Where the Missional Church Misses It

missional church

It has been years since I talked with a Pastor who didn’t describe themselves as missional.

It has been a long time since I have been on a church website that didn’t include the word missional somewhere in their value statements.

Missional churches.  Missional conferences.  Missional books.  Missional leaders.

Missional.  Missional.  Missional.

Us late modern church leaders certainly love our trends and buzz words.  The 70’s and 80’s were packed with “church growth.”  The 90’s was infatuated with “church health.”  The 00’s rode the wave of “emerging.”  Now we are all raging with “missionality.”

All of these movements were, to varying degrees, a helpful corrective.  Church Growth taught us that we don’t add new people without a thought-through strategy.  Church Health taught us that growth for growth’s sake- isn’t everything.  Emerging taught us that the times- they are a changin’.  And the Missional Movement has taught us that the Spirit of God is at work in the neighborhood and not only within our four walls.

But I don’t think we fully understand missionality.

When the late Lesslie Newbigin coined the phrase missional– he was indeed envisioning a church on the move in the world.  But his main desire was to help the church in the West to come to grips with the fact that our culture was secular- a true foreign mission field.  When Newbigin returned to his native U.K. after three decades of mission work in India, he realized that his home country was just as needy of the gospel as the far side of the East.  He envisioned local pastors sensing their vocation as call to be a missionary to the secular West.  A culture which clearly worships other gods.

He certainly did envision a church engaged locally in all kinds of justice work.  But he also envisioned this church being led by seminary trained leaders who could equip their people to live as Jesus followers in their careers.  He envisioned a church that wisely, and yet boldly, proclaimed the Lordship of Jesus to a culture hell-bent on worshipping the false gospels of consumerism, secular therapies, scientism, whatever the research universities offer us, and the liberal project of self-absorption.

In short, for Newbigin, missional meant a church living as an imbedded missionary outpost.  This I fear, is something we have not understood.

On a popular level, when people say they are missional- they often mean that they are not fundamentalists, that they volunteer in their local neighborhoods, that they do not highly value professional church leaders, and they often agree with the larger culture’s critique of the church.

Clearly, all of these values have some utility.  But I am not sure that they are the exactly the same thing as being missional.

If you think about it- all of the movements of the church over the last several decades: church growth, church health, emerging, and missional, may have one thing in common.  They all, at least at times, were energized by church leaders who recognize that the larger culture is moving away from historic faith.  And they are trying like hell to not only catch up to the culture, but frankly, to be a little more… accepted by it.

I personally know all too well the awkwardness, and even personal pain, that can be found in the contemporary American pastorate.  Ministers and their churches can automatically be thought of as socially regressive, ignorant, and as an expression of bad taste.  This is what makes being missional, in Newbigin’s sense, a very high calling.

But I wonder, in our understanding of being missional, have we unconsciously traded in this noble vision for simply trying really hard to be palatable to a culture that is often leaving Jesus and His ways behind?

I for one am not a fundamentalist.

I have volunteered countless hours on the local level.

I believe in the priesthood of all believers.

I agree that the contemporary church has many, many problems.

But I am not sure that trying to be as much like the world as possible is truly being missional.  And I am quite confident that it doesn’t offer living water to a thirsty world.

If some people are actually becoming open to the Lordship of Jesus, it is often because they have tried their own way, and the way of western secular narratives, and they have found them wanting.  They are internally parched and are looking for something altogether different.  And if we are simply struggling with our place of being social oddballs within our society, and we begin grasping at the latest hip trend to become more palatable, I don’t think we are in a position to offer anyone a cup of cold water in the name of Jesus.

Please, by all means, don’t be a fundamentalist!  Roll up your sleeves and serve needy people in your local community.  Notice how God is at work in the lives of normal people.  And please God, don’t mimic those who give our calling a bad name.

But I encourage you to not assume that these postures alone equate with being missional.

It may feel better, and it may be a slight improvement, but it is not being a Jesus shaped missionary in our time.

Historically speaking: missionaries work to live as healthy citizens within a foreign culture, they attend to the poor and the sick, they bring shalom.  But, they also work at preaching the gospel in the vernacular, with a nod to the local narratives.  They are mindful of how their proclamations connect with, and also challenge, the local stories.  They learn to worship in such a way that readily welcomes the stranger, building helpful for spiritual bridges for them to cross, and yet, the final goal is to being them on to the narrow road of discipleship.

Nearly all missional churches that I know- serve, and care, and bring tangible forms of peace to their mission fields.  But far too few work at preaching Jesus and his gospel effectively to combat idolatrous narratives.  And very few seem too put in much effort into making disciples of western secularists.

Helping ex-conservative evangelicals understand the importance of neighbor love is a needed task.  But that alone is not being missional.

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