You Can't Get There from Here: What Missional Theology Really Means

          Several major books have appeared in recent months acknowledging, bewailing, and analyzing the vagaries of “missional” in North American churches.  Since its appearance in the 1998 book The Missional Church, “missional” has become the adjective de jour in church circles.  Nothing, it seems, can escape being labeled “missional” these days.

          While some have despaired of salvaging the term, others find it important enough to try to retrieve it from its impending “death by a thousand bastardizations”.  My sympathies are with this latter group.

          The only way I can see to retrieve “missional” for its original and proper use is to insist on the theo-logic of the view.  For those of us in North America, missional theology requires a rethink and remake of the church from the ground up.  That's what I mean by “you can't get there from here”.  Missional theology cannot be an add-on, a new emphasis, a program for church development or growth, or a course of study for a Sunday School class.  Missional theology, in other words, cannot be grafted on to or blended with the theology and philosophy of church as we know it today.  Missional theology is, in fact, a stringent critique and call for a fundamental reworking of the very notion and structure of church we have inherited.  As I said, “you can't get there (to missional) from here (the traditional church).

          The increasing number of efforts to try and massage the traditional church into a missional form, well-intentioned as they are, are IMHO doomed to failure or to such a small degree of change that it hardly justifies the time and resources spent to attempt it.  You cannot missionalize a traditional church without it ceasing to be a traditional church.  And my experience with that suggests that fatal resistance to such an effort will arise long before any serious change in the traditional structures and attitudes takes place.  About the only way I can envision something truly missional arising out of a traditional setting is the provision for a missional group to grow and develop within the traditional church with the aim of the group eventually leaving that church and establishing itself as a missional community/church in its own right.

          This time, energy, and resources would be better spent, it seems to me, in building new missional communities from the ground up.  It's usually easier and cheaper to build a new home than it is to completely renovate an existing one.  And in the end you end up with what you really want.  So with missional church, I believe.  Honor the work of God in and through the traditional church, commend it to God, and go forth to establish and grow new missional churches.

          As long as “missional” theology fails to be so distinguished as the root criticism of the traditional forms and structures of the church as we know it, it will continue to be the “nose of wax” it has become in our culture, capable of being pushed and punched into any shape desired.  Until we grasp that missional theology means, viz-a-viz the traditional church, that “you can't get there from here”, its impact will remain minimal, distorted, diffuse, or mainly theoretical.  Only a vigorous effort to reclaim missional's birthright can unleash its potential for the church in North America.


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