The Missional Practice of Mutuality

As the church explores the meaning of a missional existence in the world, one of the interesting aspects is the level of reciprocity we can tolerate. Will we be willing to listen and learn, or will we only practice speaking and be only willing to teach? The answers to that question probably fall on a spectrum more than that yes/no phrasing suggests, but it’s a serious question, requiring discernment and reflection.

Are we willing to listen and learn, or only to speak and to teach? Click To Tweet

Here’s the way I see the dilemma: the Church believes it has been given a special revelation of the identity and will of God, and has been charged with sharing that revelation in the world. In other words, we have something to say. We bear witness.

However, in the public forum, you always have to earn the right to bear witness. That can happen in a number of ways (being sheerly interesting or powerful perhaps), but in our moment one of the baseline requirements of gaining an audience is the willingness to listen to others. You have to demonstrate an authentic capacity to listen if you want to gain a hearing. If you don’t listen, nobody will listen to you. So if the church wants to speak, it has to listen to others in an authentic, vulnerable way. And that brings the possibility of change.

One of the baseline requirements of gaining an audience is the willingness to listen to others. Click To Tweet

Change is a tricky word, there. It holds promise and threat, and the church has to figure out how to loosen its grip while maintaining its identity. That’s a complicated dynamic that can only be grappled with through a commitment to tough discernment.We also have to realistic navigate threats without becoming either naive or anxious, and that’s a tough thing for us to figure out right now in part because we already feel pressure.

The major complication for Christians in North America (and perhaps elsewhere) is the fact that the visible Church’s social position is shifting from a dominant majority. We’re not quite sure where it’ll land, but I’d characterize the position now as somewhere between “just another party at the table” and “a resented former cultural force”. Others view the church with a variety of attitudes. The church in different quarters is met with antagonism, apathy, respect, resentment, or curiosity—rarely with deference. For many, the grief and shock of being met with such negativity creates profound anxiety. Some Christians wonder what they’ve done to earn such antipathy, while others confess that the harshest feelings are a deserved consequence of regrettable former behaviors.

Regardless of how we got here, my instinct is that we won’t be able to put up our fists and fight our way out of it. We can neither assume people into the gospel or pound it into them without their having a word. Rather, I believe the church has come to a profound moment of listening. The age of monologue is over—we are going to have to humbly learn the art of dialogue. Our relationship with our communities will be fruitless unless we are able to accept the possibility of mutual relationships, where we both teach and learn. Thus, cultivating a spirit of reciprocity, where both sides give and both sides benefit, both sides share what they’ve learned and are open to learn from each other, is a key to our missional posture in the world.

I’ve been thinking about reciprocity a lot lately, and I’m going to share those thoughts over the next few blog posts, looking at the gifts and costs, how it shows up in the scriptures, some of the obstacles in our way, and strategies for how we can move forward. Stay tuned!

Power Postures

The church is at its best when it can easily see itself reflected in the stories of the scriptures, but it isn’t always that way. Sometimes the things that we face are alien enough to the scriptures that we struggle to perceive what it means for us to fulfill their calling. They were, after all, given to the church first of all in their own day, and were primarily meant to help those disciples find and follow the way of Jesus through their own world, which sometimes looks like ours, but not always. The witness they bear to the values and truths that could help those disciples are still critically important today, but we just have a bit of discerning to do if we’re going to be able to fruitfully unpack them. There still is a way of Jesus in our world, and it still anticipates the same climatic end as it did in the first century. However, the world has shifted itself around around us, and that leaves us with some work to do if we’re to fruitfully respond to the scriptures, or at least not become distorted by naive readings of them.

For example, take the church’s relative power position in its culture. Everything you read in the New Testament assumes a minority position in culture. The early church was faced with either apathy or antagonism from the dominant powers of its culture, seen as a fringe group with little clout. Everything you read in the New Testament assumes a minority position in culture.The writings of the N.T. give counsel and encouragement from the standpoint of that perspective, and here’s the rub—interpreting those text from a different perspective requires discernment.

Everything you read in the New Testament assumes a minority position in culture. Click To Tweet

For instance, one of the things required for that minority church to gain a hearing in the world that saw them as irrelevant or dangerous was boldness. The texts encourage that in a variety of ways, from the narrative depiction of the bold apostles in Acts 4 to Jesus’s polemic (a form of antagonistic teaching about opponents) in Matthew 10,  or in Paul’s letters (Phil 1:14). For a marginalized, unknown people, boldness is a critical trait. However, without care that same spirit of boldness in an empowered people who make up the majority of the culture can easily turn coercive, becoming oppressive and condescending.

