What is Salvaton? – Answering Ed Stetzer’s Missional Question

There is an amazing conversation going on right now around the term “missional.”  Every Monday Ed Stetzer (president of Lifeway Research)  posts a question for missional thinkers to answer.  Yesterday his question was on the topic of salvation. 

It is a large and complicated question, so first I will recap his post and then answer it a piece at a time.


I saw three underlying frustrations fueling Stetzer’s question:

  1. Stetzer commented that the understanding of salvation on the individual/personal level should not be dismissed.  He then gave multiple Biblical examples of salvation on this level and concluded that an individual’s personal commitment to Christ comes first and then his/her transformation toward social justice.
  2. He pointed to a growing movement of people who would define “salvation” as bringing justice through political and economic reform (corporate, not individual level).  This movement began as a both individual and corporate but has more recently become solely corporate tossing out the individual.
  3. Many missional thinkers speak of salvation happening outside the church (specifically when speaking about God being on mission – the Missio Dei – and people joining God in that mission).  Stetzer again mentioned his concern with this phrase hoping for a more further definition.

Stetzer then asked two questions:

“Should the definition of “salvation” be expanded beyond personal redemption of sins to include social justice through the reformation of economic and political institutions? We are not debating here whether we think social justice is right or wrong but rather should it be included in what we mean we we talk about “salvation.” Evangelicals have generally said no and mainliners have generally said yes.”

“Second, what is the difficulty with the question of personal salvation? Why is that hard for some to answer? Perhaps it is too unsophisticated, but I think it matters deeply. Actually, I think that just about all evangelicals would say it matters. Tim Keller has stated the concern and I share it. If you broaden “God is working outside the church” to one direction, you have to answer if it includes personal redemption. Perhaps I am obsessed, but I am O.K. being obsessed with the redemption of men and women. So, I think the “missional conversation” needs to ask (and answer), is God saving people outside of the proclamation of the gospel?”


I’m going to table Stetzer’s first question for a later post (hopefully tomorrow) because the concept of justice is complicated.  Rethinking my theology and the Biblical narrative through the lens of the Missio Dei has radically changed my understanding of justice and its place in the salvation discussion.

So now I would like to clarify why I (a grass-roots missional thinker with a Southern Baptist background) use the phrase “God is at work outside the church.”  

The meaning of the phrase is determined for me by the context of the conversation.

1. God is working outside your understanding of church.

Often I use the phrase “God is working outside the church” to combat the idea that those who are not a part of an institutional church are somehow not able to be used by God.  Let’s be honest, in our culture the word church is most often used to denote an institution.  Buildings, worship services, beloved clergy, and programs are all central to our understanding of “church.”  Many times when I  use the phrase I am speaking directly to that understanding.  I am part of a missional community that meets on Monday nights.  We look nothing like an institutional church; but God is working through us in the community to bring salvation (individual/personal) to the lost.  You would be amazed what a struggle this is for the average, everyday joe.  You would be blown away how often I have been asked things like, “So when do you preach?” or “So when you grow big enough you are going to get a building right?”  or “So what church is your small group a part of?”  When I use the phrase in this context what I am really saying is, “God is working outside your understanding of church.”

2. The temptation toward universalism.

I don’t use the phrase to mean that some other form of salvation exists outside the Lordship of Christ; although I understand the temptation to use it in this way. 

Growing up I was very much protected within the walls of the church.  My church family was like an unbreakable bubble.  We (believers) were in the bubble and they (non-believers) were out.  I got passing glimpses of those outside of it, but never a monstrous amount of contact because my life revolved aournd the church.  What defined those of us inside the bubble were the  rules and rituals that dominated our lives.  Following the rituals and rules is what it meant to be a disciple.  Now don’t get me wrong, we preached grace and mercy.  We spoke about the saving blood of Christ.  We railed against legalism and salvation by works; but when it came to describing what the life of a believer looked like we gave examples like:  we go to church on Sunday, we participate in the following five programs, we don’t drink, we don’t cuss, we don’t dance (where anyone can see you), we pray when we are in trouble or need something,  we only listen to Christian music, and on, and on, and on. 

After college I left the protected bubble of my christian family, my church culture, and my church friends and I moved to the city.  My next door neighbor was a Muslim.  He lived the rituals and rules with twice the discipline I did.  He was a social worker who had devoted his entire life to helping the impoverished.  He and I would spend long nights on our front porch discussing social theory, who the oppressed of society were, and how we  should be carrying for the homeless and addicted.  Two doors down from him was another neighbor who was a Buddhist.  His spiritual disciplines were off the chart.  He spent a massive amount of time in daily meditation and prayer.  He had weekly fasts.  He practices silence and had a disciplined routine of service. 

These were good men.  They were loving men.  Men of deep devotion.  Men who were changing the world for the better. 

And here is the kicker…they looked more like Jesus in many ways than I did.

As I feel in love with them the temptation to shift from practicing legalism to believing in legalism and opening the door for everybody that is doing good to come to salvation through the practice of justice was incredibly tempting.  Once the Buddhist said to me, “I’m happy you have found salvation through Jesus.  Be happy for me that I have found it through buddhism.”  The temptation to become a universalist and begin using the phrase “God is working outside the church” to mean “God is working outside of Jesus” was overwhealming…but the words of Jesus will not allow me to make that shift.  He is the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father but by Him.

This was one of the many factors that led me to realize my understanding of the practice of my faith, my defining discipleship with a series of rituals and rules is what was broken.  Missional theology demands we pop the bubbles and define discipleship as more than we have.  Being a disciple must mean having a deep obsession with Jesus as Lord and joining God’s compassionate, sacrificial love driven, mission of salvation to the world. 

