The Missional Conversation, Twenty Years Later

Darrell Guder

In 1998 a team of six missiologists, under the auspices of the Gospel and Our Culture Network (GOCN), published a research project entitled Missional Church: A Vision of the Sending of the Church in North America (ed. D.L Guder and G.R. Hunsberger, Eerdmans)The theological motor of the project was Lesslie Newbigin’s penetrating investigation of the state of the church and its mission in western cultures. After decades as a British missionary in India, he turned his attention to what was happening in “Christendom” in his homeland. From the early 1970s on he asked how western Christianity was responding to the fact that within a very short period of time its context had secularized. How were the inherited patterns of church going to address these emerging mission fields? His question motivated the GOCN to seek research support for an intensive engagement of this challenge. The point was not to formulate the new strategies needed by a missionary church now located in a missionary context. Rather, the project was to analyze this context to identify the trajectories of theological investigation that needed to be pursued in order to address Newbigin’s concerns. The outcome of the research project would, it was hoped, be an intensive theologically centered conversation that might inform and shape an ecclesial response to the challenge of the Post-Christendom west.

The “missional church initiative” was the outcome. The team proposed the neologism “missional” as an overarching term for the discussion. It conveyed the consensus that God’s mission (the missio Dei), however envisioned and defined, was at stake. It built upon the consensus that had been emerging since the 1930s under the auspices of the International Missionary Council that the church must be defined and envisioned in terms of its mission. For that to happen, a theology of mission was called for that would basically re-invent the discipline of ecclesiology, and that would critically question the understanding and practice of mission over the centuries of western Christendom, especially in light of its neglect in western doctrinal traditions.

By all accounts the project’s intention has been realized. There is a lively discussion going on globally which is working on many dimensions and aspects of the missional theology and practice of the church. There is a growing literature dealing with myriad themes related to whatever the “missional church” and “missional theology” might actually be. There is much criticism of the term, often for very good reasons. With astonishing speed it has become one of the most widespread of clichés in the vocabularies of Christianity. It is impossible to ascertain what many of its usages actually mean. But among all that activity there is a fruitful theological debate in process that is generating solid questions and insights; the “missional theological initiative” is there, is growing, is generating diverse investigations, and is beginning to shape the “emerging theological consensus,” to borrow Avery Dulles’s term.

One concrete evidence is the Gospel and Our Culture Series of resources published by Eerdmans in cooperation with the Network, all of which deal with various aspects of the missional theological discussion. My 2015 volume in that series, Called to Witness: Doing Missional Theology, collects diverse lectures and chapters I have written since 1998, largely in response to questions and concerns raised about the project and its outcomes. In hopes that there might be among the readers of Catalyst some curious theologians who are drawn to further exploration of the trajectories raised by the book and the subsequent discussion, I would like to point to some themes that need to be addressed more thoroughly and from a broad range of perspectives.

Ordered Worship and the Equipping of the Sent Community

The grant that made the Missional Church possible foresaw the convening of response groups and the public invitation to a conference to initiate the conversation intended by the book. At that first public conference in the fall of 1998 considerable concern was expressed about the theological thrust of the project in relation to the centrality of gathered liturgical worship. The ecclesial traditions with a strong focus upon sacramental worship, ranging from Orthodoxy to Roman Catholicism to “high” Lutheranism and Anglicanism, all acknowledged the urgency of the missional theological task but did not want to “reduce” worship to a function of that mission. The diverse views were in essence saying that the church as a worshiping community was an end in itself, and its missionary nature and practice should be defined theologically with that as a priority. The book does, in fact, address the significance and practice of sacramental worship, but it does so under the rubric “Cultivating Communities of the Holy Spirit.” The friendly critics of the missional discussion have continued to insist that such an approach is unacceptable because it deals with the church “instrumentally” or “functionally.”

