by Paul E. Johnson
An interview with some of the top mission leaders about the mission of Jesus in the world today.
List of Leaders
These eighteen individuals have significantly influenced the dialogue and development of the missional church in Western evangelical thought.
|Craig Van Gelder
David J. Hesselgrave
Imagine you can ask any question to eighteen leading writers, thinkers, and speakers who have significantly influenced the “missional church” in American evangelical thought. Would they agree or disagree with each other? How would any strong disagreements among them affect the rest of us? Is it possible that the missional church movement has already split into two competing factions? Well, we asked some of the top mission leaders three questions about the mission of Jesus in the world today and here’s what we heard.
Question #1: The Nature of the Mission of Jesus Christ
Question: “How would you describe what you understand to be the essence of the mission of Christ in the world?”
Surprisingly, this question received the greatest variety of responses. Several leaders said the mission of God includes the complete revelation of scripture.
Roxburgh spoke for several others when he said the mission of Jesus Christ cannot be defined “in one or two sentences…because the bigger narrative, the story of what God is up to, it’s a whole story, the story of what the Bible is about.”
Others leaders connected the essence of mission of Jesus Christ to being a witness.
Guder said, “The essence of Christ’s mission is…to witness corporately and personally to the good news of God’s healing love for all creation made concrete in the life, death, resurrection, and reign of Jesus Christ.”
Nearly one-third of the leaders identified the essence of Jesus Christ’s mission with the Kingdom of God or the kingdom reign of Christ in the present age.
Frost spoke for many when he said, “Mission…is our participating in God’s work of bringing everything to fulfillment that he began at creation.”
Hirsch emphasized the importance of Jesus’ relationship to the Kingdom of God, and was the only one who said a kingdom emphasis should be reflected through a wholehearted commitment to the Great Commission that has discipleship at its core.
Surprisingly, only nine of the eighteen leaders identified the Great Commission and the making of disciples as the essence or heart of the mission of Christ.
Sills said, “Christ commissioned his church to be obedient to making disciples among all the peoples of the world, teaching them to obey all he has commanded us. We see in Matthew 28:19-20 and Acts 1:8 the parameters of this mission.”
Ott shared the perspective that the mission of Christ “entails gospel proclamation, discipleship of believers, and gathering them into churches (kingdom communities) that manifest the reign of God in word and deed.”
Hesselgrave admitted answering this first question is “easy, at least for me. You see I’m stuck in the past and, I think, in scripture. The fulfillment of the Great Commission is my mission; and the missionary Paul is still my model. For a matter of fact, I am still happy with, ‘The gospel for every person and a church for every people group.’”
Again, only Hirsch clearly connected the central priority of making disciples in the mission of Christ as the way the Kingdom of God is demonstrated today.
The fact is, if the mission of Jesus Christ in Matthew 28:18-20 is not understood as distinct and primary in the mission of God in this age, and if the Lordship and authority of Christ do not govern the lives of believers, then the Great Commission will not be obeyed as the exclusive mission of Christ and essence of God’s program in the world.
Question #2:Missional Objectives to Fulfill Christ’s Mission
Question: “What would you delineate as the missional objective(s) that believers/churches should pursue and prioritize to fulfill Christ’s mission?”
As with the first question, several leaders identified a relationship between God’s kingdom and churches as they seek to prioritize Jesus Christ’s mission. Strauss stated,
The missional objectives are to proclaim and live the gospel, the good news of the Kingdom of God, seeking to disciple individuals into Christ-like citizens of the coming kingdom, to establish mature New Testament churches as “beachheads of the kingdom,” and to impact society by infusing into it the values of the coming kingdom.
Stetzer emphasized the “missional objective(s) of the church are to be the sign and instrument of the Kingdom of God.” He explained that through their transformed lives, believers share the redemptive message of the gospel and live out their faith through the church for the good of their world.
Hirsch also united the reign of God and the ministry of the church to identify the missional purposes of Jesus Christ. He explained it this way:
A missional church should be measuring its effectiveness by its impact on those outside of the church. It is not just internal measurements that the institutional church uses (buns, bucks, and buildings)….Are we impacting truancy at school, or violence in our area? That kind of thing would be very interesting to measure the impact of our effectiveness. The church is not the Kingdom of God, it is an expression of the Kingdom of God…. Properly obeying that is what we are meant to be about. We as a church must be living in the kingdom as much as we can.
Hirsch, Guder, Frost, Roxburgh, and Van Gelder said the objective of Jesus Christ’s mission for his followers is to “serve as faithful, understandable, and credible witnesses to God’s love in Christ, that is, to be signs, instruments and foretastes of God’s good reign under the Lordship of Jesus Christ” (Guder).
Roxburgh noted two priorities: (1) as people shape their lives around the practices of the Christian life, they are a demonstration, sign, and foretaste of the Kingdom of God and (2) believers need to continue to ask, “What is God up to in needy communities and how can we begin to join him in these efforts?”
