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The Missional Approach to Culture

This entry is part 11 of 20 in the series

"Christ the Sanctifier of Behavior"

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The missional church movement is certainly not a monolithic group; yet characteristics of this movement are strikingly similar to characteristics of the transformationalist approach to culture.1 Several authors have suggest that the missional church movement is essentially transformationalist including Michael Goheen and2 Mark Snoeberger.3 Like transformationalists, missional authors recognize anthesis between the church and its surrounding culture; but also like transformationalists, their initial posture is one of acceptance, and even when certain aspects of culture are contrary to Scripture, their method is to adopt the form and renegotiate its meaning. Goheen argues that this was essentially Newbigin’s objective.4 They see cultural forms in and of themselves as neutral—even good; it is only particular uses of those forms that distort them: “The gospel speaks a Yes and a No to each cultural form—yes to the creational structure and no to the idolatrous distortion.”5 Goheen suggest that Newbigin “sought to forge a theory of contextualization in the way of creation, sin, and redemption.”6

This theme of cultural redemption is seen in other missional advocates after Newbigin. For example, Alan Hirsh expresses the importance of incarnational ministry in the objective of cultural redemption:

By acting incarnationally, missionaries ensure that the people of any given tribe embrace the gospel and live it out in ways that are meaningful to their tribe. The culture as a whole thus finds its completion and redemption in Jesus. The gospel thus transforms the tribe from the inside, so to speak. We are reminded in Revelation 21-22 that in the great redemption there will be a genuine expression of redeemed culture as people from every tribe and language group and nation will give praise to God for what he has done for them. It is from within their own cultural expressions that the nations will worship.7

What is clear from this missional statement of cultural redemption is that Hirsh does not see “redemption” here as “transformation” in any real sense. Since, according to Hirsh, the nations will worship “from within their own cultural expressions, “ the nations do not need to—even must not—change their cultural forms when they come to Christ. Rather, “cultural redemption” merely means that redeemed people continue to participate in the same cultural forms they did before their redemption, only this time adapted for Christian use.

Craig VanGelder also uses “redemption” language—specifically the Neo-Kuyperian “creation-fall-redemption” theme—to describe the missional approach to culture:

The Old Testament story is about creation, fall, redemption, and the expectation of the day of the Lord. God’s passion for the world is made clear throughout this story. The whole world was created to be in relationship with God, but the fall devastated the design. After humanity’s fall into sin, the story of redemption unfolds around God’s continuing concern for the entire world. This is made clear through the various covenants that God initiated with the human community.8

VanGelder’s statement reveals the deep connection between missional thinking and the transformationalist approach to culture, namely, that the missional principle of missio Dei is itself intrinsically transformationalist.9 Snoeberger makes this point, fingering Barth as an important influence in this regard:

Nowhere is this idea more evident than in his concept of the missio Dei. Our Trinitarian God, for Barth, was by nature a sending God with a singular mission which the church shares. This mission is embodied in Christ and participated in by the similarly sent-out church. God is not merely redeeming his elect, but is also redeeming all creation—these two “missions” cannot, in fact, properly be distinguished. It is impossible to overstate the influence of this model on modern missiology.10

Missional advocates teach that God has a mission to redeem all of creation. The Missional Manifesto articulates this: “By nature, God is the ‘sending one’ who initiates the redemption of His whole creation.” This alone is not necessarily evidence of transformationism, but 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, essentially a transformationalist view. It is therefore not surprising that advocates of the transformationalist approach, such as Nickolas Woltersdorf, also use missio Dei language: “We are not to stand around, hands folded, waiting for shalom to arrive. We are workers in God’s cause, his peace-workers. The missio Dei is our mission.”11

These similarities may be coincidental, but certainly intersections between the proponents of both the missional and transformationalist perspectives imply otherwise. Of particular interest is the relationship between Karl Barth and Leslie Newbigin. Hunsberger notes that “the large familiarity with Barth’s work which Newbigin shows in his writings indicates a marked appreciation for Barth’s contribution.”12 Both served together on committees of the World Council of Churches from 1949 onward. Both also root their ecclesiology in the mission Dei. While Newbigin certainly differs from Barth on a number of theological issues, he essentially agreed with him in matters related to the kingdom, culture, mission, and ecclesiology in general. In fact, Michael Goheen, an advocate of both the missional church movement and transformationalism, argues that Newbigin was a transformationalist himself: “In his treatment of the various public domains of western culture (politics, science) Newbigin gives consideration to faith as an agent of cultural reformation.”13 He insists that although cultural forms are corrupted by sin, their essence remains good because of God’s intent to redeem creation: “Every custom, institution, and practice of culture is corrupted by sin; yet the goodness of the creational structure remains because of God’s faithfulness to creation. This means that culture is redeemable; it also provides a strategy for cultural involvement.”14 One cannot help but notice Wolters’ language of “creational structure” in Goheen’s description of Newbigin’s views. Notably, Goheen wrote a Postscript for the second edition of the Creation Regained, and Wolters expresses his own indebtedness to Lesslie Newbigin.15

From these similarities and intersections, it appears that the missional approach to culture is a combination of Barthian and Neo-Calvinist ecclesiology. In other words, the missional church movement is essentially transformationalist.

