Being Sent: What the Missional Church Actually Is (Super Serial Post #2)

In the last post I told you what the missional church is not.

This brings us to the next question: if being missional is not a movement, fad, or church growth scheme, what is it?

There are several different answers to that question and, like most things in the church, it depends on who you ask.

It is worth noting that the missional conversation gained attention as the church entered into a membership crisis. Numbers sharply declined, relevance waned, and people starting to look to the “experts” for answers. Missiologist David Bosch argues that this crisis is a good thing:

“Strictly speaking one ought to say that the Church is always in a state of crisis and that its greatest shortcoming is that it is only occasionally aware of it….This ought to be the case because of the abiding tension between the church’s essential nature and its empirical condition….And if the atmosphere of crisislessness still lingers on in many parts of the West, this is simply the result of a dangerous delusion. Let us also know that to encounter crisis is to encounter the possibility of truly being the Church.”

Brian McLaren spoke at Virginia Theological Seminary yesterday about the future of the church and the problems that face the world. At one point he drew a wonderful diagram on the chalkboard to explain how the world works. The basic idea is that three “gears” run the world: prosperity, security, and equity. These gears are driven by a narrative. For centuries, religion provided the narrative that drove the world, but in the last two centuries the narrative has shifted. In McLaren’s words, “Science has had a better story to tell.”

At some point, McLaren said, the Church shifted inward and the focus of our narrative became our own survival as an institution. Instead of developing a narrative that showed how the God of the Church is the God of science, we developed an “Us vs. Them” narrative of the Church versus the new, modern world.

We’ve grown comfortable telling our story only to ourselves with little concern for whether anyone else is hearing it, so new narratives have emerged to fill the void.

I’m sorry to start with some seemingly bad news, but it’s important that we start with a good understanding of where we actually are. Many of our churches exist without a clear mission. This is especially true in the mainline denominations and the Episcopal Church.

Some churches are focused on being inclusive for all people, some focus on serving the most needy in the community. Some parishes have great family programs, others have thriving young adult groups. Some churches have beautiful buildings, others use rented space.

For many of the churches that I have encountered, the stated goal or objective is different but the underlying mission is the same: to get more people in the door.

We are inclusive so that people will come to our church. We wear our church T-shirt when we volunteer so that people will come to our church. We put a witty slogan on our sign so that people will come to our church.

This is obviously a huge generalization. There are plenty of well-meaning and pure-intentioned people running programs throughout the church. However, it does generally seem that “success” for a church is often taken to mean increased membership or larger pledges.

This is where the missional conversation comes in. Being missional is about shifting from a defensive posture to an outward focused posture. It is a change in focus from getting people in the doors of the church to taking the church out to the people.

It is the shift from church-centered mission to God-centered mission. It is about being sent out rather than attracting folks to a building.

Stock photography wins again.
Stock photography wins again.

Darrell Guder, professor of Missional Theology at Princeton, says, “We have come to see that mission is not merely an activity of the church. Rather mission is the result of God’s initiative, rooted in God’s purposes to restore and heal creation.”

The attractional model of church is so ingrained that any talk of a different way is seen as an attack on the very nature of the church. This shift in thinking is not an attack, but a way of thinking and telling our story that is even deeper in our tradition and history than the attractional model.

It would be very easy to keep things going the way they are. It would require very little effort to stay in the attractional model and not challenge the status quo. That is not to say that being a pastor is easy in the attractional model, but there is much more certainty and a lot less risk in that way of doing things.

Alan Hirsch calls this the “missional impulse” which is an “outwardly bound movement from one community or individual to another. It is the outward thrust rooted in God’s mission that compels the church to reach a lost world.”

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It is about sending rather than attracting.

Being missional involves letting go of a lot of preconceived notions and moving forward in faith. It requires a tolerance for messy processes and many new relationships. It requires patience.

In his book Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood, Alan Roxburgh gives a list of rules to guide the missional work of local churches based on the words of Jesus in Luke 10. These rules are practical and a couple of them can help us clarify the ideas/principles behind the missional effort:

1. Go Local: “…[T]he focus must be on the ordinary lives of the people of a local congregation through which the Spirit is shaping a new future…” and “…on the local contexts as the venues for discerning and engaging that future.”

2. Leave Your Baggage at Home: “More than anything else this is a gospel plea for the humanization of our relationships with others, rather than seeing the people of our neighborhoods as potential objects for our church marketing strategies (often called evangelism or outreach).”

3. Don’t Move from House to House: “….settle into the neighborhood, bloom where you’re planted, and stop imagining there’s a better place or the grass is greener on the other side of the fence….stay where you are and be present to the people among whom you live in your neighborhood.”

4. Eat What Is Set Before You: “[This]…is about our readiness to enter into the world of the other on his or her terms rather than our own….This rule calls us to a different way of being with people. It involves a readiness to be present with someone else in ways that meet them in their context and environment.”

5. Become Poets of the Ordinary: “As we enter the local, stay in that place, and learn to eat what is set before us, we find ourselves entering the stories and hearing the music of the other in ways we could never do if we relied on programs or the calculation of where someone is on a scale of readiness for the gospel.”

Roxburgh adds five more rules to the list, which I commend to you. These first five should give us a good idea of what a missional church looks like – which is to say, that it will look messy and confusing and complicated.

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There is plenty of resistance from those who like things just the way they are.

Personally, I avoid things that are messy and confusing and complicated like the plaque, which may explain why I avoided this missional conversation for so long. It is so much easier to dismiss something as just another buzzword or passing fad than to actually engage with complicated ideas.

This work is hard and time consuming.

There is nothing efficient about being missional.

The next post in this series aims to put some theological meat on the bones outlined above. Using missiologists David Bosch and Leslie Newbigin, I’ll give some background and support for the ideas put forward by folks like Roxburgh, Hirsch, and McLaren.

There will be a short break in posts due to a personal retreat and spring break, but fear not! I will return.

Stay tuned.

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