As is felt in the pews on Sunday mornings and reported statistically, the American church is in decline. While this raises a lot of anxiety among church leaders, there are resources and movements attempting to change this trend. One of the most compelling movements is the missional-church movement. However, the word “missional” is so ubiquitous that it can be difficult to discern what people mean when they use it.
One helpful tool for understanding is the book The Permanent Revolution. Written by missional-church gurus Alan Hirsch and Tim Catchim, it seeks to help pastors and denominational leaders create missional movements in their own settings. Hirsch and Catchim are to be lauded for their pragmatic approach in equipping church leaders with the organizational scaffolding and practical advice to create missional movements. Some theological choices made early in the book, however, prevent them from discussing deeper problems in the church such as spiritual formation as progressive sanctification, thus presenting an unbalanced approach to creating missional movements. But I believe that if they focus on spiritual formation as progressive sanctification, church leaders can have a more balanced approach to creating a missional movement.
Hirsch and Catchim seem to downplay the act and being of God and overemphasize the role of human agency.
I believe there are three key questions for the missional-church movement: 1. What are the underlying assumptions made about being missional, and how does that differ from a robust Trinitarian perspective? 2. How should this understanding of missional lead into spiritual formation and progressive sanctification? 3. How does missional-movement leaders’ biblical interpretation of Ephesians 4 affect the overall assumptions they make about the missional church?
THE PERMANENT REVOLUTION
In the preface Hirsch and Catchim say, “Our fundamental claim: that insofar that it depends on human agency, the church’s capacity to embody and extend the mission and purposes of Jesus in the world depends largely on a full intention to provide robust theoretical foundations with which to relegitimize and restructure the ministry of the church as fivefold and reembrace the revitalizing, intrinsically missional role of the apostolic person.”
Ephesians 4:11 is the biblical foundation on which they build their argument, specifically the five roles of apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd and teacher. The authors’ main critique of the church is that while the it has done an excellent job of focusing on the roles of shepherd and teacher, we have neglected the other three – apostle, prophet and evangelist. They suggest this is the primary cause for the radical decline in numbers and influence in the American church. Hirsch and Catchim argue, therefore, that the best way for the church to curb this decline is to focus on the role of the apostle. They define the apostle “as being the custodian of the genetic codes of God’s people or as a custodian of the gospel, the genetic code of the church.” The apostle is called primarily to spread the gospel to all nations.
The authors call Paul and Peter the main archetypical examples of apostle. Paul was called to share the gospel to the Gentiles, and Peter was called to share the gospel to the Jews. While Catchim and Hirsch draw more on Paul as their prototype, they say that today we need more Petrine-like apostles as catalysts to revitalize the church. This example also highlights another main theme in the book: the primacy of human agency. As mentioned above, they begin with the fundamental claim “insofar as it depends on human agency.” While the role of human agency should be affirmed, ultimately our role stems from the act and being of God. Hirsch and Catchim seem to downplay the act and being of God, however, and overemphasize the role of human agency.
“BEING SENT” AS THE ACT AND BEING OF GOD
Missional theology views “being sent” as the act and being of God. The idea is grounded deep in Trinitarian theology and is foundational to spiritual formation. By nature, the triune God is a sending God. As the Father has sent the Son and the Son along with the Father sent the Holy Spirit, so, too, the church is sent into the world by participating with the triune God.
In an article in the book Cultivating Sent Communities: Missional Spiritual Formation, Dwight Zscheile clarifies the role of human agency thus: “The reign [of God] is fundamentally uncontrollable: it is not something we build or extend; rather, it is a reality that we are invited to seek, enter, receive, and inherit.” This is a slight variation on the way in which Hirsch and Catchim describe the role of human agency. While their goal is to lay out the framework for creating missional movements in the church, they lean too heavily on metaphors related to “building up” the reign of God.
