Search this blog

I hope these posts on mission and missional are producing more light than heat. My aim is not to beat the proverbial equine representative, but to keep the ole conversation going. This is a critical, volatile, confusing issue.

You may know Ryan Kelly as the third person in the TGC round table discussion (Greg Gilbert and I being the other two). Ryan is the pastor at Desert Springs Church and an all around cool guy (and smart too!). He’s been thinking a lot of mission and missional, so I asked if I could post his thoughts on my blog. It’s long, but worth the read.


Kevin kindly invited me to write some follow-up thoughts to a recent TGC video we did with Greg Gilbert on the mission of the church. Since my contribution to the video consisted of little more than anecdotes of Puritan cultural-engagement, and because I don't really have a blog of my own, I was glad to have the opportunity to say a few more things here.

Some Background

I don't exactly remember how long ago it was, but at some point I began filing away in my head, and later on paper, what I could gather that people meant by the term missional. Whether from a book, an article, a blog post, or a personal conversation, the variations seemed to me to be many and fairly significant. Missional could mean or seem to imply:

  • Cultural engagement, preferably of the hipster-flavor
  • Social justice, cultural transformation, and love of neighbor
  • Entrepreneurial and aggressive church expansion
  • Anything but the church-growth, attractional, programtic model of evangelism
  • A serious and constant awareness of our "sent-ness"
  • Simple gospel proclamation--what our dads used to call witnessing or evangelism, but perhaps a slightly more thoughtful and/or natural version of it
  • Thoughtful gospel proclamation + any of the above

You might think that this is already headed in the direction of a critique of anything missional, but it's not. I think I can put a check-mark next to just about each one of the above bullet points. I think I'd vote for them (at least if I can qualify a couple of them--but I won't chase that rabbit trail now). I pastor a young church, of which many are self-consciously and thoughtfully "culturally-engaging." We care about practical, human needs. Alongside our gospel-efforts, we give a good bit of time and money to micro-finance, medical-care, and improved water in South America. We do both word and deed ministries on Native American reservations. The word missional is used occasionally in our church, and I'm friends with many pastors that happily use the term far more than I do.

That said, I want to be unashamedly clear that I believe in the centrality of gospel proclamation. This is what I see as the capital-M "Mission" of the church in Scripture. I don't see mercy ministries being one wing of the plane and the mercy message being the other. I'm not sure what picture I'd draw on the whiteboard as an alternative, but that one doesn't cut it for me. I also think there are good reasons to ask what this friend or that author means when they say that they are missional and that we should be missional. And I think there are some good reasons to painstakingly and collectively think through the theory and wording of how our deeds relate to our proclamation.

Let's be honest, many of us come to the discussion of the mission of the church with some partisanship. There are unofficial camps within Reformed evangelicalism on some of these issues. On the one hand, there are those known for being missional who think that others aren't totally engaging the world with the gospel and the full range of its implications. On the other hand, there are those who prioritize gospel proclamation, and have concerns that some of what flies under the banner of missional has or could drift from the priority of proclamation, or even the gospel itself. Many have some sympathies with each of these perspectives, and I'm one of them. I think there's a lot to learn here, and simultaneously some things to be cautious about. And I think the discussion is important and healthy, and it should continue.

So with that preface out of the way, I'd like to make three suggestions for the ongoing discussion of the vocabulary and content of the church's mission.

Three Suggestions

1) Insisting on a definition of missional or asking for specifics of one's view of the mission is not curmudgeon fundamentalism--it's still needed. There are plenty of books that have the words mission or missional in the title which describe that mission primarily in terms of deeds, justice, culture, community, etc. (e.g., McNeal). Some missional authors are so post-modernly squishy that when they try to define the word missional they get lost debating the definition of "definition" (Roxburgh and Boren). And there are many ministries and seminaries that still use the term missional to describe what most of us TGC-type think of as emergent.

On the other hand, Driscoll, Keller, Stetzer, et al, use the term missional in a way that prioritizes or centralizes gospel proclamation among the many other good things Christians are called to do. I'm enormously thankful for such men--for their minds, their labors, and for God's blessing through them. Nevertheless, what this demonstrates is that we have good reason to ask what this or that person means by being missional, even if we are willing to use the term for ourselves and our churches. It's not necessarily a critique of everything missional to ask for a definition. In fact, it's rather bubble-ish to think that no one uses the term poorly any more.

There are a few take-aways here. 1) Those skeptical of the term missional should give the benefit of doubt about another's definition until there's reason to be concerned. The term itself has no necessary bearing on gospel fidelity. 2) Conversely, those who identify themselves with the term missional should be gracious and eager to clarify when another asks him what that word means. I've seen too many young pastors get bent out of shape simply for being asked what missional means to them. That's silly. 3) We should all strive to avoid repetitive empty vocabulary, and instead make pains to be clear about what we think the church should be doing. Again, this is a good discussion if we navigate it openly and graciously.

