Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America. Edited by Darrell Guder (1998).
It may be a little late to the party to review a text almost twenty years old, but this text is still central for the development of the missional church movement. It collects the thinking of six theologians: Darrell Guder, Lois Barrett, Alan Roxburgh, Craig Van Gelder, Inagrace Diettrich, and George Hunsberger. As a whole, the book makes the case that the church in North America faces a crossroads due to the end of Christendom, and that this change challenges the church to rediscover its missionary nature. It is critical that the church now come to understand itself principally as the people of God who are together drawn into the very mission of God in the world, and take on practices that will help it give witness to the reign of God in the world. The book both serves as a critique of the most common forms of the church in North America in its (then) current state, and as a vision for how the church could begin to live under a new paradigm. That paradigm is radically new, the book argues, and involves extensive shifts in the way churches think about their identity, their reason for existence, their structures and leadership, and their core practices. The vision captured here is extensive in its scope and depth, prescribing shifts in all kinds of churches and changes that reach deep into the fabric of the church.
This book resonated deeply with me. I felt like I was recognizing the source of a stream that I have been drinking from, unknowingly, from a long time—it’s clear that many of the books that have been key in the formation of my own sense of mission are derivative of this landmark work. The greatest weakness of the book is that it can be, at times, ambiguous as to how its new directions play out. The book is providing a broad framework that touches on many areas, and so at times it lacks concreteness. For instance, it doesn’t provide examples of what the ecclesiological model offered might really look like in actual congregations. That weakness has been somewhat mitigated by the publication of Treasures in Clay Jars (Barrett et al., 2004), which can easily serve as a companion volume to provide the needed sketches. Elements such as the leadership model suggested here and the shape of Biblical formation mentioned remain ambiguous, but these have been developed in other works as well. In many ways, this text’s greatest value is that it has served to initiate conversations in the development of missional ecclesiology in many areas, by many other authors. It has effectively framed the conversation. However, that “frame” has also proven to be flexible and porous over time, and it remains to be seen what missional theology will become, and if it can provoke and sustain the kinds of meaningful shifts that will help the church navigate the present with faithfulness.
Missional Church’s contribution really is that of a foundational text. It provides a great summary of the current situation of the church at the end of Christendom, and the turn towards thinking of the church as a participant in God’s own ongoing work continues to provoke the kinds of conversation that I hear around our congregation, and in the larger church. The text serves as an anchor in thinking about the missionary nature of God, and the corollary missionary nature of the Church God has created. I should also note that I was surprised at how practical some parts of the book are; the reflections on the kinds of practices that are central to the core of the church were particularly concrete and helpful. This is a fundamental text on the missional vein of theological thought, and it deserves its place of influence. Highly Recommended.
For a clearer piece on my own take on missional theology, see my post here: “What is Missional Theology?“