A Caution on “Being Missional” (Dr. Charles Arn)

As an instructor at Wesley Seminary (Marion, IN), I teach a class called “The Missional Church.”  It is a joy to see “lights go on” in the hearts of students when they consider the priority of believers to share the message—and experience—of God’s love beyond the walls of their church.  The “missional movement” is bringing many church leaders to the important realization that Christians are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus in their world.

I have observed, however, that after reading books by missional authors and viewing videos of missional teachers, some students seem to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  That is, they conclude that the ultimate goal of a “missional church” is to go into the community to do good works in the name of Christ and the expansion of “the Kingdom.”  And whether these needy folks ever come to faith, and membership in a local church, is not a criteria to define “success” in their missional endeavors.

For example, a missionally inclined blogger recently lit into Andy Stanley’s “5 million dollar bridge.”  North Point Community Church, a church known for its commitment to outreach and evangelism, has grown to the point where parking has become problematic.  Stanley told his parishioners of the need to ease traffic congestion by constructing a bridge off of the main thoroughfare into the church.  His letter to members included the following paragraph:

Is it [the bridge] worth it?  It all depends.  If our mission is to be a church that’s perfectly designed for the people who already attend, then we don’t need a bridge.  But if we want to continue to be a church unchurched people love to attend, then yes, it’s worth it.  From my perspective, this is not a “nice to have” option.  Honestly, I don’t want to raise money for, or give money to, something that’s not mission critical.  I believe creating a second access point allows us to stay on mission. [i]

It seems obvious that Stanley’s commitment, as pastor, is to make disciples and assimilate them into the local church.  But the missional blogger responds:

This makes me sick.  This is completely un-missional.  Missional churches are not attractional churches.  Missional churches send out their parishioners as missionaries to the world, not bring them to church over a five million dollar edifice set up to speed up their exit and entry.[ii]

In their zeal to create the Kingdom of God in the world, some who “buy into” the missional movement seem to have (or develop) a bias against the established church.  Their commitment is to “bring the Kingdom of God into the community.”  But, the success of those kingdom-building efforts does not seem to be evaluated on whether those who are exposed to “the Kingdom” are ever reached and assimilated into active membership and participation in a local church.

A commitment to the great commission (Mt. 28:19-20) demands a “high view” of the church—that the church is absolutely essential.  It is not a Body of Christ; it is the Body of Christ.  Not just a bride, but the bride of Christ. The Church is held to be the central part of God’s plan for the salvation and discipling of people and nations.  New converts must not only believe in Jesus Christ, but must become responsible members of the Church.  If the Bible is to be taken seriously, we cannot hold any other point of view.  Becoming a Christian means becoming a part of the Body.  In fact, unless non-Christians believe and become part of the Church, personified through the local congregation, the ultimate value of our “missional” activities must be questioned.  This is the high view of the Church.  A low view of the Church is that whether or not you belong to the Church is more or less a matter of choice.  If you like it, you belong; if you don’t, you don’t.

As we lead our congregations forward in a re-commitment to focusing beyond the walls of our churches, I hope we will keep a balanced notion of Christ’s ultimate objective, and thus ours: to seek and to save those who are lost (Lk. 19:10), and to be an instrument of Christ in building His Church (Mt. 16:18).

[i] http://letsbuildabridge.com/note-from-Andy.pdf

[ii] http://everydayliturgy.com/being-missional-build-a-five-million-dollar-bridge/


  • MIke Skor

    Great article and fantastic point. Thanks!

  • We’ve been having a similar discussion (on a much smaller scale) at my church. We have gained momentum in our missional mindset and practices, and now we may get the oppertunity to purchase land. We had to consider if this was an oppertunity to expand the mission, or a distraction and drain of resources.

    • Charles Arn

      A great question, and an important one to ask anytime a decision in the church comes up. That’s one reason I am a fan of a church mission statement. It defines “what’s in the box” …and what’s not. What’s IN the box we can do…what’s OUTSIDE the box is a distraction.

  • Great article. The church is both scattered and gathered and while it is difficult to make a balance of the two, we really need to try. A seminar I attended a few years ago asked the question: “How many churches are there in the Philippines?” After much counting and comparing among the participants, the presenter held up one finger and said, “Christ only has one body.” The room became silent as the truth sunk in. A powerful moment and one that is reflected in your blog today.

  • Bob Whitesel

    I appreciate Dr Arn’s insights, especially the emphasis upon the primacy of the community of saints.

    And, I think if you look at certain (selected) authors with a missional stance, you can find amid some a low view of the church. It seems to me these are the voices Dr. Arn is hearing (in the classroom too) and I share his concern for their message.

