If you’re not “missional”… (Revised with apology)

***This post has been revised as of 11/30/12. The original post included some language towards my District that was not consistent with the collegial tone that I desire to maintain. Though the theological evaluation and call for dialogue remains the same, I have done my best to remove uncharacteristic inflammatory language, with my apologies to those I have offended by not first speaking to them in person. Be assured I am in the process of personally speaking with individuals regarding this transgression, while also aiming to continue an in-person dialogue on this topic.     

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This world is full of unbelievers. We need simply look around and we’ll find someone who does not know that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Like you, they are in desperate need of the truth of the Gospel—that “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). It’s a powerful truth. God’s love is so intense that He sent Jesus to be “crucified, dead, and buried” for their sin, my sin, and your sin.

I like the way Paul put it to young Pastor Timothy: “[God our savior] desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:4-5). In other words, God does not discriminate. His love is clear. He wants all to receive it, rest in it, and share it. His ultimate desire is for “all” people to have faith and receive, as the creed says, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. The Lutheran church (LCMS) has long stood upon this truth (AC IV) and the desire to make sure the Gospel gets delivered. As our confessions simply state:

So that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments was instituted. For through the Word and the sacraments as through instruments the Holy Spirit is given, who effects faith where and when it pleases God in those who hear the gospel, that is to say, in those who hear that God, not on account of our own merits but on account of Christ, justifies those who believe that they are received into grace on account of Christ. Augsburg Confession, Article V.

However, as of late, many in the Holy Christian Church, and notably in my own Lutheran church, feel that the church has lost her way, that the mission of the church has somehow been displaced. As a result, a new movement has emerged. It’s called the Missional Movement. I’ve already written about it at some length. But it needs continued dialogue. Many are still confused about it. Many are frustrated it’s not being embraced. There’s even much discussion about using the word “missional” itself. It’s a new word. Some like it. Others don’t. Does it describe a behavior or imply a particular theology? Not everyone is sure. In short, we need to talk.

Thus, I propose that we engage in some forthright, collegial, and honest conversation about what it means to be missional, and how for better or for worse, the movement is impacting our Lutheran church body. So, once again, here we go. I apologize for the length of this post in advance. But since I’ve been away for a while, perhaps you won’t mind.

In short, the Missional Movement has the desire to “reclaim” the mission of the church—to take back what some say has been high jacked by a “maintenance mentality” that only seeks to serve “their own,” ignore the lost, and remain insulated from the invading and changing culture. Consequently, a passionate “missional” paradigm shift is being thrust upon the church. It’s crossed denominational lines. But as we’ll see, its origination has a distinct identity.

At its core, the desire is to get the Gospel out. This is, of course, an awesome thing to do! However, as we will also find out, the understanding of the Gospel does not have uniform agreement or understanding within the Missional Movement. (Just consider Matt Chandler’s recent book, The Explicit Gospel, as well as J.D. Greear’s recent book, Gospel: Recovering the Power that made Christianity Revolutionary. Both are written as reactions to the movement’s inability to maintain a clear confession of the Gospel.)

In short, the paradigm being offered attempts to organize the ecclesiology of congregations (i.e. church governances, organizational structure, and their defining purpose) in a way that is entirely focused on getting the message out to the lost. Part of this includes the emphasis on “making disciples who make disciples” though what those “disciples” actually look like is also not always agreed upon.

One book in particular attempts to establish this paradigm in great clarity. It is titled, Shaped by God’s Heart: The Passion and Practices of Missional Churches. Simply put, it’s a guide to developing missional leaders and missional communities: “Missional leaders, along with their leadership teams, have a clear vision for creating authentic missional communities. Everything they do is designed to facilitate development of Christians as missionaries sent by God to live and proclaim His kingdom in their world. Ultimately, the leadership team desires every member of the community to function in a missional lifestyle, equipped and empowered for effective ministry” p.168.

Shaped by God’s Heart?

