Raymond L. Wheeler

Musings about leadership

Missional Churches: The Problem with Definitions

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A Review of the Current Popular Discussion

The discussion surrounding missional church concepts is robust and fraught with difficulty in defining exactly what is meant.  Is there a better descriptive terminology that contrasts an ingrown (toxic) congregation to an engaging (vibrant) congregation than the current popular attractional versus missional nomenclature? Discussions regarding the meaning of “missional” yield a confusing array of inferred theological and philosophical models for interpreting the nature of the church and its relationship to its cultural milieu.  A limited review of discussions about the missional church movement indicates erroneous assumptions: (1) that localized experience extrapolates to universal commentary on the effectiveness of a concept and (2) that inferred theological assumptions are universally shared.

One online discussion identified the challenges inherent in defining the practice of being a “missional” church.  It is one thing to review the discussion between theologians, missiologists and sociologists who utilize specific language, share a historical awareness of the development of church history and social trends and are practiced at identifying their own assumed values.  It is something entirely different to move the conversation to a popular level among practitioners who demonstrate various levels of appreciation of history beyond personal experience, specialized symbols and vocabulary and rigorous self awareness.

This article explores one discussion of what it means to be a missional church and what it means to transition from not being a missional church to being one.  The objective if the article is to review a discussion of what it means to be a missional church and extract helpful insights to help practitioners manage the challenge of change.

Ecclesia – What is it?

The discussion of what it means to be a missional church is a discussion on what it means to be the church in today’s environment.   What is the church? Every tradition accepts that the genesis of the church traces back to the work and promise of Jesus Christ;

…I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you lose on earth will be loosed in heaven.[1]

Jesus’ statement not only sets the identity and focus of the church it also outlines its mission as an interface between heaven and earth.  This priestly theme occurs regularly in the gospels from the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  Jesus emphasized both the covenant nature of his presence and the interdictory nature of this presence in his description of what Nathaniel could anticipate;

Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig Tree? You will see great things than these…. Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.[2]

The reference to Jacob’s vision and experience with the covenant making and covenant keeping God who intervenes in human events is clear.  There is not only a sense of having direct access to God inferred by Jesus’ statement but also a mirroring of the theme Mark uses to set our expectation for how the church would continue to powerfully operate in the presence of the risen Christ;

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God…[3]

The church’s commission includes the task of being a priestly people and thus to “…stand before God on behalf of people and to stand before people on behalf of God.”[4]  Mission is not something that the church does as an activity external to itself, it is the very life the church lives in a community that demonstrates the reality of God, the promise of God, the power of God and the intention of God (i.e., reconciliation with humankind). 

Even a casual awareness of church history leads one to conclude that the work being done to define what it means to be a missional church is really not a new work or idea.  The apostles wrestled with the nature of the church and its role in missio Dei.  The post apostolic fathers amplified the debate continuing to question how the relationship between the church and its context was to be defined.  The vocabulary changes as new generations grapple with what it means to be participants in missio Dei (sending of God).  Bosch describes it as;

In attempting to flesh out the missio Dei concept, the following could be said: in the new image mission is not primarily an activity of the church, but an attribute of God.  God is a missionary God…. “It is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfill in the world; it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father than includes the church.”[5]

Bosch’s view represents a significant shift in the perspective of mission.  This shift is recognized by Guder and others when he writes about how the church has tended to view mission in the modern period;

In the ecclesiocentric approach of Christendom, mission became only one of the many programs of the church.[6]

Bosch and others contend for a different view, a view of mission that is Christocentric and sees the church as a participant in missio Dei.  The question each generation of believers is therefore compelled to ask is; to what extent does our lifestyle and behavior as a group or institution (church) accurately serve as an exhibit of missio Dei? The current engagement of the missional concept looks for ways to be more closely aligned to missio Dei. One of the respondents to the discussion board at the heart of this article captured the essence of the practical impact of the shift in thinking that missional practitioners would like to make i.e., the local church exists to transform the community rather than to sit and wait for the community to come to it. Those wrestling with what it means to be a missional church or what it means to not be a missional church wrestle with the reality of change; a changing social context, changing attitudes about the church and deliberate attempts at change to be better aligned with a definition of God’s missionary nature.  Thus definitions of “missional” emerge from this view of God’s missionary nature.   What follows is a sampling of what is written about the missional church;