2) Especially we younger evangelicals have to give a more sober and careful hearing to our fathers in ministry when they warn us with historical examples of when the church's deeds eclipsed, or became, her gospel. I'll go out on a limb here: missional thinking could lead to a confused gospel,...but no more than any good and right idea can have an ugly, backwards step-child. We all know that there have been many historical gospel-perversions, and none of them were born overnight. Theological liberalism, for instance, didn't start out as an overt plan to turn to "another gospel." There was a slow and sometimes sneaky trajectory. But, in short, the story is as simple as this: good things eventually became gospel things.

Now, I think that an older generation should also be prepared to admit that some pockets of evangelicalism and much of fundamentalism in previous generations wrongly reacted to the social gospel and liberation theology by being rather neglectful of Matthew 5 ("salt and light"), Luke 10 (the good Samaritan), James 1:27 (care for the helpless), and others. Especially with fundamentalism, no doubt there was a wrong-headed retreat from culture, politics, and the arts.

But as we Reformed evangelicals today try to seek the proper place and language for all these potentially good, cultural, humane things, we should perhaps more humbly consider, even study, the stories of how these deed, mercy, justice, culture issues overtook and became gospel proclamation in an earlier day. To quote Stetzer, "It would be, in my opinion, the height of historical naïveté to have the same conversations about the same issues and not consider the results of the last two times such conversations were had (the missio dei movement and Social Gospel both having struggled with similar issues as we do today)."

Read Machen's Christianity and Liberalism every five years. Read the work of George Marsden, especially Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism, which chronicles the missteps of both fundamentalism and left-wing evangelicalism in the last century. Surely we don't think our generation or our camp is so sharp, so vigilant that we are above repeating such mistakes. So perhaps we young, mission-impassioned, ambitious types need to do a little less eye-rolling and a little more prayerful listening when others--especially those more historically astute and/or experienced--seem more cautious and suggest more careful nuance about the relationship between deeds and gospel.

3) Partly influenced by the need to protect the gospel (see #2 above), but mostly based on the Bible itself, it seems to me that there is warrant for prioritizing gospel proclamation over other important commands Jesus gives his followers. I know this is difficult for some who see any prioritizing of one thing to inevitably make the others optional, to inevitably treat important things with mere lip service. Well, I can't remember which logical fallacy that falls into, but I know it's one of them. Yes, perhaps some of us are too quick to say "of course Christians should care for the poor, love their neighbor, be good citizens, but...," and then we go on for several minutes about witnessing and never mention the other things again. I can appreciate that that may sound imbalanced. But, speaking only for myself, I truly don't want any one of Jesus' commands to be treated lightly; I will not choose between the gospel message and the gospel's implications. Kevin, in my opinion, did an excellent job of making that clear in a post last week. Of course, the real dilemma for most of us is not whether gospel or deeds are optional, but what the relationship is and how we communicate it.

Jonathan Leeman recently made a good case for the gospel having "central" rather than "first" or "primary" place amidst other good Christian tasks. That might seem like needless wrangling to some, but I think that's the kind of thinking and formulating we need to keep attempting. We also need more discussion about the relevant Bible texts themselves. I have already stated upfront that my understanding of the capitol-M "Mission" of the church has gospel proclamation at its core. Other things are expected (commanded!) to come alongside that proclamation, but it seems to me that there are several biblical indications that some form of gospel-centrality is needed. Quick examples:

  • While Jesus healed and fed, the gospel accounts culminate with the disciples' commission to proclaim and make disciples. This doesn't mean that this is all they are to do, but "famous last words" do seem particularly noteworthy, especially when they are quadruply given.
  • The book of Acts not only begins with another such commission (1:8), but continues with dozens of preaching/conversion stories to makeup a rather overwhelmingly consistent theme.
  • Paul insists that the facts of the gospel weekend--Christ's death, burial, and resurrection--are of "first importance" (1 Cor. 15:3). Those who want to have social and cultural issues right alongside the gospel have to provide a satisfying explanation of what Paul meant here if he didn't see any priority. I, personally, haven't heard one yet.
  • The word "gospel" implies that there's a message--a message which must be proclaimed. As Carson recently wrote: "...the very nature of announcing or proclaiming (good) news--whether ε...αγγελιζω or kηρύσσω--is that words are the primary medium. What we might call the logocentrism of Scripture is massively reinforced by the nature of the gospel itself: it is news, good news, to be proclaimed."
  • There are some very good NT scholars who have written on the mission of the church and have rather consistently put the emphasis of the church's mission on its proclamation (e.g., Kostenberger, O'Brien, Plummer). As I've already noted, this seems to be a growing consensus among some of the most prominent missional leaders as well.
  • Most agree that good deeds are, in part, validation of the gospel message to unbelievers. But by nature this sets up some kind of priority: the validation of a thing cannot be greater than or completely on par with the thing itself.

I'll close with an illustration. I can't help but think of the relationship between word and deeds and their place in the world as something like marriage. My unmarried and romantically inexperienced neighbor might watch my wife and I sharing affection, laughter, touch, food, children--really just life--over several evenings. And he might conclude from that that marriage is beautiful and desirable. But he may not necessarily know anything about the process of courtship culminating in thoughtful, theological wedding vows. Watching my marriage over several evenings has validated or even beautified marriage in his eyes, but that does not necessarily help him understand how we got there and what undergirds it all. The gospel undergirds everything we do as Christians. We can and should demonstrate that to unbelievers in hundreds of ways. But they have to be told how we got there. We have to tell them the gospel or they will not be saved.

