The following is the paper I presented yesterday at the national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society:
Most church leaders readily recognize that God has tasked churches with several different purposes, yet how those purposes work together has equally mystified them. One of the most potentially difficult ministry relationships to reconcile has been that between worship and evangelism. The church growth movement addressed the issue by insisting that a church’s primary service should be an evangelistic meeting designed to attract and meet the needs of “seekers.” This perspective drew fire from some who argued that this ignores worship altogether, others who complained that believers were not discipled, and still others who claimed that this “attractional” model of evangelism just did not work.1
In the past twenty years a new movement has emerged in evangelical Christianity that has reshaped the conversation in subtle yet profound ways by suggesting that these two priorities of a church are not separate but in fact essentially connected, subsumed under the umbrella of the mission of God. This missional church movement has significantly altered discourse about evangelism and worship, influencing the evangelical church with both a new posture toward culture in general and a new vocabulary regarding every aspect of its existence. Instead of wrestling with how different aspects of a church’s ministry relate to one another, missional church advocates explore how each ministry relates to the overarching idea of “mission.”
The purpose of this paper is to survey the history, literature, and theology of the missional church movement in order to evaluate its impact upon evangelical worship theology and practice in North America. After ascertaining common principles guiding missional worship today, the paper will assess the strengths of this worship development and reveal weaknesses in three primary areas: its view of the nature of culture, the posture of contextualization, and the relationship between worship and evangelism.
In order to understand the driving impulses behind the North American evangelical missional church movement, this paper begins with a brief survey of the history of ideas embedded in missional. The most thorough analysis of the history of this movement is David Bosch’s Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission,2 from which this section heavily draws.
Contemporary missional thinking began within the larger ecumenical missions debates in the early twentieth century, particularly the 1952 Willingen meeting. Critics of standard missionary methods argued that current foreign missions models were too tied to Western cultural superiority and undermined indigenous cultural forms.3 Instead of missions being seen as an activity of the church, the meeting concluded that the church should be considered a part of the missio Dei—God’s mission on earth.4 These missiologists defined missio Dei as something larger than just the church, thus redefining the concept of mission.5 They extended missions beyond merely evangelism into broader works, especially social justice.
One of the early influential leaders of this movement was Lesslie Newbigin (1909–1998), an Anglican missionary to India. Newbigin was instrumental in formulating the position documents that resulted from the Willingen meeting, but his greatest impact upon the later missional church movement, especially in North America, came after he retired from missionary work and returned to Great Britain in 1974. Newbigin noticed upon his return that Western civilization now required the same kind of cross-cultural ministry that he advocated at Willingen and that he attempted while a missionary abroad. Newbigin recognized that the West had become “post-Christian” and pluralistic, now legitimately earning it the moniker of “pagan,” and he urged the church in the West to endeavor for a “genuine missionary encounter” with its culture.6 He began asking the penetrating question, “What would be involved in a missionary encounter between the gospel and this whole way of perceiving, thinking, and living that we call ‘modern Western Culture’?”7 Newbigin’s influence spread to North America in the 1980s, leading to the formation of the Gospel and our Culture Network (GOCN) under the leadership of George Hunsberger.8 The most notable missional writer from the GOCN was Darrell Guder, whose influential Missional Church provided the material for an explosion of other thinking and writing on the subject. Hunsberger contributed to this work, and other contributing authors such as Alan J. Roxburgh and Craig Van Gelder have proven to be influential missional leaders in their own right.
Perhaps the most relevant group to trace for this paper because of its direct impact upon the life of evangelical churches is evangelical pastors, church planters, and seminary professors who have been influenced to some degree by the missional theologians of the past and who seek to apply at least the core ideas propagated by these theologians to practical church context. Among the these writers/theologians, Ed Stetzer and Alan Hirsch have probably done more to spread missional ideas to the average local church planter and pastor than anyone else. Tim Keller and Mark Driscoll stand out as notable pastors who actively articulate missional thinking.
