I know many are fatigued by the use of the word “Missional”. Many see it as just another fad, I hear that. I can’t stand the smell of fads either. Honestly that’s why I have a love/hate relationship with the word. The more I travel around, I’ve observed that “missional” is increasingly becoming a commodity. Missional is developing into an available tag that can be pasted on any ministry-thing doing a new-thing. I’m disappointed it’s been picking up commercial collateral that has been steadily draining it of inherent implications. So should I bail on the word? Well? Personally and emotionally the word Missional has deep meaning to me. I could junk the word if need be. To understand why “Missional” offers me a frame of reference it is best to understand the quest that landed me in this awkward space I inhabit with others.
(This post expresses opinions about certain theological camps. I have friends in all of them and respect their voices highly. The following is simply my interpretations from my experiences in each tribe. In no way do I want to stereotype or make sweeping authoritative generalities on these movements. I believe all of have contributed something valuable to the future) Sorry, this post will be longer than normal.
My Tipped Apple Cart
16 years ago I was a raw, passionate youth pastor seeking an authentic expression of following Jesus. I had this rebellious edge to me that was often a misdirected weapon I aimed at church sacred cows, which often led me into cynical arrogance. In 1997, along came a quirky Hebrew scholar named Dr. George Snyder who became a bit of a mentor for me. He wasn’t unnerved by my rebellious spirit. Over the period of two years we conversed over numerous cups of crappy instant coffee. We discussed Judaism, the narrative of scripture, personal character and the oddities found in the Bible. He was the “master-asker”. He asked good, careful questions that would haunt me for days. Unknowingly he tipped my apple cart and something began to sprout in the turmoil. These conversation-spaces guided me away from cynicism and anger, funneling me towards personal reflection and reconstruction. A spark ignited the beginning of an eager, hope-tinged pilgrimage. Most of my inner stirrings I kept to myself and the safe space of late night conversations with my wife. Together we started a stealth quest to find a way forward.
Traditional Commitments (New Reformed)
I started with what was brewing all around me in what is now called the “The Young, Restless and Reformed”. Many of my pastoral colleagues where exploring a resurgence of Reformed theology that was starting its engines in the late 90’s. Excitement was hovering around this reinvigorated, relevant, perceived more “biblically faithful” option. So I investigated it myself. I read “Desiring God” by John Piper and poured through the collected works of Jonathan Edwards. Piper’s Christian Hedonism angle was intriguing: satisfaction and the pursuit of pleasure in God is essential. That year I attended one of the first Neo-Reformed conferences. There I stood amongst 1,000 other pastors and it started to become clearer that this movements commitments were different than mine. Their portrayal of God was “BIG” and larger-than-life but didn’t seem to look much like Jesus. They spoke loudly of the Christ’s atonement and faintly of His life. They had strong overriding commitmentsto a literal plain-reading of the scripture, male headship, total depravity, the inherent bible, expository preaching and the point of conversion. These traditional commitments seemed to trump most everything else. As a youngster I was able to pick up on the dualism — the stuff of heaven is holy and stuff of earth is sinful. These commitments were their icons. The more I poked around, I sensed their thought was sifted through a certain romanticism of what was nailed-down during the Reformation. The longer we swam around in these waters, my wife picked up a “vibe of combativeness” that hovered around the mission. Despite the brochure about “Contextual Church” their ethos was primarily about two things: defending the Bible and saving more people from Hell with hipper methods. I walked away disappointed because I loved the Scriptures just as they did but their traditional commitments required them to flesh them out very narrowly. I did pick up some valuable items: a passion for exegesis, a seriousness with my own sexual purity and a passion for delighting in God. I put all these items in my backpack and moved along.
