Figuring Out How the Missional Church Works

Defining the Context of Missional Work

“It is odd,” the pastor noted, “that your company is investing time in a concept that will make your company obsolete.”  “You are stuck” he continued, “in a consumerist perspective and model of the church and so I wonder why you are here.  In light of the radical changes happening in the church the chairs you manufacture will no longer be needed.”

This was a leader of a movement of congregations known to take seriously a missional approach to its ecclesiology.  The affiliation of congregations he represents are Christocentric rather than ecclesiocentric in their practice (defined below) and are on the cutting edge of the thinking about being a missional congregation.  The shift in perspective from ecclesiocentric to Christocentric view of mission has focused them on the working of missio Dei (God’s mission) in all their community. Yet for all the vibrancy exhibited in their fledgling movement they exhibit remnants of a historical and local myopia.

My surprise at the statement emanated from the fact we met in a gathering sponsored by the several companies that work primarily with churches across the United States and who have partnered together to leverage each others’ strengths.  In our case we manufacture sanctuary seating serving both a domestic and global market.  Sitting where we do at the nexus of commerce and the church we all enjoy a fascinating perspective of the church in action.  The network of companies that sponsored these particular meetings represent men and women of deep conviction about the relevance and vibrancy of the local church.  Because we have a trans-local perspective of the church we see the need to bring together pastors and consultants from across the United States to share their insights and experience in leading missional congregations and to interact with some of the leading authors writing on the concept of the missional church.

This leader was personally oblivious to the background and stories of the men and women sponsoring the context of these meetings. He seemed at first ready to dismiss us all as antiquarian dinosaurs of a dynasty that has long outlived its usefulness. I could not help but recall the painful rebuke I once received from a more mature saint I had similarly dismissed in my radical youth, “Ray,” Sue noted, “before you write off the church that birthed you in faith you should consider that you operate as you do on both its resources and more importantly its heritage.  You should review the admonition of Hebrews 13:7 to remember the leaders of the past and to imitate the outcome of their faith.  You act as though you are the first to discover the dynamic of walking in faith.”

The corrective hurt then, now I am thankful for the broadened perspective that Sue and her husband Chuck helped me grasp.  Both were educated at Wheaton, they were active in the church, they were dynamic in their faith and Chuck was an engineer who introduced me to a much deeper spiritual formation and spiritual disciplines than I had known up to that point.

I love the conversation and the vibrancy that exudes from congregations wrestling with what it means to be the church in mission.  The conversation is important and the change (read repentance) it brings to how local congregations see themselves relative to their community is critically important. The conversation I had with this radical leader is also important. Three things hit me as I thought about the conversation I had that night over diner with this leader.

The Stumbling Stone of Western Dualism

Today’s missional reflection needs to reflect on its own historicity and the ongoing problem of dualism in western thought.  Jeff Van Duzer’s recent interview in Christianity Today titled “The Meaning of Business” addressed the one of the stumbling stones of our inherent dualism.  Moll writes:

Despite many books and conferences in the past decade that frame business as a divine calling, churches still wonder how best to support the businesspeople in their midst, many of whom feel demeaned for not doing “real” ministry.[1]

How is it that a concept that focuses rightly on the concept of communitas still exhibits the contradiction of treating business people as second class believers or reducing them pejoratively to mere consumers of faith?[2] Practitioners of missional ecclesiology still wrestle with ways to differentiate their understanding from those perspectives and views that represent the entropy of the church in the west.  Clearly the church in the west faces a crisis of identity theologically and institutionally. So I do not dismiss the need to rethink the church’s relationship with its context or to its theological assumptions.

However to relegate business people to second class believers is simply a result of inherent cultural dualism rather than a result of critical theological reflection. So what is dualism?  When it is used in reference to the human mind then it means that there is more to existence than mere materialism.  In this meaning of the word there is no particular problem.  In fact the scriptures clearly argue that a spiritual dimension is part of our material universe.  The problem arises in the nuances of how the relationship between the material and spiritual aspects of our existence relate.  Is the material world de facto evil?  In some traditions this seems to be the case.  This sets up an impossible tension that often works to diminish the impact of the gospel or the scope of God’s mission (missio Dei). Should the church only be concerned with the spiritual well being of others? Do we discount the social, environmental and economic forces that make up our existence and that contribute to oppression, imprisonment and misunderstanding?

Our theological traditions in the west are deeply influenced by Plato the Greek philosopher whose schematic of form and substance was utilized by the early church.  The problem is that Plato’s love of pure disembodied form runs counter to the creative activity of God and God’s pronouncement that creation was good.  When our current thinking uncritically adopts a dualistic perspective that assumes all material issues are either evil or less holy than what we consider spiritual issues the kind of tension cited by Van Duzer in Moll’s interview emerge. The point is that it is important to allow the scriptures to challenge our deepest assumptions rather than proof text our way to affirming our own cultural assumptions. Herein also the problem of historicity pops up.  We are not always conscious of the distance between ourselves and the authors of the scriptures. We are not always conscious of the impact our cultural social upbringing has on how we read the biblical texts. If we do not exercise a rigorous hermeneutic then we run the risk of creating a different gospel – one that is truncated between the physical and the spiritual rather than holistic.  A truncated gospel becomes biblically unrecognizable at best and at worst it becomes a contradiction to the mission of God.  In all fairness the reverse is also true.  If one spends their time working for social justice without the power of the redeeming and transforming work of Christ then a different kind of truncation occurs – it is also a distortion and one that would benefit from the holistic approach modeled by Christ.

