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The problem with missional

I’m getting the sense there may be concerns about the state of the missional church. Last spring, Ben Sternke wrote

Thus one reason missional ventures fail, whether they be church plants or missional communties or training programs, is that we attempt to decentralize before we have sufficiently centralized. We try to send folks out on mission without really discipling them into a way of life that will sustain mission.

Ben makes a great point, but between the lines is an acknowledgment that missional churches are struggling. That’s to be expected. All church plants struggle. But more recently, David Fitch chimed in and seemed more than a little concerned:

I think we (the missional movement) have a problem. And I would like to see us have some substantive discussion about it. We [...] are in danger of allowing “Missional” to become another commercialized program we overlay on top of existing American church structures. The result is that nothing really changes. It just sounds better. The labels have been changed but everything remains the same.

Fitch goes on the interact with a letter from his friend Bob Havenor. They touch on several important topics, but I want to focus on one of them:

Last year there was a spirited debate on the “Reclaiming the Mission” blog regarding a mega-church in the Pacific Northwest that sued a smaller venue for daring to use the larger church’s name. Most of the comments argued over the importance of “branding.” Where is the voice challenging the very legitimacy of naming a fellowship?

After several years as the next big thing missional appears to be fading fast. The clearest evidence of that decline may also be a major reason why: namely, the “missional church” is often just a re-branding of the same Christian product that Americans have been steadily rejecting for thirty years. In the comments section of Fitch’s post, Bill Kinnon poignantly illustrated this fact with one simple link.

I’ve lamented the theological problems with branding and marketing the church, but a more practical concern is simply that there is a rapidly shrinking market for the Modern American gospel.

I’ve now spent the last two years largely away from church. In that time, we’ve built amazing friendships in our neighborhood and been immersed in utterly irreligious circles. One of the things I’ve learned is that nobody has any interest in being saved, being discipled, going to heaven, getting right with God, being forgiven of sins, or having a relationship with Jesus – much less being missional. Yet, these are the slogans we market. The church at large expends tremendous resources trying to create interest in these features and benefits, with less and less success each year.

Same great gospel, fresh new scent!

Which gospel? Take your pick: we now have neo-Reformed missional churches, Baptist missional churches, Wesleyan Missional churches, Anglican missional churches, non-denom missional churches, charismatic/pentecostal/third wave missional churches, and so on. I would need both hands to count the number of church plants I’ve seen in my area in the past few years (including mine) hang their missional shingle only to shut the doors a short time later. They’re all selling the same thing nobody is buying.

Another fun thing I’ve been doing the past two years: eavesdropping on discipleship groups. Usually this happens in a restaurant or cafe. I’ll be enjoying my coffee while next to me, at a table, are two or three people indoctrinating each other. Here’s what I’ve realized. Most of what we call discipleship doesn’t actually involve teaching people how to affect change, it involves teaching people the language of another time, place, and culture, and then correlating it – usually wrongly – with those slogans above.

This is all very weird to regular people.

What regular, irreligious people care about passionately are their families and friends, their recreation and entertainment, and their dreams and goals for a better life. They also care about the local issues, institutions, and policies that make their lives more difficult. Beyond that, if there’s time to think about it, most people care about the turmoil in the world too – most just don’t know what to do about it.

Here’s one idea: what if we stopped seeing our pet versions of church and the gospel as products to sell, and embraced “church” as a social strategy instead? The gospel would become the message about who we are and what we’re doing and the church would become the means of organizing. We wouldn’t be constantly strategizing about how to get people in to church and how to keep them in church – because the church becomes the strategy for affecting radical social change. This would allow for churches of all shapes and sizes, with all sorts of short-term and long-term of missions, full of people with all kinds of beliefs. Some of these church would intentionally end after a period of time, other would likely last a lifetime. Some might be locally rooted, others might transcend location.

Just one idea. Maybe it could work. After all, the Christian ecclesia – gathered in response to a herald of Christ’s new commonwealth and empowered by faith in the same – has been the single most dynamic and effective means of positive social change in history. Maybe it would be smart to get back to that.

Whatever the solution, if the American Church is going to thrive beyond the next generation, we’ll need a coherent translation of the gospel that captures people’s imaginations about what’s possible in and around the issues they care deeply about. But to do that, the gospel itself will have to be liberated from it’s own Modern cultural and sectarian moorings (and some of our Christian mores too).

