I came across a fascinating post this past weekend from the missional website www.vergenetwork.org. It was titled, “Why the Missional Movement Will Fail” and was written by missional guru Mike Breen.
He cuts to the chase and offers an interesting perspective: “It’s time we start being brutally honest about the missional movement that has emerged in the last 10-15 years: Chances are better than not it’s going to fail. That may seem cynical, but I’m being realistic. There is a reason so many movements in the Western church have failed in the past century: They are a car without an engine. A missional church or a missional community or a missional small group is the new car that everyone is talking about right now, but no matter how beautiful or shiny the vehicle, without an engine, it won’t go anywhere.”
What’s the engine that is missing? Without question, Breen says, it is discipleship. In short, he says that the North American church has become so obsessed with getting the message out that they are failing to get the message right, and are therefore failing to actually make disciples: “We took 30 days and examined the Twitter conversations happening. We discovered there are between 100-150 times as many people talking about mission as there are discipleship (to be clear, that’s a 100:1). We are a group of people addicted to and obsessed with the work of the Kingdom, with little to no idea how to be with the King.”
Breen cites another fascinating (must read) post from the missional website (Out of Ur.com, www.outofur.com; the July 18, 2011 post by Skye Jethani) titled “Has the Mission Become Our Idol?” Here, too, there is an internal alarm being sounded about the recent “missional” push by the North American church.
Jethani offers no small indictment: “[M]any church leaders unknowingly replace the transcendent vitality of a life with God for the ego satisfaction they derive from a life for God.” He goes on, “When we come to believe that our faith is primarily about what we can do for God in the world, it is like throwing gasoline on our fear of insignificance. The resulting fire may be presented to others as a godly ambition, a holy desire to see God’s mission advance–the kind of drive evident in the Apostle Paul’s life. But when these flames are fueled by fear they reveal none of the peace, joy, or love displayed by Paul and rooted in the Spirit. Instead the relentless drive to prove our worth can quickly become destructive.”
That the missional movements’ own leaders are sounding such alarms should make us sit up and listen. Still, it’s not that they are necessarily giving up on the movement. They want to offer a course correction to the overall missional movement’s perceived correction for the greater church. However, the ironic thing is, at least from a confessional Lutheran perspective, the course correction they are urging is what evangelical Lutherans have always maintained to be the course of the church—the making of disciples! The long cherished use of Luther’s Small Catechism is an ample reminder of how confessional Lutherans have an affinity for getting the message right so that we can then get the message out rightly.
Breen’s sentiments echo this: While the “missional” conversation is imbued with the energy and vitality that comes with kingdom work, it seems to be missing some of the hallmark reality that those of us who have lived it over time have come to expect: Mission is messy. It’s humbling. There’s often no glory in it. It’s for the long haul. And it’s completely unsustainable without discipleship. Thus, it seems catechetical Lutherans simply ought to stay the course and do what they have done for centuries.
Nonetheless, the notion of getting the message out continues to remain an intense push among many Lutherans circles, motivating some to take increasingly confusing steps towards the end of getting the message out. From adopting theologically foreign methodologies, to measuring the faithfulness of a church solely by the numerical growth of members, to forcing the sale of an active congregational church building to turn a large profit—all are being done in the name of getting the message out.
But what we are finding is that such measures do not have the impact many thought they would. Consider what Detlev Schulz offers in his 2009 book Mission from the Cross: The Lutheran Theology of Mission:
Christianity has voiced its optimism of those who have and continue to envision total world evangelization… Many evangelical groups conceived of mission in unrealistically optimistic terms… Today, this optimism has surfaced again… Denominations and movements of every kind—whether Protestant, Evangelical, Ecumenical, Roman Catholic, or Pentecostal/ Charismatic—launched global plans and made solemn pledges to complete Christ’s commission on earth in that decade. But as Barret points out, the results of such campaigns were disappointing. The envisaged ten-year period of unstoppable expansion of Christianity did not materialize. Despite an overall increase in expenditure during that period (topping more than $70 billion), Christianity made no substantial progress (p.7).
Consequently, then, is there any evidence that the priority of getting the message out has somehow morphed into getting the message wrong? Christian Smith’s 2005 book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, would seem to answer in the affirmative.
In the largest survey ever of its kind, Smith and his team assessed the faith life of American teens and their families. What he found is that, despite all the concerted efforts of Evangelicalism for the last three decades to Christianize American culture, America has its own unique religion, which he calls “moralistic therapeutic deism” where, in short, people “believe God exists,” but only to “help them when they are in need,” yet “wants them to be good, fair, and nice,” but is otherwise “uninvolved in their life,” where, in the end, “good people go to heaven when they die.” (162-163).
Compound this with what missional guru Skye Jethani observes about the profound pressure some Christians feel to be “missional,” and it is easy to see how people get the message wrong: Sometimes the people who fear insignificance the most are driven to accomplish the greatest things. As a result they are highly praised within Christian communities for their good works. This temporarily soothes their fear until the next goal can be achieved. But there is a dark side to this drivenness. Gordon MacDonald calls it “missionalism.” It is “the belief that the worth of one’s life is determined by the achievement of a grand objective.” He continues: “Missionalism starts slowly and gains a foothold in the leader’s attitude. Before long the mission controls almost everything: time, relationships, health, spiritual depth, ethics, and convictions. In advanced stages, missionalism means doing whatever it takes to solve the problem. In its worst iteration, the end always justifies the means. The family goes; health is sacrificed; integrity is jeopardized; God-connection is limited.”
Sadly, in the end, by the testimony of those closest to the missional movement, the priority of getting the message out has confounded getting the clear message of Jesus Christ right. Thus, I believe it is time that evangelical Lutherans be allowed to be evangelical Lutherans. I believe it’s time we stop being afraid of practicing the profound catechizing, discipling, and confessional faith for which we are known! I believe it’s time to have honest, open, candid, and collegial 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). For those willing to enter the fray, I welcome your constructive thoughts.