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#ChurchTrending: Six Assumptions That Must Make the Missional Shift

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In exploring trends that are shaping or misshaping the church, we might discover several common leadership assumptions that must shift toward a more missional posture:

1. The Right Program

Although most would be quite reticent to admit it, we continue to assume that if we can just find the right program and strategy and implement it well, the church will be back on track and ‘succeed’. In fact, some have presumed that ‘missional’ is this next ‘latest and greatest model.’ I confess, I have been there done that. The challenge at hand for the church however is not a problem to be solved, a need to be met or an issue to be addressed with another program or plan.  The challenge is whether we can learn to sit and listen to the other, the neighbour and the neighbourhood where God is at work ahead of us. Residing in this unfamiliar and often uncomfortable ‘space between’ as Alan Roxburgh refers to it, where leading is more about being attentive and vulnerable then about strategizing is both disorienting and disturbing for most church leaders. When Moses encountered God in the burning bush, he realized with fear and trembling that he, like we, was being called out of the predictable, secure, comfortable and safe environment of Midian and into an unknown future where God was leading and already at work. Moses had to trust, obey and take the risk of letting go of all that he had known and been, in order to embrace and become all that God had already called and made him to be in this new reality. The strategies and skills of his role in his father-in law’s household ‘program’ were neither adequate nor appropriate to the new journey and world ahead of him. However as Moses listened and followed, God provided, equipped and empowered him along with others such that God’s will was done on earth as it is in heaven.[1]  In the same way, missional leadership exposes our illusions about being able to order church and society with the right programs and strategies. As we find ourselves in a place outside of such systems, we learn again to trust the Father and engage without the familiarity and security of our predetermined schemes and agendas, models and plans.

2. More is Better

Another assumption that arises out of popular leadership trends has to do with our understanding of the nature of “success”. Many including myself, have measured church success in terms of having more and more people attending on Sunday mornings and participating in church educational opportunities, service projects, etc. but if God is to be found in ‘out there’ and missional leadership is all about faithfully following the Incarnate One who lived among, loved unconditionally and embodied the space between with grace and mercy then “success” is not about “church attendance”. In fact, the focus of the church moves from “onstage” to “off stage” which releases, values and empowers us to cultivate lives in and with our neighbourhoods rather than commit our time and effort to “onstage” in-house activities.[2]  After all, the One we claim to follow, left heaven’s stage to walk the back rooms, caretaker’s closets, and parks at the end of the block and, to sit at the tables of the other.  Can the church get off her stages and into her neighbourhood?

3. Hub and Spoke

Another related leadership trend is to presume that an expert, professional ‘hub’ has all the answers. It supposes that those at the centre (imagine a wheel) have the resources, expertise, knowledge, power and authority to lead, provide for and guide those at the other end of the spokes. The assumption is that the latter, i.e. your every day ordinary Christian is, well, to be put it crassly, ill-equipped, ignorant and incapable on their own. It creates a dependency on an outside source which neither inhabits nor relates to the context, denies the giftedness and Presence of the Spirit at work in every believer and therefore, will never be sufficient for that people and place. It assumes that “one size fits all” and that that “size” can be managed, stimulated and controlled by the systems, structures and experts of the hub. In so doing, it implies that what those ‘on the rim’ need, does not reside within them or is insufficient. [3] Yet, it is this very insufficiency that opens us up to the work of the Spirit! In this vulnerable space we experience the wonder and joy of trusting the Spirit as we return from a foreign yet promised, land, carrying a cluster of grapes on a pole between us.[4]  As missional leaders step out of the hub and spoke mentality, leaving “their baggage behind” and “enter[ing] into the life of [their] neighbourhood” as the vulnerable ones,[5] the Spirit teaches that “what God is doing has a lot more to do with the stranger and receiving hospitality than being in control of the resources and the answers.”[6]  According to Henry Nouwen, “the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self. That is the way Jesus came to reveal God’s love.”[7]

