Mark Galli, editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, has devoted a four-part series in Christianity Today to critiquing missional theology and evangelicalism’s embrace of the missional purpose of the church:

  1. The Unfortunate Pedigree of the Missional Church
  2. The Church Does Not Exist for the Sake of the World
  3. The Purpose of the World: To Become the Church
  4. The Church’s Sickness Unto Death

As he reveals in the first article, Galli’s concerns stem from his watching the pilgrimage of Rob Bell, which he regards as a cautionary tale for the missional trajectory. Galli interviewed Bell when Bell was a youthful, emergent – but still evangelical – leader: author of Velvet Elvis, innovator of the Nooma videos, founding pastor of Mars Hill Church in Michigan, effective evangelist to and among millennials; i.e., before Bell was highlighted in TIME among America’s 100 most influential people, before the infamous Oprah Winfrey interviews of mutual affirmation, before John Piper’s “Goodbye,” before he became known as an “outside-the-bounds” provocateur (cf. “The Heretic: A Documentary – trailer”).

Galli sees the seeds of Bell’s departures from orthodoxy as being sown in Bell’s embrace of a broader social agenda that Galli claims is a revival of Rauschenbusch’s “social gospel” agenda. Galli believes that the social gospel movement was rightly discredited by evangelicals over the last hundred years and that the missional church movement is unwittingly succumbing to its same mistakes.

Let me start by saying that I can agree with Galli in finding some aspects of Bell’s pilgrimage troubling. The path that Bell has taken in his ideological evolution is not completely unique to Bell, and it is a path that concerns me, too. For the record, in the battle between Bell’s Love Wins and Galli’s response, God Wins, I’m with Galli. It may be worthwhile inquiring what may have contributed to undermining some foundational pillars in Bell’s theological convictions.

I think that once we make that inquiry, we find that it is actually not missional theology per se that should be held responsible for Bell’s faults. Bell may eventually have succumbed to a “softer view” of God than what Scripture actually allows; but that has been a temptation – and an understandable one at that – for evangelists, missionaries, and pastors with a heart for people for time immemorial. That’s not the fault of missional theology.

By the way, the evangelical church could still very much use what Rob Bell brought when he was at his best. What if, instead of missional theology being responsible for Bell’s flaws, it is the missional understanding of God that helps foster the kind of relatable, thoughtful, interactive consideration of the claims of Christ that Bell promoted in his Nooma videos?  In that case, we should be looking for ways to refine the formula that helped foster that, maybe now more vigilantly on the lookout for any destabilizing components.  That is very different from throwing out the compound completely as some kind of inherently dangerous toxin.

Now, had Galli framed his analysis as a set of concerns that missional theologians and church practitioners should be wary of as potential penchants in our approach to understanding Scripture and theology, I, for one, would have welcomed such a cautionary call. Unfortunately, Galli holds up the wanderings of Rob Bell as part and parcel of missional theology and the missional movement as a whole.  That is not only unfair; it fails to understand what prophetic correctives missional theology offers to evangelicalism, not to mention what helpful, biblical refocus is brought by a fresh understanding the missional purpose of the church.

This is where I, with other missional theologians, would simply disagree with Galli as to what the Bible, Jesus in particular, actually teaches. By article three, “The Purpose of the World is to Become the Church,” Galli seems to temper his critique of missional theology a bit. Perhaps he was chastened by the responses to his first two pieces by some of his friends in the missional church movement; I don’t know. But, by article 3, he says his critique of missional is mainly a matter of “emphasis.”  It is at the end of article 3 that he makes the most poignant and clear comparison of what he is against vs. what he is for:

My conclusion after surveying this biblical landscape is this: The church’s mission is not to go out and make the world a better place, to be a blessing, to transform culture, to bring justice to the earth, to work for human flourishing. The church’s destiny and purpose are to live together in love in Christ, to the praise of God’s glory. That, in fact, is the destiny of all humankind, no matter what corner of the globe they come from.

I’d actually like to take him up on that framing!  Except I’m going to claim just the reverse is true as to which is “most biblical” – especially if I can replace his diminutive “make the world a better place” with “disciple the world.”  My claim would be that the Bible very much presents “the church’s mission [as] to go out and [disciple the world], be a blessing, to transform culture, to bring justice to the earth, to work for human flourishing,” and not merely “to live together in love in Christ, to the praise of God’s glory.”

