What’s Next for the “Missional Conversation?”

This article is reprinted from the December 2015 edition of “Missional Voice” with the permission of Forge Canada. Be sure to track with these friends for more great resources!

When the book Missional Church was published in 1998 few, even among those who immediately embraced its conclusions, would have imagined those ideas would be so rapidly and so widely accepted. Pastors, churches, theological colleges, even whole denominations have adopted missional concepts and language, if not in whole then at least in part. It would be hard to find a contemporary Christian social media hub, magazine, or conference that has ignored this movement. Seminaries and Bible colleges throughout North America now not only have courses, but whole programs in missional church and missional leadership. Huge inter-denominational networks have sprung up, connecting hundreds of pastors and churches to discussion of current developments in missional practice. Books on missional themes have proliferated to the point that no one can afford to purchase, let alone find time to read them all.

It would be fair to say that the job of stirring up the conversation over the mission of the church has gone better than anyone, including those, like Forge Canada, who have been working steadily to that end, could ever have expected. In short, in the war of ideas constantly raging in the evangelical church, ‘missional church’ looks like a battle won.

So, what next?

In this brief article I want to draw attention to four areas where there remains a great deal of work to be done by those concerned for a missional vision of the church.

Missional Language v Missional Theology

It is one thing to celebrate the widespread adoption of missional language, however, it is quite another to see our theology, missiology and ecclesiology catch up with the words we use. While missional language is certainly in widespread use, that does not automatically mean the concept is well understood. In fact, the word ‘missional’ has become an adjective of uncertain meaning that is misapplied as a descriptor added to the title of programs that have been running in the ‘consumer-friendly church’ for years. For a church to grasp what it is to be missional it is not enough to change its language, it must become a church rooted in every aspect of its life and ministry in the character of God. This means that the nature, structures and practices of the church must reflect the character, relationality and actions of God. Changing language may help to alert us to the true character of aspects of our church life, but language alone is no substitute for radical reform.

Pragmatism v Theology

In the early days after the publication of Missional Church its authors were bombarded by the same question wherever they went: “What does a missional church look like in practice?” The question behind the question was “What do we need to do?” It was rightly pointed out that such pragmatism flew in the face of the call to theological reflection on the church’s mission that was at the heart of the missional message. Nevertheless, ecclesiological reflection without application seems devoid of purpose; a tree that bears no fruit.

Today, as more and more blogs and books are written purporting to help churches to become missional, the equal and opposite danger has begun to loom large. It is now very easy to pick up a book addressing the how-to’s of missional church – often concerning topics like becoming good neighbours – and find no reference whatsoever to the fundamental theological convictions underlying a missional vision of the church. Books and blogs of this type proliferate while the stream of on-going ecclesiological and missiological reflection, once so prodigious, has all but dried up.

The temptation for anxious pastors and churches to revert to a ‘what works?’ mentality is strong, but it was this consumer-focussed mind-set that was one of the key factors putting the church out of sync with the mission of God in the first place. Theology must come before pragmatism. Only from a deep, reflective and experiential knowledge of the Missional God will we be in a place to join Him in His mission in the world. What looks to us to be working is, all too often, far from what ‘working’ looks like in the eyes of God.

Being Good Neighbours v Evangelism

One of the great contributions of global missiology to the missional conversation in the Western world is the spotlight it has placed on incarnational mission. As the Western church has wrestled with the incarnation of Jesus – sent into the world to a specific people, in a specific place, at a specific time – we have seen in His example a model for our own sending. Out of this has emerged a growing conviction that local churches are called to love our literal neighbours, and to demonstrate the life of the kingdom of God in the midst of our actual neighbourhoods; that we are called to be good neighbours, who genuinely care about the well being of our local communities. This care is often expressed in terms of doing God’s good in the world.

At the same time, the focus on becoming good neighbours, committed to real relationships with those on our block or in our neighbourhood, has begun to be pitted against any kind of explicitly evangelistic emphasis. Evangelistic events and activities are regarded with suspicion. Even the use of the word evangelism – a significant New Testament word – has come into question. Rarely will you find it used in a missional or neighbourhood ‘how-to’ text. Instead the focus falls on building a “great neighbourhood” or an “abundant community.” We must beware of trading in the good news of the gospel for a more publicly acceptable message of community development. As Scot McKnight has helpfully reminded us, a kingdom is only truly present where there are subjects. Good works, even though they are good news, must be accompanied by the name of Jesus if they are to be a foretaste of the coming kingdom of God.

Passion v Preaching

Closely related to the questioning of evangelism is the even deeper suspicion in which preaching is increasingly being held. Not all preaching mind you. Preaching that is a personal call to arms – the oratorical equivalent of the anthemic songs that have become more and more popular – such preaching is welcome and even celebrated. However, systematic exposition of the scriptures without a thematic agenda, other than that of the biblical author, is increasingly seen as outmoded and unwarranted.

A key reason for this is the sincere desire to move away from church being identified with a single, Sunday morning event. The argument is that church is not a service; it is a movement of followers of Jesus on mission with Him in the world. Parts of this mission include worship and teaching, but these must not become the be-all and end-all of church life. So it should have come as less of a surprise when one leading figure in the missional movement in North America proudly announced to me that he never spends more than twenty-five minutes in sermon preparation and never more than an hour in total in planning for his church’s worship service.

There is a strong case to be made for the danger of the worship service becoming an idol in the church’s life. It is easy for us to fall into the temptation to focus much of the time and effort of church leaders on ‘putting on a good show,’ so as to keep attracting folks back to the next show, next week. However, fundamental to the spread of the missional vision of the church is the declaration of that vision out of the pages of Scripture. Serious expository preaching takes a whole book of the Bible and, rather than mining it for principles, allows the church to immerse themselves in its challenges, comforts, encouragements and warnings. It is hard to see how we will not fall into the trap of seeking only ‘what works’ if we are not students of the person and actions of the Living God as disclosed in the pages of His Word. Our preachers need to be opening up to us a vision of the Missional God, His character, His purposes, and His invitation to us to join Him in His mission in the world. Only in this way will we have the theological resources to be able to embody the convictions bequeathed to us in the missional vision of the church.

What’s Next?

Ultimately, what is next for any local church depends upon the Architect of the church, the Holy Spirit. So the ‘how-to’ application of this article is simple: in everything and in every way pursue Him. The more of ourselves and our churches we surrender to the Spirit, the less these conflicting emphases will matter, and the more glory we will give to Jesus our Missional God.

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