This post is part 4 of 5 in a series on missional and incarnation life. You can refer back to the Series Overview to see the posting schedule. Comments which are going to be addressed in a future post may not be responded to at length until after that post is up. Thanks for reading and engaging in this conversation with me! - Bret
Living missionally is counter-cultural even though the word “missional” has become quite popular.
I used to joke around that if I ever wrote a book I wasn’t going to give it a catchy title because if people liked it and used it in conversation, then they’d eventually hate it and would write and say horrible things about me simply because they were tired of hearing my catchy title.
(I’ve since realized that people are going to (and sometimes already do) say hateful things about me whether I made money selling a bunch of books or not, so I might as well get paid...if I can ever actually write something people want to read, that is.)
So, these days, as this word has been thrown around in conversations defending everything that used to be called “emerging” or before that “progressive,” I’ve had people say to me, “No one even knows what that word ‘missional’ means. Its just a buzzword and will go away.”
That’s the way of language and I’m not here to defend or deconstruct the term missional. However, I do find it helpful as a descriptor of a way of “doing” and “being” church in this world. The missional mindset recognizes that the Call of God is one that leads to Sending - because God is a missionary God. Missional means a turn towards the Other and towards others, because God is the Community that creates space for others to share in that community. Missional means that we do not exist for ourselves and we are not blessed for personal gain. We who would attach ourselves to this Jesus must acknowledge that it is a following, not a sitting. Our concern is participation in the fullness of life in God’s Kingdom; proclaiming to our neighbors and co-workers that there is much cause for hope, because the empires of injustice will not have the final word!
Missional means an orientation toward the life of faith that understands the church as the people whom God has both called and sent. We have been called to join God in God’s ministry of reconciliation, not to sit on the sidelines and simply cheer for our team.
That sounds not too far off from what lots of folks have called for, so why would I call it counter-cultural? The reality is that we give plenty of lip-service to such concepts and yet the realities of our existence tell a different story.
Brian McLaren was one of the first to really challenge me in this regard with several of his books including, More Ready Than You Realize. In that book he called us (Christians) out for being bad neighbors. Just because we mow our lawns and keep the noise down doesn’t make us good neighbors. When we go weeks, months or even years without interacting with those who live across the street, are we a good neighbor? When we miss opportunities like a block party or neighborhood picnic because we’re rushing off to Bible Study, are we good neighbors?
If we aren’t good neighbors can we really be good Christians? Its one thing to not have yet lived up to that which you are striving, but what about when being a neighbor isn’t even on our radar?
Being a “missional church” isn’t about a new worship style or even structure. I am all about contemplative spirituality - ask anyone who knows me. I enjoy spiritual disciplines such as silence and solitude, Lectio Divina and even liturgical prayers - in fact I even lead retreats based on these practices. None of that has anything to do with being missional though.
I enjoy a more subdued worship gathering - candles and simplicity in the worship flow rather than the highly polished theatrical production - but that has nothing to do with missional.
Those who equate missional church with the recent turn toward contemplative atmosphere and a reclaiming of ancient practices are mistaken.
Those who equate missional with Emergent have made a similar mistake, even though many who consider themselves participants in the “emerging church conversation” are deeply concerned with issues of missional and incarnation living (sadly, the ‘emerging church conversation’ has in many places devolved into nothing more than candles and lectio alongside the same old thinking it initially sought to critique. My cynical side says that the Evangelical money machine was too powerful and tempting to hold off forever.)
Though I find a lot positive to say about a house church approach, it is not itself to be equated with missional church either. Things like contemplative worship and house church refer to forms - not to substance. Certain forms in certain settings may in fact be more conducive to missional life, but this isn't something that can be stated universally as though the form carried the meaning itself.
One of the roadblocks that we’ve encountered in fundraising has been the very different approach to church life that we are advocating. Decentralizing leadership, de-emphasizing programs and attendance numbers, choosing not to advertise or seek out Christians looking for a new church home, developing relationships and starting house churches among the suburban poor, engaging in the slow process of befriending skeptical folks who are antagonistic towards Christianity...all of these things can be hard for traditional churches and church folks to swallow. I understand that.