Drift

The big catch is that this sort of perspective change happens very gradually, and we don’t generally realize we need to shift the way we read the texts sometimes until it’s decades—or even centuries—overdue. We don’t leap into power or out of it, we drift into and out of power—at least culturally, although the formal structures of power can change hands more quickly and make the change feel sudden. Because the change is gradual, we don’t realize that our former modes of interpretation have lost their appropriateness, and continue to use them far past their fruitfulness. You read the story from the perspective of the Israelites, and keep doing so long after you’ve transformed into Pharaoh. You read the story from Israel's perspective, and do so long after you transform into Pharaoh. Click To Tweet

That’s why reading scripture fruitfully requires not only diligence (careful and persistent work or effort), but vigilance (careful watch for possible danger or difficulties.) It’s important not just to keep an eye out for those ways that our own perspective, and the subtle changes of our posture in the world, can distort the way we read the text. Occasionally, that can lead us further away from the way of Jesus, rather than further along it. Vigilance leads us to notice and recognize ourselves in new and different ways in the text, this allows us to hear the Spirit’s call to repentance and continual conversion. Paying attention to not only our own context when we read the text, but our position and posture within our cultural context, thus allows the word to have not only a static message for us, but one that is dynamic and alive, always calling us forward.

Grace and Mission

missionalAny full accounting of the Christian faith has to include a story of grace, and how it works. Grace is a fancy old word for a gift, and it’s one of the most important words in the vocabulary of faith.

The Grace of Life

Most theologies of grace speak primarily of the grace of salvation, and principally mean how God saves us from our sins (and God’s judgement) through Jesus. While I think we still have some thinking left to do about the meaning of the atonement, an emphasis on God’s saving grace is a good thing! A missional theological lens doesn’t abandon this view of salvation, but broadens it—beginning with the beginning. Grace is not a newly developed attribute of God, although it is particularly demonstrated by Jesus. Rather, grace is present in the whole story of God.

In the beginning, we see God’s grace in the generosity of creation. God creates the conditions and space for life, and then gives life—this is how the story starts, and we do well to keep this gifting of life close as we consider what God is doing in the world. The story of grace offered in Jesus is not a departure from the story of God, it is instead the fruit of God’s commitment to stand by the gift of life given in creation. The core of grace is God’s refusal to abandon the creation to death.The core of grace is God’s refusal to abandon the creation to death. Click To Tweet

It is amazing how little Christian theologies reflect on this gift of life, when so much of God’s story revolves around God’s determination to stand by that gift and preserve it. A fully missional theology of grace begins with the conviction that God’s gift of life is good. This is central to God’s story and ours—we live, and this is grace!

The Grace of God’s Reign

God’s grace doesn’t end when human evil breaks the ordered justice that is conducive to life and flourishing. Rather, God acts to heal our brokenness, beginning with our sin and extending to other forms of brokenness in our world. When a fractured community is reconciled, an anxious heart finds peace, or a body experiences healing, these are experiences of grace. People are freed from oppressive powers and lay down their compulsions by the grace of God, and this too is part of God’s plan to redeem creation.

The missional story of salvation begins not simply with Jesus’s death, but with his life, in which the kingdom of God draws near. When we talk about the “kingdom of God”, we’re talking about how God reasserts God’s will in the earth, reordering it by justice and love, o that life can flourish as it was intended to. God’s reign is marked by justice, peace, and wholeness. The arrival of kingdom wholeness is a gift—it is the grace of God’s reign.

The arrival of kingdom wholeness is a gift—it is the grace of God’s reign. Click To Tweet

The Grace of Mission

A further piece of grace in the missional story is obvious enough, but is the gift of mission to God’s people, both generally and to individuals. It’s often the case that people who receive God’s grace in the scriptures also receive some sort of commissioning, some invitation (or command) to join God’s mission. Peter (Luke 4) and Paul (Acts 9are the most obvious examples here, but those stories are really more normative than you might think—God extends one grace (forgiveness) with another grace (mission). Often, when I’m reading Paul’s letters, he seems to make no distinction between the two kinds of grace. They just represent the way God relates to Paul.

I want to unpack that idea of the grace of mission in a couple of ways, just for clarity’s sake. Think about the graces of inclusion and contribution:

The Grace of Inclusion

The grace of inclusion is the idea that God seems willing to invite pretty much everybody to participate in the mission. Luke’s gospel delights in this, as the religious elites are amazed to see the likes of Levi, Zacchaeus, and some disrespected women become part of Jesus’s movement in the world. Paul himself perceives this element of grace, saying in effect, “I was the worst, but God saw fit to allow me a place in the mission.”

The Grace of Contribution

In a similar vein, the grace of mission is not just that unexpected people are invited to become missionaries, but that God delights in providing the people what they need to participate. God gives gifts, (graces) to people so that they will be able to contribute to the life of the church and to the kingdom’s work in the world. Not only does God give missionary permission or invitation to people, but God provides the means for their meaningful work in the world. This provision is a powerful aspect of God’s grace that we don’t necessarily catch when we use “gift” to talk about something God gives us to use but shift to “grace” when we’re thinking about some theological change God brings about.