The book is a favorite among missional advocates, and is a Leadership Network Publication written by the experienced Baptist Pastor, Milfred Minatrea. It is perhaps the best articulation of the movement’s missional paradigm and ecclesiastical desire. As such, it also provides a distinct opportunity for insight into the paradigm’s inherent theology and some of the resulting friction it creates with our Lutheran theology and practice.

The book is divided into three parts: Part One—The Church in a New and Changing World, establishes the belief that most churches in North America are “maintenance” churches that are only focused on “survival” and thus are failing God’s mission and therefore need to move to becoming “missional.”

Part Two—The Nine Essential Practices of Missional Churches, explore what “missional” churches do on a regular basis: 1) Have a High Threshold for membership, 2) Be Real, Not Religious, 3) Teach to Obey Rather than to Know, 4) Rewrite Worship every Week, 5) Live Apostolically, 6) Expect to Change the World, 7) Order actions according to Purpose, 8) Measure Growth by Capacity to Release, Not Retain, 9) Place Kingdom Concerns First.

And Part Three—Structures and Strategies for Becoming Missional provides some specific details of the organizational change the congregation must go through to become “authentic disciples” and “truly missional.”

What becomes apparent from the very beginning of the book is the context from which the author is speaking. His regular comparing and contrasting of “missional” to “maintenance” churches reveals that he is operating with a distinct theological and ecclesiastical context that is unmistakably Baptist in nature (including nondenominational or evangelical expressions of this theology).

He is quick to criticize (rightly I might add) how many congregations “have adopted and adapted to consumer culture” where “just as they count on Wal-Mart meeting their material needs, they expect their churches to provide religious goods and services” (p.7). But then he also asserts that maintenance mentality churches merely focus on “preserving the ‘savedness’ of the members, and the church’s function to manage that salvation” where in such churches, “both clergy and laity lose sight of their obligation to make disciples” (p. 9).

However, with this assertion he offers no consideration of the ongoing spiritual needs of church members (i.e. the forgiveness of sins, despairing souls etc.), or any recognition of how sin can continually wreak havoc on the faithful and the peculiarities of each afflicted sinner, nor about the God pleasing nature of vocation. To be sure, he does note how each person has a “sphere of influence” where they can share the Gospel, which includes their place of work (which I completely agree with). However, that is portrayed as a divinely mandated obligation and issue of obedience rather than an outworking of the Gospel, to say nothing of the God pleasing nature of their other various family or work vocations.

His attempt to theologically back up this assertion reveals a distinct difference in how his “missional” mind understands the desire of God and how Lutherans understand the desire of God: “God desires His church to relish in His glory, share His glory among the nations, and reflect His glory in word and deed. The church is a Body made in His image, sent on His mission, to be His glory!” (p.9). The glory of God is not explained in terms of the forgiveness of sins through Christ (central for Lutheran theology), but rather in people coming to worship God.

In other words, it appears that according to this paradigm, missional churches do not emphasize the forgiveness of sins, but rather that people are to praise God, worship God, and give God glory. “Their passion is to see the people of all nations worship God” (p.122). To be sure, worship of our Creator and Redeemer is indeed a salutary and proper activity. But Lutherans recognize worship consists of things far greater than our human endeavors of praise and adoration, and can only occur because of God’s gracious activity toward us.

This approach should not be surprising. It would only be consistent with the non-sacramental nature of Baptist and nondenominational theology, (i.e. that worship is all about the human action of giving praise and glory to God, not about God serving the forgiveness of sins and the gifts of His grace—Word and sacrament worship in Lutheran parlance.) This would also help us understand why he emphasizes the importance of his missional practice number four: Rewrite Worship Every Week (p.65-75). Though he says “worship is about content, not form” he still emphasizes that missional churches are to “make sure worship stays fresh” so that a “relevant” connection can be made with worshipers (p.66). Thus, by theological default, the emphasis of this missional paradigm is repeatedly on the law—what we are to do. As such, if we are being honest, this creates friction for Lutherans.

