Here we go again. The blogosphere is questioning the fruit of the missional churches. As Brother Maynard reminds us: we’ve been here before. Several months ago these subjects were discussed in relation to Mark Driscoll’s rant on the subject (see that here and here). Two weeks ago I spent a day with (the prolific and unflappable) Ed Stetzer where, together with uber blogger/film producer Bill Kinnon (and wife Imbi), we filmed an interview at Trinity Evangelical hammering each other on this topic. He wrote a good piece which I debated him on here (can’t get into his blog right now for some reason). Now comes Dan Kimball who asks the same questions again on Out of Ur, asking “where’s the fruit?” in relation to smaller missional churches and “how can missional enthusiasts dismiss the attractional churches as ineffective?”
I respect and concur with Dan Kimball (and others) that missional advocates must be careful not to lose the significance of conversions. I have addressed it here. I agree that we should be asking where is the fruit? I have addressed that here. I agree we should recognize that mega churches have a vital ministry – especially among the backslidden of Christendom. I have addressed that here. Yet I have tried to articulate why mega church structures ARE NOT conducive to being missional as defined by the theology of Missio Dei articulated by missional authors. See that here. Somehow in spite of it all, it seems the two different types of practitioners – missional and attractional- keep talking past each other. To me, this suggests that the cultural and theological paradigms required to understand missional are not being recognized or communicated well. So instead of trying to explain my take on this all over again (and becoming numbingly repetitive), I offer three direct questions to the mega-attractional church practitioners who question the fruit of missional churches. I hope that these questions, if seriously answered lead to the patience required by missional church work, as well as enable attractional practitioners to recognize the paradigm shift involved in missional. I just ask the attractional practitioners to seriously look at their churches and answer these questions directly. Here goes:
1. HOW DO THE STRUCTURES OF YOUR ATTRACTIONAL CHURCH SHAPE (TRAIN) YOUR PEOPLE INTO CHRISTIAN DISCIPLESHIP AND MISSION?I’m not talking here about initiating people into four steps, or four bases, or four whatever. Rather, missional types see that the very ways people gather shapes them into what it means to be a Christian. The way we worship, the kinds of things we look at, the habits that are enforced, the way we sit, the structure of passivity, the anonymity, the filing in and out by the thousands at a specific time, the parking lot attendants rushing you out the maze: we see all of this as training the people into being in relation to God and each other in a certain way. Therefore, to attract large amounts of people into one room, and offer a directed performance of worship from the front, trains people to be passivized, observers and consumers of Christianity. And it counteracts everything of what it means to be the church for missional thinkers and practitioners.Missional types see the very life lived between three or more people as that which reveals Christ’s forgiveness, reconciliation and the gospel looks like. It is the social-linguistic context that makes possible the communication of the gospel to post Christendom people who have no context to understand the gospel at all. Attractional mega churches attract, appeal to a need, provide an attractive package and by their sheer numbers work against this kind of community that makes possible this kind of encountering of the gospel. Sure it is still possible to split people into smaller groups, but the sheer formative power of the large attractional gathering trains the habits of every believer into self selecting a comfortable community for other purposes other than mission. The sheer habit of coming to church for something and pouring untold energy and resources into this “event” removes people (who both serve and come) out of the orbit of being in the lives of non-Christian people.