Understanding the impact of the missional church movement upon evangelical worship first requires a grasp of the fundamental principles that characterize the movement. Each of these ideas applies directly to worship philosophy.
The first principle that drives the missional church is what it considers the biblically mandated missionary imperative. While evangelical churches have traditionally considered evangelism and missions a critical reason for their existence, the missional church understands such an emphasis as not just one ministry among many but as the overarching idea of what it means to be a church.
Missio Dei. Missional authors are critical of what they call an “ecclesiocentric understanding of mission” that has so characterized the church in the West since the birth of Christendom.9 Rather, they have sought to reclaim a theocentric vision for mission by defining mission, not as part of the church’s work, but as the missio Dei—the very purpose of God himself throughout history and into which the church’s work fits.10 Guder and others in the GOCN cultivated this theme, re-centering mission in its God-centered purpose.11 This refocus is important for missional thinking because it is inherently God-centered rather than church-centered or individual-centered. Missional advocates argue that God has been at work accomplishing his mission for mankind since the beginning of human history, and the purposes of his people fit within that mission.
Missional proponents will suggest that this conception is a subtle yet radical shift from the way missions has been viewed in the past. Previously, the church considered missions to be one of its several ministries; now, missions is not a component of the church, the church is part of the mission of God. As Hirsch succinctly states, “The church must follow mission.”12 The idea that the church is part of mission and not the other way around has important implications for how missional thinkers understand the role of the church in its cultural context. God has sent the church into the world, and yet, according to missional authors, the Western church has mostly expected the world to come to it. Proponents of missional theology are quite critical of what they call the “attractional” model of evangelism, where churches establish programs and design services to attract unbelievers so that they may encounter the gospel. Rather, the church must go out into the world.
If the “why” of mission is the fact that God sends the church, and if the “where” of mission is post-Christendom Western culture, then for missional advocates the “how” of mission is incarnation. By incarnation, missional writers mean that a truly missional church is one that is embedded in its target culture.13
Contextualization. For missional proponents, contextualization is at the heart of what it means for a church to be incarnational. In order for a church to reach its culture, the church must contextualize so that its message is intelligible to its audience. According to Newbigin, contextualization is “the placing of the gospel in the total context of a culture at a particular moment, a moment that is shaped by the past and looks to the future.”14 This is important, because as the culture moves further and further from its Christendom past, the gospel and Christendom methods will become more foreign.15 Thus since the West is now post-Christendom, churches in the West “should reflect the full social mix of the communities they serve, if they are truly contextual.”16
Missional Understanding of Culture. Inherent in this insistence upon incarnation and contextualization is the idea that culture is neutral and may be received with open arms. Some aspects of culture may be used sinfully or carry sinful associations, but even then they can be redeemed by Christians who take them and use them for good. Therefore, there is a two-fold relationship with culture that exists for a missional church: a missional church seeks to engage culture and influence it while at the same time allowing its message to be shaped by culture so that it will be intelligible to the culture.
Missional thinking has profoundly reshaped the debate about the relationship between various ministries of the church by subsuming them all under the missio Dei. Every one of the church’s various priorities must fit under the emphasis of “sentness” and thus must both engage and be shaped by the emerging culture of twenty-first-century North America. Nothing escapes this emphasis, not even—or perhaps especially—the church’s worship.
Each of these theological emphases has affected worship philosophy in evangelicalism. This section will demonstrate the effect by synthesizing what missional authors have written about worship in particular.