Van Gelder said that the Spirit leads the believer to discern what God desires him or her to do to accomplish his mission. He stated, “The mission of God…invites the church into participation,” following the Spirit by using good stewardship “of resources to participate more fully in God’s mission in the context of where the Spirit of God is already at work.” He explained that believers can participate in the mission of God “by bearing witness of the reign of God” through a demonstration of “a holistic gospel of good news” and by “unmasking the principalities and powers that have already been defeated by God through Christ.”
Several leaders gave priority to church planting and to the disciple-making ministry of the church in order to accomplish the missional objective of Jesus Christ’s mission. McDonald noted, “The first item on the priority list should be the establishment of new congregations around the world…
[W]e cannot live into the mission of being disciples who make disciples unless this is strategized and applied via community.” McCallum outlined three missional priorities to fulfill Christ’s mission: “(1) evangelism, (2) disciple-making, and (3) development of a full-orbed community where gifts and ministries can flourish.”
Several leaders strongly advocated for disciple-making as the central priority to fulfill the mission of Christ. Willard was the most succinct: “Make disciples to Jesus and develop them to the point where they do everything he said.”
Sills stated, “Ultimately, our missiological objectives should reflect the progression of a believer’s life. We should seek to engage and reach lost people in culturally appropriate ways with the gospel, disciple and teach them as Christ has commanded us and then training them to continue the work with others.”
Ott said, “The primary missional objectives are gospel proclamation, discipleship, church planting, and holistic transformation; logically in that order.” He added that believers receive the power of the Holy Spirit to live under the lordship of Christ. “Holistic transformation will include personal holiness, acts of compassion, salt and light witness and work in the larger society.”
Regarding the making of disciples, McDonald noted:
We cannot live into the mission of being disciples who make disciples unless this is strategized and applied via community. The tragedy of the North American Church is that we have substituted knowledge for wisdom, occasional fellowship for authentic community, and making decisions for making disciples… [T]rue community…will require a level of obedience and risk-taking that is, thinking and working outside the current Western box of Christian experience…
We have wrongly made our objective in mission to make converts and we have not turned the corner in any way in making disciples….If we do not make disciples who are taking on the mission of the agenda of their Rabbi, their teacher Jesus, we will then see mission happen, but we are not going to get there if we just make converts who are forgiven of their sins to go to heaven.
Hesselgrave uniquely challenged the common use of the term “missional” and its use in defining ministry objectives:
I think that “missional” has become the plaything of evangelicals just as Scherer said that “missio Dei” became the plaything of ecumenists. Like most neologisms, it means whatever one puts into it. And that bothers me….Decide what your mission is and then settle on a theology that will support and further it. If that is missiology, it is also heresy.
For most of these leaders, the purpose of making disciples is closely related to the ministry of a local church. Several described the church as the training ground for the making of disciples who constitute and strengthen the church. Several connected the missional priorities of Christ with the reign of God through Christ and the compassionate ministry of the church. A number also believed the missional goal for the church involves meeting the physical and social needs of the community outside of the church. This compassionate ministry provides a foretaste of the Kingdom of God and the Church of God’s love.
Question #3: The Place of Missional Movements in Christ’s Mission
Question: “Some promote the importance of ‘missional movements’ (i.e. church-planting movements) to advance Christ’s mission. Do you think that individual believers and/or churches should prioritize missional movements and, if so, how is that done and what is the envisioned end product or result of this type of movement?”
Because the term missional is used broadly with diverse applications, several were hesitant to answer this question. Further, for some leaders, words such as movements and prioritize conjure up thoughts of human-made strategies devoid of God’s leading and power. Stetzer expressed this sentiment: “I think we can plan and strategically work towards movements through networks and denominations, but we should remain rightly aware that true spiritual movements are not planned and organized by us. They are a gracious work of God for the building of his Church.”
Others made it clear that a movement is a special work of God that cannot be planned or anticipated in advance. Several express very strong, even heated opinions—opinions we do well to consider.
Hesselgrave objected, saying:
There’s that word [missional] again. I really can’t deal with it until I know the nature of a “missional movement.” Logically, the meaning of “missional” has to be consonant with “mission” so logically what we have here is something akin to “churchly church.” That being the case, one either ends up as a holist or a prioritist. But as McGavran said, there are multitudes of good Christian things to do that are not mission.
I dislike the word “movement” intensely. The people who use it to me demonstrate that they don’t understand how social or cultural change takes place. A movement is something to write about after the fact. You can say, oh look what happened… God is up to all kinds of stuff in all kinds of ways across different kinds of church systems. How do you listen to what’s going on out there?
Whenever we use the word “priority,” we imply that something is ultimately optional. None of the gospel/kingdom commands of Jesus is optional. Further, different strategies and means for fulfilling the mission of God have been advanced over the centuries; many are both biblical and effective ways to fulfill God’s mission. Different labels have been used at different times, and people define those labels differently. So I’m also hesitant to either endorse or condemn any strategy or method.
Other leaders sought to engage the question at face value. Specifically, several mentioned discipleship as the heart of a missional movement of God. McDonald said that disciples must pursue missional movements: “I believe that missional movements should be the central priority of disciples. Church history has demonstrated that the Spirit is able and willing to use a number of means of advancing such movements.”
