January 11, 2017

Where Do I Begin?

Not long after arriving in Houston, I did a series on the false dichotomies I've observed regarding missional ministry. Since then, I haven't said much here on the blog about my work in the Diocese of Texas. Over the next few weeks, I thought it might be a good idea to start fleshing out some of my observations and perspective on what I spend most of my time working on: helping people start missional communities.

Let me start with my title.

My email signature reads "Missioner for Missional Communities" below my name. 99.9% of everyone who reads or hears my title says in response, "... and what are missional communities exactly?" A reasonable question! It's clearly not a term in most people's vocabulary. I've been reading books that have used this term for a very long time now. When I accepted this job and was therefore packing my collection of books to move from DC to Texas, I started flipping through some of these to see what great theologians had to say about answering this question.

Unfortunately, none of them offered any help for providing a thoughtful yet pithy response needed for the dad who asks me this question while my boy jumps into my arms when picking him up after school. Or the barista that actually feigns momentary interest in me while her next customer nears the register.

What I've come up with may not yet be helpful for the other dad or my barista but it's the best I've got so far:

Missional communities are sacramental and relational outposts for those that cannot, or will not, get to a traditional church environment.

There's a lot to unpack in that. I know it's not perfect. At least it usually piques curiosity or at minimum gets an interesting raised eye brow. I like a good raised eye brow.

Truth be told, this description works best for insiders; those that are devoted to conventional models of church life and wondering how these unfamiliar terms and approaches relate to what they dearly love. It does not yet convey much to the outsider whose conception of church is limited to architecture and what they read in headlines. That is what I continue to hope for and I welcome your input!

That the above explanation works best for insiders is fine (for now) because that is where the majority of my work is: helping the folks in our pews find their way out into their neighborhoods to start grassroots communities embedded and reflective of that context.

I will get to more of that sooner than later.

For now, what I really wanted to get to at the moment was the reason for my work in the first place. Why is there a need for missional communities and someone to assist congregations in fostering them? To answer that we have to talk about this word "missional."

Background
"Missional" holds within it a conversation that has been going on for several decades now. This dialog was mostly among Western theologians and its concern was the nature of the Church's mission. Recognizing that western civilization had been empirically influenced by the colonizing practices of European, Christianized cultures, these theologians were basically asking a simple question: We took our churches and our empires, together, across the globe for centuries. Did we get what we hoped for?

Their own answer to this question was simple. No.

This is, of course, an over simplification of many authors with their own nuance and perspective. For the sake of brevity, though, I don't think this is an unfair synopsis. What wasn't working for these theologians? Good question! Let me attempt to offer an abbreviated answer to this:

From a cursory glance, if one were to observe western Christianity from the outside looking in, it would appear that our goal is simple: church buildings. If an alien were to visit from another planet, what would be most evident are the buildings which we worship in. Missional theologians critiqued this as a central goal and practice. Of course, for most God-fearing folk this wasn't the stated goal but for all intents and purposes that's what it looks like from the outside. This, we could call "ecclesio-centric." What these thinkers were encouraging was "missio-centrism." The authors of the seminal book Missional Church wrote,  "... we have begun to see that the church of Jesus Christ is not the purpose or goal of the gospel, but rather its instrument and witness." Their observation was that western Christianity had delivered in institutions and buildings but had not attended to the actual goal, the mission of the Christian tradition, what we call "the gospel."

If church wasn't the 'goal of the gospel,' then what was/is? Again, the authors of Missional Church: "We have begun to see that mission is not merely an activity of the church. Rather, mission is the result of God's initiative, rooted in God's purposes to restore and heal creation." In regards to the end goal or mission, the early architects of missional theology established two things:

1) The mission is the reconciliation between all of creation and God

2) The mission is God's. Not ours.

I imagine that few baptized Christians would disagree with these conclusions. Of course, it's God's mission and not ours! Certainly, some traditions hold a stronger emphasis on individual transformation, but most would agree that personal reconciliation with God through Christ is part of God's purpose of reconciliation with all of creation. The rub really came with the critique of the embedded theology found in the methods of the western church.

More on that next.

Until then, some recommended reading for background:

The Other Side of 1984 by Leslie Newbgin
Transforming Mission by David Bosch
Missional Church ed. Darrell Guder