I have to confess. I am one of those seminarian/pastor/theologian types that bought in full bore to the missional movement. From my first class on missional theology in 1998, I have been fully committed to being missional…or at least to the idea of being missional. The way that I lead, what I read, what I teach/consult on and my dissertation all center around a word that wasn’t even a word 20 years ago. And, it seems, I am not the only one. As of what Google said this morning, there are exactly 1.62 bazillion books currently for sale with “missional” in the title. In all this literature one things is clear: everyone loves the word, not everyone is saying the same things when they use it.
So, for better or worse, I realize that I am a part of a broad and loosely-defined movement that is obsessed with missionality (no, that word doesn’t exist yet, but I thought I’d give it a try and see what happens).
Seventeen years of thought and practice have made something clear to me. Just like loving someone faithfully (read: 50 years of healthy marriage) is different from being in love with the idea of being in love (read: whatever Nicholas Sparks writes), there is a major difference in a lifestyle holistically integrated with God’s work in your context and the wide array of activities that are often lumped under this buzz word.
So what is it, then, that distinguishes being authentically missional from being, well, mission-ish?
This year EIRO has partnered withMichael Binder, a consultant with The Missional Network, to work with churches in our neighborhood. This past weekend we had our second major event, which was called “Joining God in the Neighborhood.” A dozen churches wrestled together with what it would mean to embrace a missional way of life in our community.
Through our time together three interrelated questions crystalized in my mind that are helping me deal honesty with the persistent temptation in my life to simply to settle for being mission-ish.
1. Is the center on God or on the Church? One of the hardest things about charting a missional course is to quit asking church-centered questions and start asking God-centered questions. (This is true whether you are a mega, mini, house, plant, emergent, reformed, institutional, organic, etc. church. It is true whether you are talking about church as institution or church as the people.) As Craig Van Gelder is famous for saying, “It is not the church of God that has a mission in the world, it is the God of mission that has a church in the world.” This is not semantics; the implications of that shift will completely disrupt life as we know it. Alan Roxburgh shared in one of my doctoral classes how the missional movement lost steam when we made it the missional church movement. The focus came off of what God is doing and centered on what the church is doing.
Mission-ish means thinking about the church and what the church is doing for others. Missional means being centered upon God and discerning what God is up in the world out ahead of us.
2. Is the focus on activities or identity? When we ask church-centered questions, missional quickly becomes about programs, events, trips or other activities that the church plans, schedules and accomplishes. In so doing, we assume that we can continue living life or being church as usual and simply add a cause or charity into the schedule. Missional, though, is about identity, about who we are, about living our whole lives in the context of God’s presence and work in the world.
Mission-ish means adding new programs. Missional means embracing a whole new lifestyle.
3. Is the connection to neighbors transactional or relational? When missional is about church-centered activities, rather than about God-centered identity, our interaction with neighbors becomes transactional rather than relational. We function as an outside organization coming to them to provide a service or resource in order to meet needs. The church remains in control, deciding who is in need, what is needed and how the need will be met (whether this is food, clothes or the gospel message). This approach forgets that God is already at work, that we may be the ones who need to be changed. Missional life requires authentic relationships of mutuality and partnerships of reciprocity.
Mission-ish means service projects that meet needs. Missional means mutually transformative relationships.
It is easy for me get caught up in a movement that promises to give me purpose, that allows me to make a difference, that proves I’m not just a common church guy concerned with sitting in pews. It is easy to fall in love with an image of myself being heroically engaged in serving the least of these. All of this, though, is about me, not about God. It is about what I do, not about who God is. It is about what I do for others, not about how the other transforms me. Even after 17 years of thinking about and working on this, it is way easier to settle for being mission-ish than being authentically missional.