Law and Gospel or Just Law?

By-in-large, this is the reoccurring theological emphasis of the book. Though he attempts to portray this paradigm as simple “practices” of missional churches, the reality is no practice is theologically neutral, nor is any ecclesiology theologically neutral. They have inherent to them the theological disposition of those creating any such “practice” or “church structure.”

Consider what he says are the four “dimensions of missional churches.” These are what establish the heart and soul of being a missional church—what it is and what it does: Dimension one: Love God—worship and obey. Dimension two: Live His mission—serve and share. Dimension three: Love people—embrace and invite. Dimension Four: Lead them to follow—equip and empower (p. 16-26). Nowhere is the Gospel clearly declared, at least not as Lutherans understand it.

Again, the emphasis is all on the human action rather than on what God in Christ has done and is doing. In fact, from a Lutheran perspective, the Gospel is made into a law—do this, do that—love, live, lead. To be sure, those are sanctified activities and even part of the works that God has in advanced prepared for us to do (Eph. 2:10). But that is not the Gospel. The saving work of Jesus Christ is the Gospel.

Ironically, the book is titled Shaped by God’s Heart, but seems to have missed the mark of what makes God’s heart beat, (not to mention the marks of the church)—namely, the justification of the ungodly in the cross of Jesus Christ; the forgiveness of sins regularly doled out through Word and sacrament.

Instead, the Gospel is depicted as activities that must be done by those who are “authentic” disciples of Jesus. (By the way, does this mean that non-missional folks are not authentic or real disciples? He is fond of backhandedly indicting those who are not missional: “Missional churches are communities of authentic disciples. These churches take discipleship seriously.” p.45. Does this mean that the rest of us don’t?

Also consider this quote by Erwin McManus: “I think that in the traditional church what you oftentimes have is the affirmation of beliefs, and that’s how people get fed. In a missional church it’s the implementation of the actions of beliefs and the fleshing out of beliefs. We actually hold ourselves more fundamentally to the scripture. Honestly, I think most traditional churches don’t really obey the scriptures” p.56. (Seriously?!)

Unfortunately (and perhaps ironically) sin and repentance are dealt with very little in this paradigm. At one point, Minatrea depicts repentance as a past act with no apparent continued need, where it is portrayed more as a part of a past church culture, rather than as a vital part of “authentic” faith:

Leroy Eims is a marvelous disciple builder, author, and master storyteller who called for authentic discipleship in the twentieth century as a representative of the Navigators. Some years ago, as he tells the story, he was listening to the radio while driving toward his Colorado Springs home, It was Saturday evening, and he was listening to sounds of the Big Band era. While enjoying one of his favorites, “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” the song was suddenly drowned out by a higher-powered station broadcasting a “fire and brimstone” preacher who shouted, “Repent. Repent, now!” In response to this appeal, Eims replied, “Now my problem is I’ve already done that. I did that years ago. I have repented. Right now, I am trying to listen to ‘Chattanooga Choo-Choo! But he won’t let me listen to ‘Chatanooga Choo-Choo’; instead he insists that I repent!” Living apostolically can be like that. Our connection to the church can be so strong that it repeatedly interrupts our attempts to move beyond the church and into the culture of the world. While we try to hear what is being said in the world, the sounds of our religious traditions continue to overpower us.” (p.78).

I believe his aim is to challenge the prescriptions of a particular church culture (which can be a fair approach), but in so doing he reveals that the forgiveness of sins is not necessarily central to “missional” congregations (which would not be a healthy approach). Rather, being missional seems to mean that a person is someone who gets others to know who Jesus is; know his love (whatever that might mean) and what he did a long time ago on the cross, but not necessarily know the ongoing effects of sin and the need for the forgiveness of sins today and tomorrow. In other words, the life of evangelism, not the life of repentance, is the core of the “authentic” disciple’s life.