4. It’s All About Me

A fourth and related default concerns the individualistic approach to life and faith that has become so prevalent in the Western church’s understanding of who she and what she is to be about. It’s about me: my needs, my relationship with Jesus, my comfort, salvation, etc. Church leaders therefore not only give their attention to the needs and perspectives of the individual but are arranged according to a hierarchy of individual relationships. Catholic missionary Vincent Donovan deems both idolatrous. Love of the former consumes the vast majority of the church’s resources, time, energy and talent producing “a plethora of meetings and chapters and synods and councils and committees” while “individualism has its obsessions also: individual responsibility, individual morality, individual vocation to the priesthood, self-fulfillment, individual holiness and salvation…with little room for community in between.”[8] Charles Taylor calls this the “unprecedented primacy of the individual.”[9] The organization seeks, trains, pastors and caters to the individual forming an association or collection of self-selecting individuals whose particular preferences and priorities determine the length and depth of their engagement in the voluntary association we call church. But does Christianity make any sense outside of “communitas”, the community of God’s people formed by, witness to and participating in God’s mission?[10]  Missional leaders recognise the importance of WE, of the community not only in terms of discipleship, the shaping of imago Dei in the image of our Lord and Saviour but also in terms of our vocation as the city on the hill, the salt and light of the world in the world. Alan Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk assert that “Missional leadership is not effectiveness in meeting the inner, spiritual needs of self-actualizing and self-differentiating individuals or creating numerical growth. It is different from building healthy, non-anxious relationships among members of a congregation so that they appear attractive to people outside the church. Missional leadership is cultivating an environment that releases the missional imagination of the people of God.”[11] Jesus sends out the twelve as well as the seventy/seventy-two in pairs implying not only that it is about our going but that we cannot bring good news on our own but are sent together to do so.[12]  The togetherness of the Gospel reminds us that “it is Jesus who heals, not I; it is Jesus who is Lord, not I…we proclaim the redeeming power of God together. Indeed whenever we minister together, it is easier for people to recognize that we do not come in our own name, but in the name of the Lord Jesus who sent us.”[13] In fact, it is when we are in community (two or three) in Jesus’ Name that we are assured that Jesus is there among us.[14]  Ministry or mission and therefore missional leadership then, are not only a communal experience but also a mutual experience.[15]

We are in this together!  The church then is a self-organizing ‘community on mission’ not, as has been assumed so often, a managed system. John McKnight and Peter Block make the comparison, stating that the latter is:

“very unpredictable and unmanageable…Associational life is essentially self chosen order. Open space. System life is essentially imposed order. Closed and bounded space. A self organizing group is built and focused on people’s gifts, whereas a managed system is built and focused on people’s needs. For example leadership in systems focuses on personal improvement goals based on what is missing. Leadership in community life goes to people for their gifts and focuses on what is present…In this way, we become citizens once again, the producers of our lives.” [16]

Leading this kind of an ‘abundant community’ challenges missional leaders to break out of systems management into the “unpredictable and unmanageable” “open space” from where he and she can together call forth and encourage all to become citizens of their own neighbourhoods (again or for the first time) and of the Kingdom of heaven (again or for the first time) as “communitas.”

5. Just Believe

A fifth trend, particularly in the tradition of which I am a part, is to assume that if we believe the right things, everything else will fall into place. Greater clarity and agreement on theological issues, our confessional statements, etc, will lead to a stronger and more effective church. Clearly, what we believe is important, but are such statements enough to prepare us for and engage us in God’s world where actions speak louder than words and in which experience, more than argument, communicates truth? The truth is that we can have incredibly beautiful and thorough confessions framed in our foyers and even implanted in our minds and– change nothing. Having invested a great deal of time, energy and effort into making these statements just right, we may yet find ourselves disconnected from the agency of God and unmoved by the wind of the Spirit stirring up Kingdom life right next door. The missional leader in contrast recognizes that our beliefs are shaped by our actions and that when ordinary people of God, “re-experience the biblical narrative in the conviction and confidence that [they] can hear and discern the ways of God among us” in their neighbourhoods, rightness becomes more about right questions and attentiveness to the Spirit and the people with whom God has placed us.[17]

