob Bell’s church did in Velvet Elvis :). I’m not a patient person and I want prayers, sermons and worship to lead to changed lives and “bigger congregations” and I want it to happen now. Maybe we just need to do these things for the end that they are…God and becoming more like God and truly trust that God is all ready at work in the lives of the people around me and that maybe God will use me to reach them…but if not God will probably use someone else.

    As I typed this last sentence I was wondering…now is that statement missional or attractional? Crap.

  4. As a disclaimer, I have a pretty strong aversion to “missional theology” in general, but I might argue the problems associated with this project run deeper than those of qualitative degree (“too” outwardly focused, “too” . . ., etc.). Alison Milbank and Andrew Davison offer, in my view, a substantial critique of the entire enterprise in For the Parish: A Critique of Fresh Expressions. The problems they outline can be found in other, more “academic” writings, but this work offers a much more accessible, 200-page argument which (as far as I know) remains hitherto unanswered – at least to my satisfaction (haha).

    1. Thanks for this, Caleb. Looks like the book you mention is interacting primarily with the Fresh Expressions movement. While it sounds like there’s a lot of overlap, I’d be more interested in something that more directly interacts with the missional movement in the US. Are any of the more “academic” writings you mention geared toward that?

      1. Apart from a largely unhelpful conservative evangelical (Southern Baptist?) critique of particular liberal tendencies of some missional proponents (e.g., the emerging/emergent contingent), I can’t think of any legitimate, American critique. John Milbank has written a short article entitled: “Stale Expressions: the Management Shaped Church” in the Studies in Christian Ethics Journal (Asbury has it.) which is, as the title suggests, a provocative critique of the mission-shaped church (mainly that it is still operates out of the attractional, managerial model it so demonizes), but this critique still comes from an Anglo-Catholic and European perspective. It’s been a few years since I’ve read it, but I still remember the line which reads more-less: “The refusal to come out of oneself and go to church is simply the refusal of church per se.”

        I also wanted to comment that, in some sense, the terms “missional” and “evangelical” can be understood as largely synonymous terms. I’m reading through David Ford’s (ed.) gargantuan The Modern Theologians (3rd edition) right now, and one of the interesting features of the 3rd edition is that the editor has decided to remove the chapter entitled “Theology of Mission”, commenting that it is largely subsumed within the chapters on “Pentecostal/Charismatic Theology” and “Evangelical Theology”. I don’t want to read too much into this editorialization (which still remains within a European ethos), but I do find it fascinating for a few reasons: 1) it highlights the possibility that the inherent philosophical and theological problems of evangelical theology may also be the inherent problems of missional theology; 2) it may help us understand why such theology has never gained serious attention or engagement with either traditional Catholic or Eastern Orthodox thought; and 3) it possibly alludes to the growing, overall academic disinterest with missional theology . . . Jurgen Moltmann’s followers have unfortunately been far less creative and academically rigorous than their mentor.

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