A Review of Treasures in Clay Jars by Lois Barrett and Friends

51A+xI24b+L._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Treasure in Clay Jars: Patterns in Missional Faithfulness by Lois Barrett et al. (2004)

This book is a follow-up to Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Guder et al., 1998). It expressly seeks to develop the concepts of that volume, providing concrete examples of the ecclesiological vision expressed therein. It responds to the question, “What does a missional church look like?” by providing a series of nine case studies of churches in North America that represent the missional ecclesiology developed in Missional Church. Within those churches, the authors identify eight patterns of missional faithfulness: “Missional Vocation”, “Biblical Formation and Discipleship”, “Taking Risks as a Contrast Community”, “Practices that Demonstrate God’s Intent for the World”, “Worship as Public Witness”, “Dependence on the Holy Spirit”, “Pointing Toward the Reign of God”, and “Missional Authority”. These patterns take a variety of forms in the churches, and the authors go to great pains to assure that they are not meant to be “tests” of the presence of missional life, but are offered more as patterns that can be recognized in different forms in different churches.

The sketches offered here both limit and open the concept of missional. They limit the concept by providing a sort of defining matrix for the missional church, a set of patterns that, taken together, form a composite of what the missional flavor of churches might look like. However, the limiting effect is somewhat suppressed because the authors frame the patterns in mostly positive terms—these are the sorts of things missional churches do. However, these descriptions are sometimes too broad, and the edges of the practice are so soft that they become less useful as a defining taxonomy. For instance, the emphasis on prayer and the Holy Spirit could, on some level, be recognized as described here in the vast majority of churches, and depending on how generous the onlooker, the same could be said of the picture of missional leadership described here. Occasionally, the book does provide a negative contrast, noting for example that it is possible to be Biblically centered without moving into a missional mode (60), or that worship should not be driven by what the individuals “get out of” the service (110), and these moments are extremely useful in moving towards a more bounded conception of missionality. There are also contrast patterns implied by the changes that these churches are undergoing—in other words, the narratives included from the lives of these churches could be taken as movement towards increased missionality, and thus the previous iterations of the church could be taken as examples of lesser missionality. However, in the main line of the book there aren’t enough of these sorts of contrast pictures, not enough opposition, to fulfill the burden of providing clarity. Thus, the authors’ resistance to being firm in the boundaries between what being missional is and what it is not mitigates the books effectiveness at answering the question “What does a missional church look like?”. In this way, the book’s actual function is to open the definition of missional somewhat, and the real value of the book is that it provides a set of markers by which readers can recognize and name missional patterns of behavior in a wide range of churches. However, it may open up that definition so much that it becomes too ambiguous. In my view, the book’s success in providing clarity to the concept of the missional church could be greatly aided by seeking to also answer the negative version of its core question: “What does a missional church not look like?”

Despite this core shortcoming, I still found the book useful on a couple of levels. First, it helped me sharpen my skills in recognizing this set missional patterns, and what they might look like in different contexts. It was easy (perhaps too much so!) to read our congregation’s patterns into the sketches offered here. Second, I think it’s a helpful book in demonstrating the idea that missional churches can have diverse “looks”, that there can be a common missional core even if the particular practices and institutional shapes of these churches take different forms. The book is an important complement to its antecedent, Missional Church, and maybe even a necessary one.