October 4, 2012 / David Fitch

Just Another Program? Is “Missional” Doomed?

Is “Missional” doomed to being just another overlay upon the existing structures of U.S. American church structures? Is it doomed to become another brand within the consumerism that has become so prevalent in American church?
I think we (the missional movement) have a problem. And I would like to see us have some substantive discussion about it. We, the missional church, its thought leaders and practicioners, 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.

The goal of shaping church life into the neighborhood never happens. The attempts to reorient a church from inner focused maintenance functions to outward oriented Kingdom (Gospel) living in neighborhoods and daily life, fails. All we’ve done is put forth a few really great ideas, some compelling theology, that is then absorbed by current church structure that was built for paying the bills and looking like success according to some severely problematic American cultural standards.

To those involved in the missional movement, are you worried about this? People who run conferences are you bothered? I know as I continue to press for local incarnational expression of the gospel, and I find myself in conferences as well, I find myself getting grumpy? Should I be?

Then I get this letter from a friend (Bob Havenor) in Ft. Wayne this week and it hits all these buttons. It’s lucid, concise and provokes. I offer it here with my response in italics. I’d like to know what you (who are committed to the missional movement) think. Here’s the letter with my comments in bold italics. After you read it please give us your comments. We need to talk openly about this.




From Bob Havenor,


The Missional movement is becoming the new Emerging Church. The mainstream Missional movement is chock full of smart people with passion and purpose who rightly see the failure of the Western church culture to impact its own back yard. The latest attempt by church people to reinvent the Church is failing precisely because they are repeating the same error: assuming that new ideas within the same structure will produce radically different results.

It’s the structure, stupid.




Inviting followers of Jesus to gather at a certain location on Sunday morning—or even (radical and edgy!) Saturday or Thursday evening—services invites more problems and pressures than missionally-inclined leaders can overcome. It’s the unavoidable cultural assumptions upon which Western church structure is built that is fast-tracking the Missional movement to the same irrelevancy as their Emerging brothers.


I agree with you Bob. When the focus of a young community goes to the Sunday gathering as opposed to seeing the Sunday gathering as a rhythm within the entire week, it changes things and warps the church’s development into the neighborhood. I’ve seen it again and again. Starting with a focus on the Sunday gathering is deadly. However, I still see the gathering as essential spiritual formation for mission. The formation that happens here is what resists the church from being absorbed into “the world’s” story. But it must be led with an understanding of worship as formation into the reality of what God is doing in the world. It must be a practice that arises out of living one’s life weekly in the neighborhood.


Starting a “missional” church sounds like a good idea. However, it has several fatal flaws: it reveals and reinforces our schizophrenic definition of the Church; and it continues our weakened notion of discipleship.

By “fatal” here, we are talking about ultimate cultural impact, not whether a local fellowship will fail to meet its budget and have to close its doors.


I think you’re talking about a church that starts by distributing the traditional goods and services of Christianity from a central place, i.e. traditional evangelical church. This is not what I think of when I think of “missional church.” I think about the rhythms of the Kingdom being lived in the neighborhood. As we are present with everyday life (of which worship is part of) God uses us to bring in the harvest of people into the Kingdom. 


That this should even enter the conversation touches on our split personality. We state that the people are the Church. But how many of us do this in the context of a service where people are regularly gathered in a fellowship with a unique (and radical and edgy!) name over and against all the other fellowships with unique (and radical and edgy!) names where they listen to and follow the directions of a select group of professional clergy? Once they leave they can talk about “going to church” at “their church” and listening to the pastor talk.

Once we give our fellowship a name, we’re done as truly missional people. Nobody is strong enough or clever enough to overcome centuries of Western worldview in congregants’ minds with words and ideas while using the structure that opposes missional and incarnational impact and reinforces the dominant worldview.

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? This is a revelation of the depth of our worldview even among missional believers.


Agree! Especially with the way branding works. Nonetheless, there is the other danger: that we fear public presence so much that we never engage the local neighborhood/community with a corporate witness. We basically end up “staying in our basements” and our Christian communities turn introverted, over-focused on our own problems and enjoying our own close friendship.


The Western conception of “church” as a gathering also militates against true discipleship. Try as we might to change the definition and deepen the lesson, while we stay with the old structure we continue to create traditional “disciples.” By “traditional,” we are speaking of the weak intellectual American version dependent upon sermon series, men’s Bible studies and podcasts by the latest celebrity speaker rather than by demonstrated lifestyle commitments and incarnational impact.


Agree here again. And yet I see the other side as well. That discipleship requires corporate practices – the Eucharistic Table, the proclamation of Gospel, the practice of reconciliation, being “with” the least of these, the five fold gifting,  being “with” children, Kingdom prayer – all of which are corporate practices where the Kingdom breaks in. Nonetheless, the evangelical church IMO has often taken these practices and made them maintenance functions for existing Christians in effect neutering them from any impact in the world (another blog post needed here 🙂  ).


You can’t get there from here. The structure of Western church ministry and the worldview upon which it rests is suffocating the well-intentioned missional folk who dwell therein.

The common rejoinder to this kind of talk goes like this: “The local church is biblical. So is professional clergy. You know, ‘Don’t muzzle the ox’ …”

We need to challenge the notion of the local church as we know it, suggesting that we are hearing the voice of our worldview more clearly than that of the New Testament in this regard.

Jesus tells some challengers that “man was not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for man.” Suppose that the local church and a professional priesthood are good biblical things, or at the least benign. Now suppose that the structure that gives legitimacy to those dynamics is no longer capable of creating and sustaining impact in this era of history.

Don’t we have the mandate to step away from failed structure into the murky riverbed of a great unknown? This is the conversation that just might put Missional movement into the proper context.

Bob Havenor, Fort Wayne, Indiana, September 30, 2012


I too think “missional” is in danger of being turned into another product as opposed to an on-the-ground incarnational movement into the places of life in N America. I agree that the current structures of the church make it hard (maybe even impossible) to shape a new movement of God’s people into the contexts. I think we all need to read your letter and think hard about what we’re doing.