There are at least two problems with the approach to culture advocated by practical missional authors. First, 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 don’t really transform culture, they adopt it—they don’t redeem culture, they reorient it.

This quasi-transformationalist perspective has therefore shifted the missional approach from the early articulations to how it is actually practiced today. The earliest missional advocates sought to distinguish between the gospel and Western culture, which they believed had merged with Christendom. But the transformational impulse imbedded in the concept of missio Dei itself is rooted in Christendom ideas. VanGelder admits as much:

The understanding of what we refer today as “God’s mission” was developed in these confessional documents within a worldview of Christendom in which the church was established by the state. It was thus assumed that the church was responsible for the world, with the church’s direct involvement defined primarily in terms of the magistrate’s obligation to carry out Christian duties on behalf of the church in the world. Within a Christendom worldview, the church and the world occupied the same location: the social reality of the church represented the same social reality of the world within that particular context.16

Thus, more recent missional authors are falling back into the error they supposedly repudiate. Instead of really being Christ the transformer of culture, they are becoming Christ above culture once again. They are accommodating culture and seeking to merge Christ and culture rather than seeking real transformation. Their understanding of missio Dei, culture, and incarnation are actually expressions of the Enlightenment and Christendom ideas they claim to reject.

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, 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 four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. See “A Survey of the Missional Church Movement” for a full description of missional distinctives. []
  2. Michael Goheen, “Is Lesslie Newbigin’s Model of Contextualization Anticultural?,” Mission Studies 19, no. 1/2 (January 1, 2002): 136–156. []
  3. Mark A. Snoeberger, “History, Ecclesiology, and Mission, Or, Are We Missing Some Options Here?”, n.d.,,%20History%20Ecclesiology%20and%20Mission.pdf. Accessed March 13, 2012. []
  4. Goheen, “Is Lesslie Newbigin’s Model of Contextualization Anticultural?” Lesslie Newbigin is the grandfather of the missional church movement. []
  5. Michael Goheen, “Worldview Between Story and Mission,” in Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview, by Albert M. Wolters, Second ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 140. []
  6. Goheen, “Is Lesslie Newbigin’s Model of Contextualization Anticultural?” []
  7. Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2009), 138. Emphasis original. []
  8. Craig Van Gelder, The Ministry of the Missional Church: A Community Led by the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 89. []
  9. The doctrine of missio Dei is essentially the belief that God has an overarching mission to redeem his creation, and everything the church does is subsumed under this mission. See “A Survey of the Missional Church Movement” for a full explanation. []
  10. Snoeberger, “History, Ecclesiology, and Mission, Or, Are We Missing Some Options Here?,” 9. []
  11. Nicholas Wolterstorff, Until Justice and Peace Embrace: The Kuyper Lectures for 1981 Delivered at the Free University of Amsterdam (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 68. []
  12. George Hunsberger, Bearing the Witness of the Spirit: Lesslie Newbigin’s Theology of Cultural Plurality (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1998), 209. []
  13. Goheen, “Is Lesslie Newbigin’s Model of Contextualization Anticultural?,” 138. []
  14. Ibid., 150. []
  15. “In this second edition of the book the body of the book has been slightly revised (mainly in the direction of softening the way I describe the distinctiveness of the reformational worldview in comparison with other Christian traditions), and has supplemented with a “Postscript” by my friend and colleague Michael Goheen. This postscript links the discussion of worldview to both the grand narrative of Scripture and the centrality of mission, and is especially indebted to the work of N. T. Wright and Lesslie Newbigin. More than anything, it was Newbigin’s reaction to the first edition of Creation Regained (which he wrote up in an unpublished memo in 1994 after Mike had arranged for him to listen to the book on tape) which persuaded me that my discussion of worldview needed to be put in this broader context to be properly understood. For fascilitating this connection, and in general opening my eyes to the importance of Newbigin’s work, I owe a great debt to Mike, and I am delighted that he joins me as coauthor of this book” (Wolters, Creation Regained, ix). []
  16. Craig Van Gelder and Dwight J. Zscheile, The Missional Church in Perspective: Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 19. []