2. WOULD YOU CAST A SIMILAR EYE OF SUSPICION TOWARDS THE RESULTS OF (OVERSEAS) MISSIONARIES WORKING AMIDST “UNREACHED PEOPLES’ GROUPS”?… say like in the 10/40 Window? Missionaries have pioneered Christ’s mission into cultures where there has been no witness of the gospel at all or in recent centuries. The work has been slow and painful. It has taken years. Do you have the same questions about their fruit?It takes time to tell the Story and provide the context for a complete stranger to the gospel, enculturated into other socialities. This must be done for these strangers to even know what it might mean to confess “Jesus Christ is Lord.” For many of us, this is the situation we find ourselves in” post Christendom. The mega churches have done a needed and important work in ministering to the de churched who had at one time a reference point in the church (even if it was only for their first seven years). But there are not many of those people left. And so as missional churches seek to incarnate Christ and enter neighborhoods with the gospel in word and deed among the places of post Christendom. The results here will take much longer. It is no different than the missionaries who pioneered missions into unreached places. It took years of patient toil. In my own denomination, the fruit only exploded after thirty forty years on fields like this. If we had the attitude of some of the questioners of missional fruit, there would be no gospel in these places many years later. Instead, we need to encourage our missional church planters to sow the seed wt patience, grace and perseverance.Attractional churches do well within Christendom. It’s a fact: people who have a previous knowledge and initiation into the faith in their earliest years, are better primed to receive a “more relevant” presentation of the gospel and to respond.In post Christendom, the social patterns for people coming to church have largely disappeared. This is now mission work. The idea of attractional church assumes that everyday people would want to come to church to hear about God, that they would see the church as authoritative. “Invite your friends to a service!” Yet I have no doubt that mega churches serve Christendom well. In Korea, where there is a large Reformed Presbyrterian remnant, it makes sense that mega churches would do well. Likewise in the Southern states they will flourish. Even in parts of Chicago, Seattle and Santa Clara, there will be remnants of Christendom. Where there are those who are looking to find a relevant Christianity that they knew in their childhood, mega churches will do well.But in the new cultures of post Christendom, these kinds of efforts will fall flat. How else do we explain the failure of mega churches to work in Europe, Ontario (versus Alberta where Christendom reigns), and the North Eastern United States on anywhere near the same scale they work in the Southern United States (Bible Belt) and Canadian Alberta? . For sure there are a few in these places, but they do not have the overwhelming success that they do in places dominated by Christendom. Compare Nashville to Toronto Canada.We should therefore evaluate the success of missional churches in the same way we have always evaluated missionary efforts where pioneer missionaries work in lands completely separated from the gospel. Here it took years (30-40-50) to produce significant fruit. But just as missional house church movements of various shapes and sizes took over large parts of communist China and Viet Nam where there could be no attractional church, we believe these missional efforts here in the Post Christendom enclaves of N America will bear fruit. But for now, missional communities must labor, as many missionaries in darkened fields of old, in daily tending, nurturing and planting of new communities that can relate to these places that have lost the gospel.
3. WOULD YOU TAKE THE FOLLOWING SURVEY OF YOUR CHURCH AND TELL US THE RESULTS?My final challenge to the skeptics (charitable as they are) of missional churches and the advocates of “attractional models” is to find out exactly what you’re doing. I know we all have our stories. I have no desire to deny the significance of each individual victory of Christ in a single person’s life. I ask however that all attractional advocates(and missioanl skeptics) to do a survey, not unlike Willowcreek did with its Reveal Survey, except do it much cheaper and less costly. This will not require a marketing guru. Take a survey of the people who come to your church Sunday after Sunday and ask these three questions.a.) How many of your church members have come from other churches? b.) How many of your church member conversions have had significant prior exposure to the Christian faith in their lives, via their parents, or upbringing? c.) If you are a young church, how many of your people have come from evangelical church upbringings and have been dissatisfied, they come seeking a more relevant cultural expression of the gospel they grew up with?I would like to know these hard facts. Not that it is not a noble calling to call those with prior exposure into a more personal faith. Not that it is not a noble calling to make the gospel relevant to newer generations of Christian when other churches are failing. But missional church leaders are called to something else. We are called to the lost of post-Christendom. This means the conversions will often come slow, and the training out of bad consumerist habits will be frustrating. But if we don’t do it, the statistics are that this church in North America will continue to shrink into oblivion. For even though we have mega churches, the statistics are that the church is not even holding its own as a percentage of the N American population. There has only been a migration from small churches to big, from one kind of church to another.Ironically, I think if missional churches would do this survey, they would probably have answers similar to the mega church. The difference is we are struggling to form communities to reach the post Christendom lost. Ironically, I think as the materialist excesses of our day come crumbling down, we might just see what Viet Nam and China have seen before us in a missional movement. At least that is what we pray for as both mega church practitioners and missional church practitioners seek to be faithful to our particular callings.