First, for missional churches, worship serves mission. If the church is part of mission, not the other way around, then everything the church does, including worship, serves mission. Missional writers almost unanimously repudiate the seeker model, calling it “attractional” and citing it as the “Christendom” model of evangelism. They understand worship to be primarily about believers worshiping God, but they see this event as necessarily public and evangelistically potent, and therefore they are concerned that the worship service be accessible and intelligible to believers and unbelievers alike. For example, Guder specifically emphasizes the “public” nature of corporate worship17 and thus argues that “the language we use, the forms of communication we adopt, the music and symbolism, the liturgies—all of this can and must be translated for the sake of the witness we are to be and do.”18 Stetzer is even more adamant about this point when he insists that “the church and its worship are not intended solely for believers,”19 and thus “one of the most effective evangelistic methods a church can use is exposing the unchurched to the authentic worship of God.”20 Driscoll as well stresses the need to “make the church culturally accessible,”21 and Tim Keller insists that a church must “adapt its worship because of the presence of unbelievers.”22
Christians simply worshiping their God alone is not sufficient to reach unbelievers, however. For the missional church, worship expressions must reflect the dominant cultural forms of the target group. Stetzer insists that “worship must take on the expression that reflects the culture of the worshiper if it is to be authentic and make an impact.”23 He sees this contextualization as a self-evident reality in which all churches take part when they use the common language of the people to whom they minister. Specifically addressing musical styles, Stetzer suggests that a church should seek to discover what styles are dominant in its target “focus group” and “adapt [its] own tunes and styles to the preferred styles of [its] focus group.”24 Contextualization in worship is a significant emphasis of Hirsch, who argues that “worship style, social dynamics, [and] liturgical expressions must result from the process of contextualizing the gospel in any given culture.”25 Driscoll based his entire church planting strategy on the principle of contextualization, arguing that churches must be willing to change regularly their worship forms “in an effort to effectively communicate the gospel to as many people as possible in the cultures around them.”26 Likewise, Stetzer and Towns advocate forms that are acceptable for worship that is “biblically faithful as well as culturally relevant.”27 Their primary thesis is that “God has no preference regarding style, but highly regards motives and outcomes,”28 and this would apply to music, preaching, service structure, and even the service elements themselves.
Missional authors believe that there are, therefore, virtually no cultural forms that are incapable of being adapted for Christian worship. This is no more evident than when missional writers discuss music in worship. Guder insists that music must be “translated for the sake of the witness we are to be and do” and says nothing about the possibility that certain styles might be unusable.29 Stetzer specifically states that “there is no such thing as Christian music, only Christian lyrics”30 and that “God has no preference regarding style,”31 implying that cultural forms are neutral and only lyrics may be judged as moral or immoral. Driscoll implies the neutrality of culture by insisting that “it was God who created cultures,”32 thereby rendering various cultural forms intrinsically good. Therefore, contextualization becomes as simple as discovering the dominant cultural forms of a target group and reflecting them in worship.33
In missional thinking, two important reasons necessitate that worship must be contextualized. The first is that worship must be intelligible to unbelievers, which has already been discussed above. But the second reason worship must be contextualized is that even believers have been shaped by the dominant culture, and so for worship to be intelligible and even authentic for them, the forms used in worship should reflect the outside culture. Guder exemplifies this thinking when he argues, “Our changing cultural context also requires that we change our worship forms so that Christians shaped by late modernity can express their faith authentically and honestly.”34 Driscoll also implies this when he notes that “God promised that people from every race, culture, language, and nation will be present to worship him as their culture follows them into heaven,”35 demonstrating the same line of reasoning as Hirsch when he claims that “it is from within their own cultural expressions that the nations will worship.”36 Kimball likewise argues that “since worship is about our expressing love and adoration to God, and leaders teaching people about God, then of course the culture will shape our expressions of worship.”37
There is little doubt that the missional church movement has been influential in evangelical churches and that it continues to grow. Having surveyed the history and theology of this important movement and specifically its impact upon the worship of evangelical churches, the question remains as to whether this influence has been beneficial. This concluding section offers some suggestions of positive contributions missional thinking has made to evangelical worship as well as a few areas that will require further critical evaluation.
The missional church movement has provided positive change in at least two important areas of thinking.
Emphasis on Intentional Evangelism. First, the missional church movement’s strong emphasis upon every Christian participating in fervent evangelism is quite welcome. Whether or not one agrees with the missio Dei emphasis of the missional church movement, its focus on evangelism that is profoundly God-centered and more than an invitation to come to a seeker service is a refreshing development in how evangelical churches understand missions.