It’s all gift, all grace.

Agents of Grace

With these understandings of God’s grace, it’s important to note that a missional view of grace, humans who receive these forms of grace become agents of grace themselves. They become people who generously extend God’s grace to others in all its forms. They help people flourish and live, acting as agents of life in the world. They practice forgiveness, and stand for wholeness. not only do they participate in God’s mission themselves, but they welcome others into it as well. In living generously, the grace of God that has become wrapped into their story is unleashed on the other people around them, seeping into the cracks of the broken world. Missional Christians become people of Grace, modeling in their own lives what they have received from God.

 

A Missional Bibliography

Missional Bibliography

As Missional Theology matures, it’s producing a growing body of literature. It can be a lot to sort through, so here I’m collecting those resources that I’ve found helpful, with some comments along the way. I’ll start by providing a handful of foundational texts that I think are indispensable, and then point towards some other useful works along the way. I’ll be updating this page over time, so let me know of the ones I’ve missed in the comments!

Foundational Texts

41B0WZFUGgLMissional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America Darrell Guder and Friends, 1998. This is the mothership, people. It’s a foundational text, and if you really want to study the missional church, you have to read it. The good news is it reads pretty well, even after a couple of decades. For me, reading this was like finding the spring that fed the stream I’d been drinking from for years.

 

51A+xI24b+L Treasure in Clay Jars: Patterns in Missional Faithfulness by Lois Barrett and friends. This is essentially the same gang of writers as Missional Church (Guder 1998), and in this text they try to put a little more flesh on their ideas. It’s based on case studies, and is a quick read—much less dense than Missional Church.

 

 

713WtZZZHKLThe Missional Church in Perspective by Craig Van Gelder and Dwight Zscheile, 2011. This another piece from one of the original collaborators (van Gelder) that strikes me really as an extension of Missional Church. Since it’s a fairly easy read, I’d think of this as going into the essential toolkit. Part of what this book does is to frame the how the missional conversation has forked and taken different turns since 1998. Since different people use missional language to mean different things, a book that takes high view of the conversation, mapping it out, becomes very useful. This book is also useful for sending you in new directions, expanding your reading list.

61iIyu7Mm5LThe Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission by Leslie Newbigin (1995). This is a key predecessor to Missional Church, and no missional reading list is complete without it. Newbigin, upon his return to the Western World, helped it to see its own identity as a mission field, and provided theological language for our engagement with our neighbors.

Other Missional Books

Staying is the New Going by Alan Briggs (2015)

Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. David Bosch (1991) One of the significant predecessors to Missional Church, Bosch gives a thorough account of the trajectory that led to the missional movement.

Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts into the Missional Frontier by David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw (2013)

The Road to Missional: Journey to the Center of the Church by Michael Frost (2011)

The Shaping of Things to Come by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch (2003, 2013) The revised editions has some pretty useful reflections in the introduction. This is a passionate and useful text, even if I have a couple of reservations about the way they ditch the trinitarian emphasis in favor of a heavy Christology.

Surprise the World: Five Habits of Highly Missional People by Michael Frost (2015) is a great little book that would be useful for a small study group. Very readable.

The Continuing Conversion of the Church, by Darrell Guder (2000) This book provides a perspective on what’s happening inside the missional church, and why that formation is key for the mission of God. I love this text’s fundamental premise.

Called to Witness: Doing Missional Theology, by Darrell Guder (2015) collects essays Guder published on the missional church after the landmark publication in 1998.

A Light to the Nations: The Missional Church and the Biblical Story by Michael Goheen (2011). I haven’t read this personally, but my friend Greg McKinzie sent me a note suggesting it’s a worthy contribution from the reformed neck of the woods.

Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission (The Gospel and Our Culture Series (GOCS)) by Michael Gorman (2015). Gorman’s expertise is in missional hermeneutics (how we read and use scripture), and I think they’re fantastic.

Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation by Michael J. Gorman (2011). This is an earlier piece on Revelation, and I love it. It’s very readable, but will leave you chewing.

Missional. Monastic. Mainline.: A Guide to Starting Missional Micro-Communities in Historically Mainline Traditions by Elaine Heath (2014)

The Forgotten Ways by Alan Hirsch (2009)

The King Jesus Gospel by Scot McKnight (2011) provides the sort of biblical backdrop that fuels the missional movement.

The Trinity and the Kingdom, Jurgen Moltmann (1993). Moltmann fits the description of a theologian whose writing has deeply impacted the missional movement, even if not explicitly missional.

Missional Map-Making: Skills for Leading in Times of Transition by Alan Roxburgh (2010) There’s been a lot written about missional leadership—Roxburgh is a trustworthy guide.

Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood by Alan Roxburgh (2011) this is a pretty central text, and is probably one of the better introductory piece out there. It may end up getting moved to the foundational list above.

