The problem with missional


I’m getting the sense there may be concerns about the state of the missional church. Last spring, Ben Sternke wrote

Thus one reason missional ventures fail, whether they be church plants or missional communties or training programs, is that we attempt to decentralize before we have sufficiently centralized. We try to send folks out on mission without really discipling them into a way of life that will sustain mission.

Ben makes a great point, but between the lines is an acknowledgment that missional churches are struggling. That’s to be expected. All church plants struggle. But more recently, David Fitch chimed in and seemed more than a little concerned:

I think we (the missional movement) have a problem. And I would like to see us have some substantive discussion about it. We [...] are in danger of allowing “Missional” to become another commercialized program we overlay on top of existing American church structures. The result is that nothing really changes. It just sounds better. The labels have been changed but everything remains the same.

Fitch goes on the interact with a letter from his friend Bob Havenor. They touch on several important topics, but I want to focus on one of them:

Last year there was a spirited debate on the “Reclaiming the Mission” blog regarding a mega-church in the Pacific Northwest that sued a smaller venue for daring to use the larger church’s name. Most of the comments argued over the importance of “branding.” Where is the voice challenging the very legitimacy of naming a fellowship?

After several years as the next big thing missional appears to be fading fast. The clearest evidence of that decline may also be a major reason why: namely, the “missional church” is often just a re-branding of the same Christian product that Americans have been steadily rejecting for thirty years. In the comments section of Fitch’s post, Bill Kinnon poignantly illustrated this fact with one simple link.

I’ve lamented the theological problems with branding and marketing the church, but a more practical concern is simply that there is a rapidly shrinking market for the Modern American gospel.

I’ve now spent the last two years largely away from church. In that time, we’ve built amazing friendships in our neighborhood and been immersed in utterly irreligious circles. One of the things I’ve learned is that nobody has any interest in being saved, being discipled, going to heaven, getting right with God, being forgiven of sins, or having a relationship with Jesus – much less being missional. Yet, these are the slogans we market. The church at large expends tremendous resources trying to create interest in these features and benefits, with less and less success each year.

Same great gospel, fresh new scent!

Which gospel? Take your pick: we now have neo-Reformed missional churches, Baptist missional churches, Wesleyan Missional churches, Anglican missional churches, non-denom missional churches, charismatic/pentecostal/third wave missional churches, and so on. I would need both hands to count the number of church plants I’ve seen in my area in the past few years (including mine) hang their missional shingle only to shut the doors a short time later. They’re all selling the same thing nobody is buying.

Another fun thing I’ve been doing the past two years: eavesdropping on discipleship groups. Usually this happens in a restaurant or cafe. I’ll be enjoying my coffee while next to me, at a table, are two or three people indoctrinating each other. Here’s what I’ve realized. Most of what we call discipleship doesn’t actually involve teaching people how to affect change, it involves teaching people the language of another time, place, and culture, and then correlating it – usually wrongly – with those slogans above.

This is all very weird to regular people.

What regular, irreligious people care about passionately are their families and friends, their recreation and entertainment, and their dreams and goals for a better life. They also care about the local issues, institutions, and policies that make their lives more difficult. Beyond that, if there’s time to think about it, most people care about the turmoil in the world too – most just don’t know what to do about it.

Here’s one idea: what if we stopped seeing our pet versions of church and the gospel as products to sell, and embraced “church” as a social strategy instead? The gospel would become the message about who we are and what we’re doing and the church would become the means of organizing. We wouldn’t be constantly strategizing about how to get people in to church and how to keep them in church – because the church becomes the strategy for affecting radical social change. This would allow for churches of all shapes and sizes, with all sorts of short-term and long-term of missions, full of people with all kinds of beliefs. Some of these church would intentionally end after a period of time, other would likely last a lifetime. Some might be locally rooted, others might transcend location.

Just one idea. Maybe it could work. After all, the Christian ecclesia – gathered in response to a herald of Christ’s new commonwealth and empowered by faith in the same – has been the single most dynamic and effective means of positive social change in history. Maybe it would be smart to get back to that.

Whatever the solution, if the American Church is going to thrive beyond the next generation, we’ll need a coherent translation of the gospel that captures people’s imaginations about what’s possible in and around the issues they care deeply about. But to do that, the gospel itself will have to be liberated from it’s own Modern cultural and sectarian moorings (and some of our Christian mores too).

Will that change come through the mission church? I hope so. Probably not. But one way or the other I suspect most of us will live to see the utter decimation of the American church in its old form and a breathtaking resurgence in a new one.


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