Unfaithful Theology?

In the July, 2004 edition of the Concordia Journal there was an article entitled “Theology or Mission?” which stated the following:

Any theology which is not imbued with God’s own passion to seek and save lost people is not pure theology without a missional attitude – it’s just impure theology. Our theological work needs to be connected in visible, vital ways to the urgent task of making sure that every man, woman, and child know what God has done for them in Christ. If it isn’t, then we are engaged (unwittingly, I assume) in nothing less than false doctrine, no matter how carefully we guard our formulae and arrange the loci and explore the ramifications. Mission is what theology is for. Theology pursued for some ultimate purpose other than God’s mission of seeking and saving the lost is simply unfaithful theology.

As one who is a pastoral practitioner of theology, this comes as no small assertion, with no small potential implications. Pastoral ministry—the place where doctrine meets practice, is ministry done in a local congregation and community among real people with real problems, real dysfunctions, and real sins. It is, at best, an ordained burden and sanctified mess. At worst, it reduces pastors to, as Stanley Hauerwas says, “a quivering mass of availability” where they are simply trying to keep their head above water, let alone make every move of their ministry a “missional” move.

Nonetheless, the threat of being an unfaithful or impure practitioner of theology must be taken seriously. But to bear the burden of everything theological being absolutely “missional” and therefore every practice of theology necessarily “missional” is enough to crush a man, not to mention a congregation.

It is a particularly heavy assertion considering that the word “missional” is relatively new to the theological canvas. Alan J. Roxburgh and M. Scott Boren in their book Introducing the Missional Church, note that “The word missional was introduced in 1998 because the definitions of mission and church [noted in their book]… are misleading and wrong. Adding the al to the end of mission, however, creates a new meaning we don’t immediately see or understand. The word invites us to stop, check our assumptions, and ask if there might be a different way of being the church.” As such, at least from a confessional Lutheran perspective, the term “missional” lends itself to identifying the latest protestant trend, as opposed to being a part of historic Lutheran orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

Confessional Lutherans are not alone in their concern regarding the word. Carl Rascke (in his book GloboChrist) examines the word as it appears in the postmodern context and invites caution and reflection on what it truly means:

One of the current buzzwords in what might be loosely characterized as the buzz marketing of the new and improved postmodern church is the adjective missional. These days every Christian community that wants in some legitimate sense to be au courant is beginning to define itself with this very adjective… It is not more than a little ironic, however, that churches in the postmodern—or post-Christendom-world should have to mold themselves as “missional” at all?  In its historic sweep Christianity has always been missional.

At a minimum, it gives cause to reflect on the “missional” reconstitution of our theological language. This is particularly so as the above article from the Concordia Journal continued on, asserting that: “It’s not so much a question of finding and maintaining a balance between ‘mission’ and ‘theology’ as if these were two distinct elements which are both necessary. Rather, I think we need to realize that any theology-minus-mission is simply false theology, and any evangelism-minus-theology is no evangel at all.”

Thus, if this “missional” premise is to be true, particularly for the LCMS, what does that say about the theology and practice of our worship, not to mention the theology and practice of our preaching? What does it mean for the theology and practice of pastoral ministry, including parish pastors and chaplains—military, hospital, and nursing home? What does it say about the way congregations organize and govern themselves? Is a congregation that struggles to be outward focused—whatever that means—disqualified from being faithful to the Lord?

Even more, especially from a Lutheran theological perspective, what does it mean for the doctrine of vocation? Specifically, does a doctrine that expounds the hiddenness of God in ordinary tasks for the service of our neighbors—even lifting it up in utter celebration of God at work, independent of Gospel proclamation—now become invalid, unfaithful, and impure? I believe a dialogue is in order.

To be sure, seeking and saving the lost is what Christ came to do, did do, and continues to do through his church. But what this looks like and how it is done by His church today is really the question before us. I think it is a great oversimplification to simply identify the mission of the church as seeking and saving the lost. It is a true statement, but it lacks clarity and specificity, not only of the lost—their peculiarities and irregularities, but also regarding the means by which the church has been given to seek and save the lost. This is not to demean seeking and saving the lost. For, to be sure, the Lord’s desire is that all people be saved and come to the knowledge of truth (1 Tim. 2:4), and thus so is ours.

However, what I think needs to be recognized is that the recent “missional” trend among North American congregations and denominations has created, perhaps unintentionally, a serious threat to the theological integrity of the church’s practice of her mission. In the desire to seek and save the lost, at times by all means necessary, some of those means have come to reconstitute the core of the church’s theology.

Where past ages of the church’s history have demonstrated a precision for the marks of the Holy Christian Church—the most prominent being the bold proclamation of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments (AC VII)—the recent “missional” push has seemingly reconstituted the marks of the church to be that of obeying the Great Commission and that of making “missional” congregations, whatever that means.

At first glance, some may wonder what would be wrong with having such behaviors as marks of the church. After all, don’t we want the lost to be saved? Don’t we want congregations to focus on seeking and saving the lost? Absolutely! But for the moment, consider the proposition honestly and with all theological integrity. If the church is to be serious about her theology, such “missional” mandates reveal the very real danger of taking the free gift of the Gospel given in, by, and through Jesus Christ—His life, death and resurrection—and potentially turning it into a law that must be obeyed. Should that be the case, it would be no small irony to note that Protestants, and especially evangelical Lutherans, both have names sake that were forged out of a Reformation that protested against making the Gospel of Christ into a law to be obeyed.

Some might say I am simply misunderstanding the intent of what “missional” means. However, when “missional” minded authors and church leaders have to regularly to take to defending or redefining what it means—missional guru, Alan Hirsch , wrote an entire article defending and clarifying the word—perhaps there remains a significant amount of misunderstanding in, among, and between those claiming to be “missional.”

Consequently, I think it is time for honest, collegial, and candid conversation, all for the sake of the Gospel and the growth of Christ’s kingdom.


Rev. Woodford


4 responses to “Unfaithful Theology?

  1. Pastor LaPlant

    Thanks for a thoughtful post on this critical issue. I have often felt guilt and shame at not being “missional” enough – as it is defined by district officials giving their reports of a declining church. Of course, this guilt is born of law, and a fuzzy at best definition of what it means to be missional.

    The starting point for this conversation is not demographics, but the Word of God informed by our confession. I appreciate Matthew Harrison’s comment that confession and mission are two sides of the same coin. for fat too often we have been pitting one against the other.

  2. Rev. Kevin Jennings

    Pastor LaPlant, the truth you have spoken. A few years ago at a synodical convention, a resolution was passed that outreach was ONE of the critical foci of the Church (or words to that effect). Some people went ballistic – that mission is only one pillar. But, as you so rightly point out, mission MUST be accompanied by confession. If confession is missing or not emphasized, there is nothing with which to do mission!

    Thank you, also, Pastor La Plant for giving a response that prevented me from droning on about this subject – I’ve been down this road far too many times and now froth at the mouth whenever it’s presented.

    Thanks, also, Pastor Woodford for a well-spoken and well presented post.

  3. Rev. Kevin Jennings

    Oh, what the heck. I’m just bursting about this subject right now. From what I’ve seen about things “missional,” I’ve come to view them with one of those sideways, squinting glances. What gets emphasized so often seems to be methods, while the content is assumed – very dangerous. The methods, as I’ve come to know them, are derived from things earthly instead of the holy Word of God. Case in point: a lot of evangelism programs have their roots in the area of sales and marketing. Many churches around these parts which pack people in employ more shock marketing techniques and then feed people fluff instead of the Gospel (how can you talk about Jesus without talking about sin?).

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