With the term missional we emphasize the essential nature and vocation of the church as God’s called and sent people…[7]

Just as we must insist that a church which has ceased to be a mission has lot the essential character of a Church, so we must also say that a mission which is not at the same time truly a Church is not a true expression of the divine apostolate. An unchurchly mission is as much a monstrosity as an unmissionary church.[8]

But when a local congregation understands that it is, by its nature, a constellation of mission activities, and it intentionally lives its life as a missionary body, then it begins to emerge toward becoming the authentic Church of Jesus Christ.[9]

…a missional church is one whose primary commitment is to the missionary calling of the people of God.  Missional leadership is that form of leadership that emphasizes the primacy of the missionary calling of God’s people…[10]

Today’s church has posed itself a serious challenge: to live according to its missional nature rather than simply organize around mission activities.  The challenge is something of an antidote to the church’s previous practice of piecing together a theology out of the two “Great Commissions” verses…rather than from the entire biblical story.[11]

It seems unavoidable then that the conversation engages the church regardless of the theological tradition.  At each point of engagement a gap between intent and reality may occur. It is here that defensiveness tends to arise.  A new generation of thinkers/practitioners reframe what it means to be a disciple often contrasting what they have inherited to the authentic – a move that is often disconcerting to the prior generation inevitably caught in the crosshairs of the assessment.  The gap drives home the need for transformation and its necessary antecedent – repentance for all participants. It is good to keep in mind that repentance must be recognized as a continuous spiritual discipline rather than an exceptional discontinuous crisis event.  If the practice of confession and repentance is lost from the regular expression of discipleship then the focus of the church shifts from being a priestly people to being a consumer people insisting that the church be a place of reassuring comfort and self indulgent affirmation apart from all sense of mission, service, sacrifice or personal spiritual growth. I fear that the later is frequently the situation in popular discussion regarding what it means to be missional.

Question

Are you aware of any churches who have successfully transitioned from a typical attractional model worship service to a missional/organic model?  I am working with a pastor who has moved a church that worshipped 80-100 to a group of less than 40 people. Many people are upset. As a consultant and denominational executive I’m trying to find other examples of such a philosophy change so I can give wise consultations.[12]

I was drawn to this discussion because the failed change process described above is not uncommon to my supervisory and personal experience in pastoral ministry.  At first blush I assumed that the pastor in question had reached a point I call “the effectiveness lament”.  The effectiveness lament applies in two directions (1) it is the frustration of a leader who feels trapped by their own success and (2) it is the frustration of a leader who feels internally berated by their lack of apparent success in light of the success of others.  Pastors like other leaders in this position attempt impulsive change typically addressing adaptive issues through structural strategies i.e., they attempt to treat the symptoms by changing their structure rather than addressing flawed or inadequate assumptions/beliefs inherent in the system.  Such attempts at change always fail, typically with the results described by Williams in the quote above.

I was also drawn to this discussion because it represented a variety of practitioners from a variety of Christian traditions all wrestling with how to define missional and how to initiate change in light of their definitions.  What follows is my attempt to classify the issues that arise in the practice of leadership engaged in applying missional church concepts to their congregation.

Missional – What is Meant?

It didn’t take long for the online discussion to become mired in definitions.  Throughout this discussion it was apparent that people attach a variety of meanings to the concept of “missional”. Remember the various definitions I sampled above.

The benefit of definitions is that they allow for discussion that moves toward a goal of understanding and diagnosis.  Facilitating the discussion requires the ability to help others stay on task and not move off the subject.  For example in one discussion I facilitated for a group trying to work through how the missional concept may help them revision their congregation a participant wanted to equate the presence of a building with immobility and institutionalization.  This is a straw man argument.  While buildings may serve as a local congregation’s albatross it may also serve as a vital launching and refreshment point providing resources and support that is often undervalued and under leveraged in emerging missional movements. The presence or absence of a building is irrelevant. It is the mindset that manages or mis-manages this asset that determines whether a building is leverage or an impediment to a missional approach.