    I however have found many, many other missional voices that emphasize a balance between social holiness and spiritual holiness (as Wesley so well articulated). And thus, my concern is that by giving over emphasis to some shrill missional voices that lambast the church (or even the impression that this is the only way the missional lifestyle can be lived out) we run the risk of retreating back into an evangelical world where we leave good deeds for the needy to mainline congregations. Thus, while I agree with most everything my colleague says, I don’t think that by stressing missional work we naturally undercut conversion. In fact missional means to participate in the missio Dei, God’s grand plan to reunite with his wayward offspring … and this reuniting with Him requires our repentance, redemption and conversion.

    Both social holiness and spiritual holiness are needed … and both come through the church.

    This is my point and my admonition.

    BTW, I just interviewed a number of missional pastors for an upcoming article in the “Journal of Evangelism and Mission” and found that all within my sample held a high view of the church (forthcoming in the May 2011 issue).

    • Aaron Cloud

      Great insights Dr. Whitesel! A good sense of what it means to be missional comes from a solid ecclesiology.

    • Charles Arn

      Dr. Whitesel’s comment: “…I don’t think that by stressing missional work we naturally undercut conversion. In fact missional means to participate in the missio Dei, God’s grand plan to reunite with his wayward offspring … and this reuniting with Him requires our repentance, redemption and conversion.”

      My response: I heartily agree that stressing missional work does not naturally undercut conversion. However, it would be a fascinating discussion to consider the question: “Does stressing missional work naturally LEAD to conversion…or to an INCREASE in conversion?”

      But, even if it were shown to be so, I would contend that this is not the ultimate concern. As followers of the One who issued the great commission, the real question is: “By what means can we most effectively ‘go and make disciples’?” I know Dr. Whitesel, and all serious advocates of the expansion of the Christian faith, would agree that “conversions” are not synonymous with “disciples.”

      So, what’s a church leader (and soon-to-be church leader) to do? What priorities should we stress? After all…there are many good things a church can do. And, there are some important things a church should do. But it is my firm conviction that there is only ONE essential thing a church must do. And I believe it is by this criteria that our Master will evaluate how we have invested the talents He has given us (see Mt. 25:14-30).

      • Glenn Whitt

        I am starting to see that my church is sitting on the fence of becoming missional and remaining the way it has been for the past 20 or more years. One of the issues raised is we risk making our church become a place where people become dependent on us rather than realizing that we want to empower them to do for themselves (naturally speaking, not spiritual), which is what we believe Christ would want. God is definitely our provider, but he has given us capabilities to provide for ourselves. There are some extreme cases out there, but it seems that some in my church are very cautious about being so missional that we lose our denominational uniqueness.

  • Aaron Cloud

    Wow this article raised a lot questions for me. First, it raises questions about a mission statement in the local church. A well thought out mission statement provides a picture or a philosopical framework around which practical missional steps can be carried out in the local church. However, the definition of what is or is not missional can be up for interpretation. What makes building a 5 million dollar bridge more missional than planting a couple other churches at a fraction of the cost? What makes bringing people to that particular location (Andy Stanley’s Church) so mission critical? Being missional also forces the church to examine what is the most focused course of action that most wisely uses the resources at hand. The question at hand also seems to be; will a 5 million dollar bridge actually assimilate more people into the local church? possibly.
    However, i think too that the definition of missional church given here is too vague. Dr. Arn you mentioned that, “Their commitment is to “bring the Kingdom of God into the community.” But, the success of those kingdom-building efforts does not seem to be evaluated on whether those who are exposed to “the Kingdom” are ever reached and assimilated into active membership and participation in a local church.”
    However, to bring the kingdom of God into the community presupposes the bringing of the gospel with both words and actions and the active role of the Body of Christ (the church). I think that perhaps those calling for missional churches have overstated the social justice component. However, to be missional is to be incarnational, is to enflesh the gospel. This takes place most clearly in the local church which truly enfleshes the kingdom of God in the people of God. In other words to be missional, to bring the kingdom, is always about the gospel and the church who bears the message of the gospel. Where a church allocates its resources will say a lot about its mission.
    This raises other questions to. Perhaps church leaders are so focused on growing “our” church (our particular local congregation) that we forget that we are part of a larger Kingdom, a catholic Christian community.
    Just some thought and questions. Thanks for presenting these ideas Dr. Arn.

  • Bob Whitesel

    Hello Everyone;

    Well stated Aaron.

    And, I do not disagree with Dr. Arn that “make disciples” is the goal of our partnership with the missio Dei. My point is just that the focusing on the goal, without an equal emphasis upon the steps that lead up to the goal, often results in the goal not being obtained.