Will that change come through the mission church? I hope so. Probably not. But one way or the other I suspect most of us will live to see the utter decimation of the American church in its old form and a breathtaking resurgence in a new one.

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  1. Angie says:

    I read your posts and just never know how to respond except to say, “Yes.” The words just don’t come out anymore.

  2. Ben Sternke says:

    Love this: “what if we stopped seeing our pet versions of church and the gospel as a products to sell, and embraced “church’ as a social strategy instead?”

    Make disciples, and then “church” becomes how disciples organize themselves in communities that join God in the renewal of all things.

  3. Jason says:

    You should know Ben…doing good work out there.

  4. Roy says:

    well said, man. The employees I work with might ask me about what it means to be “born again” once a year. But I get asked more about managing stress, marital discord, parenting, relationships, etc.

    I also notice that as my view of the Gospel shifts from selling something to living (S)omething, it is easier for me to talk about my Christian faith as it relates to the present circumstance where it maybe relates and gives hope. People want hope for their life situation and I truly believe that the Christian faith can offer hope. But the hope is presented in a way that is void of the religious babble and hoops we sometimes make it out to be.

    Jason: you put words to ideas and thoughts I’ve had but don’t know how to articulate them. You are truly gifted. Thanks for sharing it.

  5. JR Turtle says:

    In response to the centralized/decentralized discussion and Fitch’s point about missional becoming “another commercialized program”, I concur. I really think our trouble with thinking about missional in a way that makes sense is directly correlated to our inability to think about the church in a meaningful way. Yes, the church is “missional”, but it is the CHURCH that is missional. There must be something that exists, the life of which people can be invited into (a community marked by baptism, the eucharist, the preaching of the word etc.).

    “What regular, irreligious people (who are these “regular, irreligious” folks, by the way?) care about passionately are their families and friends, their recreation and entertainment, and their dreams and goals for a better life…”

    Right. But the gospel *isn’t* simply a “means of organizing” the varying pieces of our life. For example, the gospel challenges various pieces of our lives, and we ought not shy away from that challenge because “regular irreligious” people don’t care for it. I say, so what. To borrow from Hauerwas, the primary task of the church is to be the church and this isn’t simply a strategy for better organizing our busy N. American lives. You’re right though, the church *is* the strategy, the church *is* the locus of mission. Thus, rather than figuring out how we can get more people in on it, perhaps our time would be better spent bearing witness to this reality. This means gathering together regularly, baptizing, breaking bread, proclaiming the word and so on *regardless* or whether or not the masses flock in because *this itself IS mission*!

    OK, I’ve said too much, and that was off the cuff so I may have spoken out of turn but I’m open to correction and dialogue here.

    Oh, one more thing for Ben Sternke – how can the “church” become about how disciples organize themselves when we cannot think of “disciples” apart from the church?


  6. Ben Sternke says:

    Hi JR, good question!

    I know that theologically speaking, we can’t think of disciples apart from the church, but practically speaking we can. The way most people use “church” is essentially to denote an organization that may or may not be rooted in making disciples, and every pastor knows there’s plenty of stuff to do to maintain the structures and apparatus of “church” that has nothing to do with making disciples.

    So I make the distinction for their sake. I tell burnt-out, weary pastors that if they focus their energy on “building the church” they may or may not get disciples of Jesus, but if they focus their energies on making disciples, they’ll always get the “church” from that process.

    I’m not making a theological point as much as an organizational one.

  7. Tom Clegg says:

    Bless you one and all for this thread.

    I’ve participated in this conversation for many years now and have often thought, what would happen if we put as much energy into being the church we want to be as we do talking about being the church we want to be?

    We either lead by example or not at all.

    Grace and peace and Philemon 6

  8. Jason says:

    Thanks for pitching in JR. Certainly the implications of the gospel challenge every aspect of our lives. The implications are literally cosmic. I don’t particularly care if Jesus is popular, but I do care if Jesus is dismissed because the message about him is incomprehensible amid all the religious noise. It’s an absurdity that the implications of the gospel are cosmic, but most of the “regular” people I know (perhaps more on what I mean by “regular” some other time) don’t recognize much positive practical significance to Jesus whatsoever. Usually we chalk this gap in understanding up to their sin, or hardness of heart, or that God hasn’t granted them faith, or…whatever. Pick your favorite religious cliché.