Part of the challenge of any move toward a missional approach to being the church is defining what is meant.  Donald Rucker rightly observed that the word “missional” has become a buzz word that often is poorly defined.   What follows are some examples of definitions of “missional” offered by the participants in this online dicussion.

A flimsy trend. One respondent characterized this thinking as the belief that the local church is going out of business in favor of doing non-institutional ministry in coffee shops, etc.

A contrast. Many of the respondents agreed that a missional church was more desireable than a non-missional church.  One participant summarized the contrast;

Folks, lets not miss the main point of the missional conversation. When they use attractional they are referring to the thousands of self-centered, ingrown churches that function like hospices and hospitals and sit around taking care of themselves without a care in the world for the lost. I’m sorry, but that isn’t a church. We need to acknowledge that. Failure to do so is a serious misunderstanding of the biblical word for church. It’s not both and; its either or. Either a church is missional or it isn’t a church.  Now, its the definition of the word missional that has us hung up. If you are referring to the way Viola uses it, then you have made the issue either or. I don’t subscribe to his definition because he eliminates the institutional church all together which is, to say the least, not smart in our culture. If you are using it the way Reggie McNeal or Dave Ferguson, or Roxburgh use it, then you have a definition of the biblical church which all true churches should be like.[13]

Something that draws the unchurched. This participant jumped into the middle of the issue – what makes for a biblical expression of the church?  Some authors insist that house based expressions of the church are authentic and characterizes churches meeting in other venues as institutional and therefore distracted from the real mission of the church. But landing the discussion on the form the church takes doesn’t get at the real meet of the matter as is evident in other respondents’ comments.  

The larger issue of the attractional/missional church is complex. We took an old, abandoned, rat-infested church building in downtown Worcester, MA scheduled for the wrecking ball and turned it into an “attractional” church, in that people are attracted to its worship and redemptive message. However, the majority of people who attend — and its now the largest church in Worcester — are “the least among us”, and the people are radiant with their living for Jesus in the downtown, uber-urban community. So, there can be interesting hybrids of a church that attracts in order to send out. I guess that’s partly what Bill Easum is speaking about above. [14]

So what do these terms mean?  What is attractional?  Is it substantially different than missional?  Or is this the right question?  Another respondent picked up this question;

 Guess we need to define what is meant by ‘attractional’ and what is meant by ‘missional’. It has been [asked] what is the primary door to the community of believers and faith? Answer: The Sunday morning service. But in a missional context, the primary door is engagement with the faith community (individually and collectively) away from the Sunday gathering.  I am pretty clear that both are ‘church’ but taking using different methodologies to connect.[15]

Notice that the definitions are moving in diametrically opposite directions.  For Vint “attractional” and “missional” are two methodologies each valid as expressions of the church.  However, some academics use the terms as a contrast illustrating biblically acceptable (missional) and biblically unacceptable (attractional).  The tripping point is clear in another response;

The issue is are we going to be like the Jerusalem church (attractional) and sit on our butts and care for ourselves or are we going to be like the Antioch church (missional) and send people out to change the world. Let’s not confuse the conversation by saying it is okay to be an attractional church, its not. That is the whole point of much of the missional church conversation. If we are going to use these terms we must first understand their original meaning in the conversation.[16]

Confusion over the definitions leads to a straw man argument.  If the definitions used by Hirsch and others are not honestly investigated then the use of missional versus attractional sounds as though the authors are guilty of a false dichotomy between missional and attractional approaches.  One participant stated as much succinctly and passionately;  

Please don’t let them fall into the trap of creating a false dichotomy of attractional vs Missional. The issue is what makes the church attractional. Jesus was attractional, the early church was attractional. But people were attracted for the right reasons. The church is also missional- its missionary in its nature, purpose and design. You don’t have to tear the church down to make these changes. It is both and not either or.[17]

Is there a better contrast in word choices?  How about missional and traditional? How about missional and institutional? The pastor who is the subject of the original question is purported to have created a straw man argument using the “traditional church” as the basis of his contrast.

