A friendship I’ve especially enjoyed, for some years now, is with Dr. David G. Dunbar, the president of Biblical Theological Seminary (BTS) in Hatfield, Pennsylvania. I first met David more than three decades ago when he was professor of systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) in Deerfield, Illinois. He spoke for one of our local ministerial fellowships in the days that led up to the founding of my present mission: ACT 3.
David (his photo is below in the text of his guest blog) has reshaped a seminary around the core idea of preparing leaders for the missional church. Now BTS says it is a seminary seeking to “follow Jesus into the world.” I had the privilege of serving on the board of BTS during the transition and continue to support the school. I also teach at BTS, now and then, as a guest.
One of my most valuable emails is David’s Missional Journal. It will be sent to you for free and back issues are archived online at BTS. David’s recent article is my “guest” blog for today. You will see how valuable his thinking is for the whole missional church conversation.
Where Are the Missional Evangelicals?
David G. Dunbar
The positive and enthusiastic involvement of Evangelicals in the cause of global missions over the last century makes their comparative non-participation in the missional church movement intriguing. I am not saying that the movement is devoid of evangelical voices–that is clearly not the case. But given Evangelicals' concern for gospel outreach, one might have expected that by now the word "missional" would be more clearly understood, that churches would be more engaged with the opportunities for incarnational ministries, that more Bible colleges and seminaries would be revamping programs in a missional direction, etc. So what's up?
No doubt there are multiple issues at work. The "mainline" denominational flavor of some of the missional discussion probably suggested to conservative evangelicals that this was a conversation that did not merit their attention. The various connections between the missional church and the "emerging church" also raised warning flags, especially as the latter term became radioactive following the publication in 2005 of D.A. Carson's Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church.
But perhaps a larger problem that has stood in the way of evangelical embrace is that the missional discussion has not seemed sufficiently "biblical." I don't think this is a fair or accurate evaluation, but I can see how some people have drawn the conclusion. Most of the early participants in the movement were not trained biblical scholars. Instead, they represented a broad range of primary expertise in theology, sociology, history, philosophy, and missiology. A good number also had extensive experience in pastoral ministry, including church planting.
This diversity was all to the good, but it did allow the perception that "missional" was not strongly based in a biblical understanding of church and gospel. And Evangelicals are Bible people . . . or at least they want to be!
Now, my purpose in raising this issue is to say that while the current ambivalence of Evangelicals toward the missional church is understandable, it is no longer justifiable (if indeed it ever was) in terms of insufficient biblical grounding. The game-changer is (or should be) the thoughtful and detailed work of Christopher Wright, an OT scholar and chair of the Theology Working Group of the Lausanne Movement. His massive study The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible's Grand Narrative (IVP, 2006) argued powerfully for the theme of mission as integral to a faithful reading of scripture. He has recently published a very engaging follow-up entitled The Mission of God's People: A Biblical Theology of the Church's Mission (Zondervan, 2010).
What follows is not a summary or review of these books, but rather a highlighting of a few points that I found particularly helpful.
Mapping the Bible
Reading scripture from the perspective of mission is much more than assembling a list of texts that instruct the church to evangelize the world. Wright suggests that any interpretive framework functions like a map. No map can capture accurately or comprehensively all the features of the reality that it portrays–some features may be omitted and others may be distorted. Particular maps have value according to their effectiveness in helping us to "see" certain geographical features, to avoid particular obstacles, to get where we need to go, etc. And of course some maps are better than others because they give us a fuller, more accurate or more useful account of a geographical area.
Professor Wright argues that approaching Scripture with a missional hermeneutic is an exercise in map reading which is particularly faithful to the nature of the biblical narrative. "The more I have attempted to use (or stimulate others to use) a missional map of the Bible, orientated fundamentally to the mission of God, the more it seems that not only do the major features of the landscape stand out clearly but other less well-trodden paths and less scenic scholarly tourist attractions turn out to have surprising and fruitful connections with the main panorama."