Not having a 3 year plan to self-sufficiency makes business-minded folks nervous. I understand that too. (I have another post coming that actually addresses why this simple, missional model - though not doing much to generate financial support for the church planter - is actually a more sustainable model than even the high-impact, large Sunday morning attendance approach.)
I do understand that this stuff is hard for some to wrap their minds around. I’ve written about the theological and Biblical foundations for the missional/incarnational approach and in the next post I’ll address some of the practical benefits as well.
With the remainder of this post I’d like to highlight VERY briefly a few folks who are leading the way in cultivating new communities with just this type of commitment. If you would like to see examples of the missional focus being lived out in real communities, (beyond our stories of life among folks at Shenandoah, Denny’s, front yard cookouts, etc) you can take a look at these communities and ministries.
Tom Sine, on his website states about their group, The Mustard Seed Associates, “We work to inspire (plant), connect (cross-pollinate) and create (harvest). Believing God is changing the world through mustard seeds – the seemingly insignificant – MSA seeks to unleash the creative potential of ordinary people to make a difference in their communities and a world of urgent need.” In his book, The New Conspirators, he talks about the “mustard seed conspiracies” where people are transforming communities (and perhaps the world) through the small and simple rather than the large and impressive. But its the small and simple life lived rather than propositions believed, programs attended or organizations joined.
David Fitch, church planter and professor, is focusing on the launching of “missional orders” where groups of around 10 people agree to move into a neighborhood together. They share life together, worship together, show concern for the poor together. It is very hard to be an anonymous pew sitter when there are no pews!
Elaine Heath at SMU has been starting New Day Communities (new monasticism) which are similar to these missional orders. They practice a shared Rule of Life, work for justice in their neighborhood, and engage in a way of living which is shaped by following Christ together, in full view of their “secular” neighbors everyday.
Hugh Halter and Matt Smay in Denver are not only living this kind of life in their church communities called Adullam (Hebrew word meaning "Refuge"), they are training and equipping others to do so all over the country through the missional church apprenticeship program (MCAP). Their book The Tangible Kingdom and its companion Tangible Kingdom Primer give some very concrete glimpses into a missional and incarnational lifestyle. One of the things I really like about these guys is their stance that the “Tangible Kingdom” is not about a particular model of church. We can be for or against an incarnational living out of our faith in whatever situation we find ourselves.
Others are also dedicated to this shared vision of living missionally and equipping others to do so. Alan Hirsch’s work with Shapevine and FORGE in Australia and Cam Roxburgh’s work with FORGE Canada (formerly The Missional Training Network) have been able to bring together networks of missionally minded communities for mutual encouragement and support.
I've just recently, at Cam's recommendation, learned of the work that Martin Robinson and Together in Mission are doing in the UK. These folks are working with denominations, networks and local churches to plant missional churches.
Mission Alive, the church planting network we’re associated with has a similar commitment to community. The emphasis on moving from theology to practice can and should stand in opposition (in part) to decision making based on “what works” or through market analysis.
I give you these examples not as an indicator of those who’ve gotten it right or to say that these churches, communities and ministries are more holy than something else. I'm certainly not suggesting that this is an exhaustive list of the all things "missional" - that isn't even possible because the whole idea of missional life means that most of the occasions where it is being lived are never seen by the larger world. My goal here is simply to provide those who are wondering, “What does this look like?” and “Is it even possible for this to exist beyond idealistic dreaming?” with some tangible examples of folks who are living similarly to what we’re attempting.
While there is a growing community of churches seeking to operate with these principles, we are still in many ways blazing new trails in our American context (its new to us, even though it would seem quite familiar to the many of the very ancient followers of Christ). We’re trying to sort through logistics and things like funding, but make no mistake we are already seeing the transformative impact this way of life can have - on us and on our new “sojourner” friends (as they are referred to in The Tangible Kingdom).
That is why I don’t have any problem asking people to come together and help us with the financial resources to continue this missional living experiment. It is hard right now and we must continue to evaluate where we stand and how things are progressing. However, in my next post I want to address practical issues like the financial sustainability of this model.