The participants in the discussion who are influenced by Karl Barth continue to be mindful of his repeated insistence that the church is not an “end in itself.” His ecclesiology, unfolded in the fourth volume of the Church Dogmatics, stresses that the church is a divinely empowered response to God’s initiative in the gospel events of Jesus Christ. The church is thus “gathered” by the Holy Spirit in response to the healing work of justifying grace. It is “upbuilt” by that same Spirit to serve God’s saving purposes in the world and is, therefore, “called and sent” to serve God’s mission. Vocation—“calling”—is essential to the understanding and practice of the church’s mission. And every Christian shares the same vocation which is to be Christ’s witness. Paragraph 71 of the Church Dogmatics, discussing the “vocation of man,” draws together the entire doctrinal project under this missional centering in the calling to be Christ’s witnessing people: “The Word of the living Jesus Christ is the creative call by which He awakens man to an active knowledge of the truth and thus receives him into the new standing of the Christian, namely, into a particular fellowship with Himself, thrusting him as his afflicted but well-equipped witness into the service of His prophetic work” (Church Dogmatics, IV/3.2, 481).

We are not arguing that the missional church discussion is, by definition, a Barthian exercise. Rather, we are asking our friendly critics to consider the possibility that, with his help, the understanding and practice of gathered worship as the continuing equipping of the saints for their vocation as witness does in fact generate a very high view of the priority and centrality of sacramental liturgical worship. Does the fact that gathered worship fulfills a profoundly salvific function which is essential for the life and practice of the church in any way reduce the “holiness and divinity” of such worship? From the earliest days of the Christian tradition, the gathered community has encountered its risen Lord at gathered worship in the word proclaimed and the word displayed in bread and wine, at the pulpit and at the table. And the presiding servant of the community has drawn the entire event to its vocational purpose by charging the church, ita, missa est—go, thou art sent (missioned). The “mass” is all about gathering to upbuild for sending!

There are, to be sure, powerful resources for missional formation in the diverse Eucharistic liturgies and practices that have developed over the centuries. One of the urgent needs of the missional church discussion is the intensive exploration of those traditions precisely because of their distinctive power to “equip the saints for the work of service.” It should be the outcome of every faithful gathering to worship that its participants depart knowing that they have flames of fire on their heads and are now sent out as Christ’s witnesses (Acts 1:8).

The Impact of “Establishment” upon Missional Integrity

It is a commonplace of the missional theological initiative that we are now dealing with the passing of western Christendom. “Secularization” may be a difficult term to define and a very complex process that lends itself to problematic generalizations. But clearly the cultural context of western Christianity is rapidly changing, as part of a more comprehensive global process of massive shifts in the demography of world Christianity. The further away from western Christendom we move, the more daunting are the challenges created by these shifts, as we seek to understand how our so-called Christian cultures developed. To understand our changing mission field means that we have to recognize and interpret what the centuries of “Christianization” actually did to the Gospel and the church’s understanding of its vocation to be its witness. The work of missiologists has focused more and more in the last hundred years on the challenges of the context and how Christian mission is to be done with integrity and faithfulness in changing contexts. The context of western Christianity is comprehensively defined by the disestablishment that we are now experiencing.

We know the basic outlines of this complicated history. The “establishment” of Christianity began under Constantine in the fourth century. Within a few centuries, the Christian church was firmly settled at the center of western societies, with legal privileges, growing wealth, massive real estate, and undeniable social and political clout. To engage the history of Western Christianity is to explore how establishment actually worked. Simplistic evaluations of the process are not tolerable: it was a history pervasively shaped by profound dialectical tensions. Barth aptly describes the process as characterized by providentia Dei et confusione hominum (God’s providence and human confusion). There is much hard work to be done to understand just how that tension between divine faithfulness and human rebellion was acted out in our history. Establishment gave the church social, political, and economic power with both beneficial and disastrous consequences. Now we are experiencing the loss of that power. But to read our context accurately and to determine how faithfully to translate the gospel into our post-Christian context is an urgent ongoing task of the missional theological initiative.