Recovery of Believer’s Worship. This refocus on the proper place of evangelism has led to another beneficial contribution—the recovery of worship as primarily a believer’s service to God rather than a “seeker” event. Regardless of the various degrees of connection between worship and evangelism that missional writers advocate, each of them insists upon worship that consists primarily of believers directing their attention toward God in a meaningful way. This has led to several side benefits, such as a recovery of congregational singing with more substantive content rather than performance in worship to attract seekers. Additionally, the missional emphasis of true worship itself having evangelistic benefit seems to fit biblical teaching (e.g. 1 Cor 14:23–25) better than the seeker model.
At least three key areas of thought in missional thinking, however, require critical evaluation. This section is not meant to be exhaustive, but rather an introductory analysis with the goal of stimulating further discussion and exploration.
Understanding of Culture. I have shown elsewhere38 that the current missional/evangelical definitions of culture39 essentially derive from anthropological discourse. This fact does not necessarily imply that it is an invalid or unbiblical idea since many biblical ideas take on contemporary articulations.The problem occurs when some unbiblical implications and applications that naturally flow from secular anthropology also find their way into the thinking and practice of missional evangelicals.
This is particularly true with the anthropological understanding of culture as neutral and the related issue of religious beliefs being but one component of the broader idea of culture. I have already illustrated above how missional authors, like anthropologists, consider culture itself as neutral. Most importantly, like cultural anthropologists, missional advocates understand religion as but one component of culture rather than the other way around. For example, the Hirsches list “religious views” as one element of culture40 and Newbigin himself states unequivocally, “Religion—including the Christian religion—is thus part of culture.”41 This position is also clear in their discussion of the relationship between culture and evangelism. According to missional authors, the gospel must be “contextualized” in a given culture so that the recipients will accept the message and change their religion, but the culture itself must not change. John Stott insists that conversion will not mean a change of culture: “True, conversion involves repentance, and repentance is renunciation. Yet this does not require the convert to step right out of his former culture into a Christian sub-culture which is totally distinctive.”42 Additionally, Driscoll explains that the gospel “must be fitted to” culture.43 New believers are thus encouraged to worship using the cultural forms most natural to them.44 Religion changes while culture remains unchanged, signifying that religion is only one element within the larger idea of culture.
While the anthropological definition of culture may be accepted in Christian discourse, however, these implications and applications typical to anthropological/missional discussions may not be accepted. Although the New Testament does not speak of “culture” per se, the idea of “behavior”—represented by terms like anastrophḗ, érgon, or poieō ((For examples of the use of these terms in ways parallel to a contemporary understanding of “culture,” see Romans 2:14–15; Galatians 1:13; Ephesians 2:3, 4:22; 1 Timothy 3:15, 4:12; James 3:13; 1 Peter 1:15–18, 2:12, 3:1–2, 11, 15–16; 2 Peter 2:7, 18.)) —quite closely resembles the anthropological/missional definition of culture, taken on its own merits.45 This biblical idea most closely parallels Lesslie Newbigin, who claims that culture is “the sum total of ways of living built up by a human community and transmitted from one generation to another.”46 Culture, defined biblically as behavior, is clearly not neutral. All human behavior is moral, and therefore what is commonly called “culture” is either good or evil. Furthermore, religious belief is not just one part of culture, it is the pervading system from which culture (“behavior”) flows. What a group or civilization believes concerning God, the world, humankind, and sin acts as the environment in which behavioral patterns are cultivated and out of which cultural forms emerge. Therefore Christians must evaluate all cultural expressions—especially those used in public worship—to determine what values and beliefs are embedded in those expressions and whether they are compatible with Christianity and corporate worship.
Most missional authors assume the neutrality of culture itself as self-evident, never seeking to prove such a point beyond comparing the accommodation of cultural forms to the adoption of common languages or insisting that the Bible does not prescribe particular forms. Missional authors have failed to engage serious thinking on the matter of culture that suggests an inseparable connection between religion, beliefs, values, worldviews, and cultural expressions. They devote far too little space to consideration of how the modern idea of culture relates to the biblical realities of “the world,” human depravity, admonitions to be holy, and the ever-present danger of religious syncretism.