Measures of Success

What is more, the “success” of missional congregations is not measured by the presence of the forgiveness of sins, but rather by a numerical evaluation: “Concerning measures of success… ‘The measure of church success may need to be reevaluated. One day, a church may evaluate its fulfillment of Christ’s commission not only on the basis of attendance, its strength of fellowship, budget and cash flow, but by the number of congregation it begets.’ Indeed, missional churches are redefining what it means to be a church” (p.122-123).

In the end, this is what concerns me about this movement. Confessional Lutherans maintain the nature of the church does not change. This missional paradigm says it does. If we are being honest, we would have to acknowledge that, at a minimum, this poses some very significant concerns.

Ultimately, this is what makes the book, along with many elements of the movement itself, so disenfranchising for me as a Lutheran. Minatrea claims the missional church wants to work with all churches, and not compete with other churches since they are “members of the same team” (p.135). However, I find it troublesome when he notes that “moving to missional is a deep change that is inherently difficult because it requires leaving established ways of doing things” (p.173). Sometimes there are things that are not up for debate. There is not the option to leave them.

Thus, I occasionally wonder if we are really on the same team when there are such disparities of understanding the Gospel. Is the Gospel Jesus’ work for me or my work for Jesus? Lutherans say it’s the former, this missional paradigm says it’s the latter. Leaving the way of Jesus “for me” is to leave the way of the forgiveness of sins. That’s not an option for Lutherans.

This is by no means to disavow all non-Lutheran Christians. Rather, it is to simply affirm the clarity of the Gospel—the forgiveness of sins earned by Christ—for the sake of God’s kingdom and the sake of those sinners called into it. In fact, I love how Reformed Presbyterian Pastor Tullian Tchividjian puts it in his just released book: Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free:

Listen carefully: Christianity is not first and foremost about our behavior, our obedience, our response, and our daily victory over sin—as important as all these are. It is not first and foremost about us at all–it is first and foremost about Jesus! It is about His person; His substitutionary work; His incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and promised return. We are justified—and sanctified—by grace alone through faith alone in the finished work of Christ alone. Even now, the banner under which Christians live reads, “It is finished.” Everything we need, and everything we look for in things smaller than Jesus, is already ours in Christ (p.83).

Thus, it should be clear that I’m not trying to be elitist, snobbish, or a preservationist. I simply desire to affirm the Lutheran principle that doctrine and practice go together; that doctrine is not negotiable, that Christ is central, that sinners need to be forgiven, and that life is very often much more messy than what this missional paradigm seems to acknowledge.

I like how Luther puts it in his 1535 commentary to the Galatians: “Therefore, as I often warn you, doctrine must be carefully distinguished from life. Doctrine is heaven; life is earth. In life there is sin, error, uncleanness, and misery, mixed, as the saying goes, ‘with vinegar.’ Here love should condone, tolerate, be deceived, trust, hope, and endure all things (1 Cor. 13:7); here the forgiveness of sins should have complete sway, provided that sin and error are not defended… But by the grace of God our doctrine is pure; we have all the articles of faith solidly established in sacred scripture. The devil would dearly love to corrupt and overthrow these; that is why he attacks us so cleverly with this specious argument about not offending against love and the harmony among the churches” (p.41-42).

Doctrine and Danger

Yes, as with all books, there are some helpful things that can be learned from this one. Congregational structures can be tenuous and difficult, and there are some helpful pointers that could be gleaned from Minatrea. But the inadequacies of this paradigm as its presented here prevents me from being able to recommend this book.

Curiously, one of the dangers Minatrea notes about the movement is one that I have observed with some frequency. Minatrea offers this warning: “The Missional community must shun the pretense of viewing themselves as ‘more spiritual’ than members of the church who do not pursue the missional vision” (p.177).

It has been my observation that there is a significant amount of pressure to be “missional” even though not everyone agrees or understands on what it actually means to be missional. Nonetheless, congregations and pastors are being evaluated and assessed (implicitly and explicitly) on how “missional” they are. This book itself has multiple missional assessment tools after each chapter that can be used to measure pastors’ and congregations’ missional effectiveness.

