Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Is Your Church "Missional?" Part I: An Introduction to Missional Theology

A little over a year ago, I was introduced to one of the trendiest words in contemporary theology. That word is "missional," and it is most often used to describe a "new" way of thinking about church life that emphasizes a conscious return to the mission of the Church to reach people with the gospel, instead of focusing too much attention on programs for those who are already part of the faith community.

At least, that's the broad definition of the term. I first encountered this concept while representing our local church at the 2010 EFCA annual meeting in Columbus, Ohio. Some of the presenters at the meeting--especially the younger guys who were working in youth and campus ministry--used the term while describing the success they had had when they shifted their ministry focus from trying to attract students to their programs to taking the gospel to young people wherever they were at. Many in the millennial generation, they said, would never set foot inside a church, but were interested in getting to know people who were clearly interested in them. The model made sense to me, but as the conference progressed, I noticed that other leaders in the denomination were suspicious of or openly hostile toward "missional" ministry. I didn't have room in my schedule to attend the information session on missional theology, so I left the conference more than a little confused as to the nature of the controversy.

A few months later, our congregation began the process of planting a church in downtown D.C. We teamed up with a young pastor who felt called to church planting, and who had a clear vision for the new community in the District. This vision was informed heavily by a particular outworking of missional theology called the "missional community" model. Over the past few months, I've had a chance to evaluate this model, to understand (finally) why the term "missional" sets some church leaders' teeth on edge, and to reach my own conclusions about the movement. Please note that I do not intend, in any way, to criticize the pastor of the church plant--planting a church requires a clear vision of who your target demographic is and how to reach them, and he has studied the neighborhood far more closely than I. My intent is to use this space to explore and analyze the ideas driving the movement. Also, note that the movement is still fairly young and has a fair amount of diversity--others may have had different experiences with missional community churches which would lead them to define the movement differently. In part I, I'll explain the model as I understand it, and in part II, I'll give my analysis.

The "missional community" model of organizing the church is based on two assumptions. The first is a belief that the modern evangelical church has become too inwardly focused (missional theologians often refer to this as a "culture of discipleship") and has neglected the basic command of the Great Commission, which is to reach unbelievers with the good news of Jesus Christ. We have developed a consumer mentality toward church membership and have focused so much on our own spiritual growth that we have forgotten that we are to be missionaries to those around us (our "spheres of influence"). The second is a belief that post-postmoderns (no one is quite sure how to refer to them yet) are more interested in forging authentic relationships than they are in subscribing to a set of religious beliefs. Many of them have either had negative experiences with organized religion and so are suspicious of creeds, or are relativists who don't see the need to profess allegiance to one religion over another. But in our media-saturated, frantic society, everyone wants to belong. If we can invite these people to our homes to see how Christians genuinely care for, invest in, and help each other out, some of them will be intrigued enough to consider the church's message. The catch phrase for this assumption is "belonging before belief."

Building off these assumptions, "missional community" churches pare their programming offerings down to the bare bones--childcare during the worship service, perhaps an impromptu women's gathering or men's prayer group--and focus instead on small community groups that meet throughout the week to share a meal, keep tabs on members' needs and encourage each other to "stay on mission" by looking for opportunities to reach out to unbelievers in their workplaces and by living lives of obedience. Community groups--often referred to as "the church scattered"--are also intended to serve as a gateway to church life for the unbelievers the members are witnessing to--they are supposed to be places where non-Christians can see (and be attracted to) the genuine community enjoyed amongst Christians, and where they can safely ask any questions they have. Community groups usually set aside some time for Bible discussion--frequently relating to the sermon heard earlier in the week at the corporate worship gathering--but the emphasis is on application rather than on in-depth exploration of the text. Members are encouraged to invite their non-Christian friends and contacts to community group meetings rather than to the Sunday services, because so many people have negative perceptions of church services, and because it's too easy to blend into the crowd and leave without really connecting to anyone.

Churches that employ the missional community model do have corporate worship gatherings (referred to as "the church gathered"), and these are where the in-depth teaching occurs. Worship styles vary from congregation to congregation, but sermon styles are (I think) fairly consistent: missional pastors prefer to preach expositionally ("verse-by-verse"), to take small chunks of text at a time (it was a rare week when the pastor of the church plant covered more than 6 verses at once), and to preach for longer lengths of time than most traditional church pastors (or at least, this was the case in the church plant). Teaching and worship take place in the corporate gathering; discipleship (application of the teaching) and evangelism take place in the community groups.

That's my version of "Missional Theology 101." Next time, I'll post my evaluation of its main tenets.

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