The Missional Church: Reformed Heritage?

My thought for the day. According to some research I am currently involved in [buying old books on ebay], the “missional” emphasis of the emerging church may have its foundations in Reformed theology. This will be interesting news to some, especially to those who feel [wrongly] that Reformed thinking is diametrically opposed to missional thinking. I might be wrong, but I think Reformed thinking was one of the brightest sparks to ignite it. Heres what i am thinking.

The watchdog blog Fide-o recently called all Emergents to collect some statements on what the emerging church phenomenon was about. Unfortunately, I was traveling at the time and internet-less when I arrived home to a new house without a connection. Even worse, the statements collected and commented on a few days ago on the post “Because I said so” were not very good and certainly not enough to convert anyone from a Constantinian model to something more emerging-missional. A few days ago I left a contribution in the comment section on that blog post but it hasnt appeared yet. So I thought I would post it here, along with a short explanation.

[update: they told me there is a problem with comment moderation on Blogger accidentally deleting them. Comment control was one reason i left Blogger for Typepad. Hey – thanks guys.]

“The Emerging Church Phenomenon has placed a renewed emphasis on the sovereignty of God in the area of missions – in particular a focus on the Truine nature of the missionary God, His attributes as well as His actions as impetus for mission, and the incarnation of Christ as a model for a biblical, holistic missionary encounter with the emerging culture.”

Andrew Jones, ignored comment on Fide-o blog.”

RottwielerBTW – Why is the DOG analogy so popular on Reformed doctrinal sites? Maybe its because dogs guard existing spaces while cats explore new spaces. I think I prefer cats. Cats seem more apostolic than dogs. More adventurous. More curious. But why create another division – who wants to see dogs chasing cats around anyway?

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During my frightfully long time away from broadband, I managed to read a few books – those brown things with paper inside – those door stops with leaves and pictures on the cover – you know. I actually found a few old ones on ebay and amazon to keep me busy. One of the themes I was chasing down was the impact of Reformed thinking on “missio dei’ and subsequently, the renewed interest [yeaaa long tail!!!] and current understanding of “mission-shaped church” (UK) and “missional church” (USA).

Most interesting was “Missons Under The Cross” (1953, ed. Normal Goodall) and “Christianity on the Frontier” (1950) by Dr John Mackay (President of Princeton Theological Seminary). Dr Mackay was the Chairman of the International Missionary Convention when they met for the fourth world congress in Willingen in 1952 – the series of meetings where the idea of mission (preferred over “missions”) was hammered out and gave birth to the term “missio dei” a short time after.

In Christianity on the Frontier, Dr Mackay had written a chapter in this book called “Contribution of the Reformed Churches” in which he offers the various areas of impact stemming from Calvin’s Institutes.

“True to the central meaning of “theology”, Reformed doctrine is a doctrine of God, begun and pursued in the light of God. The sovereign God, whose redemptive purpose constitutes the scarlet thread of Holy Scripture, whose Son is the saviour and lord of life, and whose church is the true bearer of history, is the theme of Reformed theology, in the same way that the concept of His sovereignty is its organizing principle.” (page 88)”


In 1952, Dr Mackay’s address to the Enlarged Meeting of the International Missionary Convention, of which he was the Chairman, was entitled “The Great Commission and the Church Today”. In this address, Mackay deals with the theme of the convention, The Missionary Obligation of the Church, and makes his appeal again (a common theme in his writings) to Calvin’s motif of the flaming heart as a symbol of Christian devotion. He also makes clear that “the Trinity is in the Great Commission, not by implication merely, but directly.” (pg 133, Missions Under the Cross) and gives a statement that embraces the heart of the missional idea:

“A truly apostolic Church can never be satisfied with merely sponsoring missionary interest or in giving birth to “missions”. It must itself become the mission.”

You can follow my thoughts on how that idea developed into what we call “Missional Church” at the post entitled “What I Mean When I say Emerging-Missional Church.” But I should really finish off this thought.

Am I saying the the missional emphasis of the emerging-missional church has its roots in Reformed thinking?

Yes I am. The emerging-missional church has placed a stronger emphasis on the sovereignty of the Triune God in the area of mission, an emphasis with a clear heritage back to the 1950’s. The idea of “missional church’ has always seemed Reformed to me. Especially the idea that God is sovereign over his missional aims and the role of the church is more participation than innovation. Sometimes I wonder if we are reverting to the days of William Carey who argued for the use of “means” for the work of missions in response to those insisting that God would sort it out Himself. Except the emerging-missional church might be on the other side of the table from William Carey.

Now thats an interesting thought.

I close with a prophetic quote from the Reformed Dr Mackay at the Willingen Convention.

“When the Christian Church as a whole recovers a sense of of missionary responsibility, and is imbued throughout its ranks with missionary ardour, certain things will happen. Christian thought will become concerned not merely with a theology of missions, but with a theology of mission. The role of the missionary society, and the meaning of missionary vocation will be re-thought. The spontaneous expansion of the church will be regarded as a natural thing to hope for and promote.” (Missions Under The Cross, pg 141)

Related thoughts of mine:

Whatever and Missio Dei

Thoughts on Missio Dei

What I Mean When I say Emerging-Missional Church

And of others:

The Missional Church, by Tim Keller


Andrew Jones launched his first internet space in 1997 and has been teaching on related issues for the past 20 years. He travels all the time but lives between Wellington, San Francisco and a hobbit home in Prague.


