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Missional Mondays: Tony Stiff


Tony Stiff is a graduate of Westminster seminary, a friend, and a solid young thinker — and he will do a four part series for us on “Missional” theology and Bible reading. I look forward to this series and I ask you to join in the conversation.

I must tell you how much I appreciate folks like Tony — regular readers of this blog, regular commenter, and one willing to offer suggestions like this for the blog. It is folks like you — and Tony — that make this blog what it is. Thanks.

Now over to Tony, and here’s how he opens:

“Every time I walk into a Christian bookstore I see the word missional applied to dozens of trendy books on how to do church from authors of diverse traditions. It seems like missional is the newest model on the shelf for pragmatic evangelicals to buy and consume and self-apply. Missional is doing for younger evangelicals what Neo-Evangelicalism did for the last generation.”

 I had someone share this sentiment with me over a conversation on the the importance of the missional church. Perhaps as you look at this booklet [and read this post] you’re saying to yourself something similar, “the missional church is just the latest buzzword,”  “the missional church is a pragmatic theologically light version of the church,” etc.. If these things were true then why in the world should any group of Christians – small or large – spend time exploring what the missional church is? The honest answer is they shouldn’t. If the missional church is just the latest fad in the church then its not worth our time.

The essence of the missional church in the West is to recognize a change of conditions: from the Christian West to the Post-Christian West. What is the biggest evidence for this in your opinion? Where do you most feel the Post-Christian condition?

What I hope you’ll experience in these posts over the next few weeks is that the missional church
conversation happening all over the Western church represents not the latest
growth theory taken from popular culture but rather a deeply theological and
culturally thoughtful exploration of the biblical and historical nature of the

What is the missional church? The missional
church is a ecclesial expression of a new situational awareness
Christians the in West are having as the church continues to decline and revert
to its original marginal character in our global pluralistic world. The
missional church is the overflow of fresh considerations regarding the nature
of God as one who sends
. The missional church also represents a shift in
how mission is viewed: no longer as a geographical movement from a
Christianized West to a paganized East. Lastly, the missional church is
a revived understanding of the church as sent rather than just sending.

 The Situational Shift

 What is the missional church? The answer to
this question can be found in the experience of a single 20th century
missionary. Lesslie Newbigin. Tim Keller in one of the most popular articles on
the subject called, The Missional Church, shares the situational shift
Newbigin experienced;

“The British missionary
Lesslie Newbigin went to India around 1950.  There he was involved with a church living ‘in mission’ in a
very non-Christian culture. When he returned to England some 30 years later, he
discovered that now the Western church too existed in a non-Christian society,
but it had not adapted to its new situation. Though public institutions and
popular culture of Europe and North America no longer ‘Christianized’ people,
the church still ran its ministries assuming that a stream of ‘Christianized’,
traditional/moral people would simply show up in services.  Some churches certainly did
‘evangelism’ as one ministry among many. But the church in the West had not
become completely ‘missional’–adapting and reformulating absolutely everything
it did in worship, discipleship, community, and service–so as to be engaged
with the non-Christian society around it. 
It had not developed a ‘missiology of western culture’ the way it had
done so for other non-believing cultures.”
Tim Keller, The
Missional Church

 Newbigin was not the first missionary to return
home to the West to find that the West was not the Christendom society he had
left, but he was the one whose clarity of vision and missiological profundity
helped raise the issue in a way that captured the attention of Western ministry

The missional church is not a cliche …. here today and gone tomorrow, because the situational shift
it comes from – the shift from a Christian to a Post-Christian setting for the
church in the West
– has brought about a lasting dynamic that will shape and
inform how Christians speak of the mission and nature of the church. Darrell L.
Guder, editor of perhaps the most well known work on the topic called The
Missional Church
, sets up the problem facing the Church in the Western
world today;

“Rather than occupying a central and
influential place, North American Christian churches are increasingly marginalized,
so much so that in our urban areas they represent a minority movement. It is by
now a truism to speak of North America as a mission field.”


How does the life of Lesslie Newbigin help us understand the
situational shift the Church in the West has gone through?

What do you think caused the church to lose its presence and
influence in the West?

Intro video for this study @ Youtube:

PDF version of the four week small group study called “What is the missional church?”:

Comments read comments(11)
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posted November 2, 2009 at 2:52 pm

I haven’t given Newbigin much thought directly, but as to the question “What happened?” A few things:
1. A desire for moral legislations, from prohibition, scope to Roe vs. Wade, if we make it illegal people will stop doing it. We don’t properly address our own sin, let alone everyone-else’s.
2. A truncated gospel tract.
3. No mention of the Kingdom. For the first time in my life I have an impetus to moral living outside of being scared of hell. It’s difficult to do the right thing for 70 years if you believe everything else around you is getting worse (just as God promised).
I think the Kingdom, and a more robust eschatology is making a huge difference today.

