Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Missional Church & the Word "Missional"

Over this last weekend, I worked with Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church in Portland, OR. During the consultation, we were discussing the nature of the Saturday training—which was to include all kinds of people from the church. One staff members asked me if I was going to use the word "missional." Understand that the staff and leadership of this church has read widely on "missional," and they have already made great strides to move in that direction. Even still they have concerns about the use of the word, especially with the broader church body.

"Missional" is a great term when understood in its theological framework. God is a missional God, but even the meaning of this statement is not immediately obvious. Missional is inherently a theological term that has its roots in the nature of the Triune God. God the Father, out of love, sent the Son and now sends the Spirit to redeem all of creation. God is self-giving love and therefore goes forth (is sent on mission) from and in love so that God's creature might be drawn back into God's Triune love. This is a statement of God's being, God's nature, not simply a statement of what God does. 

But let's be honest: This is a mouthful. Even though "missional" is a great theological term, it presents some communication challenges. Here are a few that I have found:
  • Missional is a new term that was introduced to the church in North American in the mid-1990s. While new terms can be helpful because they can help introduce new ideas, the use of new terms does make communicating the concepts more challenging. And let's be honest, lots of people don't like new ideas.
  • Missional has been swept up into the trend culture of the church.—The church in North America tends to follow fads or trends. "Missional" has become popular over the last 10 years. When trends occur, the popular definitions begin to shape people's understanding whether we mean it the way they understand it or not.
  • "Missional" Speaks to Pastors and Leaders—This term speaks to the understanding and the motivations of church leaders, but it does not speak the language of the people. There is a distinct difference between "church leader" language and common language. And the goal is NOT to get all the common people to talk like church leaders.
  • "Missional" is a complex term that is defined in a variety of ways. (See Van Gelder and Zscheile, The Missional Church in Perspective)
  • Missional = Missions—Often people hear "missional" and confuse it with "missions" as in those we do in foreign countries or when we plant a church. 
  • Missional = Activism—Many times, people hear "missional" and they think in terms of activism, doing some form of externally-focused outreach for people outside the church.
When you think about how you talk about being missional in your church or in small groups, ask yourself this question: Will this communicate to the stressed-out, single mom with five kids? If you can communicate to her, then you can communicate to lots of people.

I'm not saying that we need to be simplistic. To say that missional means being externally-focused or activist-oriented is simplistic. Or when we say that missional is about doing church in a specific form or structure, we are being simplistic. (If you think I am being overly critical here, please forgive me. I've been overly simplistic in these ways many times.)

We need to keep things simple, not simplistic. We need talk about being missional in the language of the people as opposed to inserting new language that adds complexity to the situation. We need to use language that people already know and then fill it with new meaning.

When I contracted with Baker Books to write a book on missional living for "the people in the pew", my editor told me that I would have to write it without using the word "missional." Honestly, this was one of the hardest tasks I've ever set out to do. The result was Difference Makers, 40 short readings that help common Christians get started on the journey of "missional."And the word "missional" is absent.

The communication of new ideas usually progress on a developmental path. It could look like this:

A new ideas starts out as a seed idea, a thought, or what we call a hypothesis in science. Then to see if that hypothesis is correct, we have to develop a great deal of complex understanding. From here the paths diverge. When we turn "missional" into simplistic one-liners, all we end up with is more of what we already have been doing. The church has been doing outreach, evangelism, and externally-focused activism for decades.

The only way to communicate "missional" is to enter into a period of greater complexity, not less. We need to wrestle with and hear the prophetic call of Triune missionality and resist the temptation to think that we already know what it means. From here we have a choice. We can remain complex and communicate our understanding in a complex way, but this means that we end up talking about "missional" in unmissional ways. To be missional is to talk the language of the local, to do "local" theology where we talk about God and being God's people using the stuff of daily life. This is what Jesus did when he used things like farming, food, and common stories in his parables. He did not come with complex theological categories. He came speaking the language of the people.

During my time with Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church, I was impressed by how they have done the hard work of learning to talk about being on mission with God in a way that reflects their local situation. There focus lies on seeing what God is already doing and learning to participate in what they see Jesus doing by the power of the Spirit. They sum all of this up by the simple phrase "Follow Jesus," but they flesh out following Jesus in their unique Trinitarian (and Lutheran) way. Theologically, it's dead on. But most people will not see the complex theological work that has been done. Nor do most people need (or want) to.


Robert said...

Hi, Scott! Now being in my mid-fifties, I have come to an understanding of my life's trajectory that has some relevance to what you are articulating.

When I was young, things were simple. Then I got educated, began to read like crazy, and saw that things were not quite so simple. The world was complex. Then I came sort of round circle, and said that life is both simple and complex.

Nowadays I have come to a more meaningful understanding: there is a simplicity on this side of complexity, and there's a simplicity on the other side of complexity. In other words, I now see things in more simple ways, distilled to their essence, but that simplicity is informed by a knowledge of complexity. This makes sense to me as a healthier way to see things, but one I couldn't have gotten to earlier in life.

I have been very involved in the missional conversation over the past decade and readily agree with your points. We need to both grasp the complex understandings of "missional," but we must also arrive at a simplicity on the other side of this complexity so that it can indeed be communicated in the language of the people. Not because they are simpletons, but because not everyone has the time or background to explore all areas in detail. Thanks for your good words.

Andrew Mason said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew Mason said...

"Will this communicate to the stressed-out, single mom with five kids? If you can communicate to her, then you can communicate to lots of people."

That's a profound filter to run "missional" ideas through Scott, well said!