Contextualization. This underdeveloped understanding of culture leads to the second problem of missional influence on evangelical worship, namely, its promotion of uncritical cultural contextualization in worship. Like culture, contextualization is a relatively novel idea developed in recent liberal-leaning missions conversations.47 And like with culture, conservative evangelicals—including those of the missional bent—adopted the idea with reference to cultural form while nevertheless protecting the authority of Scripture by insisting that truth must never change regardless of culture.48 Thus, they seek for a biblical contextualization that is “biblically faithful,” yet “culturally relevant.”49 In other words, conservative evangelicals attempt to retain the essential message of the gospel, but everything else is merely “cultural” and must be contextualized.
This missional philosophy of culture and contextualization finds roots in the Neo-Calvinist view of cultural transformation.50 This position appeals to the redemption motif in Scripture, namely that God desires to redeem all of his creation and that the church is already involved in that process through cultural redemption. This, transformationalists argue, is a continuation of the creation mandate51 that was interrupted by the Fall, and thus the Great Commission52 is essentially a extension of that original mandate this side of the cross. The principle of missio Dei itself is intrinsically transformationalist, which the Missional Manifesto53 reflects: “By nature, God is the ‘sending one’ who initiates the redemption of his whole creation.” Missional teaching takes an additional step by arguing that God’s mission and the church’s mission are one and the same; thus embedded in missio Dei is the belief that the church’s mission is the redemption of creation.
Several problems with this view exist, however. First, it fails to distinguish between God’s creation and man’s creation. Missional transformationalists often conflate the two categories, equating the intrinsic goodness of God’s handiwork with what mankind produces. They are correct that everything God creates is intrinsically good and that even the act of human creation is a good thing. However, to insist that every product of man’s hand is therefore also intrinsically good is to slide dangerously close to a denial of human depravity.
Second, because their understanding of culture comes essentially from the prevailing anthropological model, their underlying assumption of cultural neutrality all but obliterates any notion of cultural antithesis. Without the antithesis, there is nothing to transform; thus missional practitioners do not really transform culture, they adopt it—they do not redeem culture, they reorient it. The danger of the view is that anything in culture is fair game for the Christian, and “cultural redemption” means little more than adoption and reorientation of cultural forms that are themselves potentially sinful. Andy Crouch astutely observes where the transformationalist approach has often led: “The rise of interest in cultural transformation has been accompanied by a rise in cultural transformation of a different sort—the transformation of the church into the culture’s image.”54
Third, this view of contextualization fails to recognize that form and content are not as separable as assumed. Commitment to the verbal, plenary inspiration of Scripture implies that God inspired the Bible’s ideas, words, and forms, and this demands a commitment to expressing not just the ideas of truth found in the Bible but also the way those ideas are imagined through Scripture’s various aesthetic forms. What art forms are chosen to communicate God’s truth in worship is of utmost importance since they present to the congregation not just theological facts, but those facts imagined in certain ways. Most evangelicals today, including missional advocates, view worship forms as simply pretty packaging for truth or at best a way to “energize” the truth. But imaginative forms are not incidental to truth—they are essential to the truth, as Spiegel explains: “At its best, liturgical art is not merely consistent with sound doctrine but serves positively to illuminate biblical teaching, making imaginative expression or application of biblical truth.”55 Therefore, worship forms help to express the imaginative aspect of the Bible’s truth in ways that propositional statements alone cannot; they communicate not just the what of biblical content, but also how that content is imagined. Worship choices, then, are not merely about what is pleasing, authentic, or engaging; what forms churches choose for worship must be based on the criterion of whether or not they are true—whether or not they correspond to God’s reality as it is communicated aesthetically in his Word.
