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.

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?