The Missionary Congregation, Leadership, and Liminality by Alan Roxburgh (1997). This is a more academic piece than Roxburgh’s other writing, and is sort of a forgotten little book, unfortunately.

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Introducing the Missional Church: What It Is, Why It Matters, How to Become One Alan Roxburgh and Scott Boren (2009)

Doing Local Theology: A Guide for Artisans of a New Humanity Clemens Sedmak (2003). This is a jewel of a book with an unfortunately hokey cover. I advise you to defer judgment.

The Ministry of the Missional Church: A Community Led by the Spirit Craig Van Gelder (2007)

A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation by Miroslav Volf (1996) Volf isn’t explicitly a missional theologian, but his work seems to be an important piece of the conversation, in my view. 

A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good by Miroslav Volf (2013)

The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative by Christopher Wright (2006) Like Gorman, Wright is a significant figure in missional hermeneutics. His focus has typically been in Old Testament Studies, and that provides the backdrop for this book, which is a landmark work for the field.

Scripture and the Authority of God by N.T. Wright (Revised in 2013) is excellent, and the book makes a fantastic case for a missional understanding of how scripture fits into the story of God. If you haven’t cut your teeth on Wright yet, you should, and this is a great place to start.

Missional Web Hubs

Missio Alliance has one of the best missional blogs around the web. Most of the articles here are at a popular level, though often by respected missional leaders.

Missio Dei is an online academic journal with articles about missional theory and practice.

The Journal of Missional Practice has a vision “to be like a table around which theologically informed practitioners gather with others to share the stories of what they are doing and discerning on the ground and in the local.” I’d say they pull it off.

Mission-Shaped Church (2004) is a church of England publication I’ve heard good things about, and I know it’s been influential in the Anglican Fresh Expressions circles.

Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today (American Society of Missiology Series) by Bevans and Schroeder (2004) is a recommendation I recently got via twitter (hat tip to @MuellerBSSabrina), bu I haven’t had the chance to peruse it yet. Let me know if you have.

Missional Podcasts

Theology on Mission is a regular podcast featuring David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw. (iTunesOvercast)

Missional Hospitality with Alan Roxburgh is episode 2 of the Fresh Expressions Podcast.

What is Missional Spirituality?

Copy of WHAT IS MISSIONAL THEOLOGY?

As the missional church movement matures and develops, we may well ask not only “What is Missional Theology?”, but what is the form of life taken up by disciples looking for a missional way of following Jesus? In short, “What is missional spirituality?” This article to sketch a thick description of that kind of spirituality to answer that question.

Missional spirituality begins with the commitment of Jesus’s disciples to participate in God’s ongoing work in the world. Flowing theologically from an understanding of God’s intent for the world and the nature of God’s own mission, the church owns a way of life of living into that story, and we call the particularities of this way of life our spirituality—that sometimes fluffy word simply refers to the way we nurture and live out our faith. A range of practices and postures flesh out this spirituality, and these fall loosely into a handful of categories.

1. Practices that form the individual and community of disciples in the image of Jesus.

Jesus models the kingdom, as one whose life represents full participation in God’s mission. He is the new human par excellence, who has restored the possibility of the image of God in humanity.

Practices representing this formative element of missional spirituality:

  • The celebration of Communion, which continually draws the church into the selfless way of Jesus, by reenacting his story. It reinforces the church’s anticipation of his coming, and teaches the community of disciples to recognize the image of Jesus in each other.
  • Practices of Hearing the Word form disciples through the testimony of God’s people in the scriptures. The scriptures nourish our capacity to think theologically, and invite us to live in a larger narrative context by seeing ourselves as living within the story of God. The scriptures provide ways for Christians to understand God’s intentions in creation, the consequences of human evil, and the nature of God’s intervention in the world to save us.
  • Baptism inducts the individual into the community of people who proclaim the Lordship and commit to live by his story and way. It provides a defining memory of the new identity we are given as the people of Jesus.
  • Friendship between disciples shapes them as they extend each other grace and practice companionship.
  • Prayer connects disciples (individually and communally) with God. In prayer, disciples reach out to God, and also listen to God’s leading by the holy spirit. By connecting in prayer to God, disciples both express their own hearts, and expose them to God’s heart. In the process, we allow their wills to be conformed to God’s own will.
  • The discipline of fasting helps disciples separate from the tyranny of their own desires or assumptions about needs.
  • Common Worship gatherings, in which disciples pray, sing, and listen to the word together, allow the church to solidify its fellowship as being based in a common identity before God. The habit of Common worship gatherings, provides a consistent reinforcement of the church’s attention to the substance of its faith.
  • The Giving and Receiving of Teaching is a way of thinking about all of the different ways Christians provide instruction to each other, both informally and formally. Within the community of disciples there are many kinds of teaching exchanges ranging from moral and scriptural teaching, theological and historical instruction, to practical guidance for living wisely. We might even consider the production and consumption of various media as falling into this category, allowing for the spread and reception of more specialized, developed ideas. Technologically, we may supplement (but not replace!) more intimate, face-to-face forms of teaching through these time and space shifted forms of media (like books, online courses, podcasts, or this blog!). It’s important, over time, that the church takes care to nourish communities that provide the more localized forms of teaching.
  • The cultivation of virtue through mutual encouragement and guidance. Several of the things listed above fit into this, but it’s worth saying clearly that much of the best formation simply happens as people in some sort of mutual relationship encourage each other and have the opportunity to provide and receive guidance.

