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.

A Review of Missional Church by Darrell Guder and Friends

41B0WZFUGgL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_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?