Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of missional thinking.
I love the challenge to ask how the church can join God’s ongoing mission rather than asking how we can get God to bless our church programming. I love the emphasis on developing a sense of belonging before the rigid requirements of belief.
But there is something that seems off to me about the way that the missional movement is being played out.
For example, as I type this, my computer is telling me that the word missional is spelled wrong (ironically, the suggested correct spelling is “nationalism”). So, if a movement or an organization is going to be centered around one word, they better have a clear and helpful definition of that word. Instead, those at the center of the movement celebrate their inability to define the word. I am a firm believer that if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand very well yourself. Certainly there are other words that even like-minded church leaders couldn’t agree on a definition for, like salvation, wisdom, love, etc. For myself though, if I was asked to support an organization whose motto was, “resourcing salvation minded churches,” I would think they were unjustly setting themselves apart as having a new and better understanding of salvation or that they offer nothing at all to anyone.
The best definition I’ve been given is “renewed theological vision.” It seems to embrace the ambiguity of the movement, but if you’re only differentiating yourself by being new, you’re not saying the important things, and pretty soon you won’t be new anymore anyway.
Another thing that I like about the missional movement is their reminder that we are living in a post-Christendom time period. It is no longer accurate or even appropriate to make assumptions about someone’s religious affiliations based on where they live. We can no longer trust the state to uphold Christian principles in their decision making and we can no longer presume that most people will be motivated by Christian principles or that they will even feel guilty when we point out that they have fallen short of them. I’m not sure that we ever could do any of those things, to be honest, but at the core of the missional movement is a sense that society (and their view of the church) has changed, and so the church must change to communicate the gospel more effectively. This is true, of course, but for the wrong reasons. We need to be continually changing and reforming ourselves, partly so that we don’t confuse our way of doing things with a divinely ordained culture.
In a way, the missional movement is saying, “Since we can longer influence the state, we should adjust to the state to be more effective.” Or another way of restating things is, “It was wrong of us to try to coerce people using state authority before, so we will be more convincing if we are first coerced by society.” Those are over-exaggerations, but by using societal change as a motivator for ecclesial change, we are missing the point. Throughout Christendom, the church never told the state what to do. It was always the other way around and if we are guiding our decisions based on what the state is doing, then we are still stuck in a Christendom model.
The New Testament has the Great Commission (Matt. 28). The missional movement is much more comfortable with the Old Testament version, the Great DeCommissioning (Jeremiah 29). I’m not the most fervent evangelist either, but Jesus says far more about not being changed by societal trends, than the reverse.