Unfortunately the pastor I am working does not seem to agree. He sees the biblical church as being missional and the current traditional church as being anti-biblical.[18]

The discussion participants that inspired this article seemed to be in full agreement with Milliron’s assessment that attractional versus missional is a false dichotomy especially when one uses Jesus as the model of a missional approach.  Perhaps a different dissection would be helpful.  Since missional (active participation in missio Dei) is popularly seen to include infiltration into society by the church and attraction of society to the church then missional may be better contrasted with institutional.  This aligns better with an understanding or organizational dynamics and lifecycle than does the original attractional/missional dichotomy (cf. Figure 1).  It also aligns better to the words of Jesus familiar to a majority of the average church members that include both the concept of being sent and of attracting (drawing) people to;

No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day.[19] (Emphasis mine)

Part of the problem is that unless one reads Ferguson or Hirsch (for example) in detail and see the meaning that they invest the word “attractional” with the discussion breaks down at the point of definitions.  Easum’s summary  does justice to the concept as Ferguson or Hirsch have used the word.  Now if we could just drop both terms we could get to the real issue – does a church primarily exist for itself or for others? How we answer this question answers the complexity of the missional conversation.

Alan Hirsch provides a much needed definition of terms in this work. He contrasts organic missional movements and institutional religion in a way that provides terms needed for diagnosis and prescription (Table 1).

Table 1: Missional and Institutional Illustrated in Contrast[20]

Organic Missional Movement Institutional Religion
Has pioneering missional leadership as its central role Avoids leadership based on personality and is often lead by an “aristocratic class” who inherit leadership based on loyalty
Seeks to embody the way of life of the Founder Represents a more codified belief system
Based on internal operational principles as defined in a missional DNA Based increasingly on external legislating policies/governance
Has a cause Is “the cause”
The mission is to change the future The mission shifts to preserving the past
Tends to be mobile and dynamic Tends to be more static and fixed
Decentralized network built on relationships Centralized organization build on loyalty
Appeals to the common person Tends to become more and more elitist and therefore exclusive
Inspirational/transformational leadership dominant; spiritual authority tends to be the primary basis of influence Transactional leadership dominant; institutional authorizing tends to be primary basis of influence
People of the Way People of the Book
Centered-set dynamic Closed  or bounded set dynamic

 

The contrast between organic and institutional is not between infiltration and attraction (both working in concert make up a missional orientation) but between a missional and institutional perspective as defined in Table 13. It is important to understand that the summary of Table 13 takes several chapters of historical review in Hirsch’s work to lead the reader to appreciate the development of how we view “church” today.   Understanding four distinct historical movements and the social setting that influenced these movements is critical. It is especially critical when discussing the role of dedicated buildings for the use of the church. The four movements include: (1) Apostolic; (2) Post-Apostolic; (3) Christendom (as initiated by Constantine’s legalization of Christianity); and (4) an emerging missional mode (itself an attempt to grapple with what it means to be the church in a post-modern and increasingly diverse society).  Historical classifications are always arbitrary and subject to the biases of the historian however they are still useful for the sake of understanding the ingredients that make up the context of our current discussion.  Try as we may we cannot divorce ourselves either from our own cultural or historical context. Embracing this reality is a far more productive strategy in any redefinition of what it means to be church.

Understand the life cycle of the congregation i.e., the change context

Once definitions are offered that make sense of the contrast between missional and non-missional churches a pastoral leader is then presented with the challenge of understanding his/her own congregation’s position in its growth/maturation continuum.  In other words understanding where a congregation is at in their life cycle (i.e., young and growing, mature and deepening or aging and reflecting) is imperative.  The way change is addressed changes based on the shared experience and lifecycle position of the congregation. This understanding affects the rate of change and the way change is described.  One individual in the online discussion noted;

 At one time the report from the UCC was that churches that went the “missional way” lost about 10% of worship attendees. I don’t know current statistics or formal research. There are exceptional exceptions (Trinity UCC in Chicago for growth, others that lost 50% of their members). Key issues for the UCC seems to be the comparatively authoritarian ministerial style that accompanies many missional strategies, whether it is a new church start or a change in strategy and, the big issue, just what is meant by ‘missional’ and how broadly encompassing it is (to narrow, leaves people out; to broad, represents no real change).[21]

