Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Slippery-Ness of Missional

Terms and labels are slippery things. Don Carson, in his lecture, “What is Evangelicalism?” says of the term “Evangelical,” “There is a sense in which the topic really isn’t all that important. Labels come and labels go. And I am not quite ready to be crucified for a label.” I would say the same thing about the label “missional.” I am not about to die for a term. However, there are some important aspects of the concept of being missional that I believe are important for the church.

As I noted in my last post, the term “missional” is being used by a variety of people in a variety of ways. This has caused some to wonder if the term should be used at all. As I mentioned, Tullian Tchividjian, the new pastor at Coral Ride Presbyterian Church, has been heavily influenced by Tim Keller’s thoughts on the missional church. Yet, because of the variety of ways the term has been used, he has chosen to use the term “missionary minded” instead. My friend, Dr. Dominic Aquila, who is the President of our local seminary, New Geneva Theological Seminary, has written a rather severe critique of the term. Dr. Aquila’s primary concern stems from how the term has roots in the Gospel and Our Culture Network and how it has been used by liberal and neo-orthodox theologians. Certainly, with our history as Presbyterians, we should be concerned about Trojan horses bearing neo-orthodoxy.

However, not everyone who uses the term "missional" is liberal, neo-orthodox, or emergent. Many terms that are dear to us are slippery. Most people associate Presbyterianism with liberalism. Certainly, the overwhelming majority of Presbyterian churches in the United States are part of denominations that have a strong liberal and neo-orthodox bent. The large Presbyterian body is often in the newspaper for discussions about women as elders, ordaining homosexuals, even redefinitions of the Trinity. When I identify myself as a Presbyterian, I have to qualify the term in a way that is very different from the term’s meaning in popular usage. So, while many people believe that Presbyterian equals liberal. That is not the case. The same is true of missional.

We can say the same thing about the the term “evangelical.” In his lecture on the term, Dr. Carson demonstrates that the term means different things to different people and different things in different parts of the world. He mentions being in Columbia. There, the term refers to people who go door-to-door like Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. He goes on to say, “If I lived in New York City with my dear friend, Tim Keller, I would never call myself an Evangelical, unless I were in a very friendly group because, by and large, in Manhattan evangelical means the Christianized version of the Taliban. It roughly means right-wing, stupid, ignorant, bomb-throwing people, and I don’t think of myself that way. So, I wouldn’t call myself an Evangelical there unless I had a lot of time to explain my position. . . . This is true of almost all labels. There are many, many contexts I would never call myself Reformed. In many parts of the deep South, Reformed basically means you don’t like evangelism. And I don’t think of myself like that, either.” Interestingly, Dr. Carson teaches at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and is known as a Reformed scholar.

There are many who wear the term "Evangelical" today that I would not call evangelical. There are even some who write for the leading evangelical magazine that I would hesitate to call evangelical. It seems that evangelical doesn't always mean evangelical any more. It also is apparent that evangelical means different things to different people.

So, all terms have baggage. One must be careful in using such labels that he defines the term and understands how they are being used in a particular context. Still, it is impossible to talk without labels. Labels provide a short-hand for explaining larger ideas. If I could not use the terms “reformed,” “Presbyterian,” or “evangelical,” then I would have hand them the Westminster Confession of faith, the PCA's Book of Church Order, and then add the following statement: "I believe in the verbal, plenary inspiration of Scripture, that Scripture is infallible, inerrant, and our only infallible rule for what we are to believe and how we are to live. Furthermore, I believe that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Etc..." Frankly, it is much easier just to say that I am Evangelical, Reformed, and Presbyterian, even though all of those labels have problems.

So, do we need the label "missional?" That will be the subject of my next post.


Julianne said...

I really appreciate this post, Pastor Bates. I've had such a difficult time articulating my faith with terms like 'evangelical', 'missional', 'reformed', 'christian', 'gospel', 'bible-believing', etc while here in Portland. It's a question that comes up often in an interfaith setting, but one I have had a really hard time answering. It's frustrating to find that something so simple and sweet as the gospel can be so difficult to communicate with the nuances of our cultural language.

It's encouraging to know others are struggling with the same question - and that these questions don't invalidate our understanding of who God is and how we can serve him in community in this world.

Christopher said...

I might note that the reason we hold on to labels such as Presbyterian, Evangelical, Reformed, etc, even though we now have to clarify why we still want to be labeled as such, is because of their rich history. These labels were developed historically to clarify specific theological positions and organizations that we PCA folks still agree with.

On the other hand, what Dr. A. has pointed out is that the term Missional never did have that historic foundation that we want to be associated with. Yes, there are some Presbyterians who recognize that some Missional concepts are biblical, but that doesn't mean that we should adopt the term.

I suspect, "missionary minded" wouldn't cut it with many in the missional crowd precisely because it does not convey the social justice bent that the label missional does.

Mark Bates said...

Thanks Julianne and Christopher.
Chistopher, Dr. A. and I have discussed his article at length. Dr. A. said that he was only criticizing the term. However, my concern is that it could be misread so that someone gains the impression that missional equals neo-orthodox. This would be very unfortunate. In our discussion, Dr. A. assured me that he was not being critical of those who use the term, only the term. Still, I would hate for people to think that missional equals neo-orthodox or liberal. There are some wonderful ideas that are being discussed under this term. I don't want people to throw out the baby with the bathwater. I think the critique that I cite from the 9Marks website does a good job of highlighting both the dangers and delights of missional.
Dr. A.'s other concern is that the emphasis on missional can put churches on a trajectory towards neo-orthodoxy and liberalism. That is a legitimate concern. At the same time, I think we should also be concern that, if we do not emphasize the idea behind the evangelical concept of missional, the church will be negligent in her mission. There are dangers on both sides and we must be vigilant in guarding against both rather than one at the expense of the other.