Ironically, this task is made more difficult by the secularization of our public schools, with the result that they cannot deal with the complex story of western Christendom in a fair and balanced way. Christians should be the first to challenge the problems we inherit from centuries of establishment. But we must also be concerned that the story of Christianity through the ages be told with integrity. The Luther jubilee now being celebrated provides myriad examples of secular re- and mis-readings of a profound Christian passage that has radically reshaped western culture. Our churches have more freedom to tell that story than do our public schools. This too is a challenge related to the complex interactions of establishment and now disestablishment.

Discerning When and Where to Plant Missional Communities

A final example of theological challenges confronting the missional initiative today has to do with the rapidly expanding activity of church planting in North America. We are becoming used to seeing church buildings with for sale signs on them and being re-functionalized as restaurants, bookstores, and even condominiums. The decline of western Christendom is obvious all around us as we watch our real estate shrink. But we are also seeing a reaction to the end of Christendom in the form of innovative and experimental church planting. Many of our mainline denominations are aggressively involved in developing new kinds of congregations to translate the gospel more faithfully into changing contexts. The statistics counting the closing of churches are now matched by statistics counting new churches. There is a growing spectrum of organizations and agencies that specialize in church planting. Typically, they focus upon the social and organizational challenges of church formation. They do demographical studies to determine where a viable congregation might be planted. They analyze the gifts and talents of church planters, trying to assess who would be likely to be successful. They pursue expertise in the uses of communication technology to attract people to gatherings that would combine spiritual entertainment with a message that is meaningful for the attenders. The apostolic role of the missional church planter, building on NT models, is becoming more and more an entrepreneurial undertaking. Many such “church plants” are guided by a strategy that intentionally moves outside the traditional patterns of church in late Christendom contexts.

For the missional theological initiative, this growing engagement with church planting as a mission strategy adds another level of discussion to the ongoing process. One of the outcomes of Christendom establishment is the fact that our North American culture inherits a myriad of church organizations and properties. Much of this institutional fabric is declining, as we have said. But it is still there. The heirs of Christendom continue to gather in thousands of churches every Sunday. Compared to other modern industrialized cultures, the United States still is remarkably “churched,” in spite of the obvious statistical decline.

The theological challenge in this situation is one of discernment. Why should a church be planted at all, especially if there are already many churches in the neighborhood? What is the actual underlying theology of the church that justifies attempting to plant a new community in a particular context? How does one discern that the Spirit is moving in a particular way to set apart certain persons as missionary/church planters?

The great diversity of experimental and innovative churches that dot the landscape calls for biblically informed and theologically sensitive discernment that should begin with the basics. What is the purpose within God’s mission for the formation of a gathered witnessing community? How does one discern where such a community should be formed? How does one identify the missional planters who should be entrusted with the task of such formation? What is the missional significance of competition among church plants?

The emphasis upon church planting can be linked, and often is, with the vision to revitalize struggling congregations. The evidence of success is not compelling. It appears that starting something new is more likely to lead to success, however that is defined, than the attempt to revive a dying community. But there are hopeful indications as well. Since 2004, the Church of England has encouraged the formation of “fresh expressions of church” as a response to the end of Christendom in British society. The experiments are theologically rooted in the Anglican tradition with ecumenical openness. Lesslie Newbigin is acknowledged as a missional mentor of this movement. Serious theological work accompanies the innovations, and the Church encourages that discipline.

The missional church discussion is now almost twenty years old. It has generated a great deal of disciplined work that has proven to be constructive. It has also evoked much criticism. If its work is to have any theological integrity, then it must continue to invite a broad spectrum of responses and critiques and risk asking ever harder and more challenging questions. The three issues surveyed in this essay all call for such disciplined theological work. How that ongoing discussion takes place will determine whether this initiative is, in fact, carrying out its task in ways “worthy of the calling with which it has been called.”

Posted Mar 15, 2018