Written by David Dunbar
Wednesday, 12 December 2012 00:00
In his recent book The Road to Missional, Michael Frost bemoans the fact that missional terminology and ideas have gone main-stream, but in the process of doing so have been domesticated. What began over a decade ago as a radical challenge to western ideas of church, evangelism, discipleship, and mission, has become “safe.” Now increasing numbers of churches describe themselves as “missional.” I have even heard the statement: “our church has always been missional”!
Does this mean that the missional conversation is over? Does widespread acceptance of the term indicate that we have successfully addressed the challenges faced by the church in the post-Christian West? Has the call to a fresh understanding of the mission of God been heard by the American church? Indeed, we may ask, has it even been understood?
Michael Frost suggests that “If the missional conversation is over, it occurs to me that it probably hasn’t really ever been had.” I think this is true for many, perhaps, most of the people who now use the terminology. Missional has become the current way to talk about evangelistic outreach or church programs directed toward the surrounding community. Being missional now involves little more than the possible addition of a program, or a tweak to the system, or perhaps only a change of terminology.
One reason for this too easy acceptance of the term may reside in its similarity to words like “mission” or “missions.” The early framers of the missional conversation wanted to build on that similarity while also emphasizing the distinction. They wanted to create space for a fresh look at the relationship between Gospel, church, and contemporary culture. While valuing elements of the old missionary paradigm, they called for something more. In place of the “sending congregation” they wanted to talk about a “sent people.” Perhaps the linguistic closeness of the terminology actually short-changed the discussion. Maybe this allowed people to assume that they knew what the term meant or to think that there was no radical challenge lurking behind the label.
However, I suspect that there is a deeper issue at work in the domestication of missional. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas has astutely observed that Christendom is a difficult habit to break. Christendom is the way the western church has done business for centuries. It is not only the way we function (church-centered; building-centered; clergy-centered); it is the way we think. People like Thomas Kuhn have argued convincingly that reigning intellectual paradigms are extremely resistant to change even in the face of strong evidence of their inadequacy.
I think something like this has prevented many Christians from understanding the missional discussion. The assumptions of “a Christian nation,” the church in a position of cultural power, “if we build it, they will come,” etc.—all these have a powerful lock on Christian imagination, even though most of us recognize that these notions are less and less effective for guiding the church.
So maybe what we need is a new word to draw attention to a conversation that for many has been still-born. Or maybe, we need to challenge people more frequently to explain what they mean in adopting missional language. But probably most of all we need to cultivate missional communities that incarnate the distinctive differences that we want our fellow believers to understand. Seeing “it” is often the best way to “get it.”
Dave Dunbar is president of Biblical Seminary. He has been married to Sharon for 42 years. They have four grown children and six grand children.