A poorly executed change strategy results in disillusioned and disengaged followers.  But the experience shared above seems to include a normal loss ratio to change as well as an apparent big loss.  It sometimes seems that any loss of members is considered poor leadership when the opposite is true if the model of Jesus is considered.  What makes loss unacceptable is loss that results from human stupidity as evidenced in ignorance of group/change dynamics, arrogance, fear, power mongering or other characteristics evident in some pastors and their boards.[22]

Life cycle needs also emerge in another insight provided in online discussions.  When building the case for change practiced leaders understand that people have to feel their own pain to gain ownership of change.  Experienced leaders utilize questions as a way to help others move past their maladaptive behaviors and beliefs toward admission of their pain, fears, lost hopes and mis-beliefs.  This adds time to the change process but also adds urgency (a quality needed to encourage difficult steps in a change process). Another discussion participant noted;

I think we also, when having these conversations at the local level, need to listen for the context of the concerns and the heart of Gods people, where they are at in their own journeys. Should never be an “us and them” approach, rather a kingdom ministry approach. Different places and times Eccles 3.[23]

The reference to Ecclesiastes 3 reinforces the recognition that timing is critical in managing change.  Change that leverages specific rhythms of life cycle and group experience, seem to have a better survival rate.  In dealing with life cycle Ichak Adizes has an interesting observation, those organizations that are growing need consultants while those that are aging and showing characteristics of being bureaucratic sink holes need “insultants”.  This general pattern of greater intensity to get at denial and toxic patterns of behavior is visible in Jesus’ ministry for example as evidenced in his work with the religious leaders in contrast with his work with the Samaritans in John 4.

Figure 1 illustrates a common organizational lifecycle of growth, stabilization and decline. As indicated in the introduction to this paper this lifecycle is predictable around generational lines.  It does not take a full generation to lapse from a missional perspective to decline in institutionalism.  However, every healthy missional congregation faces the need to realign and rethink its orientation to missio Dei and its social context regularly.  There are two primary factors I see at work that lead to the need to reassess (1) the personal life stage of the core leadership team and (2) the changing social/generational impact that occurs when the founders’ children reach adulthood.  This infers that the idea of missional is not new.  The vocabulary is new and is clearly an adaptive attempt at reinvigorating the church that has fallen into an institutional entrapment.

Figure 1: Organizational Lifecycle and the Missional/Institutional Contrast

 

Conflict and Non Sequitur Responses

When pastoral leaders feel the gap in their own congregational experience regarding its missional identity it is important to identify the contextual factors that make up the change environment before change is attempted. If other change processes are in full swing the initiation of a change toward a missional approach will simply over load the system.  I call this process non sequitur because loss of congregational numbers is assigned to switching to a missional approach when in fact other factors were already at work. 

There is a Presbyterian church (PCUSA) in Cincinnati – College Hill Presbyterian – that has moved toward a missional model. The transition has been difficult and, from the time they started the transition, they have lost in excess of 50% of their members, although the results are clouded by the departure of their Sr. Pastor, 2 years of an Interim, and the calling of a new Sr. Pastor. However, from the time of the call of the new Pastor till now, they have lost approximately 50%.[24]

It is simply not possible to assign blame for the loss of congregational members on the transition to a missional model when a pastoral transition is simultaneously executed. The pastoral change alone is reason enough for the loss of 50% of their attendance. 

The speed of change also needs to be appreciated.  If change is attempted by simply dictating a new approach to congregational life without building a significant case for change or without raising the threshold of pain to the point everyone feels the need for change then needless loss and pain occur.  On writing of the experience people had in the case study that started the discussion Willliams wrote:

… I appreciate the comparison to breaking an unwritten contract. That is how the people who have left feel. On top of that it seems as if those who have left are being made to feel like second class citizens since they are not growing in spiritual maturity like the group who is in “naked obedience to 1 Cor. 14:26”. The current worship service permits and expects 2 or 3 people to speak every Sunday with everyone in the group spending time praying out loud. … I appreciate [the definition of missional church that has emerged] for that is mine, but it is not the definition of the church I am dealing with.