Adsit added that the end product of a missional movement is to see the Kingdom of God birthed into the lives of unbelievers: “If we’re doing a good job of discipling this new population of Christians, we’ll see them getting fixed, healed, strengthened and eventually thrust into influential leadership positions.”
Willard underscored the place of transformed individuals in a missional movement:
There would always be a place for special efforts with a special focus, dictated by the circumstances for the “success” of Jesus’ work the radical transformation—what one would naturally expect from reading the New Testament—of multitudes of individuals is what is required.
Van Gelder added a needed corrective, saying a movement is important if it is focused on:
…the mission of the Triune God within all of life….This keeps God as the “acting subject” with our seeking to live into and out of God’s agency in pursuing such movements. The [original] question is framed in such a way that human agency or church agency is the primary acting subject, which misses, from my perspective, the true meaning of what it means to be “missional.”
Regarding the end product of a missional movement, Guder said that “the only priority to be established is faithfulness in carrying out our vocation as witnesses… [T]he purpose of Christian mission is that we should walk worthy of the calling with which we have been called.”
Lewis based the idea of missional movements out of the ministry of local churches:
Every church should strive to be missional…in sharing the gospel, in meeting needs of the community and the world, and in planting churches. Whether they can do the latter may depend on their ability at the moment but every church should strive to do all three.
Frost shared that church planting as the key to promoting missional movements:
Bosch once said that mission is intrinsically ecclesial (and therefore that ecclesiology must be intrinsically missional), so what we’re seeing now is the era of the great church-planting movements (the big 21st-century missional movement?). Rather than the church sending out missioning communities (what Roland Allen called the “great divorce”), we’re now seeing the church sending out missional church-planting teams. As soon as this catches on and we have church-planting churches being planted across the world, we will have a serious missional movement.
Strauss focused on disciple-making that leads to church planting:
Any means or strategy that is discipling individuals into Christ-like citizens of the coming kingdom, establishing mature New Testament churches that ‘show off’ the coming kingdom and is impacting society with the values of the kingdom is a good thing that should be commended and practiced.
Hirsch explained that the essential nature of the Church as a whole, and the church in a given community, is missional:
I think the church in the New Testament is clearly a movement and the sweetest and best expressions of church seem to be more movemental… My understanding is that the term ecclesia (church) is a very movemental term. It can express itself in a local house, ecclesia is across the city and ecclesia is the universal people of God… The future of the Western Church is bound up in whether we can discover ourselves as a movement again.
Stetzer believed that God-honoring movements occur when God blesses a leader to mobilize individuals and churches: “The church needs clear and courageous godly examples to point us to what God wants to do and is doing in our world. When God raises up such examples, the church should pay attention.” Yet he cautioned, “The danger is always to see the movement as an end in itself rather than a mobilizing force for the cause of the Kingdom for God’s glory (which is the ultimate end).” In the end, he explained that “movements, networks, and denominations are tools that God uses to encourage the church in its mission and to strengthen churches to accomplish more for the kingdom than they are able to alone.”
Ott equated his idea of “kingdom communities” to missional movements, stating, “I have a strong conviction that the establishment of ‘kingdom communities’ is absolutely central to the task of missions and is indeed the best and most biblical way to fulfill the Great Commission and advance God’s kingdom.” As a result, he is an advocate of church-planting movements:
Under the sovereign work of God, we hope, pray and work to the end that not only isolated communities of believers are established, but that multiplying indigenous movements are launched that are a witness for Christ and foretaste of the kingdom.
For Ott, these multiplying movements have to do primarily with the rapid planting of new churches: “We see such movement happening in Ephesus and the Lycos Valley and other places in the New Testament.” He shared that there is a biblical mandate for church planting and that “the result of church-planting movements is reproducing, gospel-centered churches that spontaneously grow and multiply, largely under local leadership.”
Ogden added a final insight worth heeding:
Jesus told us to make disciples. The only thing I see that Jesus told us to multiply was followers of him. There are no short cuts to growing up in Christ. Certainly part of that is having a missional mindset. So to the extent that a “missional movement” creates an ethos of multiplication, all the better…a missional movement under the sovereignty of God, then the church should be a part of it to advance Christ’s mission.
So, what have we discovered? It appears that the missional church movement has split into two competing factions. Those who advocate for placing the Great Commission as the mission of Jesus Christ for this age are the strongest proponents for prioritizing the making of disciples. Those who identify the mission of Jesus Christ with the overall reign of God in the world and missio Dei, do not, for the most part, promote either the Great Commission or disciple-making as a central priority to fulfill Christ’s mission.
Where do we go from here? Well, that’s another good question to explore.
Paul E. Johnson is a professor in the Intercultural Studies department at Corban University. He also teaches Old and New Testament Survey and the Dynamics of Church Development at the school and is faculty advisor for TrueNorth Corps, BreakAway Retreat, World Outreach Week, and summer mission trips. He received his DMin from Western Seminary. To request a complimentary review copy of the author’s new book, Creating Disciple-Making Movements, please write to him at the School of Ministry, Corban University, 5000 Deer Park Dr. SE, Salem, OR 97317, USA, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
EMQ, Vol. 50, No. 2, pp. 214-221. Copyright © 2014 Billy Graham Center. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.