Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Missional and Emergent, Part 4

In the last post, I noted that many of the early voices in the missional church movement came from seminary professors related to mainline denominations. The critique came at some remove from congregations. This is not because the missional church is not interested in congregations. To the contrary, congregations are precisely the focus of mission in a new ecclesial era. The problem has less to do with interest and more to do with distance and experience. The missional critique has come from the seminary in the language of the academy and has only slowly made its way into the practicalities of congregational life.

I am often asked, "what would it look like to be a missional church?" This is a hard question to answer for two primary reasons. First, there is such an emphasis on contextuality in the missional church literature that generalizations are almost immediately a way of missing the point. Each congregation will understand its life in mission differently given both the unique gifts of the congregation and the unique challenges of its context. Having said this, however, we are already making a pretty big point about what it means to be missional. The world is not just the target of the church's activities. The world is potentially a partner in discovering what God is up to in the first place.

The second difficulty has to do with the nature of adaptive change. As I mentioned in an earlier post, much of the missional literature on change and leadership has seized upon Ron Heifetz's distinction between technical and adaptive challenges. A technical challenge is one in which there is some degree of predictability. The world is stable enough to engage in basic problem solving strategies. In an adaptive challenge, however, our world is in flux and change is discontinuous. We can no longer predict what the results of our actions might be.

What we once knew as a predictable range of solutions simply no longer produce what they once did. A common story among churches these days is that they are doing what they've always known to do, and in most cases better than they've done them in the past, with diminishing results. I am working with several churches who have great preaching, excellent worship, great facilities, wonderful programs for children, and they are still in decline. They've tried everything they know, every technical solution they can muster, and nothing has helped.

In a situation like this, we simply do not know what the next thing is. It requires a new imagination. And the one thing that shuts down imagination is a predetermined list of factors that make something missional. "What will our congregation look like if we become missional?" A reasonable question. But if we could answer that, we'd have a technical challenge not an adaptive one.

But in saying this we've made a point about what it means to be missional as well. Being missional means learning to trust our future to God.

I've been fortunate to discover some pioneers in helping congregations lean into discovering a new missional imagination. My friend and professor/mentor Pat Keifert (and his organization, Church Innovations) is bringing considerable resource to bear on helping congregations reinterpret their life in light of a missional imagination. I'm learning a lot and am impressed both by how stubborn 1,600 year old habits can be and by how brave congregations get when they feel they are discerning together God's future for their life together.

Others are also making strides on this frontier (and it is a frontier). Alan Roxburgh and Craig Van Gelder are also notable in giving considerable attention to how these changes actually come about in congregations. They are immersed in experiments with several clusters of churches and leaders.

It seems to me that the next layer of publishing and reporting in the missional church movement needs to come from pastors and other leaders who are experimenting along these lines. Leaders like those in the ermerging church movement. This is the burden of the missional church movement, and must be its growing edge if it is to achieve the promise of its theology.


Anonymous said...

in a like way that John the Baptist was unworthy to untie the sandals of Jesus, i am unworthy of such an honor, dear sir.

by the way, some of your buds (Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones, Mark Scandrette) are stopping by my hangout this weekend for the Church Basement Roadshow here in Birmingham. i hope you can catch one of their shows.

Mark Love said...


I love your blog. Visually very cool. It was a bit deal for me to figure out how to put pictures behind the title on mine.

I've met Pagitt and McLaren, neither of whom would probably remember, but none of the others. I've attended the porch. I have a friend who is a member there and I've had lengthy discussions with him about what goes on there. I hung out at Mars Hill one week about six years ago and determined Driscol and crew were not emergent. and I've been to Mosaic, definitely not an emergent church in my view. But my exposure is very limited.

I know I'm old and such, which means I would probably feel out of place at the roadshow. Give me a report.