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Tony Stiff

posted November 2, 2009 at 3:32 pm

“No mention of the Kingdom. For the first time in my life I have an impetus to moral living outside of being scared of hell. It’s difficult to do the right thing for 70 years if you believe everything else around you is getting worse (just as God promised). I think the Kingdom, and a more robust eschatology is making a huge difference today.”
Me to Phil. Thanks for that. I totally resonate with what you’re saying. Eschatology as something that isn’t just a blueprint of the end but is rather a shaping force in the present for the sake of God’s Kingdom makes all the difference in the world. Your thoughts reminded me of a wonderful article Scot wrote for Christianity Today a while back called, “8 Marks of a Robust Gospel.”
Scot said in that paper, “The little gospel promises me personal salvation and eternal life. But the robust gospel doesn’t stop there. It also promises a new society and a new creation.” Too many of us live out of that little gospel, huh.

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John W Frye

posted November 2, 2009 at 4:11 pm

If Jacques Ellul is correct in observing that the church absorbs the culture it is in as a sponge absorbs water, then the demise of the church in the West results from adopting an assembly line mentality for theology and spiritual formation (which comes down to the creation of “programs”, including “a missions program”), the reduction of weighty biblical realities to “steps,” “laws” and “principles” (see assembly line above), and the franchising of Christian ministry. Churches are no longer local; they are trans-global, e.g., my pastoral friends in Ukraine trying to live out “the purpose driven church”–a Saddleback, CA creation. Church in a box.
I think we still have many who, like the ostrich, are hiding from the “situational shift,” hoping for the good old days.

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posted November 2, 2009 at 5:52 pm

Great post! And Phil (#1) — great comments, with which I agree.
I want to add at least two:
1. a strongly foundationalist theology that paradoxically is fearful and reactionary of the broader world of Truth
The Church’s failure to think creatively about the relationship of faith and science — which thankfully is beginning to be remedied — IMHO is Exhibit A in this regard. We became irrelevant because we were stuck with a 19th Century model of the world.
2. A lack of any theology of hope.
Again, this is starting to be remedied as evangelicals gravitate towards the eschatology of folks like N.T. Wright, and realize it’s ok to read non-evangelicals such as Newbiggin and Guder. We’re only now starting to emerge on a broader scale from the “Late Great Planet Earth” mindset.

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Paul Sheneman

posted November 2, 2009 at 8:09 pm

2. What do you think caused the church to lose its presence and influence in the West?
It seems that the church (we) took three different but dangerous politics in the West which added to our demise.
1. Some took up an isolationist politic and insulated themselves from the “world” that they knew was going to hell in a handbasket.
2. Some took up a liberal politic in order to have a conversation in the same language as their opponents.
3. Some took up a militant politic (verbally and/or physically) in order to defend the faith.
Thank you to all for such helpful comments and insights. I am learning a lot!

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Jason R

posted November 2, 2009 at 10:13 pm

I believe the enlightenment had a transforming impact upon the west which resulted in the fall of “Christendom” (which may not be that bad a thing). Secondly, the Western Church became inward focused. While we sent missionaries “out there” to do mission we turned in on ourselves at home. Third, during many of the years that the church held considerable influence over government/society we didn’t put our best foot forward. That is we were not church in a way that was modeled on Jesus. Fourth, the postmillenialist “liberals” thought we could build the kingdom on earth through social progress, while the premillenialist “conservatives” believed the world would get worse and worse prior to God’s returning. In this way evangelism and working for justice were rent asunder and the church became entangled in infighting that alienated many.

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posted November 3, 2009 at 7:29 am

Thanks Tony for your post and helpful link:
“Where do you most feel the Post-Christian condition?”
Every culture in the West will experience this slightly differently. I was talking with a Swedish theology teacher recently who described how there is talk of detaching removing theology, and denominational seminaries, from the university realm. This in a country with all its Lutheran heritage and legacy of state church.
I live in a country that was one of the most intensely “Christian” cultures in the world (Ireland). I feel the ‘post-Christian’ condition in deeply negative attitudes to Christianity. The church is ‘bad news’, it limits personal freedom, it stifles life, it is about obligation and rules, it protects its own interests, and given a chance used power for its own interests. I think Newbigin said that the West is the toughest mission field since Christianity has been ‘tried’ and found not to work. That’s my take on how many people see it here.

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posted November 3, 2009 at 8:13 am

Thank you Tony and dopderbeck for interacting with my comments. I did in fact miss one and that is the evangelical tendency to equate a modern worldview with a Christian worldview. With that there is a strong reaction with science, using scientific method, etc, but not really “getting it”, both culturally and academically. All in all the person in the pew and many pastors just don’t understand worldview’s (theirs or others) and don’t have the ability to see the situation critically. I think popular writers like Dan Kimball are doing a great job with that interaction.

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Tony Stiff

posted November 3, 2009 at 2:50 pm

Thanks everyone for contributing to this conversation. I’m learning so much from everyone’s comments.
Patrick thank you for sharing an Irish perspective. I’m stateside so I can see how my countries context, particularly in our cities, are growing more and more post-Christian. But to hear your story and what you’ve observed is really helpful and humbling. Thank you.

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posted November 3, 2009 at 6:17 pm

Thanks Tony,
Reading back my comments seem very pessimistic! There are signs of hope, especially in these sorts of discussions. Maybe we can pray that out of brokenness will come a healthier, humbler, missional church.

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biomass boilers

posted March 11, 2014 at 7:54 am

These boilers act as heating systems as well
as as resources to create electricity.

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