This is important, because while there is certainly flexibility depending upon time and civilization concerning what forms are used to communicate God’s truth in worship, understanding the nature of cultural form leads to the conclusion that some forms are more suited to the communication of God’s truth than others, and some forms may even do injustice to the truth when compared to the forms God chose to use in Scripture. For example, God chose to use the metaphor of shepherd to communicate certain truths about himself (e.g., Ps 23), Christ (e.g., John 10:11), and elders within the church (e.g., 1 Pet 5:2). Someone, with noble motives of contextualizing these truths in civilizations where shepherding is not common, may choose the metaphor of a cattle-driver instead. Yet the images created by the idea of a cattle-driver are far different than that of a shepherd and thereby do not capture the imaginative import of the biblically inspired image. Additionally, significant change of form in worship from the kind of forms in Scripture may actually constitute the introduction of an entirely different element in worship than what has been prescribed. For example, when the approved element of preaching shifts in form from proclamation to conversation or dramatic recitation, the act has actually transformed into an entirely different element.
Contrary to the conservative evangelical missional position, which tries to artificially separate form and content when discussing worship expressions, since aesthetic form shapes content, form is essential to the content itself. Therefore, as churches seek to communicate God’s truth in corporate worship for the sake of making disciples and nurturing worshipers, they must ascertain which cultural forms best express and support that truth. The best way to accomplish this objective is to rely on the authority of Scripture, not only in articulating doctrine in propositional constructs, but also by the way in which that doctrine is expressed aesthetically.
Relationship between Worship and Mission. Finally, a biblical understanding of worship and the gospel reveals critical weaknesses in the missional argument that worship serves mission. God’s chief end is his own glory,56 therefore his mission is the creation of worshipers, and he accomplishes the creation of worshipers through redemption.57 Thus the missio Dei is the creation of worshipers, and redemption is only a means toward that end. Furthermore, although redemption is a primary task of God toward the end of creating worshipers, the church is never commanded to redeem anything; rather, the church makes disciples (Matt 28:19–20) by proclaiming the gospel to individuals and teaching them God’s commandments. Thus it is in making disciples—not “cultural redemption”—that churches do participate in the mission of God to create a people who will worship him. As John Piper has famously argued, “Missions exists because worship doesn’t.”58 In other words, the purpose of the gospel is to enable people to draw near to communion with God through Christ by faith, and making disciples involves bringing them into a deeper understanding of the nature of their relationship in worship to their Creator. DeYoung and Gilbert’s definition of the mission of the church includes this essential relationship of mission to worship:
The mission of the church is to go into the world and make disciples by declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit and gathering these disciples into churches, that they might worship the Lord and obey his commands now and in eternity to the glory of God the Father.59
This definition is quite helpful since it includes an understanding that evangelism (“declaring the gospel”) is subordinate to making disciples, which itself is subordinate to worship.
Beyond brief mention of a few proof texts that seem to indicate a connection between worship and evangelism, missional authors have failed to wrestle with this relationship at a significant level, and instead find themselves closely resembling the “attractional” church growth models they repudiate. In fact, Sally Morgenthaler, whose purpose in writing Worship Evangelism60 was to discourage such models in favor of active daily evangelism on the part of every believer, later discovered that her book instead served to fuel the attractional model.61 Missional thinkers need to give more serious consideration to the effects that focusing heavily on cultural contextualization in worship has upon the biblical fidelity of the worship itself.
The missional church movement has had significant impact upon worship in evangelical churches. It has caused churches to give much more careful consideration to how much of their worship methodology has been shaped by culture rather than Scripture and how they can recover believers’ worship that had been lost in many churches’ evangelistic restructuring, while nevertheless making worship intelligible to unbelievers.
Yet in its noble ambition to recover truly missional worship, the missional church movement may have failed to recognize how its own understanding of both worship and culture has been shaped by the Christendom and Enlightenment models it condemns. Therefore, the full correction of errors regarding worship and evangelism that missional advocates rightly identify requires more careful study of culture and worship and their relation to evangelism from a biblical perspective.
Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is on faculty at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He has written two books, dozens of articles, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and two children.