Friday, August 14, 2009

What is the missional church anyway?

I must have been theologically asleep for the last ten years because, until a few months ago, I had completely missed the missional church. I’m sure it’s been featured in journals that I regularly read or in conference workshops. Perhaps I thought my own church—the United Methodist Church—was already missional, since mission work has been a hallmark of Methodism from the birth of the church in the eighteenth century. Like Rip, I’ve finally awakened to this new reality and have discovered fresh energy as I read, dialogue about and explore all things missional.

That missional church is easily collapsed into mission programs or foreign missions is apparent in conversations I’ve recently had where I try to explain what the missional church is. More often than not, people hear “mission” and nod their heads because, if they’re part of an institutional church, they think they understand what that means. But they fail to hear anything new, and the distinctive features of the missional church are lost.

In a discussion of the missional challenge of postmodern culture, philosopher and theologian Diogenes Allen suggests that “[we] remain captives within a mental framework that has actually been broken ... We are like prisoners who could walk out of a prison because all that would enclose us has been burst open, but we remain inside because we are asleep.” The world has changed; even basic understandings of what it means to be church are changing, yet we remain mired in older paradigms that we find difficult to disentangle ourselves from. The creation of this blog grows out of my own frustrations over missional conversations and my failed attempts to offer a definition that is true to the missional reality and yet somehow different from what we’re currently doing in the institutional church.

This work has also emerged from my dis-ease as a pastor in the institutional church: a growing itch that what we were doing in church is often so lifeless compared to what we were doing outside the church, and a deep hunger for something more. One Sunday afternoon, I spent several hours during and after worship tending to a major plumbing problem at the church. No doubt it was important even necessary work. Later that day, I enjoyed time with our youth at Salvation Army, watching them serve tables, dish up a dessert they had baked themselves and wash dishes, all without complaining, with smiles on their faces, engaging the folks who were at table. The plumbing experience seemed so disconnected from the energy of the youth serving at Salvation Army. At the time I would probably have argued that these are just different kinds of ministry. But I knew there was something fundamentally different about them and yet I couldn’t articulate what it was, other than to say that being with the youth was fun and plumbing wasn’t! I needed new language and categories to interpret my experience.

I finally stumbled on the missional church at our Annual Conference book sale this past June. I picked up two books by Reggie McNeal, The Present Future and Missional Renaissance and jumped in. I highly recommend both books, but only if you are prepared to have everything you have ever believed about the church put to the test! Also, providentially I suppose, my wife (and pastoral partner) had chosen a conference in Chicago for us to attend this summer organized by The Center for Parish Development which sponsored some of the earliest conversations and writing about the missional church.

So what is the missional church? It’s neither a church program nor a technique for church growth. It’s a fundamental re-visioning of what it means to be the church. One definition that seems to catch the main emphases of the missional church is that of Milfred Minatrea: “a reproducing community of authentic disciples, being equipped as missionaries sent by God, to live and proclaim His Kingdom in their world.” While each word in that definition is integral, the operative word to me is ‘sent.’ Most churches I’m familiar with have down pat what it means to gather as God’s people; however, I fear that we have largely lost what it means to be a community sent into the world. I don’t know about you, but I’m not happy with that state of affairs and would give anything to recover our ‘sent-ness.’ While the missional church is not a panacea for all the ills of modern church life, it certainly seems to promise a way back to our calling as people sent on a mission.

Minatrea quotes John Steinbeck: “We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” That’s certainly true of mission. I have often found myself in places and with people doing things that I could not imagine without that deep trust that God was in it. And this is also true of my foray into the missional church. In some ways I feel like everything I have learned up to today has prepared me for this new day. But I also have to confess that I have no idea where it all will end up. I look forward to finding companions on the way, both at home, among colleagues and on the internet. I invite you to join me.

Grace and peace for the journey …