3. God does not need the church.  God is working and the church has joined Him.

I grew up believing that the Holy Spirit was limited to the reach of the church on the corner.  That the work of 1st Baptist Where-evers-ville was the work of the Holy Spirit.  I defined the work of God as the work of the church. 

This misconception puts us (the church) at the center of God’s mission, instead of putting God’s mission at the center of us (the church). 

It may sound trivial but I assure you it is not.  This misplacement of focus is part of what has led to the creation of protective bubbles that define discipleship through the practice of rituals and rule (as I spoke about above). 

I use the phrase “God is working outside the church” to help remind myself that the Holy Spirit is at work all over my city.  It is my job to pop my bubble and join Him.  The mournful statement of Christ “the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few” comes to mind.  The Holy Spirit is out there calling all men to Himself. 

Church, when are we going to get up off our butts, leave our comfort zones, stop defining ourselves as “the people that listen to sermons on Sundays”, and go get the harvest?  Let’s crash the gates of Hell with our love and bring the light of Christ to a dark world.  The Spirit has gone before us.  He is simply waiting for you to join Him.

4. God does not have to use the church if He doesn’t want to.

Let’s be clear.  The Pharisees thought they were “the church.”  They believed themselves to be the righteous ones, the ones closest to God; yet Jesus didn’t want anything to do with the bubble they had created.  Their rituals and rules had actually separated them from God so that when He showed up they didn’t even recognize Him. 

This should terrify us.

How long will the Holy Spirit wait for us to come and get the harvest?  How long will He wait for us to leave our bubbles and join Him?  How long will He allow us to obsess over our rituals and rules? 

There is a horrific picture in the Gospel of John that keeps me up at nights.  John tells us that as the religious leadership was leading the Son of God to His death they would not enter into Pilate’s house because to do so would make them unclean and thus unable to practice their rituals.  I think of Jesus, beaten and bleeding, being escorted in chains to the cross, listening to the religious leaders debate about whether or not they can go into Pilate’s court before passover.  What kind of pain and agony was  Jesus experiencing at that moment?

I use the phrase “God is working outside the church” to remind myself that God does not need me; and that if my voice were to become silent, if I were to allow my rituals and rules to become my Lord, if my focus became on me instead of on joining God on His mission then I would cease becoming a part of the church.  He would go and build a new one.   He doesn’t need me.  He can take the stones outside my house and make disciples out of them.  It is my privilege to join His mission.  It is His gift to me.  We must always remember that.

And so…that is why I use the phrase, “God is working outside the church.”

Tomorrow I will take a Biblical overview of  justice and discuss its roll in salvation.

What is Salvaton? – Answering Ed Stetzer’s Missional Question

7 thoughts on “What is Salvaton? – Answering Ed Stetzer’s Missional Question

    1. jeffandwendy says:

      Thanks for putting the question out there. So much of this missional conversation centers on justice and its role in salvation, but we (grass roots missional thinkers) spend so much time talking about church structures we haven’t spent the appropriate time talking about theology. I know I was pushed to define some things through the question.

  1. chazzdaddy says:

    Thanks for the thoughts! I agree and resonate with a ton of what you are saying, but have to throw out a couple things for everyone to chew on:

    Institutional Church vs. Missional Church. There is no difference, and there should not be. WE ARE ALL THE CHURCH. There is no such thing as institutional or missional. We are the church, each of us no matter where and how we gather. NO matter if structured or unstructured. We are the temple. And we are to be both gathered and scattered.

    Cool and hip. Boring and irrelevant. Young, bored baptists [like myself] or emergent, excited fill-in-the-blank. This too will cycle through.

    I agree that God does not need the church and we need to see where Jesus is working and join him. But he told US to GO. Not look for where Jesus is and jump in.

    Fine line I know [and agree that we need to see where HE is working strongly]…but Jesus laid down his life for the bride. For the church. He loves her and as a husband needs and desires his bride, I can’t help but think Jesus desires us just the same and has not just sent us on a cosmic Easter egg hunt.

    As we walk with Him, we see where he is working and we adjust our geographical burdens to match his will.

    And great point: God is working outside the church! God is at work in the universe, but the church is what God chose for whatever reason to accomplish the Great Commission, and you are right, he didn’t need us, but he did choose us to do this.

    Great thoughts on this. Thanks for a glimpse into your soul. And this topic back to the main point that I agree with what you are writing…he is working in ways outside of his body that we must take notice of and respond to.

  2. What a thought-provoking conversation.

    I have been raised in and continue to serve as pastor of a classic Pentecostal denomination. Until recent months, I was operating under the assumption that the Missio Dei was whatever the church was doing. But recently, I have realized that the Missio Dei is what God is doing – and is inviting us to be part of.

    I appreciate that you stated there may be salvation outside of the church, but not outside of Christ. This sounds very familiar (Martin Luther, perhaps). I also think it is key to the conversation.

    We are not called to make disciples of the church – the church is called to make disciples of Christ. If the church as we know it right now is going to make true impact on the world, we are going to have to strip down all of our programs and get to the baseline of what we are supposed to be doing. We must do what only we can do – exalt Jesus Christ, equip disciples, and evangelize the world. We need to see ourselves as existing to raise up disciples to send them back out glocally into the marketplace, the schools, the homes, and the neighborhoods to impact the culture and bring men and women to Christ, so that they in turn be taught how to be disciples of Christ so they can go out, and so on.

    I believe Jesus when He said “the gates of Hell will not prevail against the church” but we had better get on His page about what the church is supposed to be doing or we will quickly be replaced by those who do.

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