Missing the Missional Mark

To read something I disagree with on the Internet is not an unusual thing.  When what I disagree with comes from a source that I respect – highly respect – it makes me somewhat uncomfortable.   When the source I respect seems to oppose what I hold, well that is just down-right disappointing.

But that is the experience I have had these past few days while reading 9 Marks January/February 2010 e-Journal.

For those unfamiliar with them, 9 Marks is a ministry of Capital Hill Baptist Church in Washington D.C., their pastoral staff and friends, and in particular Senior Pastor Mark Dever.  9 Marks, as the name suggests, is committed to helping local congregations achieve health through focsuing on what they consider to be the 9 major or essential characteristics of a healthy church.  There are no gimmicks. There are no secrets.  9 Marks is simply committed to helping churches be thoroughly Biblical.  And for that reason I hold them in high esteem.

I have long benefitted from 9 Marks.  Each month or so I peruse their e-Journal. In fact it is one of the few e-periodicals I receive that, if I do not have time to read it when it comes, I download and save until I have the time.  Sometimes they are a little on the critical side, but because they are committed to conserving the Gospel, I usually overlook items or areas I consider the writers to be a little narrow or cranky.  I have learned from them.  I have been challenged by them. And I have passed on articles for others to consider.

My respect for 9 Marks has not diminished. I urge readers, pastors and normal people alike, to click the links I have provided, aquaint yourself with the 9 Marks, listen to their Audio Interviews and lessons, and browse the past issues of their e-Journal.  But, somewhat like a teenager who first recognizes that a parent, teacher, coach, or mentor, does not have their act entirely together, I find myself in an odd and disappointing position – I find that some who are my superiors in almost every way are nevertheless missing something very important.

In the January/February 2010 e-Journal the theme is:  The New Evangelical Liberalism.  I concur with 9 Marks that a liberalization of the Gospel offers no real hope to a broken world.  So I was disappointed that they lumped into that category those with holistic and missional approaches to ministry.  I hold both. And I am no theological liberal.

In the opening paragraph of the Introduction to this issue the editor, Jonathan Leeman, writes:

“As soon as we let the world influence the terms of the church’s life and mission, we have let another authority enter the house and tie up the king of the church, Christ.”

On this point 9 Marks misses the mark. 

To be fair, in the final sentence of his Introduction Leeman asks for  patience and correction where they overstep.  Thus I assume, if challenged, the authors would agree that not all missional and holistic practitioners are rightly lumped into the category of neo-liberal. 

My desire here is to offer 9 Marks the “loving correction” they ask for.    Further I have also seen these indescriminate views of 9 Marks evident in others whom I respect.  Perhpas this is why I feel compelled to write.

First, let me say, in the articles I found no qualifiers that seperate the Gopel-driven from the others.  Nor was there any apparent recognition that within the missional movement there is a wide theological spectrum. 

I concede that within the missional & holistic movements there are those who hold some odd and unsavory theological positions. I also recognize that those who traditionally promote a mere Social Gospel claim a holistic approach. 

But many of the most effective proponents and practioners are not only theologically conservative, but hold to the Doctrines of Grace and the historic Reformed Faith. (Ed Stetzer, Mark Driscoll, and Tim Keller, to name a few.)  To assign all into the camp of liberalism is label that is inaccurate, and even offensive.  It is also uncharitable.

Second, 9 Marks runs the risk of being divisive.  Simply put: If all who are missional are characterized as liberals there is a possibility that some who are actually conservative and Reformed Evangelicals will still be excluded from networks and some ecclesiastical fellowships. In other words, there are some “Champions of he Gospel” who will erroneously be inclined to perceive us as “unclean” and won’t invite us to their party.   That is divisive.

The sad irony, I believe, is that it is the anti-missional crowd that is naively guilty. They are guilty of ignorance and even some hypocrissy. 

My assertion of ignorance is obvious to observe.  They are without knowledge about what they categorically oppose.  I’ll elaborate on that in a moment.

But hypocrissy?

I say this with all the humility I can muster:  Yes.

For example, Leeman’s Introduction statement I took issue with above.  Of course the world dictates certain aspects of our mission! 

  • Take language for instance. We do ministry in the language of the culture we serve.  The culture dicatates this.
  • Another example is prophetic confrontation of culture: The Gospel comes to bear differently on the surface in, lets say, San Fransisco than Salt Lake City. One is a model of licentiousness and the other of self-righteousness. Yes, the root is the same, but how we address the culture is dictated by the culture we are in.  Would missionaries at Vatican City approach people the same way as those in Tehran?