    Dr. W

  • Bob Whitesel

    Hello Again;

    I appreciate that Dr. Arn said, “As followers of the One who issued the great commission, the real question is: “By what means can we most effectively ‘go and make disciples’?”

    In today’s post-Christian world I believe that a groundwork of good deeds is necessary to gain the Good News a hearing amid a skeptical culture. I sense that Dr. Arn may be concerned that such deeds do not “naturally LEAD to conversion.” And, in a fallen world I think conversion and resultant discipleship does not come naturally, for the ruler of this world seeks to disrupt this reunification.

    But, if such good deeds are not be done anonymously, but in the name of a loving Creator who has a passion to be reunited with His offspring (i.e. the missio Dei), then good deeds can be a “means” that in a post-Christian world will help us “effectively ‘go and make disciples’.” “Matheteusate” is the Greek for “make disciples” and means “to make active learners ” (aorist imperative second person plural – Culver 1968:244). As such, an active learner can be a person who has not met Christ yet, but is learning about God’s compassion by seeing it in action through his disciples. James Engel even made a scale where he tracked how a person learns about God in stages, before they repent. All of this learning can be, by the Greek word “Matheteusate” considered active learning. It is in the lower negative numbers of Engel’s scale that good works helps people move along their spiritual route of learning to a knowledge of the great sacrifice Christ has done on our behalf.

    The Engel Scale:

    +5 Stewardship
    +4 Communion with God
    +3 Conceptual and behavioural growth
    +2 Incorporation into Body
    +1 Post-decision evaluation
    New birth
    -1 Repentance and faith in Christ
    -2 Decision to act
    -3 Personal problem recognition
    -4 Positive attitude towards Gospel
    -5 Grasp implications of Gospel
    -6 Awareness of fundamentals of Gospel
    -7 Initial awareness of Gospel
    -8 Awareness of supreme being, no knowledge of Gospel


    I understand Dr. Arn’s caution, as reflected in his title. But, having studied hundreds of these congregations and interviewed their leaders in the US, Canada and England I do not have this fear. The vast majority of churches I have studied see going out to meet people’s physical needs (as missionaries historically have done) as a requisite action in North America’s increasingly hostile climate.

    But, I have not observed these missional congregations as stopping there, and shirking the presentation of the Good News or the discipleship of new believers when they emphasize good works. Rather I see they are more holistic, presenting the Good News more completely to more people on their spiritual journey. And, other researchers have found the same such as Al Tizon [Linking Arms, Linking Lives, 2008] and Lois Barrett [Treasure in Clay Jars, 2004]. In fact, these missional congregations are very good at discipleship in small groups (see St. Thomas’ Church in Sheffield, England in Ryan Bolger and Eddie Gibb’s book, as well as my book profile [2006]. They also stress conversion and repentance as exemplified at The Bridge in Phoenix (Whitesel 2006) and Vintage Faith (Whitesel 2006).

    I guess the end result for me is that when I began my Ph.D. research in 2005 Gary McIntosh asked me to “investigate the missional-emerging movement and see if they are orthodox” (his words). I did, and completed research at Fuller that was cited for its scholarship. My findings were that we have more to learn from the missional movement about “making disciples” in a post-Christian culture that we have to fear.

    And so today churches are finding that they must minister more expansively across many waypoints on a spiritual seekers trek. Some will argue that such expansive ministry is too much for most churches to accomplish. And it may be. But, it must be attempted. And it is being accomplished by even small churches (in my case study research 7 of the 12 case studies were small membership churches – under 100). If we don’t cover more of a spiritual traveler’s journey, and for instance leave good deeds to mainline churches, then what happens when the traveler needs to go to the next step in their spiritual journey? They must leave one church and find another. But many don’t. Many people never make the jump from one church to another where their emerging needs might be met. Wouldn’t it be better if we followed some of the examples of these young missional churches and helped travelers at more waypoints on their journey, rather than letting the Presbyterians clean them up and then our Holiness congregation’s get them converted and discipled?

    If we start reaching out to spiritual travelers at more points on their spiritual journey (and it is being done) then we have several pluses to this approach: churches are recognized as good-doers, spirititual travelers don’t have leave a deed-orientated congregation for a word-orientated one, and our congregations become wonderful mosiacs of people with different gifts and talents.

    The above, while off the top of my head and heart, is better stated in my most recent books such as Spiritual Waypoints and Waypoints.
    Dr. Whitesel

  • Ive just completed a book on staffing the missional church in which I warn against throwing the baby out with the bath water (baby being the institutional church)
    Here is an excerpt from the book

    But Why Institutional?

    We live in a society dominated by large institutions. Take away our institutions and our society would collapse. We don’t see that changing in our lifetime. That’s why we’re not willing to give up on the institutional church. In order for the church to be effective in a society built on institutions some form of institutional church will be around. Unfortunately, some church leaders have listened in on the conversations and decided they must do away with the institional church. We don’t agree.