How is the threshold of pain raised effectively?  How are people helped to see the necessity of change that pastors often see in advance of their congregations?  What is the work a pastoral leader has to engage in order to lead successful change initiatives?

Change processing – Recognize Adaptive work

Change processing has been mentioned above.  The discussion participants pointed to the need for understanding change processing. 

That kind of radical change is difficult without having a large consensus of the church to make the change and even then it will be painful. Essentially, the pastor “broke” an unwritten contract with the existing congregants as to the culture of the church. Changing culture is huge — it’s like going home and someone changed the furniture, pictures on the wall, food in the fridge, etc – its upsetting to many. All of us who have pastored have done this in large or small ways and paid the price! Counsel on this can vary from 1) Hang in there, the angry people will leave and new people will come OR 2) Try to repair relationships and make accommodations to those upset OR 3) Work with church leadership to assess the problem, repair relationships and allow for the congregation to have more input concerning congregational change. (4. is to leave and start an organic/missional church from the grassroots). Of these, my preference is #3. There is an opportunity for everyone to learn through this painful episode.[25]

Cladis points to the need for developing leadership skills in change. He recommends what others have called an adaptive leadership style that is necessary in approaching a movement from an institutional (also read dying) congregation to a missional perspective.  There are times when what has always worked in the past fails to work in the present.  The failure was not rooted in the quality of the solution per se but rather in a failure to recognize that life is not static, it is dynamic.  The dynamic quality of life forces one to squarely face the reality that learning never stops and that the need to embrace occasional ambiguity and awkwardness is an unavoidable aspect of learning.  However, when individuals or organizations refuse to admit that what once worked well no longer yields helpful outcomes old solutions simply reinforce rather than solve new problems.

When habits and attitudes become part of the problem over time they create a systemic problem. A systemic problem is a problem that has grown larger than the individuals involved; it becomes a system of its own that is self-perpetuating.  The modern propensity to define mission as one of the programs of the church rather than the very identity of the church is an example of a self-perpetuating system of belief. The recognition that systemic behavioral problems exist constitutes the need for a different approach.  Simply raising the level of effort to reassert known solutions only worsens the situation – as is confirmed by the original case behind the online discussion that prompted this article.  Heifetz calls this new approach adaptive work.  Adaptive work is required when

…our deeply held beliefs are challenged, when the values that made us successful become less relevant, and when legitimate yet competing perspectives emerge.[26] 

In order to successfully engage changing environments leaders (including pastors, boards and influential members) must be willing to face the distress of adaptive work and help others engage the same. In the face of an adaptive challenge everyone must learn new behaviors all the way through at every level of the organization.  Pastors and leaders must break the pattern of leadership as solution giving and members and employees must break from the habit of defining work as just doing a job.  Everyone must accept responsibility for the efforts and sacrifice required to make adaptive changes.  What is needed to successfully engage adaptive change?  Five steps are helpful. [27]

  • Direction: Identify the adaptive challenge. Diagnose the situation in light of the values at stake, unbundled the issues that come with it.  The pastor in the original illustration apparently failed to accomplish this.  Rather than unbundling the issues he created a straw man argument that left people emotional raw and angry.
  • Protection: Keep the level of distress within a tolerable range for doing adaptive work. Use the pressure cooker analogy; keep up the heat without blowing up the pot.  The pastor in the original case study apparently failed to monitor the pressure…he blew up the pressure cooker causing pain and anguish.
  • Orientation: Focus attention on ripening issues and not on stress-reducing distractions. Identify which issues can currently engage attention; and while directing attention to them, counteract avoidance mechanisms like denial, scapegoating, externalizing the enemy, pretending the problem is technical, or attacking individuals rather than issues.  Scapegoating is amply evident in some of the responses to failed change attempts in the online discussion.
  • Manage Conflict: Give the work back to people, but at a rate they can stand. Lace and develop responsibility by putting the pressure on the people with the problem.  Pastors who have studied the missional church concept enough to have devised a strategy to bring change are actually only half baked in their understanding.  Leaders must study the concept well enough to have so ingested its meaning as to let go of bringing a solution and take up the much more difficult task of leading others to see the same insight into the nature of the church so they come to new solutions in participation with one another.
  • Shape Norms: Protect voices of leadership without authority. Give cover to those who raise hard questions and generate distress – people who point to the internal contradictions of the congregation, department or group.  These individuals often have latitude to provoke thinking that authorities do not have.  A smart leader sees that these individuals are on the way toward an epiphany moment in understanding the missionary nature of the church.  An adaptive leader walks with them in discovery offering powerful questions and insights that lead to discovery. 