  • I have fond memories of discussing ‘Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God’ (Jim Packer?) in my CU days back in the 80s.

  • Andrew, thanks for this. As a person with strong reform leanings and a heart for lost people it resonates.
    I’ll have a link at my blog.

  • Negrito says:

    I am a big fan of your blog. This is the first time I have responded.
    I don’t think we need to have such a dichotomy between participation and inovation. God invites us to be part of his mission and in doing so asks us to use our creativity to fulfil the great commission. This is a dialogue not a dichotomy. I believe that we need to ask God what He is doing and join Him in doing it. But this doesn’t excuse us to allow the kind of God-will-do-it-all, I don’t need to move unless he writes it in the sky inactivisim that Carey was so opposed to.

  • andrew says:

    I agree entirely with you and am glad you see it.
    But the place of the church and its strategies has been a big issue over these last 50 years. I think it will continue to be a point of tension in the future.

  • Andrew,
    In your exploration of reformed theology/missional church connections, have you run across any of Harvie Conn’s work? Harvie was Professor of Missions at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, though he passed away before I was a student there. I’ve been strongly influenced by his teaching on the missional nature of the incarnation, among other things.

  • I find similar themes throughout the writings of C. Baxter Kruger- that is the emphasis on the sovereignty of the Triune God in the area of mission.
    In closing you quote from MacKay:
    “The role of the missionary society, and the meaning of missionary vocation will be re-thought.”
    I am curious as to how you might see this play itself out. Many “missionary socieites” or so called “para-church” organizations are deeply entrenched in our culture, often leading this missional shift.
    Do you believe these expressions will reintegrate with the local church (however that might look)? Or do you see them gaining a renewed and acknowledged position as Church (or an expression no more or less significant than the local church)?
    Jamie Arpin-Ricci

  • andrew says:

    that question deserves its own blog post and i have been giving it some thought already.
    i feel like i am part of two overlapping worlds – the old and the new.
    overseas missions has been influenced by a church emphasis (church planting movements, etc) but the church back home has more recently been influenced by mission – leading to the current “missional” phenomenon. i would expect to see more urban monastic structures alongside ecclesiastic structures in the countries that have been traditionally seen as “sending” countries.
    Parachurch groups will increasingly see themselves as “church” which will create tension with supporting churches but will provide different models of church for a complex society.
    what do you think?

  • andrew says:

    dan – i never met Harvie, although i had heard his name often, but it seems he really did leave a great legacy.
    i was just reading of him here on Banner of Truth.

  • Andrew, sorry but we didn’t receive your comment. We are afraid that Blogger may have had some problems recently that affected us. We are currently looking into changing our commenting service to a more reliable service. But thanks for tying, and if you try again we will post it. In the future if you have any problems, send me an email and we will check it out. Oh, and about the cats… its the hairball thing that is just disgusting.
    and dogs slobber.. .
    no problem with the comment . .. understood . . . that is one reason why i left blogger for typepad. forgive me if i thought you avoided the comment (it did cross my mind – my bad).
    btw – i used haloscan for comments while on blogger and was NOT happy with it. i dont know of a good system to recommend – maybe someone out there could recommend something?????????

  • Scott Hill says:

    Andrew your comment was not ingored. Unfortunatley we have recently found out that since we started moderating comments we have been losing many of them. Hopefully that will be resolved soon. You are not the first one to feel ignored by Fide-O.

  • Tim Keller says:

    Andrew–I’ve always thought that Lesslie Newbigin’s work was seminal to the whole missional/emerging church movement, and he was deeply Reformed. But, frankly, the emerging church has been just as shaped by the Hauerwas/Anabaptist model of church-as-culture. Newbigin and Hauerwas do not, on the surface, appear all that compatible, but if you swirl them together you can account for an awful lot of the missional/emerging church emphases.
    [[[[[ Tallskinnykiwi: Thanks Tim. When i put “reformed” and “missional” together in my mind, your work on Missional Church comes to mind.
    I did not mention Newbigin here because in the 50’s, he was still in India and he had not yet made his mark – something he did later when he returned to England. He was, however, present at Willingen in 1952 and was one of the 9 presenters whose contribution made it into my book. His address was an eschatological speech entitled “The Christian Hope”
    Newbigin was the stepping stone to “missio dei” for many of us in the 90’s, but Newbigin actually makes little mention of Missio Dei in his work, remained more Christocentric than Trinitarian, and was less overtly Reformed than Dr Mackay, who at the time was President of Princeton Theological Seminary.
    I wonder what happened to the eschatological focus that gave impetus to both the 20th Century missions movement (from the Missionary Convention in Edinburgh, 1910) and the parallel Fundamentalist movement that began publishing The Fundamentals in the same year. It seems both have let that focus on the return of Christ become less important. Missiologists are less motivated by eschatology and Fundamentalists have become more generous and open in shaping a post-Hal-Lindsay eschatological emphasis. Any thoughts?]]]]]

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