I remember when the word missional was new. It was filled with all the facial hair, slim-fit shirt, Avett Brothers cache that a single word could carry. If churches were not actively seeking how to be “missional” they were missing out on the next great thing. And no church wants to miss out on what’s hot.
It has not been easy nailing down just what missional means. I have heard about as many definitions for it as there are people who have attempted to define it for me. But taking what I have been told and what I have read and cooking it all down I come up with this reduction: To be missional or to live missionally means that Christians live their entire lives (family, vocation, church, money, friendships, recreation) for the advance of the gospel beginning in the community in which they live.
If that’s what missional means then count me in. That is a bandwagon I’ll gladly hop aboard. Of course it sounds a whole lot like ordinary biblical Christianity but I digress. My dilemma is that (it seems to me at least) the word is often used to justify a pattern of ministry that reduces matters of biblical truth to the level of mere opinion. Vagueness or even silence about certain culturally privileged sins is justified as missional.
The chief example of this in our particular moment is that of homosexuality (and along with it human ontology, original sin, and marriage). Many of us on the more conservative side of things are wondering if our more progressive counterparts truly believe what God has declared about homosexuality and human identity and marriage. And it is not because we are simply daydreaming about what they may believe. It is because of their own public statements which seem at least to suggest that Scripture is vague about gender, marriage, and sexual ethics. And given the number of once confessional pastors/churches who have joined their hearts to the spirit of the age it is a question worth asking.
There is a scene in one of the early seasons of The Office (when it was still funny) where the hapless Michael Scott is explaining why he does not like to tell anyone what they don’t want to hear. Looking into the camera fully expecting his audience to understand he says, “If you were a doctor you wouldn’t tell someone he had cancer.”
A lot of the explanations I hear from pastors in confessional churches who are either silent or vague about issues like homosexuality and the abortion holocaust justify their approach by saying things like:
“We’re not going to get political.”
“We want people to know that our doors are open to all.”
“There are many LGBTQ people in our community and we want to reach them.”
In the end it sounds a lot like Michael Scott’s hypothetical doctor.
To be clear, I agree that churches must be careful about wading into political issues. A church should not allow itself to become a subsidiary of any political party or politician. Of course homosexuality and abortion are biblical, moral, and justice issues so to remain silent is simply irresponsible.
I also agree that a church’s doors ought to be wide open to sinners. If we close our doors to sinners then we all better stay home. I happily serve as pastor of a church that includes among its members former homosexuals and those who struggle faithfully against same-sex attraction. We have former adulterers, former gamblers, former self-righteous religionists, former racists, former drunkards, former gluttons, etc. You name a sin and you’ll probably find a former practitioner in our church. Every week I get to stand and preach before this gloriously redeemed collection of “formers.”
I never want to tell sinners the truth about their sin. I like being liked. I hate it when someone gets mad at me. From time-to-time on certain Fridays I will edit out some lines from a sermon for fear of offending. So I am grateful for those times when by God’s grace I add those words back on Sunday morning. Pastors, doesn’t faithfulness to our calling require honesty, even about what the Bible calls sin?
Let’s do a thought experiment.
Suppose I was pastor of a church in South Carolina. And let’s suppose that during this hubbub with the confederate flag I decided to write something to my congregation on the church’s blog concerning racism. And suppose it went like this:
These are momentous days in South Carolina. With all the controversy swirling around the confederate flag and in light of the tragic deaths in Charleston many are no doubt wondering if we as a church have a position on racism. Well, as you know we love people at this church. Jesus loves everyone no strings attached. And he desires that we be united in the gospel. That means we should not divide over lesser issues. We major on the majors and minor on the minors. So we can afford to disagree on racism. And we certainly don’t want political issues to divide us.
In our church we have a variety of opinions on racism. Some say it is clearly a sin. They read certain passages of the Bible and interpret them to mean that any sort of racial prejudice is wrong. And they have good reasons for interpreting the Bible that way. Others however understand the Bible to say the opposite. They even cite studies that indicate that division among the races can lead to healthy self-esteem and more tightly knit communities. Others are still trying to make up their mind and wonder why some people make such a big deal about it.
Whatever your opinion on this issue we want you to know that you are always welcome in this church. Jesus and the gospel are far more important than whether or not we agree on politics. So let’s be known for what we’re for, not for what we’re against.
The Apostle Paul wrote to churches which existed in pagan cities filled with all manner of sexual license, greed, idolatry, and injustice. And yet his letters are crystal clear about the sins that abounded in those cities; sins which many of the members of those churches had once practiced. Was Paul being an insensitive pastor to condemn those sins so clearly? By writing that homosexuals and drunkards were going to Hell, was Paul risking his opportunity to reach them?
I pastor a wonderful congregation in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. While Virginia is not the Deep South like Mississippi or Alabama it is nevertheless blessedly south of the Mason Dixon Line. Suppose for a moment a significant percentage of my community proudly unfurled confederate flags in their front yards every morning. Suppose that many in my community lamented desegregation and longed for separate water fountains. What does missional mean in that case? What should it look like to reach out to such folk? What should they hear from the pulpit of the church I serve?
Is it missional to be silent or vague about the sin of racial bigotry? Could I justify my silence by saying something like, “We want to be like Jesus so we do not condemn anyone”? Would I need to add to our lexicon terms like “same-race attracted” in order to not use an insensitive clobber term like “racist”?
What would my progressive pastor friends think about my competence if an unrepentant racist could attend my church for two years and never once be called to abandon his bigotry? What would be the verdict on my ministry if the only indictment I leveled against racism is that it may not be optimal for human flourishing?
There is a whole complex of activities I may have to employ in order to reach such sinners as these. But one thing I think we all agree upon is that I must not welcome them to remain unchanged. I must not in any way suggest that Jesus is agnostic about their sin or that they can claim Christ as Lord and remain racist while maintaining membership in our church. I must call their racism what it is. To do less would be to fail as a pastor.
What is your community’s most popular sin? Is it racism or greed? Is it the idolatry of education or leisure? Perhaps there are members of your community who make a lot of money in pornography or abortion. Or maybe the rainbow banners of homosexuality decorate the neighborhoods around your church.
If being missional means not addressing clearly a city’s most beloved sins then count me out.
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