I am not sure I can overemphasize the point I made in the introduction, as a leaders in the church we face a fundamental call to adaptive work.  If belief in Christ results in transformation of the individual as is described in Paul’s words to the Romans then what can we expect to consistently face? (Rom. 12:1, 2)  If God’s promises summon us to a continuous metamorphosis do we interpret this a mere poetic imagery or as psychological and spiritual reality that causes individuals to experience times of great hope and times of terrifying ambiguity or as John of the Cross (1542-1591 CE) put it, a dark night of the soul?  If it is the latter then we can expect to go through and to help others through periods of time that seem to challenge everything we hold to be real about faith, the church and God.  Another discussion participant also emphasized this point: 

Think the key might be along the lines of creating ‘new wineskins’ for the ‘new wine’ instead of trying to pour it into the ‘old wineskins’. Transition means change and the kind of change of moving from attractional to missional is often significant and too radical (painful) for many to endure. To change the metaphor – perhaps better to build ‘alongside’ rather than ‘on top’.[28]

Examples of Missional Church Initiatives

So how did the discussion participants frame their own missional experience?  Here are six examples.  I leave it to the reader to determine how close they come to the definition of being a missional church.

Start a new church within a church.

Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, California, where Dan Kimball (Author of “Emerging Church”, “Emerging Worship”) made the transition. He talks about it in his books.  We began a church (the Well) within a church (Cornerstone Presbyterian) in Brighton, Michigan four years ago. Our missional focus required that we move out of the more traditional building because of constraints placed by the leadership and the facility as well as the reputation in the community of the much larger Evangelical Presbyterian congregation with a traditional worship style. [29]

Leveraging a cluster of home groups for infiltration and discipleship.

In Edmonton Alberta, there is a very missionally focused attempt to redefine the local church into cluster of homes whose families are intentional in reaching out into their local communities and yet being brought together weekly for prayer, further biblical teaching and mutual accountability in Christ. Although is is far from perfect and this does not replace the existing institution, it’s intent is to help it. There is something exciting happening in this idea. Now in this approach I had also questioned the meaning of “missional” and here is the response I received.[30]

Review existing ministry for a missional perspective and adjusting to correct the gap.

 In my missional writing I refer to the 3D Missional church as a convergence of the attractional, incarnational, and extractional models suggesting that any one without the other two has a design and purpose problem and winds up with weakness and dysfunction. For instance, “how many churches practice discipline in the atractional model alone? I also provide examples from Jesus and the early church providing all three. BTW, Roxbough is an excellent resource. [31]

Refocus perspective toward the community and act on what you see.

 The best time I have had in 35 years of pastoral ministry was when our congregation was focused on caring for others. We helped people – even people we didn’t know. We didn’t accept money, and we simply supplied what they needed out of our own resources. Because of our actions people joined us. There was attraction in the mission.[32]

As far as helping another church make that transition, I also agree that it is better to begin with the culture the church has before radically changing it. Rarely is a church culture ALL bad. A leader can start with that which is good and then begin to educate regarding God’s mission for Christ’s followers. Begin an outreach effort. Start a food pantry. Form a task force that can look into what the community needs and then figure out a way to meet the need. Start small. Discipleship is a process. There is no need to ignore people’s needs as we teach them to begin living into all that God wants them to be. Chances are, once they taste the blessings of service, they will want to do more. Eventually, with good leadership, they may be driving more change than the pastor can keep up with. And that can be a very good thing.[33]

Source

LinkedIn group discussion: http://www.linkedin.com/groupItem?view=&gid=1138467&type=member&item=37135143&commentID=28246119&report%2Esuccess=8ULbKyXO6NDvmoK7o030UNOYGZKrvdhBhypZ_w8EpQrrQI-BBjkmxwkEOwBjLE28YyDIxcyEO7_TA_giuRN#commentID_28246119; accessed 21 Dec 2010.