For example, using I Corinthians 3:10-15 as their guide, they emphasize how two of the metaphors for the apostle are architect and foundation-layer. Although Hirsch and Catchim are right in pointing out this metaphor for the building up of the reign of God, their focus is on defining the role of the apostle. As a result, they gloss over the importance of verse 11, “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.” Granted, throughout the book they emphasize the importance of the apostle in “protecting the DNA of the gospel.” Yet they miss here on an opportunity to expound more deeply on the importance of connecting the dots between the missional-church movement and the act and being of God. Instead, by overemphasizing the role of human agency, they give an unbalanced description of how the missional-church movement seems to be dependent on human action. Zscheile’s definition of human agency gives us a more balanced theological perspective on the missional-church movement as it is grounded in the act and being of the triune God.
This trajectory eventually leads Hirsch and Catchim to emphasize incarnational ministry as a way of implementing the missional movement. However, without the foundation of a robust Trinitarian theology, Hirsch and Catchim could diminish the role of God in their missional-church model. Zscheile, by contrast, offers this more robust Trinitarian approach to missional thinking and spiritual formation: “Not only does the reality of human sinfulness severely constrain our ability to imitate Christ effectively, but God’s own primary role in mission is underacknowledged. For Paul, imitation of Christ was only possible through the power of Spirit. It must be so for us too.”
One possible reason why Hirsch and Catchim overemphasize the role of human agency is their underlying assumption about the theology of election. Although this is subject is never explicitly broached, they seem to be operating from definition like that given by Richard Osmer in his essay “Formation in the Missional Church.” Osmer says, “God elects a particular people to give witness to the divine saving mission toward the whole of creation. Election is calling to service and witness, not primarily the reception of special blessings, benefits, and privileges.” If that’s their assumption, Hirsch and Catchim are right to emphasize human agency. Yet Osmer does not end his discussion here: Instead, he shifts into speaking of the importance of spiritual formation, something Hirsch and Catchim never get to. This seems odd, considering the foundational role of Ephesians 4:11-16 in their book. As we will see, it should be expected in their exegetical work to at least briefly discuss the spiritual formation, or sanctification. Let us first consider, though, the importance of spiritual formation as sanctification in the missional-church conversation.
SPIRITUAL FORMATION AS SANCTIFICATION
Osmer spent some time interviewing a number of missional-church leaders about spiritual formation in their congregations and compared what he found with people he called “spiritual formation leaders.” He discovered that while there are some similarities in defining what spiritual formation is, there are also some differences. He notes, for example, that spiritual-formation leaders see the purpose of formation primarily as developing an active prayer life in church members. In contrast, missional-church leaders saw spiritual formation sending members out into their communities and teaching them to be more open to the culture of those not in the church.
In an article titled “Reawakening a Potent Missional Ethos in the Twenty-First Century,” Hirsch wrote about the importance of “recovering discipleship as our core task.” There he defines Christian discipleship as “basically a growing adherence to Jesus.” He even goes so far as to say that without good discipleship, the church has bad leaders. Therefore, he concludes, “Becoming like Christ [should be] the focal point of all good disciple-making.” It seems peculiar then, that with a text such as Ephesians 4 in a book written primarily to leaders in churches and of denominations, the topic of sanctification, or discipleship, would be missing. While not everything can be covered in one book, it is odd that this subject is not mentioned.
RE-INTERPRETING EPHESIANS 4
Although it is not their aim in The Permanent Revolution to write an exegesis of Ephesians 4, Hirsch and Catchim devote a great deal of the book to interpreting this passage. Ephesians says:
But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself captive; he gave gifts to his people … ” The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. (Eph. 4:7-8, 11-16)
Central to Hirsch and Catchim’s argument is to see the five-fold ministry extend beyond the professional leadership of the church. To do this, they connect the dots exegetically between verses 7 and 11. They remind the reader that Ephesians was written to be read out loud in the community, and likely passed on to another community. “Seeing [the five-fold ministry] through the lens of the ministry of all believers leads us to believe that Ephesians 4 is not primarily a leadership text but rather a ministry text,” they write. Central to their argument is the Greek word “ekaotoi,” used in verse 7 and translated as “each of us.” In context, the verse reads, “But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” Hirsch and Catchim argue that this same theme flows into the gifts given to apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers in verse 11.
