Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Does Missional Even Matter? Pt 1

Long before "missional" became a popular theme, Lesslie Newbigin wrote the following in 1963, identifying the "missional" nature of God's people:

"The Western world has had to be recognized once again as a mission field, and the churches have been compelled in a new way to define their nature and mission as parts of a divine society distinct from the wider society of nations in which they live, and all these factors have contributed to the developments in the field of theology in the direction of a missionary understanding of the nature of the Church itself. The truth that the Church is itself something sent into the world, the continuation of Christ's mission from the Father, something which is not so much an institution as an expedition sent to the ends of the earth in Christ's name, has been grasped with new vividness" (Trinitarian Doctrine for Today's Mission, 12)

I have something like six shelves of books that in some way reference the theme of being "missional." I worked on the staff of a church led by Alan Roxburgh back in the 1990s while he was part of a team that wrote Missional Church. I had the privilege of writing Introducing the Missional Church with Alan and then wrote Missional Small Groups. Recently, I've been rereading various authors to think again about what they mean by this topic. In Introducing the Missional Church, we identified eight things that we did not mean when contrasted to the myriad of ways other authors used the label:
  1. Missional church is not a label to describe churches that emphasize cross-cultural missions.
  2. Missional church is not a label used to describe churches that are using outreach programs to be externally focused.
  3. Missional church is not another label for church growth and church effectiveness.
  4. Missional church is not a label for churches that are effective at evangelism.
  5. Missional church is not a label to describe churches that have developed a clear mission statement with a vision and purpose for their existence. 
  6. Missional church is not a way of turning around ineffective and outdated church forms so that they can display relevance in the wider culture.
  7. Missional church is not a label that points to a primitive or ancient way of being the church.
  8. Missional church is not a label describing new formats of church that reach people who have no interest in traditional churches. (Pages 31-33)
The reason we had to be explicit about what we DID NOT mean was based on the fact that these eight ways of talking about the missional church were so prevalent. And as I've read books and articles that have been published over the last four years, the trend has continued. The word has almost lost its value. Almost all the authors who write on this topic agree with Newbigin's 1963 words quoted above, but—in an almost unconscious way—authors have different views of what these words mean for the church. Hence the reason I have six shelves of books on this topic. 

This begs the questions: why even use the word "missional"?

If everyone uses the word "missional" and the phrase "missional church" however they want, then what value do they have? For words to work, we must have a shared frame of reference. And this topic seems to be plagued by the lack of just that.

To be honest, there are times that I've gotten irate at how the word has been used in ways that do not represent the theological imagination that stands behind the words that Newbigin wrote above. For instance, Larry Crabb wrote the following in his book Real Church:

"I'm not yet ready to be part of a missional church and, I think, in part, for good reason. I have concerns that keep me from jumping on the missional train that is carrying Christian soldiers into the world to change it, deploying its troops to bring heaven's kingdom into this Satan-infested planet." He then expresses his concerns about churches that become "a zealous bunch of God-talking humanitarian do-gooders." (126-127)

I actually share his concerns if the understanding of missional that he has is what being a missional church is all about. However, the imagination of "missional" that has been communicated to him is not congruous with the "sent" nature of the church that Newbigin wrote about. Nor does this view lie at the heart of those who drafted Missional Church in 1995.

I believe that "missional" matters, but if our imagination about it is all about being a "zealous bunch of do-gooders" then we have lost its meaning. I, like Crabb, have great concern that the missional conversation is turning the church into an activist group. It's almost like those of us who grew up as Evangelicals, focusing on conversionist theology, woke up to the commands to care for the poor and the widows and then we decided that the social justice movement wasn't that bad after all.

But there is more to the missional imagination than adding social justice to evangelism and hoping to attain the right mix of mission. Being a sent people is about being sent in a way that reflects the life of the triune God. This is far more than activism. This is about displaying a way of life that reflects the kind of love that God manifest on the cross. Beyond being a group of "do-gooders" this is about being formed to live out this cruciform life in the midst of our context.

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