2. Practices that help the individual and community and bear the fruit of the Kingdom of God.

All of the formative practices of missional spirituality prepare us for practices which produce the fruits of the kingdom of God—the results of God’s reign in our lives. In other words, the practices described above develop within us the capacity to act in certain ways, but it remains for us to give an account of the kinds of actions that characterize missional spirituality.

It must also be said that the line between these two categories of practices is a thin one, and we can certainly expect some practices to fulfill both the formative and fruit-bearing functions. For example, prayer both prepares a person by shaping their being, but may also exemplify an obedient responsiveness to God, which is also a fruit of the kingdom. On the other hand, Service, which I’m listing below as a fruit-bearing practice, also reinforces the inclination to serve and helps disciples move into solidarity with the people they serve, and thus contributes to their spiritual formation as well.

  • Hospitality means making space for other people, whether that be physical space where they can come and feel comfortable, or social space where they can come and enter into nurturing relationships. Hospitality in missional spirituality stretches beyond the boundaries of having people in our own homes (though this remains a powerful tool of hospitality!), as we take a mentality of hospitality into the community. We become people who create space for others, everywhere we go. As we practice hospitality, the relational nature of humanity is redeemed, and we become less defensive, fearful of each other, and adversarial —this is all fruit of the kingdom of God.
  • Generosity. Opportunities to share what we’ve received with our neighbors allows us to push back the threat of scarcity that plagues our world. It also loosens our own grip on our possessions, and helps us live out of a perspective of abundance and plenty. This contentment, and the generous sharing that fosters it, are both fruits of the kingdom of God.
  • In Service, we offer ourselves to another person, or to a community. It also demonstrates humility, the willingness to defer our own desires to another person. As we serve, we also make fruitful use of the skills and talents we’ve been given. God’s kingdom is made real and concrete as people offer themselves to each other, and in this way imitate Christ.
  • Reconciliation is the practice of repairing fractured relationships, whether between individuals or groups within a community. This is one of the most difficult missional practices, as people are often deeply committed to their factions and the grievances that they have against others. Furthermore, most disciples (and people!) are woefully inexperienced in the art of reconciliation. Nevertheless, reconciliation is a prime fruit of the kingdom, and bears incredible witness to the power of God’s reign in the world.
  • Simplicity and Restraint demonstrate and cultivate a spirit within disciples that is not compelled strictly by pleasure and possession. Disciples hold these things lightly, and are free to live unattached to the things God entrusts to them, while also giving thanks for the experiences of this life. These practices witness against our cultural obsessions over materialism and the escapist pursuit of pleasure. They are a sign that has gracefully delivered Jesus’s disciples from slavery to these things.
  • Confession and Repentance, in a similar way, demonstrate that we are not defined by or bound to our mistakes. Christians need not maintain a pretense of perfection, rather they freely admit their failures, and try to do their best to correct them. We admit when we have taken the wrong road, and depend on God’s help to return to the way of Jesus.
  • Forgiveness is the community’s complement to confession and repentance. We extend grace to each other, knowing that our relationship with God is built on the Lord’s grace to us.
  • The Giving and Hearing of Testimony allows disciples to speak of the Lord’s grace and action through and around them. It also allows the community to be encouraged, and to give God glory for these things!
  • Honoring the Least Disciples bear the fruit of the kingdom whenever we make sure that we honor those among us who are not honored or treated poorly in the rest of society.

3. Attentiveness to the world through theological lenses such as justice and righteousness, peace, or sacred dignity.

Disciples practice something like a holy watchfulness in the world. They take in what’s happening around them and carefully weigh the times by what they have learned of God. They explore the meaning of the cultures in which they live and carry with them the theological values of justice and righteousness, peace (in the sense of wholeness, or shalom), or the sacred dignity of all people. They look for ways to fruitfully engage with their culture and bring about these things in the communities where they live. They seek out what it means to respond to community problems in a way that can point towards the way of Jesus.

Different missional communities and individuals will understand these theological values in different ways, and emphasize some over others. Our attention to scripture and our engagement with the community will lead us into new understandings—I think it might be a mistake to prematurely cement our current understandings and priorities as the complete missional identity of the community. After all, continual growth and movement towards maturity is part of the missional way. However, what is unavoidably missional is that we take those theological values back into the community around us. They deeply affect the way we perceive what is happening in the world, and lead us to act and engage in particular ways that resonate with those values.

