Problems with Missional

There have been some posts addressing the problems with the missional movement. Here are a few you may want to read:

Scot McKnight’s post Test Your Church. Scot’s post is not so much a slam on missional as a whole, he endorses much of what is good about missional church. In the process he does offer some critique of those who talk more mission than are actually engaged in any form of mission.

Mike Breen’s Why the Missional Movement Will Fail (HT: Eric Brown). Breen says the problem with missional is that it is like a car without an engine. You are trying to spin the wheels without anything powerful pushing the process along. He says the engine that should turn the wheels is (as would be expected from Mike) none other than discipleship. He says this,

If you make disciples, you will always get the church. But if you try to build the church, you will rarely get disciples…

If you’re good at making disciples, you’ll get more leaders than you’ll know what to do with. If you make disciples like Jesus made them, you’ll see people come to faith who didn’t know Him. If you disciple people well, you will always get the missional thing. Always.

We took 30 days and examined the Twitter conversations happening. We discovered there are between 100-150 times as many people talking about mission as there are discipleship (to be clear, that’s a 100:1). We are a group of people addicted to and obsessed with the work of the Kingdom, with little to no idea how to be with the King….

Look, I’m not criticizing the people who are passionate about mission…I am one of those people. I was one of the people pioneering Missional Communities in the 1980′s and have been doing it ever since. This is my camp, my tribe, my people. But it has to be said: God did not design us to do Kingdom mission outside of the scope of intentional, biblical discipleship and if we don’t see that, we’re fooling ourselves. Mission is under the umbrella of discipleship as it is one of the many things that Jesus taught his disciples to do well. But it wasn’t done in a vacuum outside of knowing God and being shaped by that relationship, where a constant refinement of their character was happening alongside of their continued skill development (which included mission).

The truth about discipleship is that it’s never hip and it’s never in style…it’s the call to come and die; a “long obedience in the same direction.” While the “missional” conversation is imbued with the energy and vitality that comes with kingdom work, it seems to be missing some of the hallmark reality that those of us who have lived it over time have come to expect: Mission is messy. It’s humbling. There’s often no glory in it. It’s for the long haul. And it’s completely unsustainable without discipleship.

This is the crux of it: The reason the missional movement may fail is because most people/communities in the Western church are pretty bad at making disciples. Without a plan for making disciples (and a plan that works), any missional thing you launch will be completely unsustainable.

I can’t think of any better way to say it. I had a hard time knowing when to cut off this quote because I just kept saying, “Yes, yes, yes” through his whole post.” Also see his followup post, “Why the missional movement will fail Part 2”.

Jason Coker’s “The Problem with Missional. He points to several problems in missional movements including: too much decentralization, too much branding and marketing of missional as a cookie cutter or overlay to put on top of existing churches (I would add without addressing the underlying issues that run counter to the very missional culture they are trying to foster).

Coker believes missional is “fading fast” due in part to a cultural shift in America that just isn’t interested in what new flavor is being taste tested at the local church. What is more Coker says that our approaches to discipleship appear weird to outsiders and that the solution is to speak to what “irreligious people” care about the most…

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 are some specifics about how he sees that conversation taking place that includes a radical change in how we see “church”,

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.

I think Coker is on to something here. The first is that our definition of “church” is changing and the definition you assign to that term will play a huge role in how you move forward. Do you view church as static or dynamic? Are we to be stuck in the 1st century or have the freedom to be Christ’s community in the 21st century? Is it about a facility and a specific hour each week or about a community? How we define church and what flows out of that definition is vitally important and it is imperative that we allow scripture to inform our definition. Second, I agree with Coker that “church” as past generations have understood it is being “decimated” and believe something more biblical and powerful is going to arise from the ashes. Young people today have a great zeal and will do some crazy things for God…they need to balance that boldness with wisdom and knowledge of God and His Word.

Where I have some disagreement with Coker what drives the content of our conversation. I agree that we have to be answering questions people are actually asking, I don’t believe that our talking points need to be based on what people in the world believe are most relevant to their lives. Now, I am all about relevance and think you have to be relevant but I am also keenly aware that non-Christians don’t know all the things that are most relevant or needed in their lives. The Gospel is entirely relevant but it often runs counter to the thoughts and ways of the world (appearing even as foolishness, Paul would say). My only point being, what is more relevant to lost people won’t always be received as relevant at first but that can’t keep us from talking about what they most need to hear. Words like sin, right/wrong, and moral absolutes are not always popular…but they are biblical.

Last, my fear for the missional conversation is that it will run the route of the emerging/emergent conversation (when was the last time you discussed that with anyone?). The nail in the coffin of that conversation was the lack of a unified definition. Everyone defined it however they wanted to such an extent that the conversation came to a screeching halt because there wasn’t a unified vision for what was even being discussed. Seems to me that is what is happening with missional to some degree.

For a third post on this see David Fitch’s Is Missional Doomed?

About mattdabbs
I am a minister, husband, and father. My wife and I live and minister in Saint Petersburg, Florida. My primary ministry responsibilities include: small groups, 20s and 30s, involvement, and adult education.

3 Responses to Problems with Missional

  1. Pingback: this went thru my mind |

  2. pastoralia says:

    Nice summary of these posts Matt, and I appreciate your thoughtful interaction with me on some very complex topics. Keep up the good work!

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