The Prediction of the Demise of the Missional Movement? Whatever.

The Prediction of the Demise of the Missional Movement? Whatever.

More than once in the past two weeks I have heard supposed experts – Biblical hired-hands – from both mainline and evangelical organizations proclaim that the missional movement is another “fad”, and predict that it will prove to just be another flash in the pan.  While these “experts” were busy making up their three-word acronyms for incredibly obvious things (that’s what “experts” do, after all), they have once again spoken from ignorance about something they know nothing about, simply because they know nothing about it and they get paid to know everything about everything. So if everyday people are out there talking excitedly about the “missional” movement, and that conversation is not in line with the cool organizational diagrams that they have expertly drawn of their expensive smart boards, they see it as their duty as faith experts to free us from our illusions.  I think it might be worth noting how incorrectly many of these faith experts use the term “missional”, and why calling it a fad is both ignorant and something of an injustice to what is actually going on.

First, let me make very clear that I am not invested in “missional church”.  I am invested in Jesus Christ and his Kingdom.  One might say that I am “all in” for Christ’s present Kingdom.  What I am trying to do is cut through all the copies of Jesus that are masquerading as his body that have become so blurred by being a copy of a copy of a copy, ad infinitum, that they are more or less unrecognizable as anything that Christ talked about in Scripture. And I know that cutting through those means painfully looking in the mirror.  I am trying to get my whole life into a position of surrender to Jesus. And I am inviting others to hold me accountable to that.  And I am inviting others to do that with me.  I am doing as Scripture commands me to do.  Or, at least, I am trying to.  And failing to.  And trying to again.

I am seeking first the Kingdom of God…and it’s right relationship with God.  And I am trusting that everything else that matters…my marriage, my parenting, my community, discipleship, fellowship, worship, practices…everything else…will come out of that.  What I am trying to do is to be obedient.  And if doing that meets the academic criteria for some artificial category of “missional”, then fine. That term has been hijacked by so many different self-serving church growth interests that even these “experts” don’t know what it means anymore…if they ever did…and I highly doubt they did.  If it’s easier to say “missional” than to spell out the whole thing…fine.  But to characterize “missional” as some whole other separate thing from faith and practice is to completely misunderstand where the term came from and how it came to be stuck on certain kinds of activities and communities.  Like so many terms that get bandied about, “missional” makes a better adjective than it does a proper noun.

Some time ago, I found myself more and more spiritually drained by participating in ritualized practices that simply did not speak to my soul.  I kept at it out of a sense of obligation and a belief that commitment matters. And on some level, I kept at it out of habit.  I had imprinted on Christians, and Christians “went to church”.  I thought I was being obedient and I thought I was pleasing God. What I found in church were people who self-identified as Christian, but who spent most of their time bad-mouthing each other, talking about how much better they could do things if they were in charge, and arguing about things that had more to do with furniture than fortitude. I found more people worried about what following Christ was going to do for them than what it meant to be a slave to Christ.  It was like their religion made them more fearful than fearless. And most strikingly, I found that the prevailing culture was dominated by people and voices that did not reflect a life of recognized blessings, humble gratitude, and peace.

Over time, my sense of obligation and commitment gave way to a sense of despair. Perhaps, some of you can relate to what I am talking about when I say, “despair”.  Every time the body would get into a fight (which was often), it was always over some doctrinal issue or something petty.  And the congregation would wring their hands and blame the pastor for a lack of leadership.  They’d call up the denominational office, and they would send an “expert” from the denomination headquarters who would give us some three-word acronym to explain the dysfunction out of their wealth of knowledge about organizational theory, and all parties would walk away feeling self-justified…and just as fit for hell as they were when they started fighting over what kind of music pleased God the most, or what color the carpet would be.  What was called for wasn’t a consultant.  What was called for was a prophet.

After years of soul searching, I found that at the very root of all that nastiness and hellishness was a very primary dispute.  The dispute was over who was in charge….which little cluster of interests or family dynamics was going to have the final say.  All those arguments about how much better a person could do things if they were in charge came down to a deep dispute about who was going to be in charge. If any place where God’s presence is not contested is heaven, then any place where God’s presence is fully contested must be hell.   That explained a lot. Every poor pastor who they stood up who had left everything to be faithful to their sense of calling was sacrificed on the altar of “I can do it better than you can”.  And those poor, kind souls just didn’t have the tools to fight back.  They just got eaten alive.  They were never the problem.  The problem was the problem of who was going to be in charge…whose vision and affections were going to drive the community.  In short, there were little kingdoms vying for power and the church looked and acted like a season of “Game of Thrones” rather than a place where Heaven meets earth.  Who is going to be in charge?  Well…Jesus is.  The first, and the last, and the living one.  The one who came out of the tomb and left it empty.  The one whose Spirit walks among us doing what Jesus always did.  Jesus is in charge.  Not our version of Jesus.  Jesus. In charge. Actually.

And in the midst of that soul-searching I realized something else, too.  I realized that in all of my years of attending church and participating in boards and committees, I had never seen a miracle.  I had never seen a life radically changed before my eyes.  In fact, I realized that most folks were doing everything in their power to make sure that nothing changed.  I never saw hope restored.  I never saw a lost soul truly found.  And I never saw an addict set free.  I saw a lot of addicts hiding their addictions for fear of being found out.  And I could never justify within myself going out into the world with the message that miracles and joy and liberation and authenticity were a part of this faith…because I had never personally witnessed any of that in any church that I had ever been a part of.  How could I talk about the presence of a God who loosed supernatural power on the world through the resurrection of his son and the setting free of the Holy Spirit when I had never once witnessed any of those things?