4. Responsible Stewardship of Vocations, understood as a broad range of callings given to individuals and communities.

Missional theologies lean towards the exploration of spirituality within a brand range of vocations for at least a couple of reasons.

First, the commitment to a holistic vision of God’s plan for humanity, in which God is concerned with the entirety of human life, (social, economic, political, familial, etc) certainly involves a person’s work. God’s creational intent is for humans to be in the development, ordering, and cultivation of creation—we are more than widgets, but we were created to be productive and to participate in God’s creation work of filling the world with life and goodness. Furthermore, as God works to recreate the world, our life of work is redeemed as well—not made irrelevant.

Second, Missional churches are already focused on being as intentional about what happens outside the walls as inside the sanctuary. Concerns about the work lives of Christians employed in secular environments follow naturally, as faith moves back into the public sphere—although it is expressed in a different way than in the public environments of the Christian majority assumed in Christendom.

This move towards exploring the spirituality of work finds multiple expressions beyond the simple ideas of being a witness to the faith by conversation and being a good example. This begins with the church’s public conversation about work, but distinct spiritual practices follow.

  • Missional communities are learning to practice vocational Discernment, in which the individual shares vocational leanings and receives encouragement or guidance from others. They may receive confirmation from those who have seen gifts and skills that support their vocation, or who perceive spiritual guidance in that direction.
  • As an extension of discernment, missional communities may practice vocational Celebration, in which the community recognizes and commissions people into their callings. Few places do this formally, although it’s easy to imagine a church that celebrates the sorts of work transitions people make and from time to time highlights and celebrates how people are finding their vocation (including, but exclusive to work!) and how that contributes to (or flows from) the wholeness they have in Christ.
  • Disciples pursue excellence and diligence in the workplace, understanding that how they do their work matters. Most work worth doing is worth doing well and excellently, and fulfilling our work roles as well as we can reflects on our own higher master. However, Christians pursue excellence in their work not only because of the testimony of good workmanship (though that deserves a thought as well), but because work itself matters, and diligence is a matter of character.
  • Missional spirituality also points towards the intentional use of skills and resources to contribute to the community. Good work is not only a way of providing income for a family unit, but also provides ways for the individual to contribute to the good of the community. Sometimes the ways this take place may seem obscure and ambiguous—at times disciples may need to look deeper for ways of understanding their work and its role for the community, or may need to investigate other ways of contributing. What am I contributing? Is an unavoidably important question, even if troubling. Missional spirituality takes on this challenge.
  • Missional disciples also pursue their callings with Vigilant Ethics, knowing both that righteousness is a fruit of the kingdom and also a witness for the Lord’s reign.
  • Occasionally, work environments create the occasion for Spiritual Conversation, which is a way for the followers of Jesus to engage their coworkers who may have insight from other ways of life, and also open to hear a perspective informed by the way of Jesus.

Where do I start?

It might be helpful to provide, after such a set of lists, a couple of helpful pointers for where people interested in this sort of life might get started.

  • Engage a community of mission…and if you’re not already part of one, it only takes one or two friends to begin one. So start having the conversations about what this kind of life might loo like. You can’t do it alone, and the community begins with conversation.
  • Try experimenting with different elements described above, and journal your experiences. So take a few weeks and really try to attend to the way you practice hospitality, or your sense of vocation, and write a little bit every day about how the experiment is going.
  • My podcast Spiritual Steps offers bite-sized steps towards developing your spiritual life. I generally work out of a missional perspective, so those >15 min episodes might prove useful to you, and provide concrete next steps.
  • You might want to begin by taking something of a spiritual inventory of your life. Instead of adding a bunch of new practices out of nowhere, begin by reflecting one where you are, then just focus on the next step in front of you. Steady and intentional growth is the way, and being honest about where we currently are is the edge on that.
  • You can always do a lot worse than by simply starting with prayer!

What is Missional Theology?

WHAT IS MISSIONAL THEOLOGY?

“Missional Theology” has found its place in the vocabularies of both the academy and the church, but it can be difficult to pin down exactly what the term “missional” means. Because of the term’s broad usage in a variety of different settings, and the different shades various authors and practitioners insist upon, many people still find themselves asking, “What is missional theology?”

Let me begin to answer that question by clarifying that missional theology isn’t one particular concept, but rather a constellation of ideas that come together in a comprehensive conversation about God, the church, and what God has sent the church into the world to be and do. The publication of Missional Church launched the missional conversation in 1998 with a core of ideas that has remained significant 1, although like all good conversations the ideas have taken on different nuances and directions as new voices from the church and the academy have joined in the discussion. I’ve reviewed Missional Church elsewhere; here I’d like to offer a distilled version of missional theology as an introduction for those who are joining the conversation now. Essentially, missional theology is a movement that offers a theological shift, a sociological recognition, and a set of distinct church practices. Let’s take each of these categories in turn.

