It may seem strange to start a series of posts on the missional movement by describing what it is NOT, but there is precedent in theological studies for taking the via negativa approach and it seems like the best way to cut through the fog surrounding this topic.
First things first, the missional movement is not a movement.
I know, I know – I have referred to it as such in the lines above and the introductory post to this series. If you’ll forgive me, that was a bit of a straw man.
As I mentioned in my original post on the missional church, there is a tendency to lump missional attitudes into the same category as many of the church growth trends that have come along in the past. It is very easy to write it off as another way consultants are trying to fill the pews of shrinking or empty churches.
The truth is that being missional is not a trend but is, instead, the true nature of the church.
In his book Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood, Alan Roxburgh tells a modern day parable about three old friends (pg. 31). These friends grew up together, spending endless hours together at play, at school, and everywhere in between. The three friends went to college together and spent many evening discussing their hopes and dreams late into the night. Through the many years they spent together, the three friends developed a relationship that was deeper than words. Each of their identities was formed and shaped by this rich relationship.
Over time, however, their relationship grew distant. The three kept in touch through social media and the occasional call. Every few years, the three would get together for a weekend to catch up and renew their connection.
One day, out of the blue and after several years without contact, the two friends received an email from the third inviting them to his house in California for several nights. The two made their plans to travel to the West Coast and when they arrived, their host sat them down for a feast.
The friends laughed and caught up with each other throughout the first night, but at some point in the evening the mood changed. The two friends sensed a heavy awkwardness had settled around the table as the host began to do most of the talking. He talked about his life, his questions, and his needs. Every question he asked was only so that he could further focus on his own interests. He seemed only interested in making himself seem more successful.
At the end of the night the two friends made their way back to their hotel and the host went to bed feeling great about the conversation and the evening as a whole.
So, what is the point of this parable?
According to Roxburgh, the three friends in the parable are Scripture, Church, and Culture. The first two friends are Scripture and Culture, while the third friend who hosted the other two for the reunion is the Church.
Being missional is not a movement because it is not about the church. Most blog posts and magazine pieces make the missional conversation solely about the church and what the church can do to grow itself. Too often we are like the third friend: inviting Scripture and Culture into the conversation only to further our own interests.
Church movements exist for the church – to increase their size or influence or relevance or whatever it may be. Being missional is not just another movement because it is about returning the three friends to their original relationship.
Roxburgh argues that the focus of the missional conversation is three-fold: Scripture, Church, and Culture. For too long we have pretending that the church has a monopoly on the Good News, as though we are the only way that God works in the world. The missional conversation starts with the assumption that God is already at work in the world, within and without the church.
Later in his book, Roxburgh says that the church has taken itself into a cul-de-sac with this inward focus. He says, “Church questions are at the forefront of our thinking, so we default to questions about what the church should be doing and what the church should look like.” We are wrong to think that a new movement or program will fix what ails the church in this time. Roxburgh goes on to say, “This is not something that can be ‘fixed’ with programs or discussions on church health or by appending the word missional to old habits.” (pg. 54).
So we have established that the missional church is not a trend or new fad, but is a return to the original calling and nature of the church. This should let you in on the fact that this series will not give you the three easy steps to become a “missional” church. This whole conversation is about changing our thinking and our view of the church. If becoming missionally focused brings more people to your parish or community, great. If you enter this conversation with the motivation of increasing church membership (or relevance or whatever), you are missing the point. The point is to stay true to our calling as Christians in the world.
Stay tuned for the next post, in which I will explore what this calling actually is.