Their attempt to dismantle certain assumptions typically made about lay leadership might, however, be overreaching. Although, the word “gifts” shows up in both verses 7 and 11 (the latter to refer to the five-fold ministry and the former referring to grace), “ekaotoi” is not repeated in verse 11.
Furthermore, New Testament scholar Constantine Campbell is quick to point out that the roles included in the five-fold ministry are not gifts meant for “each of us” as Hirsch and Catchim argue. Rather, Campbell says, the construction of the phrase “men … se … se …se” between each of the roles is correctly translated as “some.” Articulating a more traditional interpretation, Campbell says, “The roles of apostle, prophet, evangelist, and pastor-teacher do not define all members of the body; they are for some, not all, and the services they render toward the church issue directly from its diversity.”
By taking this starting point, Hirsch and Catchim neglect the main thrust of the argument in Ephesians. The passage begins with “But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” From a Reformed perspective, grace has a two-fold meaning: justification and sanctification. Later, in verses 12 and 13, Paul shares the purpose of the gifts of the five-fold ministry thus: “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” The gifts were given to the community of faith for the purposes of uniting us to the triune God in order that we would be sanctified.
In his article “A Missional Theology of Spiritual Formation,” Zscheile places spiritual formation in both communal and missional frameworks by asserting that spiritual formation is “for the sake of the world” not “for the sake of the individual,” or “institutional church.” This framework helps to shed new light on the Ephesians 4 passage. Formation is not merely about the solidarity and unity of the church. It includes the catalytic effect that happens as a result of the five-fold ministry working together in order to “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (v. 15). This leads us to the concluding verses of this passage: “But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”
Following this same theme of progressive sanctification, Campbell in Paul and Union with Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study interprets verses 15 and 16 thus: “Growing into the head likely refers to being conformed to Christ, becoming more like him, and ‘growing into’ the unity between believers and Christ. Growing from him depicts Christ as the source of the body; he is its origin and provides the stimulus for growth.” Hirsch and Catchim, by contrast, emphasize the theme of the unity of the body in this passage. They tend to oversell the roles of the five-fold ministry and ignore the overriding theme of grace through progressive sanctification.
Hirsch and Catchim’s missional impulses throughout this passage should be affirmed, along with their emphasis on the unity of the body. They do not go far enough, however, in their interpretation. By neglecting the focus on grace as experienced in progressive sanctification – “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” – Hirsch and Catchim place the missional movement on a trajectory that neglects the important role of spiritual formation.
A HELP FOR CHURCH LEADERS
Much of what Hirsch and Catchim say ought to be affirmed and put into practice. The capacity to stimulate missional movements within the church might curb the trend of declining attendance and influence in the United States. However, their underlying dependence on human agency is problematic because it steers the missional conversation away from robust Trinitarian theology of the kind embraced by Zscheile.
Likewise, their inability to discuss the importance of spiritual formation either directly or indirectly as sanctification causes them to miss the thrust of Ephesians 4. While Hirsch discusses formation elsewhere using the language of discipleship, in The Permanent Revolution, this oversight leaves readers with an unbalanced approach to developing missional movements in their contexts.
It nevertheless will be crucial for pastors and denominational leaders to build on Hirsch and Catchim’s work in The Permanent Revolution. Specifically, church leaders should pay attention to the importance of spiritual formation as progressive sanctification in the missional-church movement. This will allow church leaders to be better equipped to create a balanced movement in their own contexts.
Joel Vander Wal is an associate pastor at Incarnation Lutheran Church in Shoreview, Minnesota.