A Theological Shift

At the core of missional theology is a different way of thinking about God, the church and mission. Although there is a constellation of ideas involved in that theological shift, I will confine the conversation here to three critical emphases: the agency of God in mission, the nature of God’s intent for creation, and the importance of the reign of God.

The Agency of God

The authors of Missional Church perceived that the church often spoke of missionary work as an activity that the church carried out. Van Gelder writes that the church developed foreign mission structures throughout the twentieth century with the goal of carrying the gospel into other parts of the world, holding the mindset that God had given them this evangelistic mission in the great commission. This emphasis undergirds a “church-centric” view of mission that “views the church as the primary acting subject responsible for doing something on God’s behalf in the world.”2 In response, the missional church has pivoted towards an understanding of mission that proclaims that mission is, first and foremost, rooted in the identity and nature of God. Guder describes this “theocentric” understanding Christian mission: “We have come to see that mission is not primarily an activity of the church. Rather, mission is the result of God’s initiative, rooted in God’s purposes to restore and heal creation.”3 The location of mission within the nature of God’s own being results in the perception that God is always at work bringing about the mission, and sometimes in ways that the church is unaware of, and which are located outside the church’s activity. This already brings about the possibility that the church may look to recognize and discern God’s activity outside of itself, but also points towards the great theological question: What is the mission of God?

The Missio Dei: God’s Intent for Creation

There may be many paths of answering that great theological question, which rises to the significance of the meaning of creation and the intent of all of God’s interactions with creation. In the missional conversation, the quotation above already offers a possible trajectory, referencing “God’s purposes to restore and heal creation.” This is perhaps enough of a departure from theologies that view creation as tangential to God’s intent to warrant our attention, but we may be more particular in the direction of missional theology. Missional theologians and practitioners often describe God’s intent for creation by recognizing and describing a particular narrative arc within scripture. The basic line of that narrative may be described like this: God’s intent was for creation to be full of life and goodness (whatever goodness might entail is an important question), but creation is corrupt because of human collaboration with evil. Nevertheless, God pursues that intent, restoring corrupted creation through the work of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and will one day bring about the final restoration, reconciliation, and recreation of all things. This process has already begun in the in-breaking and spread of the reign (or kingdom) of God.

The Reign of God

Thus missional theology understands that it is by God’s own divine agency, in which the church of Jesus participates by the Spirit, that creation will return to God’s intent. At the invitation of Jesus, the church enters into God’s reign, learning to live under God’s kingship. This line of theology has much to commend it, not the least of which is the way it refigures the church’s identity. In this view, the church, comprised of disciples of Jesus, is not simply a collection of people who have accepted a promise of salvation and await a rewarding afterlife, pending good behavior. Rather, the church is a community that represents God’s kingdom in the present. It embodies the reign of God as a community, and is sent into the world as the kingdom’s servant and messenger. It is both a foretaste of God’s kingdom and an agent of that community—and both of these facets of its being are ways of participating in God’s own mission. Thus, missional theologians see mission as not simply an activity of the church, but as a feature of its very nature and being. Mission is not confined to the pursuit of (distant) proselytes, but is wrapped into every moment where the church lives in alignment with the will of God. As disciples practice love and peace with each other and also with their neighbors, they are about the work of the mission of God. They also naturally invite others to join them in living in the kingdom of God.

A Sociological Recognition

Along with this theological orientation, the missional conversation, particularly in North America4 contains a specific sociological recognition. A second broad feature of the missional movement grows from a certain analysis of the social situation of the church, particularly in western contexts, and even more particularly in North America. The first paragraph of Missional Church closes with a sentence that signals the trajectory of this conversation:

“On the other hand, while modern missions have led to an expansion of world Christianity, Christianity in North America has moved (or been moved) away from its position of dominance as it has experience the loss not only of numbers but of power and influence within society.”5

The importance of this claim for the direction of the conversation can be further seen from the structure of that seminal work; after the introductory chapter, the next two are devoted to making the case of the shifting position of the church due to cultural trends and the evolution of American religious practices. Although various writers within the missional vein may approach this sociological claim with different emphases, here I will describe two recurrent themes: the loss of Christianity’s privileged status within society, and critique of the church of Christendom.