Cultural contextualization does not necessarily mean a compromise of the Gospel.  Certainly some do compromise, but not all who contextualize do. The above illustrations are obvious.  9 Marks and others practice these – and other – contextualizations in their own ministry venues. Yet they still lump those who are openly contextual, as part of their missional approach, as being neo-liberal.  That seems like hypocrissy to me.

One last observation, relatinging to ignorance, that may explain the problem evident in the recent 9 Marks e-Journal.  The word is perspective. Rather the word is: Tri-Perspective, as in the Tri-Perspectivalism introduced by theologians John Frame & Vern Poythress

In short, Tri-Perspectivalism is the contention that ministry ought to reflect all three offices of Christ: Prophet, Priest, and King.   Each office, or perspective, is reflected in a different aspect of Ministry:

  • Prophet – What God says; Sound Doctrine, Bible, etc.
  • Priest – Spiritual Vitality & Renewal
  • King – Mission; Kingdom Advancement & Implementation

In a tri-perspectival approach, adopted by many Gospel-driven, conservative, Reformed practitioners of missional ministries, all three are essential and equal

  • There is no compromise of doctrine in the name of mission, because that would be a failed mission. The mission, simply put, is to make God known. That requires sound doctrine.
  • There is no goal of mission without lives and relationships (and communities) being renewed by the Gospel; and there is no understanding the gospel without sound doctrine. 
  • And there is no effective teaching of the Gospel without the objective of seeing individual and communal lives transformed and renewed, and a corresponding propulsion in gospel-driven mission.

When only one perspective or two perspectives dominate, ministry is distorted.

I suspect part of the problem is that 9 Marks is an admirable Prophet but not equally reflecting the King-ship of Christ. They are not alone in this.  I suspect many who are guardians of the Gospel share this myopic perspective.  As do some who compromise sound doctrine in the name of mission – which should be the real targets of 9 Marks’ pen. (And some are just “liberal” as 9 Marks asserts.)

Let’s take some planks out of our eyes that are inhibiting our perspective. Then let’s speak the truth in love and gently correct one another.  No more name calling and labeling… What’a ya’ say?

4 thoughts on “Missing the Missional Mark

  1. I say yes. Interesting post.

    I agree. Cultural contextualization alone cannot compromise the gospel. If this was the case, then it seems that Paul would have been compromising the gospel, as he was applying the Christ events to his own culture and situations– Paul was certainly a contextual theologian; yet this doesn’t mean that the things he said cannot have a transferable status too. One could argue that a failure to contextual the gospel is actually compromising it, as the gospel is always for a people who are inevitably in a particular situation. It seems that properly recognizing this is at the heart of being missional.

    As an aside, concerning the terms “liberal” and “conservative,” a friend often used to tell me that every slope has two sides– there are dangers in what we call “liberalism” but there are also dangers in “conservativism.” I often wonder that it is unfortunate that we have to operate under such constructed concepts that divide us and often cause us to react and define ourselves over against the “other,” thus dividing the Body, which in some ways, seems anti-gospel.

    So, yes, I’m all for the searching for truth together in love and being willing to gently speak to others when we think we have experienced the grace of having been found by even a piece of this truth.

  2. Thanks Katye. To build on what you have written about conservatism and liberalism, the Bible tells us not to fall to the Left or to the Right. Bryan Chapell, president of Covenant Seminary has said rightly, I think, “In the PCA we have guarded our left flank well, but we act as if there is no danger in falling off to the Right.”

  3. I can not articulate the finer points of what has been said regaring the subject. But I can say from my perspective, I wouldn’t have too much issue with what Jonathan Leeman said depending on what he means by “letting the world influence the terms of the Churches life and mission.” We are as Christ followers to be different from the world and it’s culture and we are told we are not part of this world, even our real citizenship is not here. So yes, I agree we shouldn’t let the world influence our Church and Mission in that sense. Now not having read the artical, I’m not on firm ground here. But just maybe this is the perspective that Jonathan is taking, not sure, but from what you have written I would give 9 Marks a little slack. Having said that, is it really possible not to have the world somewhat influence our church and mission just because of the culture in which we live. I’d say no. I Don’t think anyone would disagree that we are in fact influenced by the world around us, and our culture, look at what good things our culture has brought to communications, music, identifying world needs, the list could be miles long. What is important in all this is that our actions speak first, and we show the Love God has for the world thru what we do, what we say and what we are. As Christ Followers we hold out a Redemmer to a lost and broken world, the GOOD NEWS of the Gospel and I do that even by using the tools of our culture no question.

  4. Thank you. I was similarly bothered by the article in question and find your response to it thoughtful and helpful. As an African, I can tell you that a lopsided gospel has been the source of many woes on this continent. We need the WHOLE gospel, not any single aspect.


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