I would plead with Galli and anyone else holding the missional movement at arm’s length to recognize the reductionism that Galli (representing much of traditional evangelicalism) actually has succumbed to and that missional theology holds great promise to correct. Consider God’s calling of Abraham to “be a blessing to all nations” (Gen. 12:1-3).  Consider God’s establishing His elect nation and its kings to establish a full, robust society – i.e., a Kingdom – of righteousness, justice, kindness, and mercy.  Consider the message of Jesus and why Jesus says He comes: His debut sermon in the synagogue (Luke 4:18-19) frames His mission around the prophetic fulfillment of Isaiah 61. Jesus’ message and ministry throughout the gospels picks up the prophetic call of the OT to establish a kingdom, that, by the resurrection, is no longer a kingdom just for one ethnic race on a strip of land in Palestine, but is a Kingdom –a full-fledged, righteousness, justice, kindness, and mercy-filled Kingdom – that extends to all the world inviting people of every tribe, tongue, and nation (Matt 5:13-17, 43-48; Luke 6:25-38; Matt 25:31-46; Matt 28:19-20).  Consider how Paul’s letters reinforce and elaborate on how these Kingdom themes apply also to Gentiles (Rom 12:17; Gal 6:10; Col 4:5; 1 Thess 5:15; 2 Tim 2:24; Tit 3:1-6). Consider, further, Peter’s sensitivity to how the church and its message is perceived by a pagan and potentially hostile world and how he calls his flock to a recognizable and attractive witness (1 Pet 2:11-17, 3:16). And consider how Revelation picks up again how the King will return to establish His Kingdom fully and eternally on earth in all of its ramifications (Rev 21:3-6).

I suspect that Galli may be aware of these (and many other) texts but their import may have, for him, already been reduced by a two-step hermeneutical process whereby the message of the prophets is taken to be applicable only to the Old Testament Church (Israel) and that that Church, now shorn of a national identity and constituted purely as a spiritual entity, is properly concerned with purely spiritual, internal, and heavenly matters. By contrast, the missional interpretation of scripture understands God’s redemptive purposes to encompass the entire creation in a manner richer and more thorough than even the prophets imagined. Those redemptive purposes were inaugurated with the work Christ and continue to gain beachheads wherever the gospel in all of its richness is proclaimed and lived out.

Of course, we are “to live together in love in Christ, to the praise of God’s glory.” But God delights in sharing “His glory,” and the love we are commissioned to live together in is actually for missional purpose [!]: that the world may know that God sent Jesus, and sends us.  That is what John records as being at the heart of Jesus’ astonishing conversation with the Father moments before He was taken away to offer the atoning sacrifice.

I do not ask in behalf of these alone, but for those also who have faith in Me through their word; that they may all be one, even as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they also may be in Us; that the world may believe that You did send Me. And the glory that You have given Me I have given to them; that they may be one, just as We are one. I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, that the world may know that You did send Me and did love them, even as You loved Me (John 17:20-23).

Put the teaching of the New Testament epistles together with Jesus’ teaching on the inauguration of a New Kingdom that turns the world upside down and transforms from the inside out; put Jesus’ teaching with the call of the prophets to do justice – yes, including socio-economic justice, called for in detail by Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos – and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. The message that results presents our purpose as children of God to be not just family members (though we are that, too), but, as children of God, we are children of the King, citizens and ambassadors of the new Kingdom, and agents of the Mission. Our purpose is far more robust, and far more oriented to “bringing the gospel to the world, being a blessing, transforming the culture, bringing justice to the earth, and working for human flourishing” than is captured by the reductionist “just live together and love one another and praise God appropriately” of standard, traditional evangelical fare.

The prophetic correctives of the missional movement should be taken to heart, rather than braced against.  Are there some penchants to be wary of in missional theology’s outreach-oriented, world-betterment emphases? Probably. On the other hand, isn’t coddling the comfortable, the privileged and powerful, in insular fortresses of orthodoxy not at least an equally clear and present danger?

The kind of missional theology and missional movement I am interested in personally is of the evangelical variety – evangelical in the traditional, historic-orthodoxy sense (without the political overtones). Not all missional theology is evangelical: I acknowledge that, as I acknowledge, too, my gratefulness for the kindred spirits I find in pursuit of God’s mission even outside my own evangelical fold.

My hope would be for Mark Galli and Christianity Today to be a force for good and source of help in bolstering the missional purpose of the church, particularly in a more evangelical vein. I offer this rejoinder in hopes of resetting the conversation on a higher plane. Evangelicals should be working together in pursuit of God’s mission, stimulating one another to love and good deeds, even as we call each other, iron sharpening iron, to greater faithfulness and greater biblical fidelity.