The Blind Spot of an Ecclesiocentric Hermeneutic of Mission

Today’s missional thinking needs to be encouraged in its pursuit of a hermeneutic that pursues a Christocentric versus ecclesiocentric approach to mission (i.e., a pursuit of fresh theological reflection).  What do I mean by a Christocentric view of mission?  By this I mean that the confession that Jesus is Lord becomes the center of the life of the church. When lived out this confession does not recognize a distinction between secular and sacred realms as become evident in a dualistic approach to thinking. If Jesus is Lord of all that I do then work as well as worship is the context of God’s mission.  How deeply does the dualism I discussed above impact the way we think about church?  Consider the ramifications of starting the definition of mission with the church (i.e., an ecclesiocentric perspective of mission). If mission starts with the church then people tend to experience God as a church-based deity disconnected from the public realm.  God and faith become relegated to private life and offer nothing of substance to the public domain.

If faith is merely a private matter then it runs counter intuitive to the incarnation.  If faith is merely a private matter how does its expression correspond to the mission of God?  It does not correspond well. When the focus of the church’s mission is to create uniquely spiritual or separate contexts in which people express their faith then the church’s missional impulse is divorced from the incarnational model demonstrated by Christ and simply becomes an attempt to separate the sacred from the secular – this is an easy trap to fall into when one starts their definition of mission with the church (i.e., an ecclesiocentric model). In my discussion with my pastor friend I experience the remnants of an ecclesiocentric hermeneutic of mission when he expressed total shock at my statement that our executive team had devoted hours to discussing how we could appropriately and effectively demonstrate live out our commitment to Christ among our employees, vendors, partners and customers.  But why is this shocking?  Believers committed to Jesus as Lord live out their faith and missionary calling in all aspects of their lives. However where an ecclesiocentric perspective of mission is normative then such activities are demoted to second place in comparison with the activities that occur in the institution of the church.  Why diminish any aspect of incarnational ministry?  Why not celebrate all aspects of incarnational ministry?

My own pastor once taught a fabulous sermon on spiritual gifts. I made special note however that the only application of spiritual gifts he mentioned revolved around volunteering in the ministries housed on the campus or sponsored by the congregation in homes.  After the sermon I noted how encouraged I was with the content and that I had been challenged to rethink the use of Christ’s gifts in me. However I said, “Dennis, clear Wednesday for me.  I need you to be with me from 6:00 AM to about 8:30 PM. Will you do this?”   Dennis agreed to clear his day because of our great respect for one another and the fact he could see I had something unique in mind. “Meet me at the train station at 6:00, I will be in the front car” I said.  We parted until Wednesday.

When we met on the train car I explained that I wanted Dennis to see what my day was like.  My daily commute was an hour and a half to work one way to a company in which I served as Vice President of Administration.  During our day together Dennis sat in on our executive planning session, observed me coaching management staff, answering a deluge of emails, and even firing an employee.  One of my managers even collapsed into my arms in grief and Dennis watched me pray for her (it was her first day at work since her husband had died of a heart attack). Other than the rather dramatic encounter with the manager the day was a normal day for me.  On our way back home after a ten hour day I asked Dennis two questions.  “Dennis I asked you to come with me today to ask you two questions.  First, what part of my day was not ministry in your mind?  Second, you see what my daily commute is like.  We won’t get home until 8:30 PM, when do I have time to come by the church office and volunteer?”

There was no question about my commitment to Jesus as Lord.  There was no question about my support of the church financially, emotionally and spiritually.  But in what Dennis described on the Sunday he taught on spiritual gifts there was no sense of authentication or acceptance of the kind of schedule and impact an executive or professional like myself had on the community in which I worked.  I participated in Sunday morning worship as a point of refreshment and encouragement as much as I participated as an expression of giftedness. Were people like myself to be reduced to mere consumer status who are simply required to pay to play?  Or is there a well of wisdom extant in many congregations that pastors simply have not yet learned to draw on?  Dennis by the way jumped on the conversation with his usual creative and energetic pursuit of learning.  Dennis and I share in ministry it is a partnership.  We enrich each other, encourage each other, pray for each other and find that the contexts in which God has called us to work offer a rich insight into the fullness of God’s mission in the world.

However, among some leaders an ecclesiocentric perspective of mission remains a significant blind spot.  Pastoral leaders who are burned out, bummed out and tired of the machine that consumes them have two significant challenges in front of them.  The first is to refocus on why they are believers in Jesus Christ.  Jesus called this a summons to return to one’s first love (Revelation 2:4, 5).  Recalibrate activity not around the demands of the institution but the risen Christ.  The second is only possible as the first occurs: reinvigorate the adaptive work that summons others to true communitas together.