Pragmatic Commitments (Attractional Model)
I was simultaneously exploring a refreshed “Seeker/Attractional Approach” to church planting. I was curious about the catalytic growth that refined leadership could stimulate. I was eating any leadership material my budget could afford, books from authors as Northouse, Kouzes & Posner, Stanley, Blanchard and Maxwell. I traveled to Atlanta for a behind the scenes experience in a booming Mega Church. It was a lesson in sensory overload as I was blown away by the preciseness in communication and how well oiled the machine of church could be. But I walked away wondering. These strategies were always directed at the crowds not often at the disciple. I noticed an undercurrent of consumerism that gave everything a base to spring board from. Consumerism and business savvy were baptized in Christian language. Consumerism seemed to be amoral in this environment. To be fair, I know this would not be the explanation of their own efforts. I met many honorable pastors and leaders in this tribe who’s motives I would not call into question. Still, something in this environment didn’t jive with the lowly, humble, anti-empirical nature of Jesus’ ministry. Building successful ministry power-centers didn’t seem to be Jesus M.O. The dependence on organizational excellence and the exaltation of leadership personalities is why I slowly backed away. I did pick up some helpful tools for communication and leadership but the rest I left on the cutting room floor.
Intellectual Commitments (Emergent Movement)
Concurrently I started to plod my way through the works of Moltmann, Hegel and Heidegger. My brain hurt but I became fascinated with postmodernism and neo-existentialism. I would sit for hours on the North Shore of Long Island with a beach chair, an ice cold Coke and a journal for my thoughts. I was processing all this ferociously and “weirding” my wife out with my babblings. I started attending some Emergent meet-ups organized by Youth Specialties back in the early 2000’s. I treasured the space for conversation in these environments. I enjoyed the evaluating and deconstruction. But I began to realize there were commitments and unsaid markers for moving forward. Strong intellectual commitments moved to the forefront that seemed to have been forged in steel from the academy; developments in science, post colonial criticism, feminism and phenomanalism. I was favorable towards a good portion of it but their palette of commitments gradually were becoming an embedded dogma. An aurora of antagonism and cynicism were thick and directed at any tribe outside their tribe. Some well-meaning people were jumping off the cruise ship of Christianity in an attempt to save their spirituality. But there was an ideology of counter-reaction that was anchoring them in another set of extra biblical fundamentals. In many ways their posture looked a ton like the Reformed folks on the other end of the spectrum. Personally, I didn’t like my attitude when I was in this space, it stirred up bitterness, elitism and a reactionary impulse in me. The dialogue was out of balance, only able to identify what was wrong with church and never what was right. We were so enthralled with new rhetoric and criticism that we had little energy left for the ordinary things like discipleship, community formation and submission to the Lordship of Christ. We only had so much attention span and most of it was being swallowed up on certain preferred issues. Again I came away with some treasured nuggets for my weathered backpack; the reality of presuppositions, the value of deconstruction, mutuality between the genders and the value of learning from our progresses in the humanities. Still I felt homeless. Why could I not land? Why did I consistently find myself cutting the fat of a movement and walking away? I felt a little crazy and in some ways I was depressed.
Finding a Way Forward (Missional-Anabaptist)
In 2003 everything began to shift for me. I was nose deep in the Gospel of Mark working through the Sermon on the Mount and I roamed into our churches crusty library to find some commentaries. Instead I found on the shelf three books that became guides, conversation partners for me in my wilderness. One was “Life Together” by Bonheoffer, the other was “Body Politics” by Yoder and the other was “Missional Church” by Guder. Now that I think about it, we had a pretty rad librarian to have stocked such potent books. Those little books uncapped my prophetic imagination. All my impassioned meanderings and studies were beginning to find a container. I journeyed through all those previous tribes to pick up valuable pieces for my puzzle. My wife was a sounding board and wise sage as I verbally de-cluttered. The groundwork for a missional life, a subversive politic and a narrative theology was being laid. I was sensing a way beyond that gave space for mystery, hard intellectual questions, contextualization and my doubts but was compelled by the incarnation, community, the Kingdom of God and submission to Jesus as King.
Still Learning Missional
16 years later I’m still learning. I’m most convinced that “Missional” is about packing light in order to carry the message of Jesus. Missional is a marginal movement. Living missionally demands that we develop sustainable, simple, faith communities in an era obsessed with options, resources, hot-button issues, personalities and cumbersome institutions. Missional launches us into ecclesial experimentation with absolute loyalty to the Lordship of Jesus. Missional also challenges our embrace of political ideologies and philosophical polarities. Missional is responsible to speak prophetically to the Christendom system. To be missional we must embrace that we are bound to a particular people, in a particular place, with a particular loyalty and a particular responsibility. There has been a river of implications for me but I do think there is room to breathe for a diverse amount of expressions. So for now I’m holding onto the word Missional. How about you?