I will acknowledge that tools can be helpful to take stock of a congregation’s situation, however this particular mode of measurement would seem to be foreign to Lutheran theology and practice. It does not lend itself to creating a unified atmosphere of Lutheran ministry, but would rather seem to divide and label by way of a new emerging (and yet uncertain) movement.

As a result, those that are not be deemed to be “missional” (either by choice or by circumstance) end up getting looked down upon. Very often they are then viewed or labeled as inferior. They’re seen as upholding a “maintenance” congregation. They get a mark against them and, for some, are seen as a hindrance to “real” ministry. The intent of such measurements may indeed be sincere. But such resulting labels are unfortunate, particularly in view of Minatrea’s own warnings.

In the end, if measurement tools are going to be used, at least from a Lutheran theological and practical perspective, I wonder how pastors and congregations would feel if they were to be evaluated by similar tools on whether they are being truly Lutheran? I know, its a touchy statement. But it draws out the accusatory slippery slope we risk when utilizing such assessment tools.

I believe the Missional Movement desires to get congregations headed in the right direction. I just think Lutheran theology has been pointing us there long before this movement came along.

As always, I invite your collegial and constructive comments as we seek to dialogue about what it means to be a 21st century Lutheran who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).

Yours,

Rev. Woodford

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8 responses to “If you’re not “missional”… (Revised with apology)

  1. Hi, Pastor Woodford! The hallmark of the Reformation is justification by grace through faith. But, this hallmark is only properly taught on the platform of original sin. Get original sin wrong, and justification falls apart. The argument winds up being the old distinction between infused grace and imputed righteousness.
    I’ve read some of these books and been through a training program of sorts. What I see continually astounds me. Books about purpose (you fill in the blanks) and much of the missional emphases you state in your article may be well intentioned, but they are simply a return to the monastery.

  2. Rev. Gerald Heinecke

    Enjoyed your article, one question. How do you propose the LCMS engage the conversation of what is meant by missional? I agree that the desire to confess the faith should be in all congregations, but as you pointed out in your book review there are some major issues with this practice. (Thanks for the summary, I’m glad you suggest that I don’t have to read it.) It sounds like church growth principles with a new name attached to it.

    • Dear Pastor Heinecke,

      Great question. Its one that I think desperately needs to be theologically and collegially addressed in our church body. For me, I think having the open and honest conversation about reaching the lost while recognizing the importance of maintaining clear doctrine and practice is key. I don’t think we need new and/or foreign paradigms for church structures, rather renewed catechesis and clarity of our confession of faith, coupled with a fervor for vocational awareness (particularly in families) would be some beginning points.

      Yours,

      Rev. Woodford

  3. As a priest in the Anglican Communion it has astounded me how our diosese has, without much tension or public discussion, embraced this missional model….I don’t understand how we can lay aside our solid historic understanding of the church for what seems to be only one mark of being the church…it seems to me that the missional movement is just the same old American revivalism and pietism under a new title. It seems to me, that if we are truly being the church we will look to live out and be the gospel…if we are not we should change this, not scrap the other good things the scriptures emphasize about our view of ecclesiology…

  4. The problems with the larger missional movement highlight a related problem with Lutheran practice–difficulty in adaptation. I think we’re largely agreed on the need to proclaim the Gospel and at least partially agreed that it is not being proclaimed as effectively as it could be. What’s more baffling is why it seems so necessary to pillage the evangelicals for any good literature or counsel on how to actually get this done. If our understanding is really so grand we should be producing a deluge of information from our own perspective on how to get things done, not 1) being content to filter the dregs from elsewhere or 2) putting forth the same old sayings and claiming loudly that they are sufficient, even when they seem otherwise. And by these I do not mean the Gospel, for that is truly timeless. I mean other bywords which may have served well in their time but have become nearly unintelligible through the evolution of culture. Most notably, “preach only the sacraments” when the average person has no understanding of the Lord they proclaim or the sin from which they save. Surely we must preach the sacraments, but there are many things we must preach before them in order to do so properly. That is, if we are even able to preach, since we cannot simply rely on pedestrians wandering into the building.