    Do all churches have to be institutional? Certainly not! Some will be totally free flowing organic experiences where two or three Christians gather for fellowship and worship and staffing won’t be an issue. We’re not arguing that every church has to take on an institutional form. But we are arguing that churches can be institutional and missional at the same time.

    It’s time for all expressions of God’s church to start working together. And we’re beginning to see such collaboration occurring…. Any time the growth of the Kingdom takes precedence over the growth of the church, whatever form it’s in, it’s natural for God’s people, in every setting, to work together.

  • Allen Perdue

    I once heard someone say, “You can’t love Christ, and dislike his girlfriend.”

    We want to accept people just as they are, will all of their sin, junk, baggage, etc…and everyone in the missional community says, “Amen!”

    How about the NT idea of true Christian charity? 1 Cor 13:4-8 is not just a model for romantic love, it is a template for how we are to love one another in the Church. Biblical charity is an idea unique to the NT and predominantly used when talking to and teaching Christians about our responsibility to love one another. NT charity has nothing to to with giving money and alms. It has everything to do with loving extravagantly, extending ourselves outward; it is love extended beyond our own preferences, comforts, and prejudices to others. So, why does this not apply inwardly as well as outwardly for all who call themselves Christian?

    Is it right to extend ourselves in love to someone far from Christ who has different preferences than we do….and NOT do exactly the same for a Christian who likes different music than we do or differs in their preference of church organization? Is it even Biblical to do the first with out the latter?

    This is completely backwards, in my opinion….Christians are called to love each other FIRST before we have clearance to appropriately love the lost in secular spaces. Jesus prayed for us to be ONE, to be unified…Paul pleaded for us to be of one mind and purpose. All of this because they knew if we loved and made allowances for each other IN the church we would earn the credibility to preach our message OUTSIDE of the Church. READ Acts 2! They – Christians – were together practicing charity, and they earned ‘the favor of all (the secular) people.”

    The ‘whole’ body of Christ, the Church, is valuable and worthy of acceptance and grace. As a matter of fact, this is mandated and taught in the NT as normative behavior “within” the family of God, all who follow Jesus. With all of our frailties, weaknesses, brokenness, failures, and mistakes, we are all together still the Church! We are worth of grace and love extended, in spite of how we look in the mirror, today. Amen?

    However, it’s not yet wedding day, and we are still getting ready, purifying ourselves, making ourselves more beautiful for our Lord, when He comes for us! I pray for more grace to permeate the missional conversation going on nationally!

    I also pray for more grace within the church, to open our ears and hearts to receive the prophetic voices speaking to us in the missional conversation. We have a bad track record … a bad habit of exiling and killing the prophets.

    It is by loving each other we gain the credibility to speak to our culture, not by putting each other down, or elevating one part of the body above another as more ‘missional’ than another.

    As Dr. Bud Bence suggested suggested in his Defense of Constantine essay, in 100 years time, will the missional, emergent, emerging network connections (but, we aren’t an institution or denomination…lol…) be able to stand up under the same kind of scrutiny they have used on this era of the Church or will the missional conversation/movement by then be hijacked by worldly secular forces who have dismantled the prophetic revelation of God, his Mission, and our collective mandate/responsibly as His church to fulfill the great commission, and LIVE PERSONALLY the great commandment…which is at the center of this great missional conversation.

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  • Well, said, Charles.

  • Oladipo Shoyoola

    Good food for thought. I enjoyed reading all the articles in the blog, and i appreciate how all the writers are concerned about doing God’s will in their lives.

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  • Edwin Pastor FedEx Aldrich

    This article totally misses the point. By saying that the missional movement hates the church or does not have a high view of the church is a straw-man argument. As a pastor in a missional church and a part of several local congregations(non of which have any formal “membership”) I am offended by the very accusation that I do not have a high view of the Church. The truth is that I have such a high view of what Christ intended for His Church to be that I am absolutely heartbroken by what the institutional church(IC) has become. I was raised in the IC, and have sat on the deacon and elder boards of various churches. I have watched as a single mother was denied assistance with her rent because she was not faithfully tithing to a local body. I have sat in on business meetings where churches with multimillion dollar budgets patted themselves on the back for giving 10% towards a mission budget. I have watched pastors vote themselves raises when they already live in mansions and drive mercedes, all the while the members of their congregation are struggling to make ends meet and are being actively shamed if they fail to give their tithes and offerings. Truth is that the missional folks are the ones that really have the high view of Christ’s Church, most of those in the IC are robbing widows houses and fattening themselves on their flocks.

    Pastor FedEx.