October 22, 2012

Happy Tenth Birthday “Missional”, My How You’ve Grown (And Gotten Fat!)

Happy Tenth Birthday “Missional”! You were a scrawny runt left on the doorstep ten years ago, but now everyone wants you. Or more to the point, everyone claims you because you’ve become so, well, so respectable! In fact, you’ve gotten fat!

No longer the scrawny, suspect out-rider, understood only by slacker Gen tattooed disgruntled ex-Evangelicals (or so it was put), you are now the mainstream poster boy of every mega-church, medium-sized church, small church, and, yes even missional church across this land. Everyone wants a slice of the action (and the cake – Ed) because to be against Missional in this day and age within the church is the equivalent of being against same-sex marriage if you work for the ABC.

An interesting video from the Bapos in Oz is doing the rounds about how Missional has moved mainstream (the term at least), you can see it here.  It’s a revealing insight because it shows that the term has been stretched to mean a lot more than it did originally, and even to mean – in some quarters  – the opposite of what it meant! This tells me two things:

1. Missional has been Domesticated:  Just as Syndrome in The Incredibles wanted everyone to have super powers so that “when everyone is super, no one will be”, so too with Missional.  In the Baptist video Mike Frost picks out the point that the mainstream expressions of church are re-framing their histories as missional, his point being that if normal church in the past was missional, then normal church in the present (and into the future) is missional also.  Frost’s book The Road to Missional is designed to exactly counter this argument.

Now why is that important? Because if the word has now been co-opted to mean what it was meant to challenge, then the battle for missional is being lost.  This becomes clear when we attach the word to any number of nouns, e.g. Missional Church”, “Missional Community”.  It should mean that the community and the church is shaped by the “missional”, but what can often happen is that the “missional” is co-opted to lend credibility to what we already are doing. “Is our church missional? Of course it is – look at the programs we offer to outsiders!”

 I do not think that the likes of Hirsch, Frost et al risked their reputations to maintain the status quo (and a big shout-out to Hamo over here in Western Australia too).  Now there have been many things about the whole movement that have been problematic – not least of all the post-foundational emergent movement that has lost the missional raison d’être, and is in my opinion a 21st century equivalent of the early 20th century liberalism – but this does not mean it should be junked.  The fact still remains that in the West the church is declining at a rate of knots, the USA notwithstanding, and that Christian Reconfiguration – which is what much of this co-option of Missional actually is –  is not going to halt this.

What Frost and Hirsch captured so well was not only the realisation that the Western church had lost its position close to the cultural centre, but the celebration of this fact! Why? Because it would, they hoped, allow the church to take a much needed breather in the foot-race of hyper-modernity and reassess herself, her goals, her spoken and unspoken values, her relationship to the culture, and above all her relationship to her rejected, crucified, resurrected, ascended and soon to return Bridegroom. Insofar as that has not happened, it has been a failure, though at ten years young, Missional is still in short pants and wet behind the ears as far as church history is concerned.

2. Modern Western Culture is Powerful: Part of the attraction of the early Missional movement was the idea that you could become part of a community that would run counter to the  fast-paced hyper-real modern western culture which was cheerfully crushing all and sundry. Or if not run counter to, then certainly run slower than it. I well remember my first Forge meetings at which I met a group of equally worn out pastors and church workers who were wondering how they had gotten themselves so burn out by the rigours and demands of church.  There was more to it of course, and those first days were great and exciting too, but the primary question was “How can we slow down long enough – and get our people to slow down long enough – to first realise there is a problem, and then to come up with solution?”

I would have to say that this dream has not been realised.  Missional church, contrary to what some naively thought at the beginning, is not easier to run, but actually harder! In the video, Jenny Allen states that the key factor mitigating against Missional is time.  The culture is pressing us extremely hard. The pace of life is such that all of us know more people less!  It is nigh on impossible to have meaningful spiritual conversations with people we only know at a surface and fast-paced level.  I have yet to experience a truly culture-engaging, mainstream Christian group that is at the same time truly Missional in practice. Bringing those two thing together is still the hardest thing to do.

For many who were in their twenties when the Missional  movement began this is one of the most dismaying aspects of their experience, and one that engenders a fair amount of guilt. They simply did not anticipate in their single/married without kids lives, in which they were not that far up the food-chain in the office, that life could get so busy!  Now, however, with well-paid, demanding jobs, and well-rounded, demanding children, the whole idea of deep, rich community into which Christians and non-Christians alike flow and converse, is a distant pipe-dream, buried under an avalanche of emails and school excursion permission slips.  The culture looked us in the eye and we blinked! But what is the alternative to the fast-paced lifestyle? If you drop out of the race, settling for a quieter life, then you’d better like your own company, because your peers are not going to join you in the off chance you have a life-changing message for them.  Ironically the New Monasticism, which is a noble attempt to slow the pace of life down and become more contemplative, may usher in a new era of disengagement from the culture similar to the Fundamentalism of the early 20th century.

The middle ground is harder of courseand requires a commitment to cultural negotiation; a constant appraisal and reappraisal of how far to step into the cultural milieu and the cost of doing so personally, communally and spiritually. And this is something that needs to be done within the context of a community thick enough to examine, peruse and challenge our choices. We will have to do without acquiring some of the things that the culture says are necessities.  Even worse, our kids might have to do without some of these things (and who knows how much the therapist’s bill will be by the time they are thirty and getting over the bitterness?- Ed).

What will make the middle ground possible?  Only a belief that in giving up the full rewards of the culture, you are actually gaining something far greater – a city that cannot be shaken, a culture that will not be overturned.  Only a belief that your children’s biggest hope is not in well-rounded and experientially satisfying life, but in their death! Their death to self, their death to the hopes and values the world around them espouses, and all in order to gain Christ! Can we truly say this to our children and both mean it and model it?

Ultimately, ten years on, it is the cost of Missional that is its most daunting aspect.  How you do church, where you do it, how you sing if you sing, what activities you undertake as a community, whether you meet in houses or buildings, these are peripheral to the challenge that the God who, from Genesis to Revelation is the Missional mover and shaker, has a claim  on our lives that calls us to nothing less than dying to our selves if we would truly see life.  It’s only in realising that such a death is required that a Missional heart can truly start living and beating within our chests.

Happy Birthday Missional – hope to see you alive and growing well after your teenage years.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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