    I’m suggesting Christianity in general – and the missional movement in particular – have thus far struggled to translate the gospel into meaningful post-Christendom language and have failed to deploy the church in a meaningful post-Christendom form. This is a primary task for any missionary. Yet I think we are largely still trying to colonize post-Christendom with outposts of the ghosts of Christendom’s past.

  9. len says:

    Great post, and really points right back to Luke 10 for me – go out and do mission where you are – go out empty and listening because the baggage you carry will trip you otherwise. I sat with a native elder a few weeks ago and heard some deep wisdom – “When God sends you to do a new thing you can’t build on old foundations.”

  10. Josh M says:

    “Yet I think we are largely still trying to colonize post-Christendom with outposts of the ghosts of Christendom’s past.”

    I really appreciate the way you stated this as I think it resonates deeply with the desire of missional movements to be an outpost of the Gospel in their communities. However, the issue as always is what is mentioned above:

    “… if the American Church is going to thrive beyond the next generation, we’ll need a coherent translation of the gospel that captures people’s imaginations about what’s possible in and around the issues they care deeply about.”

    With all of the ideas we come up with on how to be missional outposts, at the end of the day it would appear to me that the only way we keep a safe distance from these aforementioned ghosts is to find ways to engage what is important to the people in our communities. Let the Gospel intervene in their lives instead of trying to intersect their lives with the Gospel.

  11. This is an encouraging article, stepping in the right direction, I think. What troubles me is the latent instrumentality of “social change strategy”. Love the communitarian feel but I fear the concept where it keeps us in the drivers seat – and its only a matter of time before we drive that new model into the ditch, too.

    Whatever missional means it means Jesus taking the wheel.

  12. JR Turtle says:

    Right, OK, sorry for the delayed response!

    @Ben, thanks for clarifying that distinction. I do think that however we’re going to address these problems needs to be (organically – Fitch!) theological informed and not simply pragmatic. In contrast to focusing energies on either “building the church” or “making disciples” I’d contend we’d better spend our energies on “being the church”. This may or may not result in the building of the church or the making of disciples (either qualitatively or quantitatively).

    @Jason, I hear your concern (that Jesus is dismissed amid all the religious noise) and think it is totally valid. However, is there not a particularity to the church that requires the learning of a language? I’m not thinking of clichés here, but the learning of a language and rhythm that doesn’t come naturally to us. I’m suggesting then, that there *is* an “incomprehensibility” built into the gospel, built into the church that yes, often makes Jesus nonsensical amidst all the noise. So, what do we do? Is the goal to help folks recognize the “positive practical significance” of Jesus? I’m not totally sure what to make of this, but it strikes me as missing something that I can’t quite articulate at the moment. Your final sentence is a dense one! I don’t want to presume what you mean by colonizing post-Christendom with outposts of the ghosts of Christendom’s past, so if you get a moment perhaps you can flesh that out a bit for me.

    OK, that’s enough from me for now. Peace.

  13. Jason says:

    Fixed that for you Duke ; )

    I love your comment about the dangers of social change strategy, mostly because I think it’s a very important issue. However, I may disagree with you. It would be fun to explore that further, so I’m going to make a brief post about it today. Feel free to move the discussion forward there.

  14. Jason says:

    @Ben – An incomprehensibility built in to the gospel? Certainly in the sense that it is a message about God, and Christ…and ultimately you and me as well. And we are all incomprehensible, each and every one of us – and none more so than God, which is ultimate incomprehensibility. In that sense, language about that which is incomprehensible will always be difficult, imperfect, and require translation. Not so that we can protect the incomprehensibility of God – which is what religious language strives to do – but because we seek to draw nearer to that which eludes us, namely, God and self.