    Congratulations on your new book, and my thanks to you and the others who are attacking this problem in a positive way instead of simply remaining content to criticize without creating.

  5. I agree that the material you have presented as “missional” seems to be a very incomplete understanding of Christianity (and I just plain don’t like buzzword movements). The chapter headings are certainly troublesome. But, is it not also possible, in addition, that you have not fully understood them? Baptists and other evangelicals do not think that the gospel is about what we do for Jesus. Not at all.

    As to the Gospel, does not either the Formula or the Epitome state that the term is used rightly not only of the forgiveness of sins, but of the whole Law and Gospel package, which really is good news in its entirety (the bad news is our sinfulness, not God’s holy, just, and good Law, often absent in many non-Christian cultures)

    The notion of reinventing worship (which is liturgical in heaven as is shown in Revelation) or reinventing the Church (which is not man-made in its origin), choosing to be ignorant while making mathaetaes (disciples, that is students), thinking that religion – that is our right relating to God – is somehow opposed to being real, and then a following smatter of undefined terms that have great potential for confusion certainly make me concerned beyond my usual eye-rolling at the latest fad or program confused with our continuing calls from God as individuals and as the Church, it seems to have potential to do real harm. And yet, not every possible opposition to it would be valid, either.

    We -do- need to study the Bible as Lutherans. We do need to study our doctrine as Lutherans (and why it is true, not merely ‘this is what we believe’ as if we were all post-modernist group-identity types), and we definitely need to learn how to communicate the gospel better than “you should come to my church, we have great potlucks”

    But we can do so more wisely, I think.

  6. Rev. Woodford, 10/28/2014
    May the peace of Christ be with you and yours!

    I am greatly blessed by your writings and thank you for your insights.

    Regarding your revision with apology in this article on “if you’re not missional”.
    As a concerned layman, here is something that I have observed: False teachers in positions of authority and well intentioned loving shepherds (who themselves have been taught error by others) both reside in our Synod. Both have great influence upon the laity. The former are impenitent and rebellious. The latter exhibit the weakness of their flesh in this fallen world yet hope in the grace of Christ alone for their and their congregation’s righteousness. Sometimes it’s not easy to tell the difference. Yet we must declare the Truth to both.

    The former deliberately pollute the Pure water of Holy Baptism for sordid gain and the lust of their flesh. The latter bathe in it daily and yet may still have sleep in their eyes but are made righteous. (As I write I’m working on a good cup of coffee. :) )

    Much error and confusion surrounds the teachings on the Great Commission, the Office of the Ministry, and the Keys. Acceptance of corrupted Reformed theology has brought much trouble into Christ’s church and our Synod and as a result souls in the pews are ripe for plunder by the evil foe. This is happening at an alarming, and I think accelerating, rate. I am watching entire congregations in the LCMS Rocky Mountain District being swept away into this “faith plus works” Christo-philosophy labeled “missional church”.
    The Lord’s Great Commissioning of His Apostles is being used to turn the proclaiming of the Gospel into a law of righteousness for all believers to fulfill. It is being used to promote “missional” acceptance.
    In like manner the Lord’s instruction to His Disciples on Church Discipline, specifically (Matthew 18:15-20), is being used to deflect accountability through process. (You must follow these steps exactly or else I / we won’t listen. Did you follow them to the letter?, they ask. Well then, you must do X…before you can bring a legitimate charge.) Again, freedom in Christ changed into a work of obedience.
    May God grant you wisdom from His Word to act boldly in faith to oppose error and call to repentance those who hold to such either knowingly or un-knowingly.

    A brother in the fight,
    Noye Balmer

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