Friday, May 08, 2009

Missional - Part I: the New Christian Buzzword

It's funny how things get going, isn't it? Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point, has been great and I could probably use it to tackle that question with regard to this, but that's not exactly where I'm going. Mainly because I'm not as interested in the use of the word, or better-yet in the co-opting of the word, but in the understanding of the word. That word being MISSIONAL.

Truthfully, I haven't written a book, taught a seminary class or been a keynote speaker at some event where I used the word Missional, but I do have some insight into the whole thing that comes, about as close to the source as you can get. I think, I think, I get Missional. What I'm concerned about, is that so many other people out there DON'T get it, and they simply connect it with other things or co-opt it into their own designs to either deride or use the word as they see fit. First, let me share the story of the word, as told to me, as best I remember.

It begins with a conversation, a conversation about the Gospel and Western Culture, particularly in the United States. This conversation, was born in part, but not entirely, out of a work by the late Bishop, Pastor, Missionary, Missiologist and Ecumenist Lesslie Newbigin, and partly due to his writing Foolishness to the Greeks, based on the Warfield Lectures given at Princeton Theological Seminary back in 1984 and further expanded into his famous work The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. The conversation took root in what became the Gospel in our Culture Network, connecting professors, missiologists and pastors who were concerned that the death of Christendom hadn't been realized in North America and that the old ways of doing and being church were no longer effective in communicating the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This network is also, I believe, the launching pad for Emergent, although I may be mistaken on that point.

Anyway, part of the Gospel in our Culture Network was writing - and a group of them, "headed" by Darrell Guder, Dean & professor at Princeton Seminary, but at the time of this, professor at Columbia Seminary (also formerly of Fuller) - wrote a book in 1998. As I the story was relayed to me by Dr. Guder, and as I recall it (recollection is always a funny thing), Dr. Guder got a call at one point, late in the process of writing. Most if not all of the different parts (written by different authors) were in and edited, but an overall title was still lacking. Again, as I recall, he got a phone call from George Hunsberger professor at Western Theological Seminary. He had a title he wanted to run by Dr. Guder... it was, Missional Church. The problem was of course, missional wasn't a word. They talked it out, vetted it and finally signed off. Missional Church would be the title of their book. They'd spend a ton of time defining what the term meant, but as it was more of a concept than anything else, it remained open to interpretation - and of course, mis-interpretation.

What I find funny now, is that missional like so many other buzzwords in the Christian community, has now taken on a life of its own. The cat's out of the bag. No longer do professors steeped in a concept of God's mission in the world, trinitarian theology and a robust understanding of the church have ownership of this word. The book was published, it met with resounding success and people everywhere started using the word.

Here's my big problem - I think a lot of the use of this word is misguided at best and down right disgusting at worst. The concept of missional and a Missional Church is a key recovery in the church which shouldn't be reduced to the next fad in Church Growth, which it has by some. Having graduated from Princeton (oh, how it pains me to play that card, I promise you), having studied under Dr. Guder, read deeply in Lesslie Newbigin, studied Karl Barth (where Guder gets his initial concepts of God's mission in the world interestingly enough) and done so in a group of peers who have challenged and tweaked my thinking - it so pains me to see people putting out crap - whether published or not, that attempts to subvert this concept. Finally, today, I've had enough. I'm going to start a series, I don't know how long, of posts all about Missional. Certainly, it will be at best a rehashing of published work, for which I'll give full credit, but in this age of the internet - my guess is that there'll be many that will not have come across this at all. My hope is that I can clarify and clean up some thinking - at least in a tiny corner of the inter-web...

6 comments:

Petey Crowder said...

I'll be interested to see what you have to say. I completely agree with you about the unfortunate co-opting and subsequent trivializing of the word into a buzzword...though sometimes it's easier than others to see who the "posers" are.... I usually want to give people the benefit of the doubt, but it usually betrays me.

I've found that the problem is this: the reorientation towards "missional," seen in the progression that led to Guder's work, is a big picture re-orientation of the way we see everything. However, for most people it's just a reframing of missions and/or evangelism. Thanks for approaching this....

Matt Stone said...

I hear where you are coming from, and believe me Ive backed off using the word so often myself now that its degrading into a buzzword, but could you give some concrete examples of where you think it is being used inappropriately. I have a growing disquiet but I can't say Ive seen anything that's disgusted me yet.

nancydayachauer said...

I find that people think a missional church is a church that does outreach and charity programs devised by people. The hair is standing up on the back of my neck just acknowledging this common misconception. We are called to be agents of God's mission in the world, it is suppose to be our culture, the root of our being, the impetus of all we do. It's not a committee, or a slogan, or the job of a specialist. God's mission should be present in all that we do. Actualizing God's kingdom on earth, being conduits for the Holy Spirit, living and serving with the heart of Christ, being a reflection of God, embracing Creation - that's what the church is about, that's being "missional".

I look forward to reading your thoughts of this vital topic.

brad brisco said...

Don, good post, there is a good history found in Van Gelder's latest "The Missional Church and Denominations." I included a bit of that history here:

http://missionalchurchnetwork.com/history-of-missional-church-conversation/

Don said...

Petey - I think you hit the nail on the head. Those in positions of power under the current paradigm of Christianity in the West, aren't excited about a big picture reorientation - so it's better to co-opt "Missional"

Matt - You got me. I've only got anecdotal comments to complain about and possibly "disgusted" might be too strong - although after awhile it kind of erupted. Mostly it's in publicity & conversation - where people throw it in with other descriptions for the church - as if it can be one among many.

Nancy - Amen!

Brad - thanks for the link and thanks for introducing me to your blog. Good post there - I'd engage more with it, but seeing it's 5 months old, that ship has probably sailed.

Chris TerryNelson said...

Looking forward to this, Don. On a similar note, check out my new series from a paper I did for an independent study with Guder on Emergent Theology, specifically critiquing Tony Jones.
http://disruptivegrace.blogspot.com/