So, I left the church.  And I started looking for the Kingdom of God where Jesus is actually in charge and I found it all over the place…just not in the church. I went where I heard miracles were taking place.  I went to places where joy could found.  I went where addictions were defeated and people were set free.  I went out to the most unexpected places where the lost, and suffering, and misfits were.   And I learned that I was lost and suffering and a misfit. And in the process, I found my own miracle and I found myself set free…right before my eyes.

I got out of Bible studies where everyone came with preconceived notions of its content and meaning and just showed up to figure out who was on their side of things.  I started getting into Scripture with people who were open and curious about it, but knew nothing about it other than that Jesus could be found in it.  I started getting into it with people who approached it with wonder and awe. And more important than anything else, I started seeking things in Scripture that I could obey.  I’m not going to lie to you.  I found things in Scripture that were very hard to understand…and very hard to obey.  So I started with things that spoke truth to my heart…that echoed with goodness and authenticity…and I started to obey them.  And I asked others to hold me accountable to that obedience.  And my life changed.  And I watched it happen right before my eyes.  From that point on, I no longer had to speak to people about a theoretical faith.  I was a witness to the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit to transform lives and set people’s hearts on fire.

Out of that experience came many things that I now view very differently.  I now look at “salvation” as something very different than simply a status to be gained and protected.  I look at evangelism very differently.  I no longer look at it as standing on my nice clean dock and casting out “sinner’s prayers” and “you’re going to hell” tracts to fish for souls who hold a lesser status than my own.  No one has a lesser status than I do.  I no longer look at heaven as the place you might go when you die if you get the mojo of verbalizing substitutional salvation correctly and in the right order.  I no longer look at the church as the sole sanctuary, but rather as a launching pad for missionaries to go out into the darkness and seek our sanctuaries everywhere.  I no longer hear the word “church” and get a mental picture of a building with a steeple.  I now see people engaged with Jesus in his Father’s mission to reach the lost and disenfranchised and the suffering.  I am not trying to stay out of hell anymore.  I am trying to storm the gates of hell with Jesus and his Kingdom so that we might pull souls out of hell.  As such, I no longer invite people to a building when I invite them to church.  Instead, I invite them to participate in the Kingdom of God. Some of those people eventually come and worship with us on Sunday mornings, but even that is not the same.  I no longer look at worship the same way.  That has freed me from getting caught up in a lot of arguments about worship styles and liturgy.  My style of worship is now trying to participate in humility and mercy and justice.  I try.  I fail.  And I try again. And in that practice is my worship.  It isn’t about anything I do anymore.  It’s all about what Jesus did, and what Jesus is still doing.  The list of what I now look at differently is too long to fully list here.

Over the past 13 years or so, we have brought the invitation to look at faith and practice in some of these new ways into existing communities of faith. Some have accepted the invitation, and some have not.   In my journey to a deeper obedience, I haven’t forgotten that the church is the bride of Christ, and to serve the bride is to serve the groom. Not to  mention, I really don’t want to get on the wrong side of the groom.   And I haven’t forgotten that Scriptures bids us to not neglect the assembly.  I now serve in a community of faith that has been renewed and restored and transformed.  It is an incredible place to witness miracles and transformation and liberation.  And we have seen numerous existing faith communities be radically transformed in their journey of renewal and participation in God’s present Kingdom.  Communities that once dysfunctioned in ways like I described above that drove me to leave on a journey of rediscovery, have now found new life through surrender to Jesus, and through seeking his Kingdom.

More important than any term for what it is that I am describing, is that what I once never saw, I now see all the time. I now see Jesus all the time. I now see church leaders who are totally surrendered to Jesus.  That is the new normal.  And there is no doubt that Jesus is in charge.   It has become normal to see miracles.  It has also become normal to see hardship as a part of faith, and to see the real Jesus alive and leading in the midst of it.  All the time now, I see people fall down in complete surrender and rise up restored and whole and new.  I see courageous people giving their all to serve those who Christ came to reach…without complaint or blame.  I see the lame walk and the addicted set free.  Seeing those things has become normal.  Where those things happen is where Jesus is.  Those things are signs of his presence and power and purpose. And where Jesus is, his body also is.  If that is “missional”, then okay, cool.  And if that is not what “missional” is and you want to say that “missional” is a fad that will fail, then okay, I am cool with that, too.  But no matter how many degrees and certifications and areas of expertise one claims to have, one should be very careful when saying that what I just described is a fad that will fail. One should be very careful about that, indeed, because what we are witnessing may not be something as small as “missional church”. It might be that what we are witnessing is another Great Awakening.  Can these bones live? O Lord, you know.

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2 Comments »

  1. David Stoutenger Said:

    Having spent the last four years in fellowship with a missional church, I found that the same old issues that haunt us were still present. Who’s in charge and how can missional church expand my dominion and secure my paycheck. I found that when Love is not the basis of our efforts, no matter how it’s packaged, the end result is the same 1 Cor 13

    • That’s a great point! And I am very sorry for your experience. It must feel terrible having invested four years and, I imagine, a lot of hope in something like that only to have it let you down. I truly hate the whole “who’s in charge” thing. I, too, have seen it in every gathering of people. I think that’s why so many of Paul’s letters were dealing with those kinds of issues even in the early church…or especially in the early church. I thought Jesus was in charge! I am wondering, if you have a few minutes, if you could talk more specifically about your frustration and experience. I know I could learn from it. Others who visit here probably can, too.


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