Heifetz and Laurie argue that 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.”[3] This certainly describes the position many congregations find themselves. Effective pastoral leadership in the kind of rapidly changing social environment we find ourselves in leads people through the distress of adaptive work i.e., leading them toward change when they don’t want to change.  This requires that pastoral leaders break from the pattern of leadership in the form of solution or answer giving to shift the locus of responsibility for problem solving to the congregation. (cf., Acts 6 for a model of this).  This represents a significant shift in how pastors view themselves as leaders. It moves pastoral leadership from being the center of the life of the church to a position that works to equip the ministry of the church.  In some traditions (new ones as well as older ones) this represents a great leap of change. Leading adaptive work involves: the ability to view patterns, identification of the adaptive challenge, regulating distress, maintaining disciplined attention, giving the work of ministry back to people and protecting the voices of leadership from below.  These activities redefine how the traditional pastoral role is often defined but it seems to line up to the expectations outlined in the bible for leaders (e.g., Ephesians 4: 12-16).

The Shallowness of a Limited Historical Horizon

Today’s missional reflection needs a dose of historical perspective. The emergence of missional thinking and the struggle with how to describe the church as a missional entity is a predictable continuation of the reformation’s understanding of ecclesia semper reformans, semper reformanda (the church is always reformed and always reforming).  My friend in the discussion I cite at the beginning of this paper seemed to view missional activity in what I term missio intermitto (i.e., the idea that the mission of God is sometimes on again off again depending on the theological purity as viewed by the latest attempt to recapture the vibrancy of the early church).  While apparently true at the level of particular and local experience the historical intervention of God in the affairs of human kind is far less subjective.  The case in point is Elijah who upon complaining of the absence of vibrant vital prophetic activity in the nation of Israel was reminded that seven thousand others had not compromised their faith in light of the prevailing cultural view of Baal worship (1 Kings 19:18).

Today’s conversation on the missional church is needed, it is promising, and it is pregnant with potential for true reformation of the church.  But, it is not new.  It is a continuation of the work that commenced in the Garden, was exhibited and focused on Christ and continues to today.  As Mark so pointedly infers in his gospel “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God” recognizes a continuation and that continuation is the ministry of Christ reflected in the church. (Mark 1:1)

Alan Hirsch is fond of reminding us that the discussion around the missional church is really a summons to things forgotten, things that have been lost to experience but have always been a vital and vibrant part of the outworking of the church of Christ.  Why is this important?  History has so much to teach us – things to emulate and things to avoid.  The conversation God has with human kind is always a fiercely honest one – one that reveals the majestic as well as the disappointing.   The current conversation is no different and we do well to remain students as well as teachers in the midst of the conversation.  If we fail to retain a long historical horizon (i.e., to pay attention to the lessons of history) we walk with one eye shut and the other dim. We stand on the shoulders of others, we should leverage that perspective.

Engage the Fierce Conversation

By the time my pastor friend and I had completed our conversation we felt a mutual sense of respect and curiosity about how the mission of God was unfolding in front of us.  This result was not by accident.  Author Susan Scott identifies the qualities of conversation needed to get to the kind of understanding my friend and I began to enjoy, she calls it fierce conversation.  She describes it this way:

…robust, intense, strong, powerful, passionate, eager, unbridled, uncurbed, untamed.  In its simplest form, a fierce conversation is one in which we come out from behind ourselves into the conversation and make it real.[4]

True progress toward the adoption of a missional perspective (a Christocentric view of mission) and its practical implications on the way we live as the church is limited only to the extent we fail to engage the conversation.  But engaging the conversation requires that we master the courage to interrogate our present reality, come out from behind ourselves to make the conversation real, be engaged now and prepared to be nowhere else, demonstrate a willingness to tackle the toughest challenges, obey our instincts (the nudges of the Holy Spirit) and take responsibility for our own emotional wake.  Too many pastors and too many business professionals have disengaged the conversation under tidy rationale and accusatory conclusions.  I like the summons of the hymn that still resonates in my soul from the days of my childhood.  It is my prayer for the present for both men and women called and gifted by the grace of God;

Rise up oh men of God! Have done with lesser things;
Give heart and soul and mind and strength to serve the King of kings.
Rise up oh men of God! His kingdom tarries long;
Bring in the day of brotherhood, and end the night of wrong.[5]

[1] Jeff Van Duzer and Rob Moll, “The Meaning of Business” (Christianity Today, January 2011. Source; accessed, 16 January 2011).

[2] Communitas can be differentiated between three types of social interaction (a) existential – a transient personal experience of togetherness as is often the catalytic event the draws people into the exploration of relationship with Christ; (b) normative – group experience organized into a permanent social system as that which grows up around missional communities committed to Jesus as Lord and (c) ideological – any number of utopian social models as seen in various attempts by groups of disciples who experiment with the meaning of koinonia as part of normative discipleship.

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

[4] Susan Scott. Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life One Conversation at a Time (New York, NY: Berkley Books, 2004), 7.

[5] William Henry Walter (1825-93).

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