The first of these emphases, the loss of Christianity’s privileged status, refers to a sense that society was once structured so that the church held a powerful voice in the public sphere, but that the church has been pushed to the margins as the construction of a secular, pluralistic public sphere has evolved. Taking Leslie Newbigin’s lead, the missional conversation argues (and more lately, assumes) that the modern western cultural assumption is that no religion should be permitted to make ultimate truth claims in public. It is more readily apparent that there is tension and conflict between North American culture(s) and the church at the levels of worldview, values, and praxis. Thus, the church can no longer assume a de facto partnership with the broader culture in which the church helps people become better citizens and the culture forms people as good disciples. In the current cultural reality, the missional movement has claimed, the church cannot continue to make the same assumptions about the starting places of conversations with its neighbors about Christianity as were held under Christendom. 6

Missional Church furthers this point by describing how the church, having been blocked from the public sphere, increasingly focused its message on a private, interior sort of religious life.7 The authors argue that as the churched culture either collapsed or was eroded in the second half of the twentieth century, morality based on faith was generally rejected or marginalized in terms of its fit for public debate, and faith commitments could only be leveraged for personal decisions.

“Notions of shared public morals gave way to personal decisions of expediency, pleasure, or private judgment. Expectations of privileged position gave way to irrelevance and marginalization. People no longer assumed that the church had anything relevant to say on matters beyond personal faith. Public policy became increasingly secularized, as public morals became increasingly personalized and privatized.”8

A final step in this argument comes from Alan Roxburgh, who argues that pervasive pluralism has stripped away the church’s privileged monopoly over even interior faith. The new situation is that churches, once driven from the public sphere but given sanctuary in the private life of Americans, now finds themselves in a crowded marketplace of ideas with competing spiritual sources and authorities. 9

Missional authors respond to the church’s loss of the cultural center on a variety of levels. Most basically, they insist on the acknowledgement of this reality and its practical implications, employing their rhetoric to implore churches to adopt and adapt. Even if they grieve the loss of the former arrangement, the missional movement argues that churches must move forward and learn new ways of being if they are to survive or be fruitful in the new situation. However, a more forceful vein of rhetoric argues that the new situation is in and of itself good, that it provides the opportunity to abandon distorted and corrupted forms of ecclesiology in favor of a model that more aptly represents not only this sociological shift, but also theological reality. This critique of Christendom may vary from critiques about its missiological distortions, its collusion with secular power, its hubris, or its oppression of others. Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch vigorously advance a critical perspective of Christendom in The Shaping of Things to Come, referring to the Christendom model of ecclesiology as an idol and a virus, which can’t help but spawn churches that carry in their DNA its critical flaws.10 Their text is essentially a response to three specific flaws, namely that the church of Christendom is attractional, dualistic and hierarchical. Churches that recognize the unsustainability of the Christendom model, they argue, are thus freed to create communities that represent alternatives to these flaws, practicing incarnational mission, messianic spirituality, and apostolic forms of leadership.11

A Set of Church Practices

Frost and Hirsh viewed these three practices as an extension of the twelve hallmarks of missional churches identified by the Gospel and Our Culture Network.12

  1. The missional church proclaims the gospel.
  2. The missional church is a community where all members are involved in learning to become disciples of Jesus.
  3. The Bible is normative in this church’s life.
  4. The church understands itself as different from the world because of its participation in the life, death and resurrection of its Lord.
  5. The church seeks to discern God’s specific missional vocation for the entire community and for all of its members.
  6. A missional community is indicated by how christians behave toward one another.
  7. It is a community that practices reconciliation.
  8. People within the community hold themselves accountable to one another in love.
  9. The church practices hospitality.
  10. Worship is the central act by which the community celebrates with joy and thanksgiving both God’s presence and God’s promised future.
  11. This community has a vital public witness.
  12. There is a recognition that the church itself is an incomplete expression of the reign of God.

Along with the practices suggested by Frost and Hirsch, these practices begin to outline a different set of church practices than what might be considered the norm in North America previously. At the risk of overly distilling the lists (and the other lists they represent!), let me offer two distinct directions for these practices: Developing a Contrast Community of Disciples and Engaging the Church’s Neighbors.

A Contrast Community of Disciples

As a result of its theological convictions and perception of its sociological reality, the missional church sets out to prepare its people to live differently than the people around them. It seeks to intentionally form people by practices that implant them with the story of God and prepare them to live out values like love and justice through practices like hospitality and reconciliation. The missional church wants people to learn the gospel so that they may practice the gospel, working for good, loving sacrificially and persevering hopefully in ways that mirror the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. This is what marks the internal life of the church—ministry that forms people to live as God’s people, sent into the world.

Engaging the Church’s Neighbors

Externally, the missional church pursues relationships with its community and engages the needs of the people it shares life with. It enters into partnerships with people who work towards making the community whole, and joins those who seek to infuse new life into places of hurt and brokenness. The missional church knows that as it engages these neighbors it must speak a word of the gospel, but it also seeks to listen. It expects that God may indeed use the community to shape the church, even as the church shapes the community, and knows that its own practice of the kingdom of God is not yet a perfect expression. By becoming a vulnerable neighbor, the church demonstrates the gospel of Jesus, and always seeks to deepen its own faith, even as it shares that faith with its neighbors.