Saturday, October 2, 2010

A brief summary theological history and explanation of Missional Church

The missional church grows out of a new reforming movement in Christianity that began in both England and the U.S. in the 1980s.

At that time in particular church leaders realized that "Christendom" (an environment of a predominantly churched culture that set the cultural markers) was over. Most church identity and life had been molded in the world of Christendom where the church was seen as primary, and because of its primary influence in the culture little effort was needed to attract people who often inherited their faith and church loyalty. (This could be the case whether or not one was any particular kind of church or whether or not one was Christian; the cultural influence was the same). Any mission to others, especially in other parts of the world without churches, was seen simply and secondarily as a program of the church.

Thus were born individual missionaries of the church.

But in a post-Christendom world, as in a pre-Christendom world before the Roman Empire coopted the church, Church is not primary; instead now, as in the first 300 years, Mission is primary. However, it is not the church's mission; it is, rather, the Mission's church. This is the difference between missional church and a church that does outreach programs. The missional church is an effect, a creation itself, called into being out of a deeper identity and sense of mission. That mission comes from the very "missio" nature of God, using the Greek word for "being sent." God sends God's self into the world, which is also known as incarnation. And especially is God's self sent into the world of suffering, of the poor, the outcast, as evidenced by the presence of God in and through Jesus. As God is, then, so should be the church.

Rather than creating and sending out missionaries as before, the church at this point thus becomes itself wholly missionary.

But the forms and practices of most church life today in the European and North American context, because they have been created by and in the context of Christendom, often stand in the way of the church as a people being sent into the world together to gather with the suffering, the poor, the outcast. The missional church, which also comes in different forms itself, including more organic than organizational relationships of people, turns the Christendom model inside out and upside down. Now the church only exists when it is gathered from out of the midst of the very vulnerable ones where God is already at work. This is its mission: serving others, finding God at work there, and joining with God and all, and in gratitude celebrating through worship that refreshes the spirit for the cycle of more serving, more finding, more worship. See how that inverts the "usual Christendom model" of resources and identity and church life that focuses first on worship celebration, then the "finding" one another and belonging, being taught, only then serving others.

But if that is the case, that the church only exists when it is gathered in the midst of being with the most vulnerable, then all its forms and practices, its leadership, its resources of people and space, its activities, should be directed toward and reflected by that mission.

Finally then, as opposed to the centuries of Christendom culture and history, it is the mission that converts the church.


  1. Shorthand for the above:
    Church in its main model in Western culture since the era of Constantine has been in a primary place in the world and so has been the center of its own life; it was able to extend its sphere over the world and the world would come to be a part of it. So we still have an inherited but out of date "come to us" church culture, and evangelism or missionary activity was about finding those outside of the church and converting them to it. Reflective of this "come to us" church is the hierarchy of worship first, then belonging and being taught the ways of church, and then going out to serve in the world, often with the motive of attracting others back to worship and the perpetual cycle. But the church has lost its primary place in culture and the main model is losing steam because of that.

    The missional church inverts all that. It is a "go to them" culture in order to become a church there in the world. And so its focus is 180 degrees away from the Constantine modeled church; there is first service with and to others in the world, then forming a group and belonging and teaching, and only finally after that worship celebration in order to refesh the spirit for more service.


  2. While I find this very moving, it is the height of hubris to overlook the many individual missionary saints and workers of previous millennia, who remained within their faith traditions but still set out to create missional institutions. Today's monasteries, convents, schools and community houses retain but a vestige of their founders' faith exclusivity, even as they use the founders' faith, in new ways, to provide eternal services.

    For many folks, of course, what they want more than practical stuff is excellence and vitality in worship. This led to the creation of chapels, houses for scheduled worship offered for folks bound not by covenant with each other but a call from God at that moment. Unitarian ministries-at-large to the poor, mostly in Boston, were housed in places called Chapels. Some of our most distinguished forebears served there. They produced worship books -- which I have seen -- and discussed the art of pastoral care, in contra-distinction providing worldly services. The gist of this pastoral care philosophy was to remember that all souls are equal and these souls are just as hungry as any others.

    During my internship in church archiving, with the Episcopal Diocesan Library on Tremont Street, I discovered a vibrant heritage of the same kind in Episcopalianism. I don't doubt that there are others, whose names are lost to time. So this is indeed, as the article points out, a trans-denominational movement, both in whom it serves and where it comes from.

    I know that your Third Place, Ron, senses and imbibes these spirits. So please don't think I am speaking to you, or the folks with whom you associate in this work. It is as a historian (missional, not settled anywhere, and blowing my inheritance on the privilege) that I rail against the belief in rebellious individualists called to higher calling as the Spirit moves, while others are held back by covenanted beings who barely remember their souls because they are so busy being stewards of their own assets. Classism cuts both ways, and the UUA needs to examine its sins on this matter.

    Elz Curtiss
    Burlington, Vermont

  3. Oh yes Elz, nothing really new in missional church just a recovery of what many of the saints and unknown sinners I am sure did for centuries in order to keep the faith from being subsumed. The whole new monastic movement is indebted to the early monastics, and to all who kept an ecclesiological dissenting stream alive. Particularly the missional church, which got a lot of push from those within Anglicanism and Reformed churches the past decade or so, are very much indebted to the descendants of the Radical Reformation; Mennonites and others have been able to say to newfound missional folks, welcome, where have you been? Furthermore there is a strong admonition to stay in touch with The Church somehow, even though Mission calls us primarily elsewhere, because if nothing else by staying in relationship with a "corrupt" institution, it reminds us of our own "corruptness" and, as you say, the hubris of reformers is definitely one expression of that. thanks by the way

  4. This is funny. Before responding to Elz's comment, I was about to make a comment on a correction in the post above. I had originally, or the computer had originally, written the definition of missio as "bent sent" instead of what I meant to write, and later changed it to say, "being sent." But there was something I really liked about that phrase that was inadvertently used: "bent sent" and in light of the comments by Elz seems even more apt. What a great reminder for missional groups: we are the "bent sent". echoes of Henri Nouwen.