  15. JR Turtle says:

    While I agree with you that’s not the sort of incomprehensibility I had in mind. I was thinking more along the lines of the foolishness of God’s wisdom that is made manifest in Christ Jesus and in the church. The inbreaking of the Kingdom, the church as foretaste of God’s eschatological reality, the church as a colony of heaven, all this is incomprehensible to the mind not enlightened by the light of Christ (and we needn’t shy away from that). And such an opening of ones eyes is not an act that can be accomplished through translating the gospel and the Christian life into a language that “makes sense” to folks (even to folks in the church who always ought to be submitting to this reality). Rather, such an opening of the eyes takes place (and continues to take place) as folks are drawn into the life of the Living God in the life of the church (more specifically, as the word is preached and the bread is broken – this is how the eyes of the disciples were opened to Jesus on the road to Emmaus!). So then, the primary task of the church isn’t an act of translation but an act of worship. It is not a life of “incarnation” but a life in which the Incarnate One abides, and we in him. This is precisely what it means for the church to “become the strategy for affecting radical social change” as you say. It’s not in what we do, it’s in who we are as our lives are taken up into the life of Christ via baptism and the Eucharist and as we submit to the preaching of the word. These very actions (i.e. baptism, Communion, preaching of the gospel etc.) are themselves “incomprehensible” and require more than simply to be made comprehensible. They require action, or participation. This is what opens peoples eyes to the inbreaking Kingdom of God, not particular church strategies missional or otherwise.

    So, more directly related to your opening line (“I’m getting the sense there may be concerns about the state of the missional church.”), there is no “missional” church. There is only the church that baptizes, gathers around the table for nourishment, and submits to the preaching of the word and in so doing points towards the reality of God’s Kingdom. The missional piece, properly understood (I think), is the understanding that the life of this very community which is marked out by quite particular signs *is a life which is not closed in on itself but rather open to the world*, into which people are invited. This inviting, this reception of new believers, this “passing on” of the faith (or “traditioning”) requires a translation to be sure, but it is the translation of one’s life in light of the gospel, not a translation of the gospel in light of one’s life so as to make the gospel more “meaningful” or what have you. It’s not so much about selling something people want to buy, so much as it’s about embodying the truth of God for the good/sake of the world.

    Sorry, I hope I haven’t hijacked the conversation here, and I’m not trying to be over antagonistic or anything!

    OK, peace!

    ps – As I re-read your paragraph starting “Here’s one idea…”, maybe we’re really saying the same thing. And I’d also note that this is all incomprehensible to *Christians* as well, which is why it requires ongoing participation and submission.

  16. len says:

    Sadly, incomprehensible to most believers because we have bought into the legitimacy structures of western, militaristic, triumphalistic culture. As Brueggemann puts it, speaking of land, “When the Creator God is eliminated from the question of ______, then the question is characteristically resolved … on the basis of power, without any question about legitimacy. Thus in large scope it is fair to say that the story of ownership, control, and governance of the land is a narrative of strength against vulnerability…” JR, I like the way WB speaks of that need for new language, his familiar use of “cadences..”

  17. Ben Sternke says:

    @JR Turtle – agree with you on “being the church” which is very similar in my mind to being disciples of Jesus.

    @Jason – assuming you were directing your incomprehensibility question to JR (not me), who of course originally brought it up, and answered it! :)

  18. Jason says:

    @JR – Really good thoughts here. I agree that translation isn’t the primary task of the church, but it is indispensable. All our acts of worship are not only translated, they are themselves cultural translations – archaic ones, in fact, some of which should perhaps be reconsidered. For this reason I disagree with you on at least two points:

    1) It may be theologically true that only Christ can open one’s eyes, but it isn’t practically true. We open each others eyes when we communicate love. To say, in the midst of it, that Christ is really the one who does the work is a theological truth we give voice to because doing so keeps us grounded in humility and gratitude. But it isn’t a factual statement on this side of perceptive human experience.

    2) I think there is such a thing as the missional church. I would define it as any church committed to the missiological task of incarnating and translating the gospel outside their native culture. There are plenty of churches who remain faithful to the primary acts of worship you’ve described, but do so only within their native culture, and in many cases their “native” culture is decades or centuries past.

    This is fun. Thanks for playing along : )

  19. Jason says:

    @Ben – Yup, sorry…

  20. Jason says:

    @Len – You had me at “Brueggemann.”

  21. Ben Sternke says:

    On the issue of instrumentality (Duke’s comment above), here’s some food for thought from Rodney Stark:

    “Christianity revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationships able to cope with urgent urban problems. To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services.”

  22. Jason says:

    @Ben – Fantastic.


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