[1] Mt 16:18b-19. (NIV)  In true Protestant fashion I understand the Jesus’ authorization to be contingent upon the recognition and acceptance of his identify and to apply to all those who engage him rather than being primarily focused on a Petrine office.

[2] Jn 1:50-52 (NIV)

[3] Mk 1:1 (NIV)

[4] Leslie Newbigin. Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1989), 230.

[5] David J. Bosch. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998), 90.

[6] Darrel L. Guder, Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1998), 6.

[7] Guder 1998, 11.

[8] Leslie Newbigin. Household of God: Lectures on the Nature of the Church (New York, Friendship, 1954).

[9] Charles Van Engen. God’s Missionary People: Rethinking the Purpose of the Local Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1991), 70.

[10] Alan Hirsch. The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), 284.

[11] Linda Bergquist and Allan Karr. Church Turned Inside Out: A Guide for Designers, Refiners and Re-Aligners (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010), 75.

[12] Dave Williams, discussion thread on LinkedIn – Society for Church Consulting, posted 8 December 2010.

[13] Bill Easum, discussion thread on LinkedIn – Society for Church Consulting, posted 8 December 2010.

[14] George Cladis, discussion thread on LinkedIn – Society for Church Consulting, posted 8 December 2010.

[15] Allan Vint, discussion thread on LinkedIn – Society for Church Consulting, posted 8 December 2010.

[16] Easum, 2010.

[17] Jim Millirons, discussion thread on LinkedIn – Society for Church Consulting, posted 8 December 2010.

[18] Williams, 2010.

[19] John 6:44 (NIV)

[20] Hirsch, 196.

[21] Michael Montgomery, discussion thread on LinkedIn – Society for Church Consulting, posted 8 December 2010.

[22] I deliberately chose the word “stupidity” here because its definition fits with the behaviors of toxic leaders (either lay or pastoral).  Webster defines stupidity as; slow of mind or obtuse – given to unintelligent decisions or acts.

[23] Ron deVries, discussion thread on LinkedIn – Society for Church Consulting, posted 8 December 2010.

[24] Name withheld, discussion thread on LinkedIn – Society for Church Consulting, posted 8 December 2010.

[25] Cladis, 2010.

[26] Ronald A. Heifetz and Donald L. Laurie. “The Work of Leadership,” Harvard Business Review (December 2001), 6.

[27] Adapted from Heifetz, 128.

[28] Allan Vint, discussion thread on LinkedIn – Society for Church Consulting, posted 8 December 2010.

[29] Peter Baird, discussion thread on LinkedIn – Society for Church Consulting, posted 8 December 2010.

[30] deVries, 2010.

[31] Millirons, 2010.

[32] Donald Rucker, discussion thread on LinkedIn – Society for Church Consulting, posted 8 December 2010.

[33] Lynn Ball, discussion thread on LinkedIn – Society for Church Consulting, posted 8 December 2010.

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Author: Ray Wheeler, DMin

Ray Wheeler - executive coach, confidant, mentor, leader, and friend. Ray is the author of, Change the Paradigm: How to Lead Like Jesus in Today's world. He is also an adjunct lecturer at LIFE Pacific College, Bethesda University California and Azusa Pacific University in cross-cultural leadership, leadership development, leadership ethics, administration, church growth, and mission in today's world. Certified leadership coach, certified Birkman Consultant, and certified in the iOpener Assessment (happiness at work).

One thought on “Missional Churches: The Problem with Definitions

  1. Pingback: Tina Marie: Faith In Memphis: Generous Congregation Experiences Amazing Grace | RedHotNews.org

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