“And all the nonsense of emerging, and Emergent, and new monastic communities, and, you know, all of these various kinds of ridiculous conversations – I’ll tell you as one on the inside, they don’t have converts. The silly little myth, the naked emperor is this: they will tell you it’s all about being in culture to reach lost people, and they’re not.”
I get this kind of remark often in places where I speak. It usually goes something like this: “We love the missional theology. But does it work? How many converts have you had in your missional church? Is it (like it’s some kind of strategy) reaching the people you’re talking about?” And so it goes, the modernist drive to measure success raises its ugly head. Yet this does not offend me because these are important questions. For I believe if we are not seeing people transformed by the gospel then “missional” in the end means very little.
So my response to Driscoll would go something like this:
1.) I agree. There is a stunning lack of sustainable communities in the movements addressed by Driscoll and I think this is disturbing. The reasons for this are different though depending on who you’re talking about: emerging churches versus missional churches.
2.) Regarding missional churches, it is difficult to survive as a sustainable missional church (versus your standard Driscollesque mega church). Missional church ecclesiology is organic and incarnational. It does not fit easily with denominational expectations. This creates economic pressures for the missional leaders. I believe it takes 5- 10 years to nourish a missional community into a true functioning existence. This doesn’t fit with established denominational models of church planting (especially evangelical). This creates added pressures and less support for missonal church plants. Missional church plants therefore generally start out with alot of energy but often die by the end of year three. The planters have big dreams but soon burn out when the financial pressures and the long time it takes to see the work established gets to them. This is why we need support systems and ways of preparing missional leaders for these extraordinary circumstances. Al Roxburgh and Mark Bibby are working on this with their organization (Allelon).
3.) Regarding emerging churches/Emergent Village, I don’t believe they intend to plant church communities that would lead to converts. Instead at least Emergent, (and a lot of emerging folk depending on which stream you’re talking about) promote conversations (cohorts?). They seek to foster critique and seek “reform” within Christianity. I am not denying that there are vibrant emerging churches out there in the many different streams (our church has been accused of being an emerging church). But this is not their thrust. I also don’t see Emergent/emerging possessing a soteriology and church/culture commitments that would emphasize the idea of conversion (although I have heard Brian McLaren talk openly and freely about conversions within the belonging-believing conversation).
4.) Having said all this, the number of conversions for missional church communities could still match the mega churches on the basis of percentages (if we were counting). This is Brother Maynard’s point. I think that the missional communities that do persist may have a higher conversion rate than the Drsicollesque mega church. Missional churches are so much smaller. 6 conversions from a group of 25 over ten years would match (or exceed) the percentage growth of a typical mega church. I think it would be interesting to measure how much dollars per conversion are spent in missional churches versus mega churches five to ten years from now when conversions start manifesting themselves in missional churches. I know I am not supposed to think this way, but I still smile when I think that indeed missional churches could be more cost effective when it comes to conversions because we resist spending money on buildings, programs and the show.
5.) We must also recognize that “missionary conversions” take longer than mega church conversions. They are also more difficult to measure for often “conversion” happens as a process within a community (I could give you several examples within our own church). I argue that a conversion of a post-Christendom “pagan,” who has had little to no exposure to the language and story of Christ in Scripture, requires five years of relational immersion before a decision would even make sense. If you do not have this immersion/context, any decision that is made is prone to be a consumerist one. It in essence is a consumerist decision. It is made based on the perceived immediate benefit. It lasts as long as this perceived benefit remains important. It does not lead to discipleship.
I believe it takes five years to provide such a context for someone totally foreign to the gospel. I suggest therefore that true missionary conversions, which I suggest missional churches are after, take much longer periods of time than the kind of conversions that are most often generated through mega church. For I believe that the mega church is largely appealing their message to people who once grew up as a child in old forms of church and know the Story but quit going to church. These now “unchurched people” require the old messages to somehow be made more relevant. These unchurched need to be be “revived” or called back into a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. There’s nothing wrong with this, it’s just different and we should recognize that. We should also recognize there is less and less of these kind of unchurched people left to make church more relevant to.
The bottom line is then, if we would reach the lost souls of post Christendom, the church in N America must go missional, incarnational, organic. We must become intertwined with those we seek to reach. Yet this will take time and appear to be highly inefficient in the terms we have become used to in the church growth/mega church world.
This is why I believe that Mark Driscoll has missed the point. I think he speaks too boldly about the lack of conversions in missional and neo monastic communities. I think a helpful thing to do would be for Mark to take a survey of his own church and ask how many converts at Mars Hill heard about Jesus for the first time through Mars Hill? How many came from other church experiences? How many are ex Catholics who learned the entire Christian catechism and then walked away only to become Christians at Mars Hill. I know Seattle is considered post Christendom territory. I also know that Driscoll considers being Catholic the equivalent of being damned to hell. Could it then be that the majority of converts at Mars Hill are what remains of the Christendom generations: more like the mega church type of conversion I described above? Not to say this is not all valid work for the Kingdom. Yet it is different work. For, at least theoretically, these are people being converted from a different base than those we pursue in the missional church. Missional missiology is aimed at those lost in societies of post Christendom. And this kind of mission takes longer. To me Driscoll misses this point.
What do you think?