View Comments


15 thoughts on “Ryan Kelly: Missional One More Time”

  1. Stephen Shead says:

    “Worth the read” – absolutely!! Please keep reminding us of the supreme (and central) importance of the living water which we can offer people – the kind Jesus gives which takes away thirst forever.

    And many thanks also for the time and money you put into improving our water :) (OK, I suspect it may go to more needy countries than Chile, where I am a missionary, but anyway …)

  2. gus says:

    Thanks for the thoughts. The bullet points under #3 are particularly helpful.

    Given you closing illustration, it appears you are thinking about individual Christians engaging the world — and yes we need to proclaim a specific message, the Gospel.

    What of the church? As she proclaims that Gospel, does the local church have to (you say commanded) do certain things in order to faithfully minister to the world?

    You see I live and minister in a 3rd world country where the 30% of the population live below the poverty line, HIV/AIDS has infected 30% of the population and 40 % of the same are unemployed. Thus the temporal needs of the world here are very, very clear.

    Yet, I am not convinced the church — in order to be faithful — needs to care for the temporal needs around us. I don’t see the Apostles, who lived in a world quite similar to mine wrt poverty and underdevelopment, doing humanitarian work. Rather they gave themselves to telling these poor the good news.

    Your thoughts are most appreciated.

  3. Malin Friess says:

    The most important thing I’ll take from this worthwhile read is that “words are the primary medium.”

  4. Doc B says:

    This is the most helpful article on this subject I’ve ever read. This ought to be required reading for every Christian who blogs on this topic!

    Outstanding. Encore!

  5. Paul says:

    Mr. Kelly,

    Thanks for taking the time to write this: it’s very interesting but I’m still unclear on exactly what you are saying.

    Since you’ve been kind enough to define what you mean by “missional”, could you also define what you mean by “Gospel”? Would you agree, for example, that the word “Gospel” means, in St. Paul, “the facts about Jesus” (which is what N. T. Wright thinks it means, if I recall correctly) or are you using the word with a different meaning? I hope you’ll agree that it’s silly to get bent out of shape simply for being asked what “Gospel” means to you.

    Also, what, in practice, does it mean to say that we should “prioritize Gospel proclamation” if the other commands of Jesus are not optional? Do you mean the church should spend more money/time/effort on Gospel proclamation than it does on other things or do you mean something else (such as logical priority)?

    (It seems to me that “central” is a more helpful concept than “priority” and I appreciate you mentioning that alternative.)

    To be clear, I’m not disagreeing with you at all. I suspect I may agree completely with you but it’s a bit hard to tell when I’m not sure what you mean.

  6. Ed Stetzer says:


    A helpful piece. Thanks for adding Ryan to your conversation– he shows discernment combined with an irenic spirit.

    I think that if we work hard to understand what people are saying, we can affirm much of what is in the missional emphasis, while avoiding the dangers that are real and often overlooked.

    Thanks, Ryan, for your thinking on this issue.


  7. EXCELLENT!!! I am pointing my readers to this article today.

  8. Gary McQuinn says:

    Kevin (and Ryan), Thanks for posting this follow up by Ryan. After watching the video discussion, I left very thankful for the nuances that you and Greg were making, but also unclear about where Ryan was on the whole issue. I am currently planting a Church in Colorado and have been thinking a fair amount about the issue of the mission of the Church as God’s ordained institution vs. the mission of individual believers. You seemed to be hitting on this in the discussion, and I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts when the book is published. It seems the dual citizenship of individual believers (in the vein of Augustine’s City of God/City of Man distinction) makes the nature of our mission necessarily different than that of the Church as God’s sacred institution, and I don’t think many people are noting the distinction… maybe because they don’t agree with it. As individuals, it seems, we have the responsibility to be good citizens of both realms (which implies intentional and “salty” involvement in the affairs of the City of Man). After all, we are supposed to be redeemed humanity. It seems that the call of the institutionalized church, however, is focused on nourishing our identity as citizens of heaven (which will endure forever), thus strengthening our light-shining love for others within the City of Man (which can and will be shaken). Historically, as you all have mentioned, when the Church as God’s holy institution gets entangled in the affairs of the City of Man, and focuses on “redeeming” things that will not be redeemed until the revelation of the sons of God, then it has fallen off mission, and we have seen the results. If the Church focuses on the redemption of people through the proclamation of the Gospel and it EQUIPS those redeemed people to be good citizens of both cities (only one of which will abide forever), then it seems we can have our cake and eat it to. The question I am wrestling with is how should we be doing that equipping? Preaching it and modeling it seems to be no brainers, but is there much more to do. Maybe I am totally off track, and your book will set me straight. Thanks for being a gracious voice of reasoned nuance.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Search this blog


Kevin DeYoung photo

Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

Kevin DeYoung's Books