6. Church in Space

A final notion that I believe has distorted who we are and what we’re about as God’s sent ones relates to that last statement, “with whom God has placed us.” The North American church functions and seeks to achieve its purposes in “space.” Commuter congregations occupy a generic space once or twice a week where we believe that what we do will attract and bear witness, disciple and grow those who attend and those to whom we “do outreach” but: We are not stake holders. In this space, we are service providers with our own agendas. When God goes on mission in contrast, Godself goes in person and in place, living among, engaging with as one of: It is an incarnational identity and a call to inhabit, to be somewhere; “it’s a call to the neighbourhood.”[18] The postures and practices of a community on God’s mission require that we are embedded in a particular community. Missional leadership realizes that discipleship and witness are shaped and embodied in real places for “everything that the Creator God does in forming us humans is done in place. It follows from this that since we are his creatures and can hardly escape the conditions of our making, for us everything that has to do with God is also in place. All living is local.”[19] It is far too easy for me to commute to my church activity, do it well, pat myself on the back and go home to another life such that my faith, discipleship and witness are simply another thing on the weekly agenda as opposed to a way of life, amongst others with a street address. Eugene Peterson asserts that “What we often consider to be the concerns of the spiritual life- ideas, truths, prayers, promises, beliefs-are never in the Christian gospel permitted to have a life of their own apart from particular persons and actual places. Biblical spirituality/religion has a low tolerance for “great ideas” or “sublime truths” or “inspirational thoughts” apart from the places in which they occur.”[20]  What does it mean for the church to inhabit places instead of run events in spaces?

There is evidence that the response to these presumptions is being birthed in God’s ‘ordinary’ people in everyday neighbourhoods across the continent. The question is can we — will we — as missional leaders continue to let go of the security, familiarity and predictability of our modern assumptions in order to commit to leading from among with postures and practices that are shaped by the Spirit of God embedded in a neighbourhood for the sake of the Gospel?

This indeed could be the Kingdom come NEAR for a world tired of ‘the latest and greatest’ program and plan.

  1. Exodus 3.
  2. Alan Roxburgh, DMin.7616, Missional Leadership (Chicago, Il: Northern Seminary, July 2013).
  3. Craig Van Gelder, The Ministry of the Missional Church, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 2007), 90.
  4. Numbers 13:23.
  5. Alan Roxburgh, Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 127-129 in reference to Luke 10:1-12.
  6. Roxburgh, Missional: Joining God, 123.
  7. Henry Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, (New York, NY: Crossroad, 1989), 30.
  8. Vincent Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1978), 68.
  9. Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press 2004), 50.
  10. Alan Hirsch, quoted by Michael Frost in Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture (Peabody, MA:Hendrickson, 2006), 123. “Communitas” is “a community infused with a grand sense of purpose; a purpose that lies outside of its current internal reality and constitution. It’s the kind of community that ‘happens’ to people in actual pursuit of a common vision of what could be. It involves movement and it describes the experience of togetherness that only really happens among a group of people actually engaging in a mission outside itself.”
  11. Alan J Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk, The Missional Leader, (San Fran, CA: Jossey Bass, 2006), 122.
  12. Mark 6:7, Luke 10:1.
  13. Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus, 59.
  14. Matthew 18:19,20.
  15. Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus, 59.
  16. John McKnight and Peter Block, Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods, (San Francisco, CA: APA and Berrett Koehler, 2010).
  17. Roxburgh, Missional: Joining God, 137.
  18. Simon Carey Holt, God Next Door: Spirituality and Mission in the Neighbourhood, (Victoria, Australia: Acorn Press, 2007), 77.
  19. Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 72.
  20. Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, 75.
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